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Lyman Gilmore

William Bronk and Cid Corman

The following article will appear as a chapter in The Force of Desire: A Life of William Bronk, by Lyman Gilmore, Talisman House, Publishers, publication date January 2006. Talisman House is a part of the Acorn Alliance, 549 Old North Rd., Kingston, Rhode Island 02881-1220 USSA, phone/ 401-783-5480, fax/ 401-284-0959, Client Distribution Services phone 1-800-343-4499, Internet at
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In January 1951 William Bronk mentioned to a friend that recently he had received a letter from someone he did not know named Corman in Dorchester, a Boston suburb. Cid Corman would come to play a major role in Bronk’s life and work as both a valuable publisher and a longtime friend.

William Bronk

William Bronk, courtesy the William Bronk Foundation

Several weeks earlier Bronk had received two brief letters from Corman, one accepting a poem for the first issue of a new literary magazine called re-SOURCE, and another a few days later announcing enthusiastically that the name of the magazine had been changed to Origin. Corman’s Origin, which first brought Bronk’s work to the attention of the poetry world, was to become one of the most influential literary magazines in the 1950s and 1960s. Many major poets of the day appeared in its pages including Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Wallace Stevens, Richard Eberhart, William Carlos Williams, Richard Wilbur, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Paul Blackburn, and Louis Zukofsky. Corman included Bronk in the first issue of Origin and in each succeeding series of the magazine.

Corman, who lived in Kyoto Japan for many years before his death in 2004, became famous in poetry circles for forty years of Origin. Ann Charters says of Corman, ‘he did a great service for contemporary poetry in publishing the journal. Along with Creeley and Olson, Corman championed the ‘new’ American poetry, post-Willliams and post-Pound, and helped the new poets find their readers and each other’ [1]

In addition to being a publisher and translator, especially from the Japanese, Corman was one of the most prolific poets of the second half of the twentieth century, with over one hundred fifty published collections and by his own report ‘At least 100,000 unpublished poems piled up around me here, and all worth publishing — tho it won’t happen in my lifetime, of course.’ [2] Corman was sometimes considered eccentric, as much by himself as others: “I am a weirdo. But easy to get along with. A fulltime poet but without any means. No income, no pension, living — as always — in poverty. But the most productive poet in human history.’ [3]

Both Bronk and Corman have recounted how their relationship began. Bronk’s longhand entry in a 1979 spiral notebook at Columbia states:

When I was in my thirties, Cid Corman was starting his magazine Origin and at the suggestion of Sam Morse who knew my work he wrote to ask for some poems. I didn’t have to look far to find them; there was a ten-year supply on hand. Other editors had decided in those ten years that I had no place in their publications so I had no choice. And the choice of Origin was Cid’s not mine and an odd one I thought, finding myself with Olson and Zukofsky among others.

Corman’s description differs slightly:

In 1950 Bob Creeley had thoughts of starting a little mag (perhaps 32 pp) He asked me to help him assemble material. Samuel French Morse, a Fellow at Harvard at that time, used to meet me sometimes at Gordon Cairnie’s refuge for aspiring and established poets on Plympton Street just off the Yard, The Grolier Bookshop. He mentioned a former classmate of his at Dartmouth who wrote interesting poetry. It was in due time received and made a strong and enduring impression: the earliest work of his that appeared, the following year, in Origin (when Creeley’s venture failed to materialize). Creeley and I were equally moved. The poet, of course, was William Bronk. [4]

At the time Corman was quite visible in the Boston poetry world: ‘during my WMEX radio show (the first modern poetry show EVER anywhere — for three years — and it brought me in touch with everyone in the Boston-Cambridge area and those visiting)’ He was drawn to Bronk: ‘His work was open and lucid and unpretentious: very much my kind of thing.’ [5]

Perhaps as important as having a publisher, Bronk found in Corman a supporter. He had known little but rejection of his work since he had left Dartmouth thirteen years earlier, and he was pleased and encouraged when Corman enthusiastically wrote praising his work and reporting that he had promoted Bronk by reading his poems to individuals and the public in Boston.

Corman’s Origin #1 appeared in the summer of 1951, containing poems by Olson, Williams, Creeley, and Eberhart, among other less remembered poets, including Bronk’s friend from Dartmouth, Samuel French Morse. Bronk was represented by one poem, ‘Some Musicians Play Chamber Music For Us,’ listed in the table of contents simply as ‘Chamber Music.’ Corman printed little squibs after his authors’ names in the table of contents: ‘William Bronk is one of the most brilliant of the unknown young poets uncirculating. Origin intends to present as much of his work as possible, soon.’

Corman’s publishing of Light and Dark marked the true beginning of Bronk’s career. His poems had appeared in Origin and a few other places, but this first book was very significant to him. After years of frustrating rejections, he was proud and excited to finally have a volume of his poems published. Writing to his friend Elizabeth Clark on 30 January 1957, Bronk ebulliently tells her: ‘Buy the book with abandon and by all means. Give it away, but hoard a few. The edition was only 250 copies. If they don’t make us rich in our old age, what else will?’ More seriously, he explains how he arrived at his title: ‘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.” [6] Although light and dark, success and failure, had been the polarities of Bronk’s life through his first thirty-eight years, now, at least temporarily, light appeared predominant.

