Whenever anyone mentions William Bronk, they usually preface the word poet with obscure, or little known, or forgotten. Bronk—born February 17, 1918; he died in 1999—is apparently read so rarely that Daniel Wolff’s piece on him in last spring’s Literary Review was called “Why Nobody Reads William Bronk.”
“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.
Not the sort of ethos that sends readers running out to bookstores. I remember reading printouts of Bronk’s poems in college alongside work by Robert Creeley and Charles Olson. I ended up with books by Creeley and Olson on my shelf (not, to be clear, that I reach for either of them on a regular basis) but no Bronk. If you’d asked me why, at the time, I didn’t cotton to him, I would’ve probably said something glib about not needing any more Wittgenstein-type headaches in my life and then gone off to smoke a bowl.
I gave Bronk a second look, as I’m sure a number of other readers did, when he figured in Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 last year. Lerner’s narrator is searching for a gift for an old mentor, Bernard, and he decides on a collection by Bronk:
Wallace Stevens, I remember Bernard telling me on another occasion, had heavily influenced two poets Bernard particularly loved: Ashbery, whom everyone rightly celebrated, and Bronk, who was largely unknown. Ashbery wrote in color, Bernard said, whereas Bronk wrote in black and white; Ashbery embraces Steven’s lushness, whereas Bronk stripped it down, as if Stevens were being translated into a limited vocabulary. As a result, Bronk’s poetry as suspended between philosophical heft and an almost autistic linguistic simplicity, a combination that, I must say, had never really worked for me: I’d read all his books out of a sense of duty, but I was usually bored or unconvinced by the affect of profundity. But now, when I found Bronk’s selected poems on one of the shelves and opened the book at random, the power of it was all finally there, finally real for me.
As proof, Lerner’s narrator cites Bronk’s “Midsummer,” which begins:
A green world, a scene of green deep
with light blues, the greens made deep
by those blues. One thinks how
in certain pictures, envied landscapes are seen
(through a window, maybe) far behind the serene
sitter’s face, the serene pose, as though
in some impossible mirror, face to back,
human serenity gazed at a green world
which gazed at this face.
You can read the whole poem here. It sits in that sweet spot between the lapidary and the plain, and it makes a great case for Bronk’s necessity; “to Bronk,” Wolff writes, “poetry is about what exists independent of writing. It’s about that something, that force, which sweeps poetry (and just about everything else) away … Behind Bronk’s deadpan voice, there’s often humor, warmth, even compassion.”
Later in 10:04, the narrator attempts to forge an email from Bronk. “Did Bronk even have e-mail?” he wonders in an aside. “Probably not.” A safe assumption, to go by this interview conducted toward the end of his life:
Are you familiar with the Internet, the World Wide Web?
I know there are such things. My archives at Columbia and the University of New Hampshire are indexed on the Internet. From time to time somebody will say to me, “Oh, I saw one of your poems on the Internet the other day.” I don’t know who put it there or why.
I don’t know, either. But I’m glad it’s here.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.