Burt Kimmelman

“Art As a Way”: Absence and Presence, Aesthetics and Friendship
in the William Bronk – Robert Meyer Correspondence

(Originally published in The Body of this Life: Reading William Bronk,
Jersey City: Talisman House Publishers, 2001, reproduced here
with the permission of Ed Foster and Talisman House Publishers)

                               William Bronk and Robert Meyer came to realize the significance of their correspondence over the course of some thirty years; they even planned for both sides of it to reside in the same archive.1 Hundreds of letters passed between Bronk and Meyer, a German Jew who fled nazism to settle in Manhattan as a school teacher, which attest an important insight into the nature of artistic expression—one they developed together, to a considerable degree. This insight helps us to comprehend Bronk’s overall notions of beauty and form, most of all on his poetics, and leads us inexorably toward Bronk’s final poem, found by his side in death, which begins, “Art isn’t made; it’s in the world almost / unseen but found existent there.” 2 Indeed, as these lines suggest, art provided Bronk with the most reliable threshold onto what he called the reality of worldlessness; art allowed him, figuratively in his writing—and, in his personal life, actually—to approach the fecundity of a “worldless” world he could never ultimately even touch. Art also provided Bronk and Meyer with the lingua franca of their close communication. They each saw art as uniquely valuable; art articulated something all other human expression failed to achieve. To be sure, their letters constitute the most substantial evidence of Bronk’s philosophy and poetics, beyond his published work. Often containing poems well before their publication, the letters hold phrases and ideas in their evolutionary stages, which appear later in poems and essays.3 One wonders why Meyer, no poet, artist or philosopher, should have become the recipient of Bronk’s explanations of his work and reports of his daily reading as well as attendances at the theater, concerts, museums and galleries. Most unlikely as it may first seem, he was Bronk’s intellectual soulmate throughout his mature life.

               Meyer and his wife Irma had made trips to Latin America and elsewhere with Bronk and his sister Betty—a great companionship flourished, and along with it a quite rarefied discussion. It was not all agreement, however. Meyer tended to see the arts as functional, insofar as they provided solace, education, and social cohesion. Bronk, conversely, saw poetry especially as a kind of counter-self or alter-force he lived with and at times against. Nonetheless, both men believed in the phenomenon of art as the most prized human manifestation, one that could, moreover, deliver them from the world's irrelevancy and even cruelty. What especially emerged out of their dispute was the joint recognition, and mutual affirmation, of absence as being the absolute foundation of art. Absence sustained the sense of openness vital to architecture’s built environments, the negative space critical to painting and sculpture, and the silence that nourishes all poetry and music.

