First, it’s hard.
Take the opening line from the opening poem of Bronk’s 1993 collection, The Mild Day. “It’s like going to Africa to live.”
What? What’s like that?
You can scan the rest of the short poem and never get an answer. Something is like going to Africa, and that something is the subject of the poem. You’re being asked to read on without knowing what’s being talked about.
If you continue, it doesn’t get easier. The language is plain enough, but the grammar can dizzy. The first eight lines of the opening poem form a single extended sentence that begins to fill in the simile (“like going to Africa”) with some details and modifiers. You’re told there are animals in this Africa and that they are “regardless of us.” What’s more, we are “not the life of the place.”
It’s a vague, generalized description, almost theoretical, with little of what you might expect from poetry: heightened language, extraordinary perceptions, empathy.
Then still adrift in mid-sentence, without a subject or many specifics at all, you’re presented with a comparison. Something is like going to Africa, which is like being “in the universe” where there are forces that are also “regardless of us.”
When the long sentence finally ends, a last line sums up how “we” react to this strange, nebulous situation. “Awed, we stand on foreign ground. We watch.”
That’s it: poem over.
Okay, so the first reason nobody reads William Bronk’s poetry is that it’s hard. The second reason is: it’s hard.
Beyond the structural difficulties of subject matter, grammar, modifiers, when the reader does manage to get a whiff of what the poems are saying, it’s not pleasant. They deliver what are commonly referred to as hard truths.
Take the fourth poem in The Mild Day, “Left Alone.” It gives the same disturbing sensation of not quite revealing its subject or its story. In the first stanza, an action is taken. Or more accurately, a declaration is made: “[W]e say what the world may be.” Simple enough. But by the second stanza, “something that needn’t even know we are there/ … sweeps it all away.”
A declaration is made (never mind what; you aren’t given that information), and right afterwards, it’s swept away. According to the poem, what we say doesn’t make any difference: “We are beside the point.”
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. That would be hard enough to hear. But having dismissed you, the poem goes on to brush off the dismissal in two words: “No matter.”
It’s a killer one-two-three punch: what you say about the world is beside the point, because you’re beside the point, and your being beside the point doesn’t matter.
It’s hard to hear anyone tell you that. Which leads to the third reason people don’t read Bronk: the tone of voice.
Farther into The Mild Day, there’s a poem only four lines long that begins with what sounds like a directive: “We need to separate ourselves from ourselves/ to be ourselves.”
Who is this authority who makes such a flat declarative sentence in such a flat declarative voice? There’s no intro, no seduction, nothing to make this medicine any sweeter. Whatever slight music these lines have is in the repetition, the absurdity of all those selves. But mostly there’s this almost clinical voice that you’ve heard in the earlier poems and that will continue throughout The Mild Day. And for that matter, throughout much of Bronk’s work. It’s the voice of someone who sounds like they’re looking at humankind from a distance.
Part of what may put you off is this “we” that keeps popping up. We go to live in Africa; we say what the world may be; we need to separate ourselves from ourselves. The voice in these poems is not only telling you what to do and who you are but seems to imply that you’re no different than anyone else. The flat, declarative tone lumps us all together in our common folly and desire and ignorance. In fact, the poems come awfully close to talking down to their audience. To read Bronk is to enlist – no, to be drafted – into an irrelevant army of fools.
And then there’s the problem of repetition.
Deeper into The Mild Day, a poem called “Simply Stated” begins:
People is all we are. Whatever we do
to one another or what is done to us,
things go back to what they were all along.
Here’s that same tone of voice, that same vague subject matter, that same almost matter of fact dismissal. You realize that even in this brief sampling of poems, you’re being dragged back over very similar turf. People are once again beside the point. What you do doesn’t matter. If you should commit to reading Bronk’s work, to struggling through the voice and the grammar in order to arrive at its hard truths, well, it seems to be the same truth, over and over. Bronk’s biographer, speaking of poems from this era, says “[M]ost repeat Bronkian ideas that become almost banal in their redundancy.” And this from an admirer.