Cid Corman was William Bronk’s first public champion. After their initial contact in 1951, Corman published and promoted Bronk’s work for the next twenty-six years. Although supportive, he frequently challenged Bronk’s poetry and poetics. Their long and illuminating correspondence shows how Corman’s criticism stimulated Bronk’s forceful articulation of his intent and method. Of Bronk’s letters, Corman says ‘a beautiful correspondence (his letters to me constitute one of the most beautiful series in literary history and should be published).’ [7]

This correspondence between Bronk in Hudson Falls, New York, and Corman in Paris, Italy, and after 1958, Kyoto, Japan, of which more than two hundred and twenty five letters are publicly available, is not only ‘beautiful’ but also extremely valuable in understanding Bronk’s life between 1950 and 1976. Unfortunately, the correspondence is awkward to follow since Corman’s letters to Bronk are housed at Columbia University, while Bronk’s to Corman are at the University of New Hampshire at Durham. Bronk saved nearly all of Corman’s letters among his papers, which repose in his Columbia archive. In the 1970s, short of money, Corman sold Bronk’s letters to a New Haven, Connecticut, dealer, who resold them to UNH. Bronk was angry to learn that his private correspondence had become a commodity.

The tone of the Bronk-Corman correspondence, a combination of friendly praise and adversarial criticism, was established early. Voicing impatience that would become characteristic, Bronk complained to Corman about Origin #1, saying that Olson’s poems made no sense and that he was angry at Corman’s typographical errors in his, Bronk’s, poem. To which Corman replied 25 July 1951: ‘Your reaction to #1 is much harsher than I could have imagined. Of course we disagree on Olson; it seems profoundly. You seem to criticize out of a most inflexible position. The proofreading errors exist. I apologize for them. On this head, however, I think you get angry out of hand too.’ Bronk was not used to such opposition, nor to that in Corman’s letter two weeks later in which he refers to ‘Yr long letter,’ saying ‘I feel no rancor in the letter My feeling is that the only matters that have strained our relationship are the times when I have rejected things of yrs.’ Bronk had sent Corman a copy of an essay he had written on Whitman, and Corman took him to task for his inconsistency with quotation marks as well as his rejection of Olson. Corman speaks of ‘the core of your failure,’ saying, ‘My taste may be too broad, but isn’t yours too narrow?’

With eleven of his poems included, Bronk was happier with Origin #3 in the fall of 1951. On 4 November he wrote Corman:

III is a much better number than I or II. In addition to my own and Sam’s I liked Creeley’s story and respected Wilbur’s poem though I wouldn’t have written it — or called it that. A pointless comment I suppose but I mean that I am not in sympathy with it — or at all with McCarran.

(He is referring to Robert Creeley’s story ‘The Grace’ and Richard Wilbur’s poem ‘Speech For The Repeal of the McCarran Act.’)

Bronk’s contribution was an impressive display of talent for an ‘uncirculated’ young poet. In addition to work by Olson, Wilbur, Morse, and Creeley, Origin #3 contained these poems by Bronk: ‘The Various Sizes Of The World,’ ‘The Rain Of Small Occurences,’(sic) ‘The Tree In The Middle of the Field,’ ‘My Father Photographed With Friends,’ ‘A Winter Shrub,’ ‘The Mind’s Landscape On An Early Winter Day,’ ‘Certain Beasts — Like Cats,’ ‘The Self Encountered In A Dream’ (later reprinted as ‘The Other Person In A Dream’), ‘The Acts Of The Apostles,’ ‘The Summer Airs,’ and ‘Supper Time.’ All of these poems but ‘Supper Time’, which was never collected, appeared in later books: Light And Dark (1956), The World,The Worldles (1964), My Father Photographed With Friends (written by 1945 but not published until 1976), and Life Supports: New And Collected Poems (1981; republished 1982, and 1997).

In 1975, when Gist Of Origin was published, Corman and Bronk looked back over their twenty-five years of publishing history. Corman wrote in his Introduction to Gis t:

The third series (1966–71) ostensibly revolved around my own work, though the work of William Bronk is at least as conspicuous. Bronk, on the other hand, unobtrusively, as the three series developed, became, as he is clearly in this collection, the thread that binds all the issues together. Against his fixedness in Hudson Falls has been my movement around the world, so that Origin has had both the specific gravity of the local and the scope of the larger world community. Not that Bronk’s work is ever provincial, though more grounded in place than many readers realize. [8]

On 26 May, 1975, fifty seven-year-old Bronk wrote Corman:

The Gist in the mail yesterday, a big book. I have been pecking around in it — remembering things and not remembering, dissociating myself, feeling like an historical artifact but feeling slightly embalmed nevertheless. Well, we get older. My friend Elman [9] in a letter today says that’s all that’s left: getting older. I don’t think so. But I don’t often think about it.

In addition to its literary interest, their correspondence traces Corman’s frequent pleas of poverty and requests for money, which Bronk often provided. This financial element in their relationship began just weeks after their first contact. On 12 January 1951, Corman accepted more of Bronk’s poems, adding, ‘Tell me about yourself, if you wd.’ Two days later, having learned of Bronk’s lumberyard ownership, Corman writes: ‘Thanks for vital statistics.’ and immediately asks Bronk for money, ‘I’m as flat broke as anyone cd. be.’

