When I was a pup in grad school & working on the staff of Epoch magazine, my one epistolary encounter with William Bronk taught me a little something about literary politics. I was reading Bronk's collected poems, Life Supports (1981), and his Manifest; and Furthermore (1987), & enjoying them very much. I thought Epoch ought to publish him, & with the permission of CS Giscombe (then the head editor) I wrote Bronk asking for poems. Since he might not know Epoch, I sent along a copy of one of my favorite issues, featuring a clutch of cool poems by John Taggart.
I don't remember the precise wording of his chilly reply, something like I don't think Epoch would be interested in anything of mine. It was several years later that someone gave me the heads-up that Taggart & Bronk, tho they might be living in roughly in the same neighborhood of the alt-poetry cosmopolis, had been little short of actual enemies, since Taggart's 1978 Ironwood essay "Reading William Bronk." In other words, I had chosen precisely the wrong issue of Epoch to send my potential contributor.
There's lots of praise in Taggart's essay on Bronk (reprinted in Songs of Degrees, U Alabama P 1994), but also a good deal of honest reserve (something in too short supply among poets writing about their peers). One conclusion one might draw from Taggart's analysis is that Bronk has built his career on an exploration of a set of epistemological themes – "reality" & the "imagination," the role of the poet in constructing the poet's world, etc. – that have "Wallace Stevens" written all over them, & that as he has delved more deeply into those themes (sometimes in remarkably powerful & moving ways), his focus has become more narrow, his voice more cynical and cranky.
I've read a number of Bronk's books over the past two decades, tho I'm by no means a huge fan (as some of my friends are), & his last collection – Metaphor of Trees and Last Poems (Talisman House, 1999) – hasn't won me over. I admire these poems, admire their clean & spare phrasing, their occasional mordant wit. But the book as a whole is a remarkably monochromatic collection. Open at any point and you find a grim meditation on our place in the world: a world which is not "real," but which we must behave as if it were. For instance (at random):
The forms of gods are not God nor the forms
of men, man. Studying the forms
of the world won't find the world anywhere.
Fleshing OutThere is much to admire in this lapidary idiom. Over 140 pages, with few poems reaching beyond 8 or 10 lines, I find it ultimately wearying, like a 500-page collection of haikus. Stevens without the "gaiety" of language; Beckett without the outrageous humor.
None of us is; and those people who thought
they were never were. They made out
to be and some of us were fooled who
wanted to be too and pretended to be
hoping to be believed. Something is.
While there's so much else that needs to be read, I can't keep myself away from Claire Tomalin's Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (Knopf, 2002) – it seems to fly by in fascinating 40- or 50-page chunks. She makes a very good case for the inherent interest of Pepys's life, the importance of his role in reforming & administering the British Navy, his closeness to some of the great intellectual fire-sources of his day (Hooke, Wilkins, Newton). Of course, Pepys would be only a footnote to history, a half-column in the DNB, were it not for his Diary, the 10-year shorthand record of the 1660s, which traces both Pepys's public & professional accomplishments & the most embarassing details of his private life – his rocky but on the whole satisfactory marriage, his career-related hopes & fears, his relentless busy-handed philandering.
I'm about 2/3 thru Tomalin's not overlong account of Pepys's life, but I've become so assured of her biographical skill that I'm confident she'll be able to surmount the greatest challenge before her: the 100 pages of The Unequalled Self that cover the last 33 years of Pepys's life – the years after he ceased keeping the Diary. It's the Diary of course that makes Pepys a great figure in English literature, & it's the diary that makes him the first subject susceptible to a truly modern biography, one that aims to tell both the external & the internal facts of its subject's life.
Yes, I've been thinking about biography as genre again. For a rather mordant perspective, fuelled by two recent books on the practice of biography, check out Louis Menand's "Lives of Others: The Biography Business" in the New Yorker. (Does Menand have a small child? I note a Sesame Street reference in his discussion of John Coltrane.)