               Early on in their dialogue (in 1957), Meyer lays out his working principle: “The study of the ‘What is’ (despite my earnest delving into philosophy and psychology) seemed never quite worth the same effort as the striving for “What ought to be” and I still feel, since one can never solve fully the riddle of human existence and essence one better addresses oneself to a normative humanism” (qtd in Bronk’s letter to Meyer of 12 June 1957). Bronk replies that Meyer’s outlook seems
To be the equivalent of saying that one should turn his attention from the unsolved riddle of [ancient Mayan] bannerstones [sic] to good useful building stones. Of course that’s unfair but I have never claimed even implicitly to be a fair-minded person. It is true that the direct contemplation of man (as opposed to turning one’s back on him) solves no riddles but what else do we have to do? And beware of striving for any “what ought to be” (which probably includes all what ought to be’s) that doesnt take full account of man as an unsolvable riddle. If one has an equation in two unknowns all the real equations would have to include more than two—one doesnt really solve it by assigning an insufficient value to one unknown and deriving the consequent incorrect value of the other.4 It has been demonstrated mathematically that squaring the circle is impossible. I would not advocate devoting oneself to that riddle to the exclusion of solvable problems. But I dont càre about squaring the circle and I do care about man. One reason that I care about man is that he is likely to sit with his eyes blank, his mouth open, and his belly sagging, contemplating an unsolvable riddle when by all rights he ought to be making the world a better place to live in.
Four years later, Bronk writes to Meyer to say that, while the answer to a riddle may not be forthcoming, he can
recognise the question. The reason which gives order. Why can we no longer accept it? And why at the same time, and in that light, do we nevertheless feel that it is a kind of barbarism to be free of the need to accept it? We have to do this thing (to believe in order-giving reason) which we know we cant do. One recent approach I took to the question is in this poem.
Here Bronk writes out his poem “The Failure to Devise a Better World,” 5 then paraphrases its theme, and comments:
                As you know, I too am obsessed by the fragmentation and dissolution of reality, by Prospero’s “insubstantial pageant,” and “baseless fabric” and the recent direction of my thinking has been to attempt to win beyond it by first accepting it wholly—but not finally. (14 June 1961)6
Less than a month later, he enlarges his difference with Meyer:
                You think we could devise a better world by will and decision. I dont trust our will and decision. (Am I, in effect, agreeing with you by making that statement?) No, I mean to say I find it in the nature of things that we are not able to devise a better world. It is not intended that we should, though it is right and proper that our failure should disturb us. Our failure is built in. Will and decision are clumsy and false and insensitive and dishonest. God save us from a savior! (11 August 1961)
Bronk’s skepticism is no mere intellectual exercise. In 1960, Meyer receives this letter:
                Life continues to surprise me and it is with wonder that I think of the difference in our lives—you the deraciné the object of the violence of our times, and me the continuously rooted in an apparently placid and sustained environment—that only so late it should seem to you that this is not a real world, to whom in the past it should hardly have appeared credible. And this incredibility, this unreality is the basis of anything I think. Plato’s figure is one of the deepest human perceptions. As near a thing to a certainty as I have is this negative one, that whatever reality may be it is certainly not what we have, collectively as humans, pretended it is[.] Things can’t be what they seem to be. In order to get from one end of the day to the other we assume that they are (we even assume that there are such things as one end of the day and the other)[.] But they cant be that. They just don’t go Together [sic] that way. This is not a world that we understand. It may be in some scheme rational but not if we mean by rational comprehensible and responsive to our reasons.
                Maybe it is the ultimate rational heresy and humanist heresy that I have sometimes been glad that this should be so on the assumption that reality is more rather than less than we could comprehend it to be.
                But it also comes to me that you had to believe in a real world, a world that can be made better and more rational by our efforts; that you could not otherwise have had the courage to move out from under a political madness and make a new life in another country.
                I reproach myself for saying these things to you, incoherent and comfortless as they are, however opposite I wish that they might be. But when I read your remark that the world doesn’t seem real to you I could only say Yes. What else has my poetry said for years? What else have I thought?
                And I wanted to tell you this—tell someone this—irrelevant or maybe relevant as it may be, that a few days ago for the first time in months I was able to look at some of my poetry without cringing and even to think of the possibility that sometime I might even write something more, that it might be barely possible to say something to someone or to pretend successfully that the possibility existed. We get used to living with impossibilities.
                Robert, I am no help to you. Damn it I wish I were. I wrote it; I’ll send it. Don’t count it against me. (6 August 1960)
Eventually, Bronk will write the poem “My Shoulder for Robert. Help Us Both,” which distills the thoughts in this letter, in his volume To Praise the Music in 1972:
What, this world? Of course. It is
that terrible. The curious thing,
- we come back and back to think or pretend to think
there was some mistake, some fault, and it isn’t so.

We think our attitude was wrong: no trust
or too much trust, lazy or not relaxed
enough. Did we have the chances? Did pampering
spoil us? We refuse to believe it really is.

It is, though. So what do we do? There must
be something to do, some way to make it right.
We refuse to believe there isn’t a remedy.

Well, we may be right. You know though
I don’t believe we are. You know my mind
is somewhere else. Another world. No world.
(LS 142)
               Bronk’s reference in his letter to Plato conveniently posits for the basic situation, as Bronk and Meyer see it, of phenomena and their perception, which will allow finally a concord between the two men regarding art’s reliance on absence—although Bronk, I would argue, does not describe, in his poetry and essays, the Platonic construct as such. It is worth a pause to consider his distinction. His thinking actually differs from Plato’s in one important way. Bronk’s notion of worldlessness “would cease to exist if there were no world, and so there is a stronger bond between” the unreal manifest “world” and the real, “worldless” world “than what we find between Plato's Ideal and his world of shadows.” For that matter, Bronk’s assertion is also unlike the Buddhist conceptualization of the universe in which the world supposedly rests upon a void.
               The void may not need the world for its non-existence in the way worldlessness does, but more importantly, the void is nothingness, whereas worldlessness is a fullness or presence albeit one that cannot be known; as well, the void resides beyond intuition. It might follow that the intuition of worldlessness is the realization of one's vitality, and that to intuit the real that is worldlessness is to know one's own genuine state of being. Worldlessness cannot be intuited, however, unless there is a world one can experience; this world allows for the telling of another world that is real if finally unattainable (i.e., the world Bronk knows is a false [world but still] a world that leads him to a sense of the real). When Bronk reflects upon the fact that he, first of all, apprehends the falsity of the actual world, and that, secondly, he intuits a realness that is not the actual world, then he achieves ontological plenitude. (Kimmelman, The “Winter Mind” 178)
So, the realized world must also include its opposite—presence is supported by absence. All forms, and most of all forms created by humanity, disclose that absence, to one degree or another.