Over the years Bronk gave Corman a considerable amount of money, more in fact than Corman estimates: ‘Somewhere between $3000 — 4500 in all. Several sendings involved and then it was hard for him and that was ok: I live unlike anyone you know — no income, no Social Security, no savings.’ [10] Corman was totally dedicated to poetry. While a cynic might note that his requests for money were often embedded in encomiums for Bronk’s work and affection for his person, it would be a mistake to believe that he took advantage of Bronk’s generosity over the years. Corman solicited money for his magazine from nearly everyone, including members of his own family. Bronk gave willingly. He may have enjoyed the praise, but he contributed what he did out of friendship with Corman and respect for the Origin enterprise. As the letters and the history of their mutual success attest, theirs was a symbiotic relationship, with Bronk’s getting as much as he gave, in twenty-six years of very effective exposure.

Bronk’s attitude toward giving Corman money is suggested in several exchanges twenty years into their relationship. On 22 January 1972, Bronk responded to Corman’s request with a check for $1000 and a note: ‘We haven’t done great deeds together but our separate lives, such as they are, have been more merged than separate for a long time, seemly then, we should share the purse.’ On 8 May 1972, he sent another check, saying: ‘You need; I have. That’s all.’ On 24 January 1973, Bronk forwarded another $1500, but then a month later, after yet another request, he said to Corman: ‘I have not calculated what I have sent you so far — nor do I mean to — what I have sent, I have sent because I wanted to and have no regrets. Now, I find, I don’t want to send you more. Who knows what is right?’ But then he offered to send more if necessary, commenting: ‘You are, after all, dear to me and your life is my life; I can’t finally refuse. Nor can I be less than honest with you. My gross salary is $9500 — not much as things go here today.’ In March 1973 Corman acknowledged Bronk’s decision not to give him more money, and then says, ‘could I have a final $1000?’ To which Bronk responded on 10 April, ‘I know I cut you off but even so: Should I send you something?’ Corman says yes, by ‘the quickest transfer,’ on 10 May. Bronk sends him what will be his final bequest, and Corman replies on 14 May, ‘So many thanks. It will take a month for the check to be processed.’

Bronk’s articulation of his ideas about writing in response to Corman’s criticism is a valuable feature of the Bronk-Corman correspondence. One of the most revealing instances occurred in the spring of 1961.

The exchange began on 4 March, when Corman wrote to Bronk saying, ‘I’ve seen no work by you for a long time.’ A month later, on 6 April, Bronk responded, describing another depressive period:

I did write you once in Japan when you first went there but I had no reply and decided that it never reached you and neither would a subsequent one. Then — or sometime after that I had a long period speechless and desperate. What is cause and what effect? Certainly associated with my speechless period was a succession of three people who professed to be enthusiastically interested in my work and then decided they wanted none of it — Sweeney at Harvard, Allen at Grove-Evergreen and someone at Beacon. I was hurt and bewildered and especially so since no one else seemed interested either But maybe that had nothing to do really with my silence. In any event I find I don’t need any of them. What I want to do is to write not to publish and I only ask that I not be silenced even if I am not heard talking outside of the room I am in. I was silent for a while. It was awful

Corman is conciliatory on 2 May saying that the letter must have gone astray, adding a sweet stroke, ‘Olson spoke kindly of you’. To which Bronk replies with renewed ebullience and several new poems:

I have to think about the fact that at a time when I am writing more frequently and fluently and exclusively than ever before, when I am living on and by and/ or what I am writing so that I can hardly read or give any mind to business or correspondence, or my garden I should be planting, at that same time I have less and less regard for the product of writing or the printing of it. Like a bridegroom on honeymoon and all I can think about is getting my nuts off this time and maybe the next time and the hell with all those other times which may have been good but who cares now? Or maybe not. I don’t know. I’ve never been a bridegroom on a honeymoon. Besides I’m not sure I’m rational

Three weeks later Corman begins positively, ‘Good to see work of yours again’ but then criticizes sharply: ‘The poems have an insistence that can seem strident en-masse there is a repetitiveness a tendency to dullness sets in, almost pompousness.’ There is no record of all the poems Bronk submitted at this time, but among them were those Corman selected for the second series of   Origin (1961-64): ‘Virgin and Child with Music and Numbers,’ ‘Skunk Cabbage,’ ‘A Black Clay Fish from Oaxaca,’ ‘In Navajo Country,’ ‘Tenochtitlan,’ and ‘There Is Ignorant Silence in the Center of Things.’ Since these poems that Corman included in a 1962 Origin are essentially affirmative statements, it is reasonable to assume that the poems he criticized as strident, repetitive, dull, and pompous, and chose not to publish, are other, more complex and skeptical poems that appeared in Bronk’s second published collection, The World, The Worldless, in 1964. A guess at which poems Corman rejected would have to include ‘Metonymy As An Approach to a Real World,’ which begins:

Whether what we sense of this world
is the what of this world, or the what
of which of several possible worlds
— which what? — something of what we sense
may be true, may be the world, what it is, what we sense.

This metaphysical complexity may be an example of what Bronk is talking about below when he says he and Corman are ‘on a different wave length.’

On 1 June, 1961, Bronk answered forcefully, defending his poetic style. He begins by distancing himself from Corman’s criticism: ‘I am content with your selection and your evaluation I trust you though I would more often than not be in disagreement — or perhaps more accurately out of phase — with you. On a different wave length so that we don’t even reach each other to disagree.’

