William Bronk, a Neglected Master, by Michael Perkins

(In 1981, Michael Perkins wrote the following appreciation of William Bronk’s Life Supports: New and Collected Poems, which would win the 1982 American Book Award, later to become the National Book Award. In 1991 Bronk also won a Lannan Literary Award for Poetry. He passed away in 1999.)

Ever since I first read William Bronk’s poetry in his The World, The Worldless, published as a slim New Directions paperback in 1984, I’ve wondered why he is not better known, why his work is not widely read. I learned at one of his infrequent public readings that he was a masterful reader in command of a range of emotions; his powerful delivery never failed to move his audiences. Here was a poet of unique integrity and intensity who could yet be enjoyed by the intelligent non-academic reader on a number of levels; who wrote about matters that concern us all in plain, gnarled lines that often recall the sonorities of The Book of Common Prayer—language that didn’t need to be decoded before it yielded the essence of its meanings.

Thus the publication of Bronk’s collected poems, Life Supports (North Point: 1981) is an occasion for celebration, and an opportunity to study the life of a major American poet. North Point’s edition of Life Supports is a handsome volume, illustrated by Eugene Canade, designed by Martino Mardersteig and printed in Italy for a limited Elizabeth Press edition before the plates were given to North Point. It contains over 400 poems written over a forty year period and printed in almost a dozen small, elegant books by James Weil’s Elizabeth Press.

Bronk’s title, Life Supports, reminds us that poems may have an essential relationship with us in how we meet the vicissitudes of daily living, that good poetry has always played a role in helping people through good and bad times. Readers seem to demand this function from poetry in all periods; when, under the banners of various modernisms, poets stopped providing it, their audience started shopping for their poetic necessaries in record stores instead of book shops.

There seem to be two reasons popularly advanced for why Bronk’s work has heretofore gone neglected—two quibbles without substance that are more than answered by the publication of Life Supports. One is that Bronk’s work has not been easily available to the general reader because each gorgeous Elizabeth Press volume has been too expensive (at six to ten dollars) for the penurious poetry lover, and hard to find. The second has been a case of typecasting: Bronk has been accused of writing poems full of gloom, pessimism and despair, a charge as irrelevant as it is untrue, on the evidence of the collected poems now before us.

The truth about Bronk’s work is deeper and more subtle. Above all, he resists categorization, which may be why he is virtually unknown in university poetry centers. He was won no prizes, held no distinguished chairs, taught (formally) no students. He has worked all his life as a small town businessman and is as close to his Hudson Falls postage stamp of the earth as Faulkner ever was.

Bronk has puzzled critics with his stubborn insistence on being his own man, on establishing his own perspective, as in “The Abnegation” from his 1971 collection That Tantalus.

“Let me be unsatisfied. Hearing me scream,
spare me compassion, look instead at man,
how he takes handouts, makeshifts, sops
for creature comfort. I refuse. I will not
be less than I am to be more human, or less
than human may be to seem to be more than I am.
I want as the world wants. I am the world.”

It may be that Bronk’s undeserved reputation for gloominess is based on a sense of perspective so contrary to our expectations that the issue is not truth but comfortable assumptions. He is unsparing in his view of our vanities, as in “Where Are We” from The Meantime (1976).

“The biological life is not the life
of the universe. Is the large splendor of stars
only to ornament or illuminate
us? No, their life is the main show.”

This humbling perspective leads to an injunction that seems quite positive if we are receptive: “Watch, be aware. Time is the distances/of space. Look, look! It is all there.”

Bronk often writes meditations with an unexpected sting, but for him the world is as beautiful as it is terrible, and he is a celebrant of nature no less than Wordsworth, perhaps the best American poet of nature since Robert Frost. Still, his poetry embraces the chanciness of existential choice: everything in Bronk’s world is “as if”—aware that “whatever lives us” has its own imperatives.

In Bronk’s cosmogony each of us transmits light; in fact we are vessels of light. Our desire makes us glow:

“There are distant people nearby, and, not for them,
but in their presence we feel the force of desire.
Confused we turn to them and think it is ours.”

(That Beauty Still, 1978)

If there is a theme that might be called Bronk-ian, it is light, as he says in “The Annihilation of Matter” from The World, The Worldless:

“Would it be otherwise in a real world?
Who could answer? Here, it was always the light
that mattered, and only the light…”

In his love poems, The Force of Desire, Bronk returns to recurrent themes: light, love, and how we make it up as we go along:

“Whatever lives us contemplates a time
as if it were. If there were a future, it says
or a past…Pretends. Think about that.”

To think about Bronk’s world is to think conditionally: we know nothing until we have tried nearly everything. But Bronk is not presumptuous: he tells us that we live in a world we can never possess, and that we are the mediums through which life itself is made manifest. We are at once high and low, and we do what we have to do, a harsh imperative in itself.

In William Bronk’s Life Supports we are offered the ultimate support of a poetry that is full of the right kind of doubts about how to proceed with a certain burden of knowledge. Bronk offers us great lines and great poetry on each page of a book that will succor untold companies of the disconnected.

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