               Bronk, therefore, consistently celebrates form by noting the limitations of conscientious human shaping, and the potential of randomness. For instance, in his poem “The Smile on the Face of a Kouros” he likens the desire for perfectly shaped form to “wanting death” (26), whereas, in "The Beautiful Wall, Machu Picchu,” he finds the Incan stones of the wall to be "abstract austerities," "unimitative" and “self-absorbed in their unmortared, close / accommodation, stone to different stone, / exactly interlocked, deep joined [. . .].” Bronk is attracted to this primitive edifice because he perceives in it a "grace inherent more as idea than in the world," the love of "simple soundness in a just joint, / and the pieces together once though elsewhere apart." Looking at these Incan stones, he sees that they "say of the world there is nothing to say" (LS 41). In his 1957 letter that mentions the Mayan bannerstones, which were apparently shaped but for some unknown purpose, he observes that “Those stones have that perfection and sophistication which lead me to doubt the common sense or at least, near-sighted idea of time which lays it out in an increasingly meaningless accumulation, and by its cluttered and trivial foreground, removes us so far from those who are actually perhaps our contemporaries in other sense than the common” (12 June 1957).

               Both time and space can be trivial, meaningless, inert. Or they can be dynamic, substantial, even life-sustaining. Meyer, who has now been sent a copy of Bronk’s essay “The Occupation of Space—Palenque” 8 writes in 1958,
“Time and Space” are indeed the 2 basic concepts underlying Mayan society and that you have outlined remarkably well. It always struck me that only an artistic approach, only an esthetic philosophy could unlock the secret of the Mayas […]. Opposite to their cities I was even wondering what basic cultural “ground plan” was behind them, why the buildings were standing just so, what “order” could be detected in this seemingly willful and gratuitous “disorder”—I knew the contents of their culture (Time, Space, an hierarchical religion) but why they took the shape of Chichen or Uxmal or Labuá I still can’t fathom. I am not satisfied with Ben Shans [sic] tautology that “Form is the shape of content,” but I do feel the Mayan cities are like the creative act of a painter who transforms the image of his into lines, colors, forms on the canvas—I only want to know why this form and not that. On reflection it struck me that many of their cities have one outstandingly high or large edifice […]. Could this be the focus the axis of the whole complex of buildings? Even if it is not in the centre, is seemingly disconnected or off-middle or solitary? You know of course van Goghs paintings, in particular the ones of the garden of the insane asylum in Arles, where a tree on the lefthand or righthand carries holds the whole whirl of buildings and greens together, or Breughel’s vast canvases where one group of people or buildings on the side are nevertheless the focal point of the whole mass of goings on […]. (30 June 1958)
In a similar vein, almost a decade later Meyer quotes from Kafka’s “‘Parables’ [in which there is this sentence:] ‘how the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing has never happened, still it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never’. A prophet he!”(25 October 1967). Fifteen years later, Bronk is enumerating his favorite composers to Meyer; what is it about their music? Perhaps recalling Meyer’s comment, he observes that “Silence is the term for the unspeakable which is what we are always talking about but never are able to say. It is what we come from and go back to but, attentively, we never really leave it. No need to wait for the time. I think our lives would be unbearably trivial without it” (22 February 1982).