What? What’s unknowable?
Look at the poem called “Miscalling.” Once again only four lines long, here it is in its entirety.
Everyday things – work, people – in fact are real. We sometimes ask if they are. They are. They’re not what we call them though but something else and not such that we can ever know.
If ideas can be Bronkian, maybe there can be Bronkian difficulties, too. They all seem to be here. The poem doesn’t appear to be about anything. It’s depressingly plain. It makes sweeping pronouncements – and you’ve heard these pronouncements before. Now comes the final obstacle. According to these four lines, 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.
So where does that leave the act of reading? Or put another way, why would you bother with a poem that insists what it’s talking about can’t be known? The crowning reason not to read Bronk is that he appears to be telling you there’s no point to it.
Except not quite.
Bronk believed enough in poetry to spend a lifetime writing it. By the time The Mild Day appeared, he was seventy-five. In the quarter century between 1956 and 1980, he’d published nine books of poetry and two volumes of essays. It’s true they hadn’t gotten much attention: all but two of them were brought out by Elizabeth Press, a small operation run by a friend. But in 1981, Life Supports: New and Collected Poems came out via North Point Press, a publisher with more national reach, and proceeded to win an American Book Award. Over the next decade, Bronk published another five books of poetry, mostly with North Point, until it closed. The Mild Day was his first book with Talisman House, where he would publish six additional volumes before he died. In this last period, though his health was failing and his readership remained small, he was more prolific than ever.
So why did he actively pursue the “miscalling” of poetry? Why construct these little-read poems and litter them with difficulties that seem to guarantee they’ll stay obscure? Certainly, Bronk was aware of these obstacles. Take The Mild Day as a whole, and its fifty short poems serve as a kind of explanation of what Bronk’s after and how he goes about it. Why nobody reads William Bronk turns out to be the reason he writes.
“Subject Matter,” for example, directly addresses what the poems often leave out. It argues that writing is just “easily erased” pencil marks, which will “fall apart as its writer will.” Poetry “means to note/ whatever doesn’t depend on any note/ or record the writer needs to make of it.”
So to Bronk, poetry is about what exists independent of writing. It’s about that something, that force, which sweeps poetry (and just about everything else) away. No wonder if he writes elsewhere in The Mild Day: “The noun pretends.” He isn’t really interested in things (including people); they’ll only fall apart. He demonstrates by having the things in his poems, the nouns, tend to be vague, to disappear into pronouns, to serve as similes for something else. It’s hard to follow poems built like this – hard to find anything to hold on to — but that’s because, Bronk argues, the world is hard to follow. “Symbolically,” he writes in another poem, “is the only possible/ way to deal with the real impossible.”
Even if you can follow, it’s difficult to hear these poems because they take away what you thought you had. As he puts the dilemma in “Terminology,” “Much has to be in our terms for us/ to see it…” People give stars and objects and other people names. They are “familiar things to make a world/ familiar to us.” But “Terminology” ends by declaring there’s “no support” for this familiarity. We’re only seeing what we’ve made up, only hearing the names we invented. If a poem helps us “get” the world, it’s a lie. ‘Cause the world isn’t gettable. To work the way Bronk wants a poem to work, it has to be hard — as hard as its unknowable subject matter.
As The Mild Day progresses, its apparently detached, almost scientific tone of voice becomes familiar. In “Not Yes Nor No,” Bronk talks about the consistencies within mathematical axioms — and argues that we believe them because we can prove them. “But truth?” he goes on:
. . . Truth we can’t
even formulate to begin to say.
Nothing we can prove or deny is truth.
Once again there’s that “we” and assertions about what “we” can and can’t do. But that’s because Bronk believes there’s a larger truth that encompasses us all.
Look again at that last line. “Nothing we can prove or deny is truth.” On the one hand, it seems to be saying that if we can prove or deny something, it isn’t the truth. It’s just terms and axioms that form their own logic. With the implication that we’re caught in a self-invented, self-deceiving reality. But the other way to read the line is as a positive statement. “Nothing we can prove or deny is truth.” The truth is out there; it’s that thing you can neither prove nor deny. And because truth is beyond our formulations, it joins us together. We share the same, unfixable quandary: not yes, nor no.
