William Bronk, courtesy the William Bronk Foundation
In the nineteen sixties, William Bronk was at the height of his powers. His first book with wide distribution, The World, The Worldless, was published by New Directions in 1964. During this period of his poetic career Bronk refined his distinctive voice without completely letting go of the blank verse that shapes his earlier work.
Unlike the open field poets, Charles Olson, et al., who also came to prominence in the sixties and with whom Bronk is sometimes loosely associated, Bronk relied on a traditional prosody that owed more to Robert Frost’s colloquial iambic pentameter than to Olson’s composition by field. Bronk’s poems of this period — and in general — look more like Frost’s than Olson’s on the page, as his heavily enjambed iambic pentameter shaped a dignified colloquial voice that sounds enough like speech and has subject matters to please admirers of the Pound/ Williams/ Olson line of poetics, but with whom Bronk’s work has very little in common formally.
Bronk in fact managed to straddle two poetic schools, the traditional and the post-modernist, without giving himself over completely to the poetics of either his teacher Sidney Cox or his acquaintance Charles Olson. As Bronk became more and more impatient with the mannerisms of poetry, he wrote in more open forms, forms if not determined by the subject matter (Olson’s ‘FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT’ ), at least influenced by Bronk’s insistent impatience with the material world, the only world we can know, and yet we cannot know — in part because of the impossibility of separating space from time.
Bronk’s meditations on time and space inform his poems as much through language that strives toward transparency as through innovations in form. Edward Foster has said elegantly that the decaying forms of Bronk’s poems make them like the beginnings of ruins, reminding us that ‘poems, like history and all forms, die’ (Answerable to None 70). That is, of course an image of romantic melancholy suggesting loss and erosion rather than new construction. The essential fact of prosody, the Bronkian minimum, is that it is a form of measurement and a measurement of form that may, by enduring, seem to transcend time.
‘Open-field’ poetics calls for a form that is less easily measured than traditional metrics, but no less recognizable for its form, a composition in space, as well as by ‘the musical phrase’ as Pound would have it, to which Olson added, ‘go by it, boys, rather than by, the metronome’ (52). Olson advocated disjunctions of grammar, of syntax and tense particularly: ‘Do not tenses, must they not also be kicked around anew, in order that time, that other governing absolute [with space] must be kept, as must the space-tensions of a poem, immediate, contemporary to the acting-on-you of the poem?’ (56).
Bronk’s approach is a little more conservative but not inconsistent with Olson’s advice. ‘All measures measure themselves/ none measures the world,’ Bronk says, a statement of fact in Bronk’s cosmos that surely suggests he would be impatient with a study of his prosody for its own sake, measuring poems as forms, and so measuring only measurement. The release of energy that ideally comes from Olson’s openness is a more appealing alternative, a breath of fresh air, ‘the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE,’ as Olson puts it (57).
‘On Divers Geometries,’ from the collection The Empty Hands, provides one anchor for a discussion of Bronk’s prosody. Two others are ‘The Woods, New York’ and ‘The World in Time and Space.’ Here’s ‘On Divers Geometries:’
Euclid, Riemann, other geometers,
invented ideas of space. Regarding them,
elation astonishes us: discreteness, shape,
the measure of distances, as though the world
had order in it which were discoverable.
But hardly so; their order is not the world’s,
their separately premised spaces not congruent,
as though, besides their spaces, there were space,
not spoken of, unspeakable.
Geometers, all measures measure themselves,
none measures the world. Premise and axiom
are terms of the limited case, to limit it.
There is no limited truth: there is no truth. (Life Supports 101)
First, though Bronk wrote some sonnets, this poem is not a sonnet. Its thirteen lines are unrhymed and not composed in regular iambic pentameter. The lines are not grouped into the units of either a Shakespearian or a Petrarchan sonnet but into two verse paragraphs, one of nine lines and one of four — the ruins of a sonnet. The tone is colloquial, the voice assertive, confident, the language completely abstract. Yet the poem retains a bit of ancestral brocade. The title is vaguely Elizabethan. ‘Divers,’ meaning ‘various’ is an antique word you don’t hear much in conversation these days (though Robert Creeley had a certain fondness for it in his work).
