Life Supports: New and Collected Poems
By William Bronk
Original Publisher: North Point Press
Current Publisher: Out of Print
Scott Challener writes:
When asked how he felt about receiving the American Book Award for Life Supports: New and Collected Poems, William Bronk said: “That prize, so far as I was able to see, actually did nothing for me.” Today, twenty-nine years later, nearly twelve years since his death at the age of 81, it seems Bronk was clairvoyant: no one I asked had heard of him. Bronk was born and died in his family’s house near Hudson Falls, New York. He left only to go to college (Dartmouth), serve in the army during World War II, attend graduate school (Harvard, briefly—he dropped out), and finally, to teach (at Union College, for a year); after his father’s death he returned to take over the family business. Yet Bronk’s second collection, The World, the Worldless (1964)—published with the help of his friend, George Oppen, and Oppen’s sister—was reviewed in daily papers around the country, and at one point Bronk’s stature was such that the The Nation could name him “our most significant poet.”
In Life Supports Bronk didn’t tell the truth slant, he told it on a grid. The collection is divided into eleven sections, each titled after individual books (he published at least 28 books, 10 alone in the 1990s; if you read Life Supports without knowing this, as I did, you may feel that each ‘book’ feels more like a section of something larger). “To Praise the Music,” the sixth, comprises poems in fourteen lines, some sonnets. “Silence and Metaphor,” the seventh, poems of eight lines. “Finding Losses,” the ninth, quatrains. “The Force of Desire,” the tenth, perhaps the most lyrical, is a series of discrete, titleless, closed tercets. I expected and half-hoped the last eponymous section would dwindle away to epigrams and one-line aphorisms, but it is in twenty-line poems.
An exchange between Bronk and George Oppen about Bronk’s poem, “Displacement: The Locks of the Feeder Called The Five Combines” might help to explain why Bronk’s work remains so little known. Here’s the poem:
The Feeder falling, its lock-walls crack, as once
their gates would open while they held fast against
the barges bumping, washing water. Now,
they tumble, going the way the water went
and had to go, though locking west, uphill,
seemed sucking upward, always it was down.
The cracks are puzzles, like natural apertures,
corollas of flowers, caves where, looking in,
we look for something that happened, and hold our breaths
on the hoped-for chance it should happen again as we look.
We inspect how nearly, with our never knowing, stone lay
against another, their two sides faced to fit,
and fitting all that dark, long time
when what seemed surfaces was always depth,
and look in there as into empty rooms
in ruined cities, not quite imagining
what life they ever held, such as it was,
no vivider than ours, grown indistinct.
But more to marvel at than this is the freed
courage of cut stone, the assured assumption
devised to convince our minds, as it always does,
that cutting, facing, piling stone is a way
to meet reality, impress it, that what
our forceful show has dealt with here is the same
reality that years of cutting stone
or moving water have failed to bring us to.
We know all this—our pledge of debt
to evasiveness—that almost everything we do
is beside the point: as though our courage were that
we give an answer, however irrelevant,
not having willed to answer the questions risked.
We sham responses. The shunting details pretend
another question. We are displaced. We bear
ourselves as into a house across the street
and live as though a neighbor’s life until
we ready a death there and bear him away
and bury him. And what of it was ours?
We invented for him the whole of the tangible world,
the birth and death and all such things as we found
distracting to do, as cutting stone, the skills
to lay it close. I hurt for the double waste,
the falling ruin of all the uselessly built,
and turn for nearer home—I covet it,
though no one there and not the sill of a house.
In a September 2, 1964 letter to Bronk, Oppen wrote that he thought the poem would have been “so absolutely conclusive, so absolutely beautiful” if the last eighteen lines (beginning with “We know all this—”) were cut. Oppen wrote that these lines sounded “a little professorial” and implied that they felt less necessary, less original, less magical, and less powerful, than the first twenty-six. “How should I not be grateful for the worth of your criticism,” Bronk responded the next day.
And you are esthetically unassailable. Indeed you don’t go far enough. I know I am frequently sententious and tedious as even Polonius hardly dared to be.
I tried the poem as you suggested and it makes a valid and effective unit and is more vivid. So why not? Well, I hadn’t finished when I got to “have failed to bring us to.” A weak defense but all I have…
Bronk never changed the poem, and it is still worth reading. But readers might agree with Oppen. Bronk’s poems frequently do not end soon enough; they do not resist closure or their own intelligence almost successfully. Nor do they take advantage of partiality—of the magical power of the unfinished, of gesture and suggestion, of the unsaid and the unsayable—in ways we might be familiar with from reading Oppen or Stevens, the poet with whom Bronk is most often compared. In “The Unsaid,” for example, Bronk writes: “Once we have in mind / what there is to talk about, whatever we say / is all right; it doesn’t matter what we say / or even if we don’t find anything to say.” Bronk’s poems nearly always go beyond poetic endings to intentionally unpoetic (or less poetic) ones, in which a determined self concludes, or finishes, what it has to say.
