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The Late Agnostic:
William Bronk as Religious Poet
Thesis submitted for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
at the University of Leicester
James Marian Bober
Department of English
University of Leicester
The Late Agnostic: William Bronk as Religious Poet
James Marian Bober
This thesis examines the poetry of William Bronk (1918-99). Through close
readings of individual texts and broader thematic explorations it demonstrates
that Bronk can and should be viewed as a religious poet.
In agreement with previous scholars, via original thematic and formal comparisons of the poets’ work, it positions Bronk as a poet of the sublime and a follower of Wallace Stevens. Based initially on distinct differences in the ideas expressed by Bronk and Stevens, it progresses to demonstrate that Bronk should be understood in a context of postmodernity, and reveals key parallels and similarities between his work and that of notable post-structuralist theorists. It offers the first sustained and detailed overview of the unique place that sleep and dreaming hold in his poetry.
These aspects of the discussion variously contribute to a fuller understanding of Bronk as a religious poet. The later chapters of the thesis offer an important overview of the development of his religious outlook, from his first published work in the 1950s to his death in 1999. This is vital to understanding the poetry because previous published criticism has invariably presented a single religious or atheistic stance and overlooked the often contradictory theological dialogue sustained across his poetry. The thesis therefore provides a critical overview of his changing ideas of God, and their interaction with concepts of life and the self, identifying key moments in their development.
Beyond original contribution to the existing knowledge and critical understanding of Bronk’s work through original close readings of many poems from across his career, and the hitherto unremarked explorations of its post-structuralist character, the general argument of this thesis – that Bronk is a religious poet of positive agnosticism – will aid all serious readers of his poetry.
Acknowledgements I have been fortunate to receive kindness and support from many people during the time spent on this project, and for this I am thankful.
I am particularly grateful for the generosities of Nick Everett, Maggie Bober, Isla Bober and Dan Leary.
Thanks be to God.
J. M. Bober May 2014 Table of Contents
& Acknowledgements 2
1. Introduction & Literature Review 7
2. Wallace Stevens (and Robert Frost) 26
3. Post-Structuralism 47
4. The Sublime 81
5. Sleep and Dreams, Certainty and Doubt 111
6. God 146
A Note on Referencing in this Text Except where indicated otherwise, all poems by Bronk are quoted from Life Supports: New and Collected Poems (San Francisco: North Point, 1981; New Edition 1997) or Bursts of Light: The Collected Later Poems (ed. by David Clippinger) (Greenfield, Mass.: Talisman House, 2013). These are referenced in the text as LS and BOL respectively, and quotations are given with page numbers.
For all other book and journal publications, this thesis uses the Author:Date referencing system, according to MHRA guidelines. Online sources are referenced in footnotes in the text. A full bibliography is included at the end of the work.
THE LATE AGNOSTICOnce, I thought I might once know some minor thing of the world but a start though.
That was a long time. There isn’t an I or a world to know. There is something not known.
Chapter 1: Introduction and Literature Review Spiritual influences? “I’m a religious poet, though not formally anything. I love The Book Of Common Prayer and The Cloud of Unknowing. [...]” (capitalisation sic.) (Perkins in Clippinger 2001: 36) The aim of this thesis is to explore and provide original demonstration of the ways in which William Bronk’s writing can and should be understood as religious poetry. Contextualising his work in twentieth-century histories of American poetry and international cultural theory, it provides a significant and original contribution to the understanding of Bronk’s poetry, in terms of its themes and forms, and their concomitant development. It refers to existing critical literature, particularly as a source for extra-textual commentary from the poet himself (as in the quotation directly above), often citing agreement with previous findings and interpretations but also contesting points of detail and general claims. Ultimately its conclusions support the growing appreciation of Bronk as a significant poetic voice, probably the foremost spiritual and meditative English-language poet of his time.
