William Bronk and Family
Poetry that questions with clarity is rare. Poetry that questions such certainties as time and place and, more, deploys an abbreviated linguistic code to accent uncertainty -- this sort of poetry appears discontinuous and alien. Writers of this sort, like William Bronk, seem amused by their very connoisseurship of discontinuity, occupied by their own methods and objects of avulsion from known qualities, the knowability of qualities, indeed, the whole apparatus and artistry of knowing.
A lineage of discontinuity
To demark a lineage for such discontinuity within 20th-century American verse, in addition to Bronk, one might suggest Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky and Jack Spicer, as well as their late-century descendants associated with a "language" poetry whose aim is to undermine passive reception of conventionally logical discourse strategies. Even though Bronk favors stark language that obliterates prosodic conventions, as do Stein, Zukofsky and Spicer, Bronk's standing in this lineage can be debated on grounds of his unsubversive syntax and transparent testimony. His verse is not so experimental; it is far simpler in its discursive organization and argument than that of the others. With regard to experiment, for example, compared to Zukofsky's frenetic appropriation of Marx, Shakespeare, Mallarme, et al., Bronk's discursive techniques are markedly conservative. Bronk makes disciplined assertions, sometimes in poems of no more than three or four lines comprising the cool and classical: embedded anaphora ("Whether what we sense of this world / is the what of this world only, or the what / of which of several possible worlds / -- which what?"); aggravated apophasis ("...there are worlds but...no world..."); rampant paradox ("The carelessness of love is we take such care."); and antimodernist vocabulary that borders on the devotional in its embrace of "the world," of "we," of "man," of "God."
Bronk's methods are nonetheless governed by an expansive bedlam of the psychically discontinuous and unknown, an anarchy which renders his poetic objects utopian. In the fourteen-line "Unnamed" Bronk reduces uncertainty to an agnostic purity housed in a slender sonnet, entered into by way of curt anapests leading directly to dark, iambic qualifiers: (1)
In the narrowest and most immediate
view, we are named and identifiable
as persons, noted and notarized as such.
From this entry perspective, readily discernable because it "is a way we live," Bronk's mentalism gives way in his second stanza to the less usual view "from a long way back and away." Here, time-dependent wires of life and death get crossed. The knowing stance of "a way we live" evanesces into a brazen, alternate pattern, a utopia out of time where we are just "bones," and "cells shed from the skin." Quite gleefully, "there isn't even a body to shed from." The staggering truncation in a third and last stanza tips Bronk's anarchist hand.
But feel vitality. Plenitude.
Untimed. Nothings, we share in it.
The "we," Bronk's synecdoche for mankind, participates in a nothing so power-packed that "it" is "nothings" not subject to rules of syntax, expository proposition, timing or time. Similarly, within six lines from "The Imposition of Measure" time and place "thin away...beyond survey. / Beyond our here, likewise we are there." Again, Bronk is providing clarity and giving shape to a mentalist search in its many aspects, what physicists might call a quantum phenomenon present in all its instances, and what zennists describe as conceptualizing mind, provisional, time-bound, imposed wakefulness to -- for lack of a better term -- the ineffable.
With texts like "Unnamed" and "The Imposition of Measure" Bronk holds up time in celebration of discontinuity, a programmatic stand midpoint between Stein and Spicer. All three reach through language to demonstrate possibilities of choreographing the timeless and ineffable. Spicer in After Lorca alternates between textually self-referential accounts in prose and in poetry of the "time mechanic." Spicer, though, relies on appeals to an "ideal" readership, the people to whom he dedicates his poems, for instance, and this strategy frequently sidelines his chance-taking in the direction of amiable pleasantries and received sentiment. (2) Stein has suggested more opaquely than would Bronk that in her improvisations she "was groping toward a continuous present, a using everything a beginning again and again" ("Composition as Explanation"). In a phrase, Stein's choreography is all but too much chance-taking: repeatedly drawing the reader into a now-fresh, now-obtuse no-time and no-place in the "continuous present."
