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introduction This book is devoted to the poetry of George Oppen (1908–1984) and William Bronk (1918–1999), the two American poets whom I regard as the finest among their generation, a generation that came to maturity around the beginning of the Second World War. They would seem on the surface not to have a great deal in common with each other. Oppen, born into a prosperous German-Jewish family on Long Island, was a member of the Objectivist circle, a group mainly of Jewish, left-wing poets, including Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, and Carl Rakosi, who were influenced by William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound (despite the latter’s fascism and anti-Semitism). Bronk, who lived almost his entire life in Hudson Falls, New York, in the same Civil War–era house in which he was born, came from an old American family of Dutch ancestry: the Bronx was originally the tract of land in which his seventeenth-century forebear, Jonas Bronck, lived. Bronk’s literary sensibility was formed largely by Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and by the New England writers of the American Renaissance : Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, Emerson, and Dickinson; and then, in the twentieth century, by Frost, Aiken, and Stevens. Moreover, whereas Oppen was often at the center of literary activity, Bronk was something of an isolato—not quite in the mold of a Dickinson, but not so very far from it either. He had no interest in “poetics” or in literary politics and only the most tangential relations to any school or circle of poets. Yet despite these differences, Oppen and Bronk have a good deal in common. In the first place, they are both extraordinary thinkers in poetry , poets who have something original to say and for whom thought really matters. At the same time, they are poets for whom thought acquires the resonance of music, poets whose best work is sensual and intellectual at the same time. They are also poets whose cast of mind is pessimistic and even fatalistic and whose most characteristic tonality is sadness. Oppen is working in a disjunctive, modernist vein and writing a free introduction 2 verse in which the “music” is entirely a function of the phrasing, whereas Bronk for the most part is writing blank verse and working in distinct forms; but they are both practitioners (Bronk perhaps more than Oppen, and Oppen mainly during his great middle period) of what used to be called the “plain style.” There is a good deal of rhetorical sophistication in their work, but, fundamentally, both are writing a poetry in which the music is an extension of the thought, rather than the other way round. Their writing is serious, meditative, and straightforward; they believe in the “direct presentation of the thing.” And finally, Oppen and Bronk are thinkers whose work is deeply attuned to the philosophical, scientific, and religious quandaries and crises of our time. Their poetry confronts the “big questions”; it does not remain at the level of the personal, even when (and this is especially true of Bronk) it is profoundly personal; it struggles with truth and, in the process, with the meaning and value of poetry itself for our time. In philosophical terms, one could say that Oppen and Bronk are, broadly speaking, existentialists, at least in the Sartrean sense of believing that existence precedes essence and that meaning can no longer be conferred from the outside. Oppen has a clearer relationship to existentialism than Bronk does: he was deeply influenced by Kierkegaard and Heidegger, for example. Though not at all sanguine about humanity’s prospects for the future, Oppen was also in some sense a Marxist—at least in the sense of believing that if capitalism is not ultimately supplanted , humanity will be destroyed. Bronk, profoundly skeptical but in some ways deeply religious at the same time, has to be considered sui generis, and, in any event, he is too fatalistic in his orientation to life to be encompassed by a philosophical perspective that is centered above all on choice. Although Bronk’s mature style was formed by his encounter with Stevens , he was never taken up by the Stevensians—neither by the academic Stevensians nor by the avant-garde Stevensians—and this has continued unto the present day. An iconoclast and, as I noted, something of a recluse , Bronk has never been championed, as Oppen, together with the other Objectivists, has, by any of the prominent critics of our time. Ironically , the poets who...


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