               In 1961, speaking of individual creativity and community, Bronk had opined that we “value art not because it summons up for us the artistic experience but because it summons up for us reality, our most intense experience of the world. I think I sent you The Stairs at Korcula9 which bears somehow on this.” Bronk then includes a copy of his poem “The Greeks, the Chinese or, Say, the Mayans,” 10 after which he asks,
If art is […] timeless and art is the essence of, not the artistic experience, but the human experience, is man the only feeler the sufferer of the eternal experience? Is there nothing else to do, to be done? Are we not to have a time? I admit to you privately that my eyes also go straying and lusting after it. I hanker for a time world a made world a world which can be manipulated and reshaped and listened to, and taught, and believed in, and made to stand alone and repay our love and devotion—an ego world, a world in time. (19 October 1961)
               For Bronk, space can suggest that absence, as well as timelessness, and this suggestion is an intellectually and spiritually ultimate provocation. In one letter, referring to his poem "The Real Surrounding: On Canaletto's Venice" (LS 104), he writes, “What interested me was his ability to paint enormous volumes of empty space coupled with his matter of fact acceptance of the most mundane and unprotesting details of naturalism” (26 June 1966). Three years later, he quotes Harold Rosenberg’s criticism of the painter Barnett Newman to the effect that he “‘works with emptiness as if it were a substance….. His program is to induce emptiness to exclaim its secret; in short, he wishes to grasp the absolute through painting….’ I thought, of course, of my Canaletto poem and what different ways we take to say the same things” (22 April 1969).

               The importance of the negative, in structures, is perhaps a given, although not everyone can see in them how they are realized by it. Yet space and silence, indeed, like any metonym in a language, are what Bronk seizes on in trying to find his locus within an ephemeral world. From that world, art stands forth. Art is a buoy in the sea. It is the realization that artistic expression is substantial. This understanding eventually prompts Meyer to advance the concept of “art as a way” (a phrase he borrows from his friend, the Buddhist painter and author, Frederick Franck, also the title of one of his books). Bronk, of course, begs the question. Meyer argues for “‘truth [as residing] in poetry’” (qtd in Bronk’s letter of 30 January 1981) and hence for poetry’s efficacy beyond its own existence, and receives this reply in 1981: “You are generous to think that […] but I think [poetry’s] truths like those of mathematical systems or any articulated schemata are all internal: ‘All measures measure themselves, none measures the world’” (30 January 1981).11 Over the next several years, Bronk begins to focus, in his letters, on the question of the arts a bit more than before: “I am sure there are ‘artists’ whose intention and even experience it is to be ‘enriched’ by their art and […] to whom art is the spoonful of butter swirled in the sauce just before serving to finish it. It must be a pleasure to eat at their tables. What concerns me is not the sauce so much as the sustenance, that it was some other animal or vegetable life before it sustained mine, that it turns into tissue and bone and feces, that it aches and decays and loses itself in oblivion. [Some people] may know of the elegant uses of art but nothing of its compulsion, absurdity and terror” (24 March 1981).

               In another letter, Bronk continues to see art from the creator’s point of view, in which, for him, art becomes a “jailor.” [….] “Art as a WAY? as your friend Franck says. What sort of an artist could say this? Probably he is not an evil man though I considered for a moment if that old-fashioned obscene sin of simony could have popped up again in new style. A naif, I guess. A dabbler” (23 August 1983). A month later Bronk adds, “When Franck talks about Art making the Way easy and full of celebratory comforts I think he must be talking about something other than all I have known” (28 September 1983).

Meyer responds:
Dear Bill, but of course, I never understood Frederick to mean “Art as a Way” to be a signpost, a prescription, a tranquilizer for you, the poet, the writer, the painter and all of your fellow-artists. It was I, who felt addressed, the committed reader, the passionate, loving listener to music, the visionary viewer of art and all those, for whom “Art” is a solace in and a deliverance from this mad world. The creative spirit in Man is for me the only manifestation of the Divine; “Grace” is not “revealed”. As in all religions, we have to “look up to the mountains, the summits, from where the grace and salvation cometh.” (1 October 1983)
               Not long before Meyer’s death, Bronk returns to this constellation of thoughts about art:
               That I am at a different pole from your friend Frederick Frank [sic] and remain there didn’t preclude my being touched […]. None of us knows really the pull and propensity to respond to the terror and horror of human experience as our responses may be different at different times. That there are polarities includes the idea that polarities may reverse and reverse they do in our uncertainties. (21 September 1985)
               Art as a way, for Meyer, meant a salvation, especially since art reached and seemingly touched the truth of ideal existence where nothing else could. Bronk could come around to Meyer’s way of thinking on occasion, but only when he could get beyond his relationship with his own art. At times they disagreed about the function of art but never about art’s authenticity in an otherwise inauthentic world. “Art As a Way” represented for them both the path through that world. Meyer could feel hopelessness, would reassert an optimism. Bronk, the skeptic, never hoped for much but delighted in the arts, and in the natural world, and did, I think, derive solace from them. Yet he was loathe to admit this—which we see reflected, for example, in his letter where he is at pains to explain his view of reality, in part by paraphrasing “The Failure to Devise a Better World” that he suggests exemplifies the “recent direction of my thinking”; he then warns, “it is a little wrong to speak of the recent direction of my thinking because it hasn’t any” (14 June 1961).