Bronk's chance-taking is cogent if predictable ambiguity that casts time and perception of time into the scientifically-correct category of relative fact or, in Bronk's terms, uncertainty, as time is only a specter of the "untimed" real. Shorter works from Bronk toy with untimed reality as paradox and enigma: "The life that says me poems...doesn't say itself." Slightly longer pieces cycle in dialectics: (a) fake concession to a version of perceived reality propped up by well-formed syntax and stolid metonymies ("the general want," "the evasive," the "something" that "wants through") and (b) the fated breakdown of pretext. That Bronk's estrangement from certainty is so certain exposes his poetry to attack as dogma and to parody by paraphrase. Despite a whittled diction and minimalist formality, there are excesses: patchwork pronouncement ("our now is always...having no past or future[.] Here's an eternity."); plain talk on a grandiose scale ("Sky, trees: / earth is believable."); stoical wordplay ("Our lives corrected prevalent errors. / The corrections prevail in irrelevance.").
Program, excesses and all, Bronk is rigorous demonstrator of such errancy. Once you concede his flaws, resistance evaporates, because Bronk's is a discontinuity not merely spoken, but specified. In fine, his clarity trumps other criteria:
We are in the real world as ghosts are in this world... The matter of the real world passes through us... the link may be a projection without conforming, like the relation between an airplane and its shadow on the earth, which in following the lateral, or better, circumferential flight of the plane, goes up and down with the contours of the ground, or glides across the water though the plane climbs or descends. ("Copan: For Shirley Clarke")
The real world. And this world. Bronk's ambiguity raises the alien prospect as a perspective and discipline, while his psychic transparency -- a "projection without conforming" -- mimes how these worlds collide. Ever specific in depicting this collision involving the "circumferential" and the shadow that "glides," Bronk is unwilling, too scrupulous, I would stress, to make larger claims for our link to the real, viewing it without exaggeration as what "passes through us."
Resistance and centrality to other poetries
One consequence of Bronk's projection of untimed reality gliding over our world is his meditative hauteur sustained and cicumferenced by profound liberation and solitude, a self-imposed condition that has carried over to his relationships with other poets and their poetry.
I don't feel close to any poet's work. There are poets I've been close to personally... but I don't think there is any real connection between my work and their work. We've gone separate ways. ("A Conversation with William Bronk," 1976)
Bronk's felt separation from others is not so much blanket objection to being categorized as fair notice that like any "strong" poet, he opposes adoption, and bears responsibility for his own place with or without a lineage.
Notwithstanding his denial of "real connection" to others, Bronk is a central figure within a family of the discontinuous, a group including such economists of language as Stein, Spicer and Zukofsky. As for temporally constrained story line, linear argument and whatever symbolic coherence narration and argument imply, Bronk, Stein, Spicer and Zukofsky behave badly, along with other 20th-century poets. By abbreviating or abandoning discursive constructs, realigning representational modes with nonrepresentational contexts, in short, composing a verse-in-shards -- poets of the discontinuous foreground and recontextualize the jigsaw enactment of invention, the poetic moment, the now.
Bronk and Zukofsky
To consider fuller Bronk's 'family connections' to other poets of the discontinuous, it is particularly helpful to compare him with Zukofsky, because these two pair off in poetic temperament as well as linguistic strategy. Both poets maintained a distance from their contemporaries, an outgrowth of their mentalist epicurism. There is Zukofsky's exactitude, for instance, to "detail, not the mirage...seeing... thinking with the things as they exist" (Prepositions). Zukofsky's concern for detail is complemented by Bronk's focused gaze on perceived reality (which is unreal!) and on reality beyond (which is imperceptible!), an incongruity exemplified in this segment from "The Dream of a World of Objects":
...the waking world,
the object-poor, the edgeless. We dream of touch,
of weight, of the definite frame, but rather this.
As it is...
