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What Bronk is doing, in my view, is proceeding along a path that is parallel to the via negativa of the mystical tradition. To the anonymous fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing, for instance, the only true knowledge is of God; but since this knowledge is utterly beyond our reach, all that is possible for us is to cast aside our false knowledge of the world and, by admitting our ignorance and putting off our vanity, enter into that "cloud of unknowing" in which alone it is possible, not to "know" God but to intuit his presence. Similarly, on the level of subjective content, Bronk's statements reflect a position of radical skepticism or even nihilism; but the aim of the poetry is not negation but, through negation, to evoke what in rational terms is ineffable. Poetry, in Bronk's sense of it, thus has a function which is somewhat analogous to that of the spiritual exercises practiced by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing--but with this essential difference, that whereas the mystic's language is merely the vehicle of his spiritual exercises and is of no importance in itself, the poet's language has a resonance that in some mysterious way embodies the ineffable (or, to employ the parlance of aesthetics, the Beautiful). Since poetry is composed of language and since it emerges from the statement system of language, it is of course absurd to say that poetry embodies the ineffable. How can we speak what cannot be spoken? This paradox is, however, at the root of lyric poetry, as it emerges from the statement system of language to approach the condition of music.

The mysterious relationship between form and content is in a certain sense more advanced in Bronk's work than in any other contemporary poetry (and in a way that makes me think of his poetry as bearing an emblematic relation to the condition of poetry in general) because the paradox that obtains in all lyric poetry is thematized in his work. Rather than avoiding the statement system of language--out of which the poem emerges but into which it is constantly in danger of being pulled back--Bronk confronts that system (and its limitations) directly, making it the means to an end rather than the end itself--although, as we observed earlier, to compose poetry is not, in the first instance, the point of his endeavor. To say that Bronk is ultimately a mystic whose poetry follows the via negativa is perhaps only to say that in the end, lyric poetry is itself a form of mysticism, perhaps the most extreme form of mysticism, an attempt on the part of language to evoke the ineffable in and through itself. "It is hard to believe of the world that there should be / music in it" as the poet tells us in "The Nature of Musical Form." And when we try to explain what music is, we go in circles--"as though we could say of music only, it is."


From "’The Cloud of Unknowing’: William Bronk and the Condition of Poetry." Sagetrieb 7.3 (Winter 1988): 137-144.