Burt Kimmelman

Editing the Words of Poets beyond Their Poems

        In the 1990s, in order to write my book-length study of the work of the poet and essayist William Bronk (The “Winter Mind”: William Bronk and American Letters, 1998), I had to spend a great deal of time reading large volumes of letters to and from him, which resided in a number of archives. Two particular editing and writing opportunities arose out of this activity. First, through my contact with Ralph Maud, who publishes The Minutes of the Charles Olson Society, I was able to edit (with Ralph’s kind and astute help) and publish Bronk’s correspondence with Charles Olson, which appeared as an issue of the Minutes (no. 22, January 1998).1 Then, shortly after my book on Bronk was published, I presented a paper at an all-day symposium on Bronk held at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken (arranged by Ed Foster). The paper concerned itself with Bronk’s very rich exchange of letters with Robert Meyer (a school teacher living in the Bronx whom Bronk had met in his travels, and who proved to be a suitable and intellectually worthy interlocutor for Bronk over the course of many years). The paper was eventually published in a volume of essays on Bronk entitled The Body of This Life: Reading William Bronk (Talisman House, 2001), edited by David Clippinger.

        Considering Bronk’s writings and life in a critical way was a labor of love for me both because I knew him for decades and because I was enthralled by both his poetry and prose; I believed, and still do believe, that he is a major figure in our literary and otherwise intellectual history. I first set eyes on Bronk more than forty years ago. I was a college sophomore attempting to write poetry of my own; a friend of mine and fellow-fledgling poet, Sherry Kearns (née Moore), knew Bronk because he had been her neighbor. The three of us went out for dinner; we all had Sea and Ski. She and I are still friends, and her help with my book on him was indispensable. Bronk and I, too, remained friends up until the time of his death in 1999—though a word like friend falls short of describing what Bronk has meant to me—particularly because, when we met, I was an adolescent. I can only speculate as to what my intellectual and aesthetic progress would have been like without him there not always in the background.

        My coming to his correspondence was a powerful, transformative experience, as I grappled with the handwriting and other peculiarities of a particular letter writer. There was the thrill of reading Olson’s hand, which was sprawling yet strong and distinctive, and that of Bronk’s, which was graceful and meticulous and reminded me of fine calligraphy, almost as if the letter were an etching. The two hands very different and unique to the poets themselves and I dare say like their respective poetries.2 And this is to say nothing of the missives I encountered from people like George Oppen, whose irregular typescripts begged parsing and interpretation. I had to unpack the dialogues in order to form a larger understanding of what was going on, the letters held like butterflies caught in a web. Deriving a picture of what was happening in the evolving discourses between Bronk and Olson, and Bronk and Meyer, respectively, was an utterly enabling event that caused me to see these people as flesh and blood human beings with all their strengths and failures, and to see myself as a human being and as a poet in my own right (in my own write). These were the people who gave rise to poems that had become important to me in my own daily living (and occasionally a letter contained an early draft of a poem to be made public within the pages of a book much later on).

        An editor has to confront ambiguities of diction and handwriting, and editorial judgments are best made when one is aware of the letter writer’s reading list, library, personal relations with friends and family, with other poets and writers. Editing is best done so that a reader is unaware of it. And yet the need to decide on text and the chronology of text can mean there will be anguishing decisions to be made. In short, a lot is brought to bear upon an editorial decision from beyond the text itself, at times, or at least should be.

        Accompanying this essay are two results of my forays into Bronk’s life and letters—his correspondence, poetry and critical prose—which have been published (along with my book The “Winter Mind”): my introduction to and the actual Bronk-Olson correspondence (here being reproduced with the kind permission of Ralph Maud and the Minutes), and my essay on the Bronk-Meyer correspondence, which includes portions of the letters themselves (permission to reproduce the essay being granted by Ed Foster and Talisman House, Publishers, with my gratitude).


1   Past and future issues of The Minutes of the Charles Olson Society can be ordered by writing
     to Dr. Ralph Maud, The Charles Olson Literary Society, 1104 Maple St., Vancouver BC
     V6J 3R6, Canada.

2   The issue of the Minutes contains photocopies of their handwritten letters, along with their

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