With respect to jigsaw enactments of invention, Bronk and Zukofsky recontextualize the now, the poetic moment within a languaging process, which in turn results in new roles, as well as new measures of time, relative to text and readers of text. In Zukofsky's verse language is rendered as material for voice and mind. Phonetic and syntactic particles emerge as conspicuously interactive objects by means of which readers participate in a "linguistic etiquette" that can connect "new meanings of word against word contemporarily read"; moreover, Zukofsky composes the poem as "precise information on existence out of which it grows" and "information of its existence, that is, the movement (and tone) of words" (Prepositions). "Information" in Zukofsky's sense represents a departure from modernist and romantic belief that reading a text necessitates acquiring meaning back authored from some past or pasts. For Zukofsky, text in its present form as information is emphasized; likewise, textual "existence" deflates notions of a compulsory linkage to either tradition or forms of mythic or poetic history predating the text. To be sure, in contrast with Zukofsky particles of language and other formal liberties -- such as slangy off-rhyme, ventriloquism via collaged citation of diverse texts, lexical japery and misassociations mixing mathematical formulae, classical reference, political rant, botanical notation, etc. -- Bronk's forms of lyric look less shard-like. But Bronk's lyrics, in effect, are shards writ whole in that they reinvent that most formidable of linguistic puzzles, the riddle-as-invocation, the rune. Bronk accomplishes the nearly incredible within a demagnified language for mind and no-mind (or, if you will, for a form of meditative mind) in fleeting, syntactically cohesive verse-assertions and verse-inquiries about secrets, desire beyond poetry, belief in nonbelief, the unreality of the tangible and the natural. These are half-visions to engage the reader's capacity for focusing the invisible, invoking proximities of the unknown.
Engaging with Zukofsky or Bronk, readers thus assume responsibilities based not so much on taking in a text's a priori information as on collaborating in its immediacy and development for the future. The text "exists" as readers enact the poem. While this insight seems as though it should be universal -- applicable to poetry entire -- the distinctive feature of a lyric by Zukofsky or Bronk is that a reader's enactment of text is the poetic subject matter, that is, the poem's language invites reassembly for processing sense and meaning.
Bronk's poetry is formally urgent at two levels. With regard to diction, Bronk's runic compression shepherds what seem like familiar terms into close and remarkable environs. To unpack the riddle we enter an oddly refractive microworld calling for necessary and sufficient reflection. Consider the four lines of "A Stayover" --
Soul's the one we came with. When we go
It's on our own. Great to live with,
soul was loved and lover, the landscape.
Let's leave it at that. Get along.
There are at least a dozen potentials here for conceiving "the landscape." Working backward from the term itself, we find that it is lover and loved, the soul. Also, in reading backward and forward, we see that it's part of us, yet it's independent of us, prior to us, something to live with, travel with, something to leave, as in departing from and/or leaving as-is, and -- from the title -- it's something that hangs on, perhaps only for awhile. The poem's last two words encourage us to consider moving on and/or going along.
At another level of analysis, Bronk's diapason resonates with tonal gravity. Bronk seems serious because his premises are pedagogically unevasive, direly imparted with syllogistic definitude that gives no quarter to extraneous literary device. His poetry "says what it means," refusing to "take roundabout, concealed ways" ("A Conversation with William Bronk," 1988). Poem after poem grapples with an unattainable nonexistence or absence, knowable only through "feelings" that, according to Bronk,
seem not to have the habit of reality... come from beyond our skin like approaches to us, like messages; and we respond, trembling and shaking, or vibrating in tune as though we were instruments a music were played on... ("Copan: Unwillingness, the Unwilled")
In this light, Bronk's is a poetry of passions, transmitted not by shocking metaphor or bold experiment, but by postulate and derived consequence.
