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Monday, July 20, 2015

The Folly of Believing "You Are Closer To the Truth"

Metonymy as an Approach to a Real World

Whether what we sense of this world
is the what of this world only, or the what
of which of several possible worlds
--which what?--something of what we sense
may be true, may be the world, what it is, what we sense.
For the rest, a truce is possible, the tolerance
of travelers, eating foreign foods, trying words
that twist the tongue, to feel that time and place,
not thinking that this is the real world.

Conceded, that all the clocks tell local time;
conceded, that "here" is anywhere we bound
and fill a space; conceded, we make a world:
is something caught there, contained there,
something real, something which we can sense?
Once in a city blocked and filled, I saw
the light lie in the deep chasm of a street,
palpable and blue, as though it had drifted in
from say, the sea, a purity of space.

--William Bronk. from The World, the Worldless (1964)

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept. Example: "Let me give you a hand." (Hand means help.)

"Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted."
~Percy Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, 1821

So, you think you know your world, and you feel qualified to communicate accurate understandings about your perceptions of life. Yet, what if, no matter how hard to try, your human limitations show you to be wrong, and your interpretations of any and everything are actually off base?

Could it be that your senses fail to comprehend many other obscure worlds around you? In other words, your perceived "world" of existence is no more than a minute slice of "something" which is a bigger reality -- a reality you seldom ever view with clarity. If so, your everyday conception of "real" world is merely a metonymy, a related substitution for the truth, and all of your vaulted communications are merely attempts to describe the unknowable.

William Bronk (1918–1999) was born in a house on Lower Main Street in Fort Edward, New York. He had an older brother, Sherman, who died young and two older sisters, Jane and Betty. William attended Dartmouth College, arriving there at the age of 16, and after graduation spent one semester at Harvard.

Bronk served in World War II, and he was discharged from the Army in October 1945 and started teaching English at Union College, Schenectady, New York. He left Union in June 1946 and returned to Hudson Falls. There, during the later half of 1946, he completed work on The Brother in Elysium.

In January 1947 Bronk took over management of the Bronk Coal and Lumber Company which he had inherited when his father died unexpectedly in 1941.

After his one semester of graduate school at Harvard, Bronk “decided I couldn't take any more of that.” He taught English at Union College. After his father died in 1941, he decided to return to the family business temporarily. He ended up staying more than 30 years. He retired from the business in 1978.

Bronk said that the poems were created in his mind as he went through the business of the day. When one was ready, he put it on paper, working in longhand rather than at a typewriter. As his manuscripts attest, he seldom rewrote, or even modified, a poem once written on paper. For the 1981 collection Life Supports he won the National Book Award for Poetry.

Poet and critic Daniel Wolff claims nobody reads William Blonk. Why? “First, it’s hard,” Wolff writes. “The second reason is: it’s hard.” He outlines Bronk’s ars poetica:

"Everyday things—which includes people—are indeed real, but they’re not what you think they are. They don’t correspond to their names.
And they never will. Whatever you call them, it’s a 'miscalling.' It
would seem to follow that the act of writing, of trying to put things
into words, is impossible. Because anything any poem tries to describe is, by this definition, unknowable."

(Dan Piepenbring. "A Green World" The Paris Review. February 17, 2015.)

William Bronk investigates the nature of consciousness, time and space, and the poetic fictions that will suffice in an age of disbelief and uncertainty. He uses a language stripped of ornament, imagery, and metaphor. Michael Heller, poet and essayist, says Bronk's work "offers another way of looking at our common humanity, not in some imagined concurrence of shared knowledge, but in our need to construct and reconstruct worlds, in our attempts to appease a common metaphysical hunger."

Yet Bronk's poetry does not succumb to despair. Instead, it considers the limits of human knowledge. "The natural world, Bronk would insist, is a world we can never know," explains Heller. Bronk's work suggests that the recognition of this basic estrangement between man and nature "illuminates and clarifies the human situation."

Heller also applauds Bronk's attempt to find a suitable language for describing human perception and its limits; he notes that Bronk seeks to discover "the exacting and naked process of realization."

In explaining theme, Heller says this about Bronk: “We look around, and, in the absence of any system that could explain our actions to ourselves, whatever 'dream' or 'diversion' we cook up is understood to be just that -- a distraction from nothing. And about 'how whatever reality is,' it is something we only know in the negative -- by being constantly wrong about it. Yet the poems are moments of aesthetic transport which weld beauty to beauty, occasional angles which offer a glimpse of something endless and compelling."

 (Kay Ryan. "William Bronk. Prose from Poetry Magazine.
February 28, 2006.)

"Once in a city blocked and filled, I saw
the light lie in the deep chasm of a street,
palpable and blue, as though it had drifted in
from say, the sea, a purity of space."

On rare occasions, it seems we do view the natural world as it is -- simple and pure, stripped of all obscuring veneer of human realization. It is then we connect and marvel about how inadequate our past perceptions have been. It is then we acknowledge our own inadequacy to understand and the fallibility of using metonymy as inaccurate substitutions for the truth. And, perhaps, it is then we actually find what Bronk terms as "something of what we sense may be true," something "palpable and blue."

I believe we do have a great need to appease a common metaphysical hunger -- a yearning to comprehend these questions: "What is there?" and "What is it like?" The needs to explain the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it are honorable quests for the most basic human truths. Yet, the wise make these journeys with the knowledge that both the limitations of their human intellect and the physical restrictions of their brains make answers partial at best.

And, I believe as man strives more and more to live in association with nature, not within his natural association, he loses touch with meaning and purpose. What if, in all their disassociation from the natural world, people move further from the basic truths of existence. Then, perhaps there, in their expensive domiciles filled with every possible ornament of invention, they are nothing more than purveyors of metonymy.

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