Uncharacteristically, Bronk speaks of how he wants to affect the reader: ‘Of course, I am a little disappointed that I did not move you more. Whatever one’s approach to poetry, one intends openly or secretly to move the reader.’ He then launches into an elaborate defense of his method, picking apart Corman’s criticism, especially the charge that he is strident:

It is possible that I try too hard, or rather that it is wrong to give the reader an impression of great and unsuccessful effort. It has to seem easy or better accomplished. And ‘strident’ yes. It may seem that, though my own stridor doesn’t offend me; only other people’s stridor. If the poetry is ‘hurt by that search for, insistence upon, what you call a world’ in your eyes (or ears) — it isn’t in mine — Maybe I really consider the search — if that’s what it is — as more important than the poetry.

To Corman’s accusation that his poems lack music, Bronk responds, referring to an earlier letter Corman had written him from Paris: ‘Now we come to this music business. It is unnecessary to say that I am not against music, which I quite obviously revere. But poetry is poetry, not music. You evidently are still on the track you were on in Paris when you started talking about — did you call it oral poetry? I never was able to follow you there.’

Bronk asserts his poetic intention more clearly than ever before, that what he is after is not so much music as statements, the shape of the rocks as they lie against each other, as in the ancient stone buildings at Machu Picchu:

What I aim to do is to make a statement which has form which is composed of the contents of the statement. I am after ‘the weight, the texture, the strength,’ not of words, but of statements, something initially more static than you are, the shape of the rocks as they lie against each other not the sound they make as they tumble together. What was breath in your metaphor becomes rocks in mine to your great disadvantage but this is my letter and I’ll make the metaphors.

But just as he triumphantly declares his poetic creed, he tempers it with his usual self-doubts:

You may, of course, keep the others as long as you like. You may even on longer acquaintance come to love them. Or again, you may equally as well come to wonder, as I often do, how anyone could give them a moment’s attention. The really jarring aspect of their seeming worthless is that it is not most likely to occur to me when I am most despairing — and so attributable to the general despair — but when I am hardly despairing at all — and so likely to be an accurate discernment.

He addresses himself to criticism of his heaping statement upon statement, that it is his inevitable style:

The question of whether a barrage of statements etc. is theoretically open for me also. But as you notice, that’s where I place my stakes. This is not because I can defend it as a thesis or intend to. It is only my style which is inevitable to me and not consciously mutable. It is not for me to decide. It is you the reader who has to do this, although conceivably I could become so fed up with it myself that I would just stop. I’m sure I am often dull and my statements do sound pompous — may even be intended as pomp. ‘Others’ must look out for themselves.

Then he quotes a famous line from one of his most powerful poems, ‘Of The All With Which We Coexist’ ( The Empty Hands, 1969): ‘ I am the instrument of the world’s passion if I am anything at all. You also are such an instrument.’

Bronk deflects Corman’s charge that he is isolated and defends the world in which he lives:

My poetry does not exist in a world in which there are people who vote and make history. (If I misunderstand you, it is because I intend to.) There are many people in the world and if I assume that I speak for them by virtue of speaking only for myself it is because of the conjunction of two conditions:

1.We are encapsulated and remote from one another

2.We are interchangeable if not identical though we may appear different in different lights.

I think I might be perfectly willing to live in a world in which there were ‘others’ to whom it was possible to be related. But it is only in a barely perceptible way that I live in such a world. I have to give a faithful account of where I live so far as I am able. Not very far. But I can’t give an account of your world, or some other world which is not the one I see. If this sounds complacent to you, think of it as the complacency of a man whose parachute has failed to open but who is too complacent to start walking to safety in mid air.

This long letter is a Baedeker for travelers in Bronk’s world. It is also an eloquent manifesto of his poetic intent: what is important is his search for a real world. His method is to compose statements that fit together tightly like the stones in an Incan wall. Often he questions the quality of his work, but not when he is depressed. His inevitable style is to combine statements upon statements. He writes for himself and thus for everyone.

A second important statement by Bronk of his ideas begins in an unpleasant exchange with Corman during July 1966. After a long fallow spell in their correspondence, Corman wrote that he hadn’t heard from Bronk recently or seen any of his work. Bronk sent twenty poems, and Corman accepted all of them for publication, mentioning in passing that he has married a Japanese woman, Shizumi. In August Corman commented on the bleakness and isolation in the poems:

What you drive at, it seems to me, is not essentially different, say, from Beckett — though you are certainly gentler, milder, quieter. And the prevailing tone is towards a ‘decent silence.’ I think it is a ‘fact’ that such an attitude is impossible to anyone who feels the simplest everyday needs and has felt them from childhood. I think anyone who has found profound and mutual relation with anyone else cannot possibly be in such a position.

A newly married man, Corman is writing as someone ‘who has found profound and mutual relation,’ suggesting that solitary Bronk has not, and thus is deprived. Bronk is hurt by what he deems Corman’s ‘vituperative’ criticism, and Corman apologizes.

Then in early January 1967 Corman is again critical, this time of Bronk’s  repeatedly writing about ‘belief’ and ‘reason. On January 18 Bronk responds with a long, important letter. He writes at first of his emotional distress, then defensively about what he takes to be Corman’s ‘spite and cruelty,’ and finally with a brilliant testament of the philosophy that informs the powerful books of poems written in his early fifties, The Empty Hands (1969) and That Tantalus (1971).

