William Bronk (February 17, 1918 – February 22, 1999) was born in a house on Lower Main Street in Fort Edward, New York. He was a descendent of Jonas Bronck, after whom the Bronx is named. His family moved to Hudson Falls in New York where Bronk grew up and lived for most of the rest of his life. His mother was a homemaker and his father ran a business, Bronk Coal and Lumber, in Hudson Falls. He attended Dartmouth College, beginning in 1934, where he studied under the critic and poet Sidney Cox and met Robert Frost. After graduation he studied at Harvard for a semester but decided I couldn’t take any more of that. He left to write a study of Thoreau, Melville, and Whitman that was published 30 years later as The Brother in Elysium: Ideas of Friendship and Society in the United States. He taught English briefly at Union College, Schenectady, New York, and enjoyed it a great deal, but he knew he would need a graduate degree to continue. During World War II, Bronk served, first as a draftee but later, after a military education, as an officer. It was the only time in his life that he ever drove a vehicle. He served as an army historian during the war and wrote A History of the Eastern Defense Command and of the Defense of the Atlantic Coast of the United States in the Second World War. He was honourably discharged from the army in October 1945
His father had died unexpectedly in 1941 and William inherited the business. In January 1947 he took over management of the Bronk Coal and Lumber Company as a temporary measure. He stayed for over thirty years, enjoying the work as it gave him both financial security and the creative energy to write without having to worry about book sales. I never had to calculate the effect … I could write what I wanted to write without worrying about all that. He said that the poems emerged in his mind as he went about this daily business. When a poem was ready, he wrote it down, preferring to work on paper rather than at a typewriter. I hate to type. I’ve never really learned to use the typewriter. He seldom rewrote or modified a poem once it was put on paper. He retired from the business in 1978.
Aside from extensive travelling, which he enjoyed, he spent most of his life in his home in Hudson Falls, Washington County, New York where he lived alone in a large Victorian house with an Aga stove. The house is a frequent metaphor with me. I think very likely that when I die it will be torn down. It has a two-wire electrical system. It’s inadequately insulated. The plumbing is old. No modern person would put up with it. He never held a driver’s license, and only drove a vehicle once, an Army Reconnaissance vehicle at an Army post in Virginia during the war. He preferred to walk or cycle around his locale. His childhood home became a pilgrimage point for many young poets and artists, who enjoyed his hospitality and his renowned cooking.
His first book of poems, Light and Dark, was published by Cid Corman’s Origin Press in 1956. He explains the title thus: But the theme is always light and dark and ‘The light of that darkness and the darkness of that light’ as Melville talks about in Pierre. A subsequent publication The World, the Worldless (1964) published by New Directions did not achieve much success. In 1981, when the University of New Hampshire began collecting Bronk, he had had ten books of poetry and three books of essays published by small presses. He won the American Book Award in 1982 for his collection Life Supports: New & Collected Poems. During his life he published 30 collections of poetry with significant small presses including Elizabeth Press, New Directions, North Point, and Talisman House. A Selected Poems was published in 1995.
William Bronk died of respiratory heart failure on Sunday, February 22, 1999 at the age of 81 in his home in Hudson Falls, New York. He is buried in Union Cemetery in the Hudson Falls/Fort Edward area of Washington County, New York.
THE POETRY OF WILLIAM BRONK
To know you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with. That quotation from Beckett, a writer much admired by Bronk, may serve as an epigraph to the poetry. That optimism, countered by pessimism and superseded by a mordant abnegation could serve as a means of entry to the poetry, even if Bronk lacks Beckett’s remarkable bleak humour. True, there are difficulties. Explaining Why Nobody Reads William Bronk, Daniel Wolff offers four succinct reasons:
1: It’s hard.
2: It’s hard. (Repeat)
3: The tone of voice.
4: It’s unknowable.
1: It’s hard
There are many ways in which the poems are hard to fathom. Kay Ryan, in an essay on Bronk for Poetry Magazine, puts it this way: Bronk’s poems are almost entirely abstract and disembodied …. his language desiccated but also conversationally halting and embedded. There is no flesh, no world, precious little metaphor—as though every human attachment is cheating. If one were to apply the W. C. Williams rubric “No ideas but in things”, Bronk’s poetry almost always subverts it. His motto could be “No things, but ideas.”
In one poem he claims that “Ideas are always wrong,” but, ironically that is an idea. A relentless sense of abstraction makes for difficult reading and the difficulty is viewed as an irrelevance. As Daniel Wolff puts it in the essay mentioned above, Bronk was writing in an age of mostly personal and confessional poetry, where the recipe seemed to be: take sensations, describe in detail, simmer till they reach an implied conclusion, serve warm. Instead, Bronk baldly states that your (and his) impressions of the world are of no importance. No wonder the poems are hard. They may not be hard to read but they are often hard, as I say, to fathom.
2: It’s hard (Repeat).
In an essay by Ty Clever entitled Ruin Bares Us: William Bronk and the Poetics of Demolition, he discusses the manner in which the poetry deviates from certain common assumptions: think “poetry” and its typical associations—lush language, music, metaphor, description—and you’ve just described everything a Bronk poem is not. However he see this as a benefit rather than merely a difficulty. But that’s precisely the reason we should be reading him. The value of Bronk is his relentless skepticism regarding almost all conventional poetic means. Or as Daniel Wolff puts it Whatever slight music these lines have is in the repetition …. (of) this almost clinical voice ... It’s the voice of someone who sounds like they’re looking at humankind from a distance.