In an interview that appeared in Talisman in 1989, Foster asked Bronk about his poetic forms: ‘You’ve written books that conform to certain patterns. Poems of two quatrains. A book of triads. Is that something that was willed, or was it the necessary...[sic],’ the question trails off. Bronk answered,
Again, it is something that happened, and if it is willed, it is willed unconsciously. It never happens [sic] that I said, well, I think the essential poetry today is poetry in three lines, and I’m going to have to write some poetry in three lines. It’s just that it started to happen in that way. I had written fourteen-liners before, and that’s probably the one I can recall most closely. I got interested in it as a satisfying form — you know, the convenient length as it seemed to me then, and I also got very interested in what Shakespeare had done with it. And I went through a period of many months, maybe a year, with Shakespearian sonnets. Almost every night before I went to sleep I would read one or two and read them very carefully: what’s he saying here? How’s he doing this. What’s he mean by this word? Very close reading, so I suppose it probably formed my mind into thinking in that span, and I also occasionally before and after that period wrote in fourteen/ lines but it wasn’t a decision on my part — except that it was an interesting form and what could be done with it, and I didn’t have to force it. This is the way things happen. (Foster, ‘Conversation’ 41-42; See also Henry Weinfield, ‘A Conversation with William Bronk,’ Sagetrieb 7:3 (Winter 1988), p. 29.)
Bronk makes no secret of his influences here, and you can’t get much more traditional than close-reading Shakespeare.
Two other vestiges of the sonnet form are evident in ‘On Divers Geometries.’ First, though the meter is irregular, most of the lines are based on five strong stresses (a couple have only four stresses), a measure which contributes both to the colloquial and to the assertive quality of the voice of the poem. For example, the third line, ‘eLAtion, asTONishes US: disCRETEness, SHAPE’ has twelve syllables but strong stresses in only five places: ‘la,’ ‘ton,’ ‘us,’ ‘crete,’ and ‘shape,’ making the line both rhythmic and conversational. Two anapests in an iambic poem suggest elation and astonishment but also sound colloquial in the sense that it’s difficult to say the line without putting the stresses in those places.
Second, the poem has a traditional clicking-box ending, an assertive and disturbing closure that in ghost form echoes the closing couplet of a Shakespearian sonnet and in content offers a postmodernist dictum: ‘There is no truth,’ an assertion that is, of course, as exhilarating to some as it is disturbing to others. In the context of Bronk’s work, it should be supplemented by the statement, ‘But there is a world we can’t know.’ The parallel syntax in the last line, ‘There is no limited truth: there is no truth,’ almost makes up for the missing fourteenth line of the Shakespearian sonnet. Indeed in an open field poem, the two assertions might be separated in space. It seems relevant that Ezra Pound in his essay on Arnold Dolmetsch (circa 1920), wrote, ‘Our only measure of truth is, however, our own perception of truth’ (49).
A look at an earlier and more traditional sonnet, ‘The Woods, New York,’ from My Father Photographed with Friends, shows us in retrospect the path Bronk will follow in his later work.
I walk through city streets as once through woods
without the benefit of map or plan.
Failing to get to places when I should,
I learn a twisted pathway through the land.
Or lost, with nothing near to set me right,
where brick facades are similar as trees,
I walk along and suddenly come to a quite
familiar, remembered place, surprised and pleased.
This is a city the world will always remember
as one remembers Babylon or Thebes.