A didactic scale
Bronk's compressions coupled with "trembling" gravitas establish a didactic scale for various formats of the psychically discontinuous. For example, through Bronk we may weigh Zukofsky's reliance on "historic and contemporary particulars" (Prepositions) as constitutive of "information on existence," cited earlier. If we do, we might regard Zukofsky's direction as radically different from Bronk's -- for Bronk, the particular is "dismissed" and existence is perpetually bracketed as unreal. Zukofsky's prosodic surface is more textured and conceptually more experimental than Bronk's, but also, to the didactic scale, less germane, less daring. History, existence, indeed all time frames are reduced to irrelevance by Bronk's utopian gamble. With Bronk, the stakes are always the same: rational speaking to and for a discontinuity engendered by the real world v. this.
That Bronk's reductions do not lead to parsimony of vision or the implementation of despair is disturbing. Current convention anticipates dour results from a lyric of nonbelief. Instead, in Bronk's streamlined meditative regime, ephemera of experiment, those of Bronk's and others', meet a measure of desire preserved beyond trends, beyond fiction, a longing for "nothings" unfiltered by approximations. Such longing, even for the "nothings," is a metaphor of "a material world" but "nothing more" -- as Bronk puts it in "My House New-Painted." Bronk stays home, holed up in his cloister, as it were, but he maintains the alien perspective, looks out his window, beyond its frame, toward the "real world" across space and time. One reward for Bronk's gazing into the real is that he feels its message and conveys this "as though we were instruments a music were played on." This is desire secured but transmuted as common prayer, a kind of humane and even familial chic. We share in it.
"A Conversation with William Bronk" [with Robert Bertholf], Credences III (1976), No. 3, pp. 9-33.
"A Conversation with William Bronk" [with Henry Weinfield], Sagetrieb 7 (1988), No. 3, pp. 17-43.
Scansion is how we live and breathe (to coin a phrase) into and out of lines. And this in turn is linked to upbringing and a sense of where we're heading at given points in time, as well; these are flowing matters of how we enunciate, elide, hem and duck from syllable to syllable in a music that should reflect versions of how we talk or might talk in a moment of some drama, or in a poetic crisis, say, rather than how a lexicographer inscribes a given word to encode the convention. I scan the three lines of Bronk's as follows, with (a) standing for anapest, (i) for iamb, (t) for trochee and (d) for dactyl:
a, a, i, /a, (-- or -- a, a, i, /i,)
a, i, t, d,
i, i, a, i, i.
1: in the NAR / r-est and MOST / im ME / di yete ..
2: VIEW, /
(-- or -- in the NAR / r-est and MOST / im ME / dyete ..
VIEW, / )
2: (Cont'd): we are NAMED / and I / DENT i / FI a ble
3: as PER / sons, NO/ ted and NO /ta RIZED / as SUCH.
The first line runs onto the second, with two likely scans for the run-on: an anapest or a slurry-speech iamb -- more the case in upstate New York and upcountry New England where it could be plausibly pronounced as "dyete." The second line ends in pattern variation, trochee and dactyl; others seem consistently given over to anapests and iambs.
One other point. The run-on from line one to line two is key to the clippedness I sense throughout, one of the controls over an anger that underpins most of Bronk.
Regarding the "ideal" reader in After Lorca: Spicer dedicates each verse to youths, friends, lovers, and in his epistolary "asides," to Lorca himself. These are bold and wonderful gestures, generosities, really, that allow him to say things like: "When you are in love there is no problem. The person you love is always interested because he knows that the poems are always about him. If only because each poem will someday be said to belong to the Miss X or Mr. Y period of the poet's life. I may not be a better poet when I am in love, but I am a far less frustrated one. My poems have an audience" (pp 38-39, The Collected Books of Jack Spicer). Spicer is right, he has an audience; this is an expectation fulfilled, justifiably so. And Spicer saying he has an audience in and to Lorca is instructive. But the point I am attempting is that such declarations and gesturing ultimately delimit Spicer's time game by imposing courtly conventions on the paranormal experiment entailed in tinkering with time's machinery. Spicer's dedication to his audience self-consciously reminds the reader that this is, well, poetry with an affectionate demeanor fixed in social ambitions; so in that respect, After Lorca is meditatively relaxed as it is merely, seductively remarkable, not miraculously or even revelatorily beyond a received and, as I say, sentimental intent.