He begins by expressing his vulnerability and self doubt: ‘I am glad to have your opposition to my poems more clearly stated in this letter though it comes at a time when I have ceased to be able to reply very adequately as I would like to do. I have less and less sense of myself as a discreet entity, and of ‘my position’ as even expressible in words let alone defensible.’ Then, from feelings of weakness, he accuses Corman:

When you have berated me as you have been doing now for several years, I have had no clue as to why you should berate me except from spite and cruelty. So I have been hurt and bewildered and unable to reply to you. What had I done to call out that response? I didn’t have any idea. And the fact that once (I had the old letters as evidence) you had found my poems to your taste made it only more puzzling. But this letter I had from you today helps me to know across what field we face each other from opposite sides. (Though as I said up the page a ways I don’t know anymore if I stand anywhere.)

Strong and assertive now, he attacks Corman on belief and reason:

Belief and reason. Yes, as you say, I am clearly doomed by my very approach. You know, maybe, someone who isn’t? But I’m sure you do know the old story of the inveterate gambler who was warned away from a certain game on the grounds that it was crooked and replied that he knew it was crooked but that was the only game in town. Belief and reason, God help us, are the only game in town. Who knows better than I know, how — so to speak — crooked they are. But this is what it is to be human.

Bronk rarely explicates his poems, trusting them to stand on their own. But here he alludes to a poem Corman disliked and scolds him for failing to understand one of his major ideas. The poem he refers to is from his collection The Empty Hands (1969):

                Let Go

The best model of the world is the world. How else?
It is not compressible or summable.
It equals itself in each of its disparate parts,
is not what exists, but what we say exists,
have said, said once, said there, could say, will say.
We understand it piece by piece, if that.

Something feels, or something makes us feel.
Are we apart from this, or part of it?
Something exists; but nothing else exists.
The world is postulate: it is not the world exists.
World lost, and we lost, too. Let go. Let go.

He explains:

We cling to an idea of ourselves and an idea of the world and are reluctant to let go even when the ideas are not really tenable any longer. If you have passed so far beyond this that the exhortation  ‘Let go’ no longer represents for you any conflict then of course this poem would seem trivial and unnecessary to you as it perhaps does.

We have a concept of ‘real’ and a concept of ‘true’ though we may find it impossible to put anything very big in either category and expect it to stay there. But this is what it is about — this is what confronts us — this is the face of the seam. ‘Others’ is a concept of the same sort and so is ‘I’ or ‘self’.

Bronk ends with a general statement about the essential meaning of his poetry, and with a terse challenge to Corman:

My poetry is about all of those things of which we have concepts but which we find non-existent or unapproachable, and about our experience of finding them so. It would appear you would like me to forget all about that experience — to mature out of it — as boys are exhorted to do — and go on to other things. But to me there are no other things to go on to and to pretend that there are would be the most desperate kind of evasion, the dreariest escapism and eccentricity. But, as you suggest, this gets me nowhere. I wish you joy in your antipodes.

Although Bronk and Corman’s relationship was occasionally adversarial, even at times angry, especially when Corman criticized Bronk’s work, still they remained long-distance friends whose exchanges could grow quite intimate, especially when Bronk had sunk into one of his depressions. For instance, in June 1968 Bronk wrote, ‘So much is lost in rage and despair, those terrible sins and I have no way from them.’ Corman answers with a kind letter and touchingly offers to send Bronk a Japanese toy. In response Bronk speaks of the toys he has brought back from his travels and comments that although rabbits devour his garden, he loves summer and its flowers: ‘Daisy, Yarrow, Queen Ann’s Lace, Red Clover, Vervain, a pink Thistle, Milkweed. I say their names to praise them. Corman, I say your name. Thank God. You’re there.’ To which Corman replies, ‘Nice to be feeding the rabbits; this may be your Buddhist ticket to paradise.’ In the fall, responding to Bronk’s feelings of paranoia, Corman sends a series of comforting messages: ‘Your letters are of singular beauty, and I am honored to be a friend.’ (9/10/68) ‘I who weep almost every night and much of the day and scarcely know why.’ (9/17/68)

In 1967 Corman did Bronk an enormous favor by introducing him to James Weil. Weil, whose Elizabeth Press in New Rochelle, New York, published Bronk’s work in beautiful editions for years, became until Bronk’s death in 1999 one of his closest friends.

Warm though Bronk’s and Corman’s friendship was, they met but twice, once through Corman’s effort, the other through Bronk’s. In a 2 May 1999 letter to the author, Corman describes his early visit to Bronk’s home: ‘I visited him in Hudson Falls long before it occurred to anyone else: he was virtually unknown — there was no book as yet My visit to Hudson Falls — hitchhiking to Canada — wdve  occurred in the summer of 1953 or 1954, likelier ’53. I was on my way to Toronto and Montreal to meet Canadian poets (a key event in the history of Canadian poetry, though very few are yet aware of it). I met Bill’s mother at the house, and we got along nicely.’ Bronk does not mention this visit.

Bronk’s visit to Corman is both stranger and more revealing. At the beginning of 1969 Corman had first announced to Bronk that he and his wife Shizumi were planning a trip to the United States, including a stop in Hudson Falls. On 4 October 1969, Corman concluded a letter saying, ‘We plan to visit you before Christmas of next year.’ Eleven months later, in August 1970, Corman gave more details of the imminent visit, saying they would be traveling near Hudson Falls on their way from Ottawa, Canada, to New York City, in mid December and again in mid January 1971. He offered a comment about what easy guests they would be: ‘We are very quiet people — my wife NOT an American person.’ On 24 October Corman wrote Bronk from La Jolla, California, saying they were looking forward to seeing him, and on 1 December he repeated this message from Canada. Five days later, however, Corman wrote, deferring their visit, saying they were flying directly to New York to stay with his younger brother Leonard and adding, ‘It does dismay me when you sound so low.’ (Bronk had frequently mentioned being depressed to Corman, as in this letter of 13 May, 1970: “ hardly know what I am from hour to hour Mornings or even earlier than that I wake up in dread and fear’)

When Corman wrote Bronk on 4 January to tell him they may not see him at all during their trip, Bronk tried to induce them to come, writing plaintively to Corman at his brother Leonard’s apartment at 11 West 9th  Street in Greenwich Village, ‘My first reaction was to try to get you here any way but I was not very resourceful I would like to see you.’ Corman replied with a postcard saying that he hoped to visit but might not. Bronk again implored Corman to come with Shizumi for a ‘rural landscape,’ and Corman responded by reporting that his wife gets ‘carsick.’