This introductory chapter provides an overview of the current thesis, a discussion of the methodologies used, and a survey of the critical literature consulted. The literature review begins with a brief description of the published primary sources that exist alongside the poetry, these being recordings of Bronk reading and in conversation and transcripts of interviews. It indicates passages from a few key texts that provide a broad contextualisation of Bronk’s work and together give an indication of the currently prevailing critical responses to his poetry, then moves on to consider particular areas of the existing literature that pertain directly to the areas under discussion in the current thesis. The second chapter augments the current understanding of Bronk’s emergence as a follower of Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost by new close readings of texts by Stevens and Bronk, drawing formal and thematic contrasts and connections between the two poetries, giving examples from different periods in Bronk’s career. Using citations from primary theoretical texts and associated critical works, chapter three positions Bronk as a postmodern poet. It reveals and explores crucial connections between ideas expressed in his work and those found in that of various ‘poststructuralist’ writers. The fourth chapter views him as a poet of the sublime, examining different understandings of that concept and how they relate to the poetry. Chapter five discusses the important place that sleep and the act of dreaming hold in Bronk’s poems, and discusses the effects that his reflective awareness of these phenomena has on the sceptical epistemology that his poetry develops and expresses. The longest individual chapter in this thesis, part six is a survey and discussion of the place of God in Bronk’s poetry. Whereas previous critics have inevitably tended to simplify the poet’s complex and apparently contradictory points of view in this respect, the chapter uses close readings of key poems and careful assessment of broad themes to reveal and discuss the poet’s ongoing changing relationship with the entity and idea of God. Chapter seven then takes these working notions of God and discusses their use in the poetry against and alongside the related but distinct themes of Life and the Self. The concluding chapter draws on the preceding discussion and findings to offer an understanding of the place of faith in Bronk’s work, in particular relation to the position of the Eucharist in his poetry.
The principle method of analysis used in this thesis is the close reading of individual poems to reveal and explore textual details, significances and ambiguities. These readings are grouped thematically, and often chronologically throughout a chapter, to trace Bronk’s changing use of particular themes, ideas, and words. Across the whole thesis these readings contextualise and illuminate one another, with an understanding of ideas introduced over a series of poems often vital to appreciating a later, shorter text. These close readings are complemented and informed by existing critical and theoretical literature, particularly in the chapters that relate Bronk’s work to Wallace Stevens, to poststructuralism and to the sublime, but also in other chapters where the existing body of work on Bronk is cited. Thus some areas of the thesis are driven by the language of the poems themselves, with close readings supported by external literature where appropriate, while others take their momentum from theory and literary criticism, encountering the poetry as it echoes, reflects or challenges the critical ideas. Throughout this study, occasional moments of brief unapologetic praise for Bronk’s work reflect a secondary purpose of this thesis: to demonstrate its author’s belief in the unique brilliance of the poetry in question, with the intention that it might reach a wider audience in the UK.
Beyond newspaper and magazine reviews of individual volumes, it is possible to provide a fairly complete survey of the published critical work on Bronk. Such surveys have appeared periodically, including Edward Foster’s ‘A William Bronk Checklist: a selected bibliography’ (Kimmelman & Weinfield 1988) and Burt Kimmelman’s ‘A William Bronk Bibliography’ (1998: 192-197). Since the poet’s death the body of critical commentaries has increased, but remains small.
The comparative critical neglect of William Bronk has been explored by some who have sought to assess and celebrate his place in the ongoing history of poetry; the single most important work in this respect is David Clippinger’s chapter ‘Us and Them: Poetry Anthologies, Canon-Building and the Silencing of William Bronk’ (Clippinger 2006: 160-184), which discusses Bronk’s eventual omission from Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology The New American Poetry.