In the distant summer that follows our last November
the sifting screens and the shovels will fail to perceive
its being in me. I walked here once toward dark
and felt the wind come up across the park. (Life Supports 18)
This is a skillful Shakespearian sonnet with a Petrarchan palimpsest insofar as the rhymes in the second quatrain are subtly echoed in the rhymes of the third, where ‘trees’ and ‘pleased’ in the second are near-rhymes with ‘Thebes’ and ‘perceive’ in the third. The lines are end-stopped and the meter is well within the range of variation we call iambic pentameter. The seventh line, ‘I WALK a LONG and SUDdenly COME to a QUITE,’ has a couple of extra syllables that slow the line down purposefully, though there are again five strong stresses: ‘walk,’ ‘long,’ ‘sud,’ ‘come,’ and ‘quite.’ A similar willingness to make rhythm of five stresses and extra unstressed syllables appears in lines 8, 9 and 11.
The language in ‘The Woods, New York,’ is more concrete than that in ‘On Divers Geometries,’ but it’s all relative. This is not the abstraction Ezra Pound in the mask of Ernest Fenollosa rails against:
It is a mistake to suppose, with some philosophers of aesthetics, that art and poetry aim to deal with the general and the abstract. This misconception has been foisted upon us by mediaeval logic. Art and poetry deal with the concrete of nature, not with separate ‘particulars,’ for such rows do not exist.’ (Fenollosa 27)
But the relationship between things and acts that Fenollosa finds in arrangements of Chinese ideograms — not ‘red,’ abstracted from a number of red things, but a particular ‘city,’ New York, emblematic of the ‘world.’ In spite of the Frosty echo in the title, a walk in the ‘woods’ of the city, the asphalt jungle — rather than in rural New Hampshire — Bronk’s tendency to push toward the abstract and general is clearly in evidence, such as ‘city streets’ rather than a particular street or neighborhood.
The movement is toward what Foster refers to as ‘a poetry of statement instead of nature lyrics that Frost and his followers are generally doing’ (‘Conversation’ 25). ‘[A] city the world will always remember/ as one remembers Babylon or Thebes,’ New York is a great and tragic place. ‘[T]he shifting screens and the shovels’ are as specific and concrete as the poem gets, yet the phrase is also a compressed image that it takes a moment or two to fathom. The ending of the poem is calm, concrete, and relatively specific, a bit like a more tightly controlled ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.’ The whole poem may be taken as a stylistic attempt to use Frost’s methods to go in a different direction.
Though the subject matter of ‘The Woods, New York’ is spatial, its method is temporal. Time ticks away in the regular rhythms and rhymes, orderly and more or less predictable. There is almost nothing open about the physical ‘field’ of the poem. On the page, it looks like a sonnet. The space of the poem is, moreover, as much internal, intellectual space as external physical space, an assertion of the continuity of New York City, and the world, after the speaker is dead: ‘In the distant summer that follows our last November.’
Unlike the completely lucid abstractions in Bronk’s later poems, images of screens and shovels take a bit of deciphering. People will adjust their window screens to catch the breezes and workers will lean on their shovels after the speaker is gone, just as they did — do — in his lifetime. The images conjure up a fairly concrete version of New York City. The time of the poem expands to ‘always,’ but the space of the poem remains the city in the speaker’s mind and his mind in the city, a typical Bronkian paradox of inner and outer penetrating each other.
‘The World in Time and Space,’ a poem from The World, The Worldless, the period between the two I’ve been discussing, provides another anchor for an explanation of the underlying conceptions of time and space that ground Bronk’s prosody. Also not quite a sonnet, the sixteen-line poem is divided spatially on the page into two unrhymed septets and an unrhymed couplet, a symmetrical and orderly form that is nonetheless a more ‘open’ alternative to a sonnet.
If there is a shape to the world in terms of time
and space — our own or, by concessions to shapes
of others, received — if there is such a shape
— in part there is — note that the words we use
referring to time, as temporary for one
or temporal, admit our diffidence
toward any shape we give the world by time.
The shapes of space share less of this distrust,
we acknowledge chaotic recalcitrance
in space, its endlessness both ways, the great,
and small, and yet respect the finite shape
of bounded places, as much as to say they are true.
