I was in a large class at USC when he [Schoenberg] said quite bluntly to all of us, ‘My purpose in teaching you is to make it impossible for you to write music,’ and when he said that I revolted.— John Cage
William Bronk and John Ashbery, despite their radical stylistic differences, both face what critic John Ernest has termed “a metaphysical stalemate.” Although Ernest is writing about Bronk, his description of that poet’s paradoxical project resonates for the reader of Ashbery’s work as well: “he is passionately devoted to the belief that there are no grounds for belief, and to the conviction that all convictions are ultimately fictions” (145). Both write what one might call “postmodern spiritual autobiographies” (145), memoirs of minds that are alienated from the very divinities that they sometimes invoke. And the two poets who take so much from Wallace Stevens—Bronk a snowman, Ashbery a comedian of the letter A—share that poet’s sense that supreme fictions can only be approached, but never achieved. Even more radically than Stevens (but in accord with Emerson, who believed that poets took dictation), Bronk and Ashbery locate the wellsprings of their poetry outside themselves. Ashbery writes toward the end of Flow Chart: “I’m more someone else, taking dictation / from on high, in a purgatory of words, but I still think I shall be the same person when I get up / to leave, and then repeat the formulas that have come to use so many times / in the past[.]” Bronk’s version is more direct; when asked in a rare interview if “the poem exists outside of you and you’re transcribing it,” he responded, “Of course, where else? Do you think it’s something in your goddamned head?” (39).
Bronk and Ashbery both fulfill Robert Pinsky’s injunction, in The Situation of Poetry (1976), that poetry be discursive. Yet Pinsky’s definition of discursiveness also goes to the heart of what divides them. “On the one hand,” he writes, “the word describes speech or writing which is wandering and disorganized; on the other, it can also mean explanatory—pointed, organized around a setting forth of material” (134). Bronk’s material, however spontaneously it comes to him (his notebooks are apparently clean of revision), is always organized and explanatory, written in a poetic legalese that alerts the reader more to the necessity of silence than to that of speech. Ashbery’s poetry, on the other hand, has always wandered and seemed to argue for the value of language as a fruitful noise—a field of possibility rather than a fixed matrix.
Bronk’s three recent volumes, Manifest; and Furthermore (1987), Death Is the Place (1989), and Living Instead (1991), have been what the poet himself has called “freeze-dried Bronk”—his severe deconstruction of the actual demands that his language become more spare, his poems shorter than they were (and they were never epic in length or intention). Bronk’s version of poetic self-destructionism follows; here he satirizes the social world of appearances:
In a presence vast beyond size, a presence that seems an absence, we hide and play with us as dolls. We give us names and addresses, dress us up in clothes, make loves and resumes, battles, furtively say where we came from and tell each other stories about ourselves.(“Playtime,” 73)
In “The Camera Doesn’t Lie” he goes further: “We are, of course, without any areness at all / and that’s the only way we are.” Thus for Bronk “there are no ideas in things,” to which he feistily adds, “Take this, William Carlos” (27). Unlike Williams and Whitman, whose poetry he does not admire, Bronk turns to Thoreau at his most ascetic and most Baudrillardian: “Whitman liked the image, and Thoreau didn’t care for the image; that’s a big difference between the two of them. Whitman’s idea was to erect a pretty picture and pretend that was reality. Which God knows is as American an idea as there is: we keep doing...