A lengthy collection of audio recordings of Bronk reading his poetry in 1978 is maintained in the Pennsound online archive administered by the University of Pennsylvania 1, and in 1992 readings and an interview with Bronk were broadcast as part of the ‘Poems to a Listener’ series that appeared on American public radio (Lyman & Bronk 1992). Part of the importance of these recordings is that they remind us that Bronk’s poems were very much written for performance, and that to limit their consideration to their appearance on the printed page is to do them a disservice. Transcripts of four further interviews (or ‘conversations’) with Bronk are also available; the first appeared in the magazine Credences (Bertholf 1976); next was Weinfield’s A Conversation With William Bronk in the 1988 Sagetrieb special edition (Kimmelman & Weinfield, eds.);
Edward Foster’s Conversations with William Bronk followed (Foster 1989); and Katzman’s 1996 interview with Bronk was published in the online magazine Artzar 2. These interviews are useful in revealing how the poet viewed his own work and its influences. In terms of the current study, defining and positioning http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Bronk.php (accessed 29 May 2013) http://www.artzar.com/interviews/bronkpart1.htm (accessed 9 March 2011) Bronk as a religious poet, we should note what he states at the end of that 1996
BRONK: [...] do you know a book called The Cloud of Unknowing?
[KATZMAN:] I’ve heard of it.
BRONK: 11th or 12th century.
[KATZMAN:] Mystical Catholic thing?
BRONK: Yeah. Apparently he was a monastic figure. Nobody knows exactly who he is. But it is, very definitely, even though it was written in the 11th or 12th centuries, a 20th century book. A great deal of which I wrote, actually.
When I read it I’d find whole paragraphs, hey, I wrote this!
Henry Weinfield had already remarked on this connection in ‘“The Cloud of Unknowing”: William Bronk and the condition of poetry’ (1988).
As this chapter will indicate, and to read his collected poems confirms,
Bronk is a poet of ideas in the most distinct sense (Feld 1972: 49; Weinfield 2009:
126). He deals in the conceptual and ontological far over and above the concrete and visceral, although not entirely to the exclusion of the latter. What is more, the overwhelming majority of his poems carry ‘meaning’ in the form of a proposition, dialogue or argument, as opposed to having been created to simply stand as objects in themselves or to describe objects in the world. Certainly these meanings can be difficult or impossible to paraphrase, should we even wish to, although several commentators have tried. In fairness to the critic, Weinfield’s lengthy “rough paraphrase” of ‘Corals and Shells’ (LS 70) “with at least some of the ambiguities drawn out” is offered partly as a demonstration of the inadequacy of such an approach (Weinfield 2009: 134). Bronk’s poetry is very personal but never confessional in the sense that Berryman’s and Lowell’s poems were held to be. It avoids mere listing of material and perceptual aspects of individual experience, in favour of sustained enquiry into the source and nature of these.
These aspects of the poetry, its absolute grounding in and simultaneous separation from the poet’s biographical experience, together with its inherent post-structuralism and its consistent approach to the sublime, are inseparably woven together along with a remarkable linguistic sensitivity and a demonstrable formal awareness to provide the basis for Bronk’s extraordinary poetic achievement.
Unlike many poets who are rightly or wrongly heralded as significant, Bronk’s poetry is not and never was of the avant-garde: “He is infinitely more
significant as a poet than a bus load of avant-garde experimenters” (Heller 1988:
135). In the term’s definition of ‘vanguard’ or ‘leading a movement’, Bronk’s work would seem to have had insufficient direct influence and inspired too few imitations to qualify. Likewise, its formal innovations are too subtle to represent any sort of break with tradition. However, “he was able to contribute significantly
to America’s mid-century avant-garde movement in poetry” (Kimmelman 1998:
21; cf. also Kimmelman in Foster & Kimmelman 2013: 124). Such claims need not be considered contradictory because, as Kimmelman and others go on to demonstrate, a considerable measure of this contribution is to be found in the correspondence between Bronk and certain of his contemporaries, most notably George Oppen (Kimmelman 1998: 131-32; Clippinger 2006: 103 et passim;