The poetry of William Bronk is strikingly (and deliberately) out of step with most postwar American poetry. He does not draw from his own emotional life or presume the intimacy of confessional poetry, and his verse does not employ striking and original ornamental language that foregrounds the poet’s cleverness and craft. His are not the kind of poems that easily invite readers; they lack the emotional drama of most poetry and draw their boldness from testing premises, raising questions, and extracting from phenomena significant uncertainties over their very existence. Therefore, the poems can seem forbidding, even intimidating. Bronk is compelled by a restless intelligence, a curiosity about the very nature of the material world and the relationship between the mind and that world, how people go about determining what they call reality and what they call truth. His poetic voice is thus disembodied, stately (he is most comfortable with the gravitas of iambic pentameter), austere, and cool to the point of cerebral. Bronk’s verse lines are clean and chiseled, economic and careful, and, with jarring directness, pose provocative, complex metaphysical questions without demanding or even expecting answers.
Appreciation of his verse was never universal. Critics found his verse too abstract in its argument and too consistent in its sensibility and in the questions it raised over the many decades in which he wrote it. Because Bronk seldom engaged a world wider than that of his own business and his own home, critics argue, his poetry largely reflected the unsettling isolation of the human mind distracted only by the relentless questioning into its own functions. However, Bronk’s verse came to influence a wide range of younger poets who found in such metaphysical verse a liberating sense of art tangling with big questions, trying to define its own reach against the threat of surrendering to the obvious absurdity of postmodern existence.
The World, the Worldless
The World, the Worldless, Bronk’s second published volume, embodies the bracing cerebral energy of his early work. Although it generated lavish critical praise, sales were disappointing, as readers were puzzled by the gnomic quality of the poems. As the title indicates, by juxtaposing the material universe against its absence, Bronk introduces one of the volume’s dominant themes: the nature of perception and the sheer power of the mind to create—and uncreate—worlds. As he argues in “Blue...
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