Some absolute of shape is stated there
which satisfies the need that makes this shape.
How strange that after all it is rarely space
but time we cling to, unwilling to let it go.
Ezra Pound said, ‘Rhythm is a form cut into TIME, as a design is determined SPACE’ (62). Robert Frost’s poetry relies on a prosody of mechanical time, registered by metrics, while Olson’s prosody sets up a prosody of space, registered as the open field of the white page, and organic time based on breath. In this poem, the first stanza begins and ends with the word ‘time,’ the second ends with the word ‘shape,’ and the closing couplet ends the poem on the word ‘go,’ as orderly an arrangement as that of a strict sonnet. Three words ending three stanzas sum up Bronk’s poem neatly, as he moves toward an increasing compression of form that is, perhaps, paradoxically also more open. We cling to ‘time,’ we don’t cling to ‘shape,’ yet we must let both go.
The ending of the poem is as deft a twist as we might find in the work of a Renaissance metaphysical poet. It has the force of revelation — it’s true we ‘cling’ to time rather than space (most of us wear watches but I suspect you’d be hard pressed to find a pedometer in evidence). But Bronk’s bemused assertion conjures up a deeper irony: Though we’re unwilling to let go of time but, forced to occupy the space of the grave, we must. And in the larger context of Bronk’s work, it’s arguable that ‘the world’ outlasts both time and space, though we can’t know the world as we do time and space. In Bronk’s work the ‘real’ takes on the form of the ideal, because we can’t know it, a kind of reverse Platonism that pulls us out of ourselves.
‘Shape,’ a key word in the poem, is not the same as ‘space.’ Since the poem seems to encourage clinging to shape, perhaps it’s not surprising that the poem itself is shapely. Though it is not rhymed in a traditional way, ‘The World in Time and Space’ uses repetition as a shaping element, but because the shape of a poem is also its sound — and you only have to hear Bronk read in his powerful mellifluous voice on one of the recordings to know he was concerned with the sound of the poem. The shape is also a temporal measure.
PennSound has a selection of 36 poems read by William Bronk at
Time and space are thus confounded in the poem, as they are in our experience. Two lines end with the word ‘time,’ both in the first stanza, which also uses the words. ‘Temporary’ and ‘temporal.’ Time is not mentioned directly in the second stanza at all. Four lines end with the word ‘shape’ or ‘shapes,’ two in each of the first two stanzas. The word ‘shape(s) appears four additional times within the lines of the poem, two in each of the first two stanzas.
I’m not sure Bronk thought out this orderly arrangement, but it’s possible. As he said, reading Shakespeare no doubt influenced him consciously and unconsciously. I’m also inclined to believe that the poetry he read as a young man and wanted to imitate was both shapely and metrical. At Dartmouth, Bronk took classes with Sidney Cox, who wrote one of the first books on Robert Frost. Through Cox, Bronk met and talked with Frost, but never took up Frost’s invitation to visit him.
As Bronk told the story, Frost said he should ‘call first,’ with the implication that Frost was not especially friendly. But in a letter Frost asked Cox explicitly about Bronk, and it’s easy to imagine that Bronk was both influenced by Frost and eager to assert his own gifts. In answer to Foster’s question, ‘Did [Sidney] Cox specifically influence your poetry,’ Bronk said. ‘That probably was one reason why I tried using rhyme’ (‘Conversation’ 25).
It seems clear that Bronk developed a sense of poetic form early in his career and that sense guided his work from beginning to end. By the time he encountered Olson, he was using the lessons he had internalized to write poems in his own strong voice, and the composition by field that Olson advocated seems to have had only the minimal influence on his work. Many of the lines of ‘The World in Time and Space’ are in perfect or nearly perfect iambic pentameter: ‘or TEMpoRAL, adMIT our DIFfiDENCE/ toward ANy SHAPE we GIVE the WORLD by TIME,’ the closing lines of the first stanza, are fittingly, perfectly timed iambic pentameter.