Having been friends for nearly twenty years, albeit at great distance, Bronk was saddened and hurt by Corman’s obvious avoidance. He had been looking forward to the visit for the two years since Corman had first proposed it. He could not understand why this man who shared his love for and commitment to poetry, who had over the years expressed considerable affection for him and his work, could be so dismissive. The actual reasons why Corman did not visit Bronk in Hudson Falls are not clear. It may be that it was simply impossible, considering the demands of his itinerary and the difficulty of traveling with his wife, that he in fact ‘couldn’t make it to Hudson Falls.’ Perhaps the depth of Bronk’s depressions ‘dismayed’ him to the point of apprehension at what he might find in Hudson Falls. Or is it possible that since their long friendship had been based solely on separation and the written word, Corman may have hesitated to threaten its durability with an unfamiliar intimacy and physical proximity?

Bronk’s disappointment might have been even greater had he known that after leaving New York City Corman and his wife intended to travel to Massachusetts and then to visit the poet Paul Blackburn at Cortland State College in upstate New York, not far from Hudson Falls. So rather than waiting any longer for Corman to come to him, he went to Corman.

Here is Corman’s description of Bronk’s visit in his Essay:

In the winter of 70-71 — staying with my younger brother — Dr. Leonard Corman — on West 9th in New York City — my wife and I came home to find a tall distinguished gentle-mannered figure graying at the sides waiting for us, addressing us by name. It was Bill: we hadn’t seen each other for most of eighteen years. I couldn’t make it to Hudson Falls and he made his way, instead, to us.     

I asked him eventually to read some of his poems to us. I had never heard him read before. It was an event. All of a sudden the inner drama, the contained dialogue, opened into its full dimension, its life. His resonant, carefully shaping voice moved into the words and through them shed new vigor. More and more the questions crop up, more insistent in recurring brevity and they won’t be put off. Not that there are answers. Whatever answers only lead back to more questions, themselves questioned. Staccato: as if the words were each a statement of uncertainty, the very principle and source of uncertainty. (67-68)

Corman’s account appears positive and pleasant. He may well have felt this way. However, Bronk’s response suggests that he was not only deeply hurt by Corman’s failing to visit him at home in Hudson Falls but that he saw it as a betrayal of their relationship. This presumed betrayal had a profound effect on Bronk’s always-fragile sense of worth, his desire to count, his often-unfulfilled need to be loved. The letter he wrote Corman after he went to New York contains three poems. While it is possible to read two of these poems as typical Bronk metaphysical observations, each contains a subtle and bitter subtext that relates to his disappointment and distress over what he saw as Corman’s neglect. Whatever else they express, the poems speak of the risks of falling for false praise and love, of the subsequent dissolution of self-respect, and the resulting confusion, anger and disgust. Bronk even plants a clue in the first line of the letter when he says about the poems, ‘then this struck me as very strange.’

Here is the letter that Bronk wrote Corman on February 22:

Dear Cid, So I came home — and then this which struck me as very strange:

                  What We Are

What are we? We say we want to become
what we are or what we have an intent to be.
We read the possibilities, or try.
We get to some. We think we know how to read.

We recognize a word, here and there,
a syllable: male, it says perhaps,
or female, talent — look what you could do —
or love, it says, love is what we mean.

Being at any cost: in the end, the cost
is terrible but so is the lure to us.
We see it move and shine and swallow it.

We say we are and this is what we are
as to say we should be and this is what to be
and this is how. But, oh, it isn’t so.

What a nice evening we had together and how nice you all were. Two other poems over. They confirm what you said about my internal conversations. To you, to your wife, to Leonard, My Love        B

That a poet for whom diction was an exact and exquisite instrument would use so banal a word as ‘nice’ twice in the same sentence suggests at the very least irony, and probably sarcasm. We cannot know precisely what Corman said about Bronk’s ‘internal conversations,’ but the meanings of this and the second poem clearly reflect Bronk’s displeasure at Corman’s comments.

One reading of this poem describes the loss of self that may be caused by the perceived betrayal by a trusted friend. The title statement ‘What we are’ becomes a question in the first line. How do we know what we are? Or, more personally, who am I? We try to figure it out; Bronk introduces a metaphor: ‘We read the possibilities, or try.’ That is, everyone thinks he can read, but it isn’t so easy. He injects three key words in italics: male, female, talent, and then jokes about how simple it seems, ‘look what you could do’ with these words. In the words we read for an answer to our question, ‘or love, it says, love is what we mean.’ One powerful way that we come to believe in who we are is by understanding and accepting the loving and praising words trusted friends use to describe us.