Behind Bronk’s deadpan voice, there’s often humor, warmth, even compassion. The poem about identity — where we’re told we have to separate ourselves from ourselves to be ourselves – lightens all this serious talk by having as its title the classic question from a knock-knock joke: “Who’s There.” And the title for the whole volume comes from a poem where Bronk comments on his perspective and his tone of voice. He wakes into this complicated, incomprehensible world and moves through it “bemused in the mild day.”
The deeper you go in the volume, the more you become acclimatized to Bronk’s methods. If the work seems repetitious – if it keeps coming back to the same dilemmas – that winds up being strangely helpful and comforting. Late in the book, when the poem called “Subversives” insists, “life doesn’t care/ what we do…” it’s not exactly news. Bronk’s been insisting from the start that “we” are not the life of a place. So when the idea comes up again here, it doesn’t produce the same shock. Instead, you can consider it – and move on to the poem’s almost tender observation that our unimportance leaves us “wanting.” You might even smile at the conclusion: “We conspire stories to tell about the world.” Instead of dulling perceptions, the repetition establishes what amounts to a secret language. There’s a conspiracy of meaning, and the more we read, the more we’re in on the joke.
Bronk’s term for the force which drives us to create stories, to try to figure things out, is desire. In “Love’s Averment,” he says he stands “secure” under “a covering canopy” of desire. And in “Acts of Devotion,” the act we’re devoted to is looking “for a shape for our desire.” To try and explain the world is to tell stories, to write poems. “How beautiful they are,” Bronk writes, “those shapes/ desire makes for itself.” That they are unknowable and a “miscalling” does nothing to lessen that. Poems are constructed to “praise/ the beauty of our desire,” even if that praise turns out not to be “true.”
Almost a quarter century before The Mild Day appeared, Bronk wrote an essay in which he tried to define poetry. And found it hard to do. The difficulty, he decides, is actually a clue. “[Poetry] is so central to the human experience that we are not able to think of everything it includes…” What we do know, Bronk says, is that we don’t trust it. He says our underlying and fundamental reaction to any poem is: “That’s not real; somebody made it.” But, he goes on, that implies that we think there is something real — and it “was not made.”
That something, Bronk declares, “is the subject of poetry.” Poetry can’t name reality because it “does not exist linguistically.” But poetry can approach it. It can use simile and metaphor to reflect what can’t be known. Which is why Bronk originally called this essay, “The Lens of Poetry.” “Poetry is about reality,” he writes, “the way that a lens is about light.”
By the end of The Mild Day, it’s as if these fifty short poems, these different lenses, have created their own shimmering environment. The last poem is called “Bare Boards at the Globe,” and it riffs on Shakespeare’s famous line, “All the world’s a stage.” For Bronk, the stage is empty. We aren’t players on it; neither is nature. “The deep earth and the even deeper sky,” he writes, “are sets not used …” What we have instead, the play in front of us, is the play of life itself.
It’s hard and repetitious and unknowable.
But, Bronk says, it leaves us with a job to do. It’s a now-familiar job. We recognize it from the first poem where, awed in the face of the African animals, “We watch.” And we find it in Bronk’s essay, “The Lens of Poetry,” whose title he would eventually change to “The Attendant.” Whether audience to an empty stage, or writer, or for that matter, reader, as Bronk says in the final sentence of The Mild Day’s final poem, “We attend.”
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Daniel Wolff‘s The Names of Birds is forthcoming from Four Way Books. His poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, The Paris Review and TLR. Daniel Wolff’s own Bronk poem will appear tomorrow, exclusively, on www.theliteraryreview.org.
This essay first appeared in Talisman House’s WIlliam Bronk in the Twenty-First Century: New Assessments, edited by Edward Foster and Burt Kimmelman.