After Olson died, and as Bronk himself grew older, his obsession with time and space manifested itself in his using more space for poems that take less time to read. In his last book, Metaphor of Trees and Last Poems, the longest poem ‘Shards,’ is twelve lines in three unequal and widely-spaced shards, and the shortest — of which there are many — are two lines long. Though the poems look as if space matters to them — lonely utterances in a Melvillean blank white universe — Bronk still grounded them in the traditional meters. ‘The Then We Are,’ one of the longer poems, illustrates how iambic pentameter is still the basis for his poetics:
Conceded, we can let the told of time
tell us a here when we ask it where we are.
It can show us befores of being born
and count our years as surely as its own,
teaching us public and private histories
in stories that we hear it tell, that we tell ourselves
and come to believe as gauges of what is true.
Should we hold still and bare of the tales of time?
Can any of us say what then we are? (128)
The title, ‘The Then We Are,’ sounds like the fractured grammar Olson called for, but by the end of the poem makes perfect sense. The underlying iambic rhythm of the poem is so intrinsic to Bronk’s unique voice that we hardly notice it, yet the poem is as much in iambic pentameter as a Shakespearian soliloquy. The language is so ordinary that a line of monosyllables such as the second one, ‘tell US a HERE when we ASK it WHERE we ARE,’ that it is open to a number of different emphases. Nonetheless, it is a line of five stresses with only a single extra syllable that slows the line down with a reference to time (‘when’).
Another poem in Metaphor of Trees, ‘Du Cote de Chez Marcel’ (48) is almost perfect Shakespearean iambic pentameter with an alexandrine final line:
The loved is not that person the lover loves
but what that person holds in the lover’s sight
and holds sometimes not knowing what it holds
and could be anyone no matter who
because it’s not that person that the lover loves.
This one-sentence poem raises the subject of the relationship between the line and the sentence in Bronk’s work. Though the sentence is the unit of sense carrying the weight of Bronk’s ideas, the line remains the source of some of the delight the poems are capable of transmitting.
Sometimes Bronk sounds like Wallace Stevens’ scholar of one candle, but the one candle gives an honest and reliable, if sometimes flickering light. Bronk said, ‘I write a very formal prose, and in some ways my prose is more formal than my poems, and my poems are more prosy than most people would consider proper for poems. But even so, there is a distinct difference...’ (‘Conversation’ 31-32).
By the late poems Bronk has become chary of detail about the unreal world either to convince us of its unreality or to find specific hints of reality in it.
We credit, still, some of the old gods
and their stories and warn ourselves: don’t forget.
But the overriding myth man always has
is one that we don’t feel is myth at all.
We address it reverently as Real World,
by reason, take our practical prayers to it
though real isn’t real in any sense we know
and blows whatever myth we make of it. (‘Mythology,’ Metaphor of Trees 4)
The alternative to a world we can’t know, or can ‘know’ only by merging with it, is a world of illusion, temporal and therefore ephemeral. But the word ‘illusion’ implies a contrary reality, and so must be seen as a flawed metaphor for whatever may be real — a permanent field of reality or a fluent temporal illusion.
Bronk, William. Life Supports. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982.
———. Metaphor of Trees and Last Poems, Jersey City: Talisman House,1999.
Fenollosa, Ernest. ‘From The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.’ The Poetics of the New American Poetry. Ed. Donald Allen and Warren Tallman (New York: Grove Press, 1973: 13-35.
Foster, Edward. Answerable to None: Berrigan, Bronk and the American Real. (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 1999
———. ‘Conversation with William Bronk.’ Talisman 2 (Spring 1989): 18-44.
Olson, Charles. ‘Projective Verse.’ Human Universe. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Pound, Ezra. ‘Treatise on Metre.’ The Poetics of the New American Poetry: 61–68.