But what we crave at any cost is ‘being,’ some knowledge of self, of identity, as proof of our very existence. Like a dumb fish that swallows the shiny hook, we are lured to accept some recognizable identity of our self, and we are so attracted to its qualities, its movement and its shine (our friend’s expressions of praise and affection), that we swallow it whole. But this is dangerous. The cost is terrible if it should turn out that what I thought was my ‘being,’ the praise and love I swallowed about myself, is in fact wrong.

The final stanza expresses a devastating negation of the positive being in which one has been lured to believe and then found to be false:

We say we are and this is what we are
as to say we should be and this is what to be
and this is how. But, oh, it isn’t so.

A second poem enclosed in Bronk’s letter goes even farther in bitterness, and in the purposefully angry and scatological diction of its conclusion.

                   The Food

There may, perhaps, be other questions. Are
there? No matter: one asks, ‘Do we want a life?’ Not
‘Should we want?’ but ‘Do we?’ Well, the appetite.
To exercise it, not satisfy. The food,
to extend the image, well no, not the food;
but yes, all right, it feeds the appetite.
But the food! ‘Do you eat that?’ we ask ourselves.
Yes, I’m hungry, I’ll eat anything.

I haven’t any pride. I may have
about things that don’t matter or such
as make me pretend that things are not what they are,
as to say, yes, the food, it’s great food.
No, I don’t say that, but I do eat.
In silence or quietly. I eat shit.

There are lots of questions: Do I want to live? What is there to live for? Well, at least I have appetite, though never to be ever satisfied, just exercised. Bronk lets us know he is speaking metaphorically: I have this appetite for praise and love, or to extend the appetite/ eating metaphor, for food. But what food am I given! Slop! ‘Do you eat that?’ we ask ourselves./ Yes, I’m hungry, I’ll eat anything.’ I demean myself.

The speaker says he hasn’t any pride, except for things that make him pretend ‘that things are not what they are,’ such as saying the slop they feed me is great food. Well, he doesn’t exactly say that the food is great, but he does eat it. And how does he feel about himself?

In silence or quietly. I eat shit.

On April 6 Bronk wrote Corman in Kyoto, expressing the paradox he must have felt, that during the visit Corman appeared somehow absent, that they were on more intimate terms when far apart: ‘that you are back in Japan seems good. New York removes you somehow and you are closer there’ Bronk’s sadness about Corman’s visit to the United States stemmed from Corman’s evasive behavior, from the presence of Corman’s wife and brother during their single meeting, and from Bronk’s disappointment at having been passed by.

This visit and its immediate aftermath marked the beginning of the end of the relationship between Bronk and Corman. After the visit their correspondence noticeably cooled during the next five years, leading up to a final break in 1977. The ending of their relationship was as odd as parts of their friendship had been.

Late in December1975, Corman wrote Bronk a brief letter about a new project: ‘I’ve in the last few days found myself writing an extended essay on your work — which may appear as a small book. It has ‘come’ upon me unexpectedly and in the making of it I realize it has been ‘underneath’ for some time. It will be quiet — attentive — and I hope you will find it — as others I think will — warm.’ On 5 January 1976, Bronk responded, beginning with an observation about nature that may contain a subtle irony about their relationship: ‘On New Year’s Day as I was kneading bread in the kitchen I saw a possum walking slowly up the driveway and had never supposed that possums lived as far north as this.’ Then he gives Corman permission to write about him: ‘Of course, if you want to write about me, go ahead. Surely no one has known my work longer or closer.’ He closes by describing the new form in which he is composing: ‘Now I am in three lines instead of the previous four.’ Fifty-two of these triplets would be published in 1977 as Finding Losses.

A week later, on 11 January 1976, Corman mentioned that his book would be published by Truck Press in North Carolina: ‘The book in Wilk’s hands ‘about’ you is really more you than ‘about’: it says our relation as clearly as possible and hopefully will extend that relation elsewhere. I believe it is an extraordinary book and unique of its kind: but that is for others to discover and know.’ In May and again in July, Corman announced the book’s imminence, while again pleading poverty and asking for money. Finally, in August 1976, Corman’s William Bronk: An Essay was published. Bronk was not pleased.

Although he expressed his anger about the book to his friend Jim Weil, to Corman he was controlled. As he commented to Weil on October 14: ‘I finally wrote to Cid today a letter which I think was plainspoken enough to be detached and without rancor.’ [11] On the same day he sent Corman this:

I have been thinking a good deal about the Truck book which distressed me when I first looked at it. You know how I have always felt about the privacy of intimate letters and the publication of those in the book seemed a ruthless coarseness on your part if I had not authorized it or an equally coarse exhibitionism on my part if I had authorized.

The aim of any decent writer should be to live bare in the world except as some have used that bareness as a costume — there is that danger also. If we aim to be a plain man how plain can we afford to be? Doesn’t it entail a natural modesty which is lost if we are seen too plain?

Not able to answer these questions, I let them fade. Let anybody think what he wants to think. Honi soit, as a certain Henry was observed to have said. I think your motives were not inimical.’

Cryptically commenting on what has become of their relationship, he includes one of his three-liners that will appear in, appropriately, Finding Losses:

Not yet old, I turn away.
No, not away; or even turn.
I look. Nothing is what I see when I look.

Bronk’s harsh judgment prompted a hurt response from Corman: ‘Of course your word saddens me. At the same time you would be profoundly mistaken if you imagined anything but love as my motive.’