3: The tone of voice
Christian Wiman in a Poetry Foundation article entitled The Drift of the World has an unusual description of the tonality of the poems: one tone that has no more range than the hum of the fluorescent lighting. That lack of range is an impediment if you read too many of the poems at one sitting, but read individually, or heard in Bronk’s resonant voice (two examples are cited below) where he sounds like an actor in a Beckett play, there is a wonderful suggestiveness in the tonal monotony. Daniel Wolff speaks of a flat declarative voice . The poems, as is evident below, move between the first person singular and the first person plural with a lugubrious insouciance. And that insouciance applies to the reader. In the poem below entitled Note For The Kitchen Table he says to those reading the poems Pass them on if you will or leave them unread./They speak of only what would still be there.
If that sounds portentous, it fits an established pattern. At times the portentousness of the utterances can be overbearing but, especially in the shorter poems, the flat statements can imbue the poems with a surprising resonance. Another poem, Bid, bids the reader to engage and then steps back : Come into the poem, reader. The door will close /itself behind you. You can leave whenever you will. It is as if the reader is almost an irrelevance. That monotone which Wiman identifies is often off-putting but, in small doses, as in many of the poems below, it has its own peculiar attraction.
4: It’s unknowable
Christian Wiman in the article noted above puts it like this: Bronk is all hedgehog. He knows one thing, which is that he does not truly know one thing. He sometimes seems determined not to be inspired. While he is constantly communicating through a cloud of unknowing or unknowingness, the poems themselves are not unknowable. Wallace Stevens, with whom Bronk has often been compared, begins one of his poems with a celebrated sentence, The poem must resist the intelligence/Almost successfully. Everything in Bronk’s poetry hovers around that “almost”. It is as if the poems interrogate the intelligence rather than resist it, as if the intelligence, while unknown, is seeking to become known. Interestingly Steven’s poem, Man Carrying Thing, ends with a couplet that could almost be a Bronk poem in itself:
We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.
There is no doubt that Stevens is more eloquent, more evocative, more imaginative and more popular than Bronk. Part of the fascination of Bronk’s poetry is the persistence, even in the face of the unknowable: It is by our most drastic failures that we may perhaps catch glimpses of something real, of something which is. (His account of these failures is from an essay Copan: Historicity Gone.) I began with a Beckett quote, so it may be appropriate to conclude with one: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Brief Poems by William Bron
Awake at night, I walk in the dark of the house.
Bare feet are quiet. The rooms are undisturbed.
What else had anyone’s days and nights been like?
I think, now, not any more than this.
Don’t remember; all this will go away:
the good, the bad, will go. We’ll go away.
And something already is that still will be.
I overhear the poem’s talk to itself.
Is that what it said? I write it down to try.
as we stretch
we push them
In cello suites we learn the way despair,
deepest sadness, can and must be phrased
as praise, thanksgiving. Of course we knew
this anyway but mightn’t have dared it on
And the way the sadness can be in part
to accept the absence of One to say it to.
I thought you were an anchor in the drift of the world;
but no: there isn’t an anchor anywhere.
There isn’t an anchor in the drift of the world. Oh no.
I thought you were. Oh no. The drift of the world.
One way I think we don’t exist
is that we would be such a strange thing
for it to use. What a strange thing it is.
Early, before the day has been, I know
the day. I lie with it in the unspoken dark.
Sometimes, I doze again to mark its coming.
I lie in bed
it may take some
getting used to.
but art’s desire
and life sees
and is drawn.
To live without solace is possible because
solace is trivial: none is enough.
What You Can Do
I used to think it was impossible with boys.
It is impossible with girls too.
Oh, you can do it but if you think that that’s what it is
you have to deceive yourself. It isn’t that.
Truth has a story it tries again to write.
Over and over again it writes it off.
There aren’t any stories that aren’t true.
Knowing your solitude is there,
my solitude consents here
not needing what it needs.
we stood at the door
of another world
and it might open and we go in.
there is that door
and such a world.
We learn not to expect so much of days;
even more, mornings are beautiful.
there is only the work.
The work is what speaks
and what is spoken
and what attends to hear
what is spoken.
The truth has many forms which are not its form
If it has one. What has a form of its own
Or, having, is only it? There is truth.
We need to separate ourselves from ourselves
to be ourselves. All that pain and power:
that isn’t us. All that busyness,
the alienation and hate, those love affairs.
People are passing; I look in passing at them.
Look, how the light comes down through them: they glow:
Once, I grasped at one. Oh, it was sweet.
It had nothing to do with me, or anyone.
Note For The Kitchen Table
I left the poems where you would find them.
Pass them on if you will or leave them unread.
They speak of only what would still be there.
Except from our
the brief world
is to us?
Come into the poem, reader. The door will close
itself behind you. You can leave whenever you will.
Watching the curve of the long line of your back,
desiring, I said in my mind that each of us
is alone forever, forever. We live with this.
You know, I am told my tenderness for you
is for me, really, that if I treat you gently, I replace
a harshness I suffered from, the roles reversed.
Poems don’t make by added post and beam
the whole barn or see the barn as built.
The most the poem can do is know within
itself, in a certain joint, this fits with that.
Coming to Terms
When I had love it felt like cigarettes,
like alcohol, it was like sleep.
Wasn’t it good. Now I still have sleep.
Life keeps hold of me now in its terms.
Howl, world, in your hurt: that certainty
always to bear, be born. Never to fail.
Hearing the wind, I hear the world’s wail.
Let me go sleep on it. Sing, sing.