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In the Drift of the World | A Reading of Bronk’s Life Supports: New and Collected Poems The poetry of William Bronk speaks to the human condition and also, therefore, to its own time with an eloquence and a philosophical acuity that are unmatched in American poetry of the postwar period. When he died in February 1999, although still relatively unknown, Bronk was “our most significant poet,” as Ross Feld termed him in a review of Life Supports that appeared in The Nation .1 I regard Bronk’s poetry as representing perhaps the most radical confrontation with the limits of poetry in our time, and for this reason it seems to me crucial that we refine our understanding of his art not only in itself but as it develops over the course of time. What is radical about Bronk’s poetry is its straightforward use of philosophical statement in a poetic context that ultimately resists being reduced to philosophical statement . The critics who have written about Bronk have tended to focus on the first but not the second of these tendencies. Gerald Bruns observes, in the context of a recent study of Maurice Blanchot, that some of the most important thinking on literature of the twentieth century has emphasized the sense in which poetry “refuses” philosophy, or (to pose this in the manner of Adorno and the Frankfurt school), “rationalization” of any kind.2 But Bronk’s refusal of philosophy is especially subtle, for, to a greater degree perhaps than any other twentieth-century poet (the only figure who comes close is Valéry), he seems to be writing a poetry of explicit philosophical statement. Though he makes no attempt to adorn or sugar-coat the statement language in which his poetry is couched, Bronk does not set himself in opposition to the classical traditions of rhetoric and eloquence, and his poetry seems, at least superficially, to be situated chapter three in the drift of the wor ld 108 conservatively within the Anglo-American tradition of English poetry. But when we begin to grasp the “limit conditions” of Bronk’s poetry, the ways in which it simultaneously makes use of and transcends propositional or philosophical statement, we see how genuinely radical it actually is. If Bronk’s is a poetry that puts the limits of poetry into question, however , the danger that such poetry faces is of losing its tension, or, in other words, of becoming prosaic and being pulled back into prose. When it transcends the statement system from which it emerges, Bronk’s poetry becomes capable of a ghostly music that is like nothing else in English poetry; but it is not always that he reaches this level, and hence the importance of a practical criticism that can make distinctions. Bronk is a philosophical poet to the same extent that he is a musical one, and if we fail to understand the ways in which music and philosophical statement are braided in his work, we will fail to appreciate not only the originality of his poetry but also its subtlety. This is why the thematic approach to Bronk must inevitably fail. Precisely because Bronk is so fully a poet of direct, philosophical statement, and because he is unwilling to submerge or camouflage what he has to say in metaphor or in any kind of rhetorical evasion, if we fail to grasp the “dark italics” (to borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens) that color even his most seemingly explicit and straightforward utterances, we run the risk of turning him into a moralizing dogmatist.3 The critic John Taggart falls into this trap in an essay, originally published in 1978 and entitled “Reading William Bronk,” that misreads Bronk so egregiously it offers us a paradigmatic instance of how not to approach him. Commenting on “About Dynamism, Desire, and Various Fictions,” one of the sonnets from Bronk’s 1972 collection To Praise the Music, Taggart has this to say: The title is a giveaway to what began as intensity, became a resonant power, and now beckons to us as an almost depraved arrogance. It is all a fiction. And we know because Bronk tells us so. . . . [H]e is always telling us how it really is. All the poems turn on this two-step: it looks like this or maybe this or even this, but it’s really that. It is a truism, but it still holds: poetry is showing, metaphor and image; prose is telling, exposition and analysis. What is...


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