In fact, Corman’s Essay is so positive and loving as to be a panegyric, and it is difficult to understand the intensity of Bronk’s displeasure. The book is attractive in its small simplicity: six inches by six inches, one hundred nine pages, with a tasteful pale green cover enclosed by a thin black border and a half inch of white space. Nearly everything Corman says here about Bronk and his work can be interpreted as praise. For example, in the introduction Corman gracefully describes how Bronk’s world in Hudson Falls contributes to his work: ‘The quietness of his life — walking between home and work his mainstay — and his garden — the local canal and other sites — sounds through the poetry. Perhaps the very quietness of the life gives greater sonority to the poems of intense questioning — poems attempting to come to grips with whatever ‘a world’ might be.’ (p. vii)

The book presents chronological chapters on all of Bronk’s collections to date: Light And Dark (1956), The World, The Worldless (1964), The Empty Hands (1969), That Tantalus (1971), To Praise The Music (1972), the collections of essays, The New World and A Partial Glossary (1974), Silence And Metaphor (1975), and two books not yet published, The Meantime and Finding Losses. In each chapter Corman quotes liberally from the poems, adding positive comments of his own, as well as occasional passages from Bronk’s letters to him.

According to Bronk, these quotations from his letters were what so infuriated him. It is understandable that he would want to control details of his personal life. But apparently Corman had previously raised the question of quoting the letters, and while Bronk was not enthusiastic, he did not forbid it, as his own letter to Corman above suggests, and as does this passage from the introduction:

By and large — this book will allow the poet’s own words to reveal themselves — with occasional pointings from me to assist. Bronk himself has stated to me that he doubts that there is anything in his letters to me that adds appreciably or importantly to the work. In deference to him — I’ll quote from his letters to me sparsely and — of course — only when relevant to the poetry — or when something crucial is illuminated of his sensibility.

Although Bronk was irritated with Corman, their relationship did not end immediately. In early December 1976, Corman wrote announcing that he was trying to put together another series of Origin. ‘This is hardly a letter you need — but I’m forced to it.’ He had been offered a $4000 grant to revive Origin but ‘I can’t accept the grant unless I can somehow rustle up at least as much again. I need immediate response.’ Bronk declined the invitation. But in February 1977, Corman, irrepressible as usual, announced that ‘matching funds have come through the first issue will be out this fall.’ He asked Bronk to submit some poems. Bronk did so at the end of March, adding: ‘To me, I expect it may be like going back to some place I lived in or visited when I was much younger. Those can be strange and moving experiences; and for me, the years accumulate and I feel as I do when I open my closet and find it stuffed with dated and shabby clothes which nevertheless I still wear and don’t get rid of. So many of them.’

In one of his final letters to Corman, on 10 November, 1977 Bronk wrote,

Thank you for sending me the copy of the new Origin and I am pleased to keep my record straight and appear in one more series. How long ago it was when you started the first series and I think back to that time with wonder and something close to disbelief the way one looks at an old photograph at the bottom of a desk drawer: Is that me? The skeleton must be much the same but how the flesh changes and perhaps the psyche also. I was never the cheeriest person in the world but I do seem to get glummer and glummer.

Corman sent several letters to Bronk after this, but Bronk responded only once. His final letter to Corman was an impersonal note describing a disappointing visit to a poetry class at Dartmouth where ‘I found there is still no other interest in my work in Hanover. The Dartmouth library has only half of my titles and the bookstore none.’ He mentions that he is still running the family lumber business ‘though for no reason but indecision, and comments on his poetry: ‘I am working (when I do) in a twenty-line form on a rebound from the poems which had become shorter and shorter until it seemed they had gone quite far enough toward that kind of compression.’ His last words to Corman are, like his first, about poetry. Corman’s unanswered handwritten epitaph came on 13 November 1978: ‘Your silence lengthens.’

Twenty-one years later, soon after Bronk’s death, Corman continued to regret sadly that Bronk had failed to see his love for the work and the man in William Bronk: An Essay. On 30 March 1999 Corman answered an inquiry from the present author, ‘No poet has EVER responded to another as I have to Bill’s work.’ In a subsequent letter to the author on 2 May 1999, Corman continues: ‘Bill broke with me when the Truck book came out: 1976 (Sept.). We were in steady contact until then. The book is an obvious love letter — though he seems never to have cared to realize it — sadly Bill called me ‘ruthless’ (i.e. for using his letters so openly.) As anyone can see, the only person assaulted in the book is me. I cited nothing that wd hurt anyone else — or him. (AND I asked his permission to quote from the letters and had it.)’

Finally, Corman says of Bronk, ‘I regarded him as a great poet from the start and haven’t changed my mind on that score.’[12]


All of Corman’s letters to Bronk are in the William Bronk Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University. Bronk’s to Corman are the Milne Special Collections and Archives Department, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH. Reprinted with permission.

[1]  Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. V, Part 1: A-K, (Gale: 1980) p. 140

[2]  Personal letter to author, 3/30/99.

[3]  Ibid.

[4] Cid Corman, William Bronk: An Essay, (Truck Press: Carrboro, NC), 1976, v-vi.

[5] Personal letter to author 6/26/01.

[6] Columbia University, William Bronk Papers

[7] Personal letter to author, 6/26/01

[8] Cid Corman, The Gist of Origin, (Viking: NY), 1975, xxxvi.

[9] Richard Elman (1934–1997), snovelist, critic, professor.

[10] Personal letter to author, 7/18/01.

[11] Columbia University, William Bronk Papers

[12] Personal letter to author, 18 July 2001.

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