               Meyer proved to be a great foil for him but also a loving and supportive friend. As if he is summing up the relationship between the two of them, he writes, toward the end of his life,
Dear Bill, I showed last night to Claire [Meyer’s second wife] the few woodcuts by Eugene Canadé—she did not know the wherefrom and the how of your connection. So we got lost in rereading you and both were struck by the thought, that “the grim poet of Hudson Falls, who sees the dark side of life” and the “American voice of darkness” always and almost always only praises the Music in meeting the trees through which the light shines, the flowers and plants in our garden and your life supports derive from Nature. At that moment a past event lighted up in my memory: It was in Cozumel, when I “gave” you a beautiful palm tree, we passed often on our way from town to the beach for your next poem. (I obviously did not know then much of your poetry.) After a few days you said “I give it back to you, Robert”. The loneliness of that single tree seemingly distressed you. I must tell you something of the great modern Balzac Romain Gary, whose Goncourt prize [book] you may have read. [….] His last published novel […] closed with the words: My consolation is my knowledge, that I am not alone, being alone! (11 October 1983)


1   “Since [Robert] Bertholf [i.e., now the former Curator of the Poetry / Rare Books Collection at State University of New York Buffalo] has the bulk of our correspondence already I suppose we may as well keep it all together” (Letter from William Bronk to Robert Meyer, 2 May 1985). Logistics would dictate otherwise, however. Bronk’s letters ended up at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Meyer’s at Columbia University. Formal acknowledgment is here gratefully made to these copyright holders for permission to reprint copyrighted material: the Poetry / Rare Books Collection, University Libraries, State University of New York, permission to print portions of letters from William Bronk to Robert Meyer; and, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Butler Library, Columbia University, permission to print portions of letters from Robert Meyer to William Bronk housed in the William Bronk archive.

2   Untitled poem, William Bronk, Metaphor of Trees and Last Poems (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, Publishers: 1999), 147. All further poems by Bronk mentioned in this essay come from William Bronk, Life Supports: New and Collected Poems, New Edition (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, Publishers, 1997), hereafter cited as LS.

3   Throughout this essay I shall endeavor to point out the correspondences, in the letters, to Bronk’s published poems.

4   Cf. “How Indeterminacy Determines Us,” LS 56.

5   Cf. LS 75.

6   Cf. “To Prospero, Afterwards,” LS 75.

7   Cf. “The Tell,” LS 174.

8   Cf. William Bronk, Vectors and Smoothable Curves: Collected Essays, New Edition (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, Publishers, 1997), 21-29.

9   Cf. LS 78.

10  Cf. LS 71.

11  Here he is referring to his poem “On Divers Geometries,” LS 92.


Works Cited

Bronk, William. Letters to Robert Meyer. The Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Butler Library, Columbia University.

_____. Life Supports: New and Collected Poems, New Edition. Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, Publishers, 1997.

_____. Metaphor of Trees and Last Poems, Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, Publishers: 1999.

_____. Vectors and Smoothable Curves: Collected Essays, New Edition. Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, Publishers, 1997

Kimmelman, Burt. The "Winter Mind": William Bronk and American Letters, Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press / London: Associated University Presses, 1998.

Meyer, Robert. Letters to William Bronk. The Poetry / Rare Books Collection, University Libraries, State University of New York.

Burt Kimmelman has published six collections of poetry – Musaics, First Life, The Pond at Cape May Point, Somehow, There Are Words, and As If Free. For over a decade he was Senior Editor of Poetry New York: A Journal of Poetry and Translation. He is a professor of English at New Jersey Institute of Technology and the author of two book-length literary studies: The "Winter Mind": William Bronk and American Letters and The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages: The Emergence of the Modern Literary Persona, as well as scores of essays on medieval, modern, and contemporary poetry.

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