Bronk rarely edited or revised his work: he thought that such “improvements” were betrayals. In the letter to Oppen he admits, “I think Eliot was wrong to let Pound improve and make The Wasteland by his excisions, making a poetically valid piece from his discursive excursions as though mining diamonds out of the mud—(as one is led to believe he did)…But Pound was probably right. As you are probably right. But that doesn’t make me wrong.” And so he willfully wrecked a lot of otherwise beautiful poems because he wasn’t “finished,” he wasn’t done saying what he wanted to say, and since the difference to him between the sayable and the unsayable was so minimal, or so minimally important, he kept going. The force of poetry to him exerted merely another bewildering force, be it of emptiness and desire, joy and despair, or even wonder: however it shaped the poems was how it shaped them. Poetry was for Bronk a way to say what one does not know; at its best, like reality, it was “brought to mind by the inadequacy of any statement of it, the tension of that inadequacy, the direction and force of the statement.” He didn’t think that what made a work of art beautiful was any more worthwhile than what made one ugly. We take to what is beautiful “our naked pleas,” he writes in one poem, even though the beautiful never responds, being neither of us nor made by our efforts. The truth was something else, more and less than the experience of the poetic or the beautiful, than diamonds in the mud, than even mud. One late poem reads: “If you want, now, not to say more, / I’m ready. Little things: what / else was there ever of all there was to say?”
For Bronk a poem was neither a pheasant nor a perception, but what Stevens thought a poem was not: a conception of the mind. For these reasons, among others, I find the comparison with Stevens—which to a certain extent Bronk invited— misleading. For instance, Bronk’s “On Credo Ut Intelligam” might be interesting, companionable even, next to “The Snow Man”:
Let me not have a life to look at, the way we look
at a life we build to look at, in the world belief
gives us to understand, a snowman life:
hurry to pack it solid, buttons on
and a proper hat, finished before dark,
before the rain to wash it away.
Bronk seems to write with a mind predisposed to perpetual winter, always wary of the temptations of the snowman life. Early in Life Supports he declares: “It is this winter mind, the ne’erdowell / that finds a plan, that tells us to see. / And we open our eyes and feel our way in the dark.” Yet Stevens could almost be addressing Bronk in “Gubbinal”: “Have it your way. // The world is ugly, / and the people are sad.” In fact, in “The Abstract As Real—Concrete As Imaginary,” Bronk writes: “How ugly the world is / and no one to set it right: it is as it is.” There’s no essential gaudiness, no gaiety, and little color in Bronk’s work. If there are fictions, even bold ones, Bronk always takes pains to make them unsupreme. The trees he writes about so consistently throughout his work could never be junipers shagged in ice—only, as he writes in “Green as a Verity,” the trees “are not the point”—a confirmation of his singular belief in nothing, the same eradicating thoughts, the same central terminus: desire. At his gaudiest, Bronk’s dying elms are “gray-groined.”
Though spare and bleak, Bronk’s poems are not quite so reduced as I’ve implied. While an early poem of Bronk’s dismisses the sun as “an intruder,” a “suborner of earth from truth,” toward the end of Life Supports Bronk could profess to be “dazzled” by its “chastity.” Some of the poems in Life Supports are memorable; most are worth reading and arguing with. We don’t need to turn to them for gaiety or color—we have Stevens for that. We can read Bronk’s poems for what Oppen saw as their absolute originality, for their moments of desiring and magic, their poignant longings for connection and wonder. And we can skip the clunkers. Because it is really true in Bronk’s case that he was trying to write one poem, called “the truth” or “reality” or “the world.” Though he knew it was impossible, he still wanted to drill down as far as he could go. In “The Mind’s Limitations Are Its Freedom,” Bronk declares: “I stand in awe of the mind,” but his awe derives from the fact that the mind can sense its own “final uselessness” and yet still produce a kind of helpless, uncontrollable “wonderment.” The pots and pans and tulips in Stevens’s poem of life would be what Bronk calls in “The Disproportions of Desire” “…the nameless things…not worth wanting.” “But oh,” he confesses,
I wanted the day as much as though
great things had been possible; I knew they were not.
How should we ever go on except for desire,
or more, except that desire were disproportionate
to its means, its object and, at last, to anything here?
Scott Challener teaches writing in Boston University’s Writing Program and Metropolitan College and Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies, and he volunteers for PEN New England’s Prison Writing Program and 826 Boston. He holds an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers. His work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Narrative Magazine, The Rumpus, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. (Photo credit: Thomas Gearty)
Poetry Finalists that Year:
- A.R. Ammons for A Coast of Trees
- John Ashbery for Shadow Train
- Douglas Crase for The Revisionist
- Daniel Hoffman for Brotherly Love
Poetry Judges that Year: Philip Booth, Robert Creeley, Linda DeLowry-Fryman, Robert W. Flint, Inge Judd, Frances Lindley, John Frederick Nims, Alice Quinn, Louisa Solano, Richard Weaver
The Year in Literature:
- The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
- Anthony Hecht was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.
- William Bronk (1918-1999) was born in Fort Edward, NY.
- After attending a semester of graduate school at Harvard and teaching at Union College, William Bronk decided to temporarily manage his family’s coal and lumber company. He ended up running the business for over thirty years.
- William Bronk profile at PoetryFoundation.org
- AUDIO: William Bronk Reading from his work
PennSound - Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing
- Bronk's 1999 New York Times Obituary
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