A Fortnightly Review of
The Poems of Basil Bunting
Edited by Don Share
By ANTHONY HOWELL.
POETS MIGHT BE categorized as talkers, rappers, singers or intoners. John Donne, Alexander Pope and Ian Hamilton were talkers, as is Hugo Williams. John Skelton was a rapper. Sir Thomas Wyatt, Manley Hopkins, Edith Sitwell and Dylan Thomas were singers, while Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound were intoners.
Obviously a poet in one category may share qualities with another category, so Skelton can also be a singer, when he uses “Rhyme Royal”, just as Wyatt can also be a talker. Basil Bunting intones like his master, Pound; but he can also sing. With singers, sound awareness is not just a matter of matching up the words at the ends of lines via rhyme. The whole poem is a resonant pattern of sound: vowels chime as well as rhyme. Consonants deliciously accumulate. “Quantity” is used in contrast to “quality”. This is “singing” in the poetic sense.
Under sand clay. Dig, wait.
Billy half full, none for the car.
Quartz, salt in well wall,
ice refract first ray.
Canvas udders sag, drip,
swell without splash the mirage
between islands. Knee-deep
camels, lean men, flap-dugged
matrons and surly children.
Aneiza, kin to the
Unawed dynast haggling with God.
This brine slaked him as
this sun shrinks
— 1965 (from Second Book of Odes)
Bunting can seem archaic, his poems are often too “wrought” – which is not the same as overwrought.
THE COLLECTED WORKS of poets come in all shapes and sizes. Ian Hamilton’s, edited by Alan Jenkins and published by Faber, is compact to the point of seeming terse, with a short but concise introduction and a two page note on the text. This would be a pleasure to review. Jenkins points out how little Hamilton cared about his own posterity:
From one point of view, Hamilton’s apparent lack of concern for his own poetic posterity looks wilful, even reckless, like his daily consumption of nicotine and alcohol. From another, he simply, complicatedly, refused to play the reputation game, to ‘fabricate’ poems or ‘pretend something was a poem when (he) knew it wasn’t…’
There’s no introduction at all to the collected works of Ron Padgett. The poems are just given plenty of space to breathe in an elegant edition published by the Coffee House Press. But then, the poet is still alive. Introduction, editorial and exegesis attend upon mortality.
As for these poems of Bunting, edited by Don Share, well, it’s like being asked to review the Bible. At 571 pages, it’s a tome. The copious annotations begin on page 275, and the textual variants on page 475. There is an ancient, bearded photo on the front cover that serves to reinforce the poet’s affinity with Pound. T. S. Eliot found Bunting’s poetry “too Poundian”. Still, with this volume, he has now achieved Faberian immortality. It is however interesting to note that The New Yorker captions a photo its review of the book under discussion by saying, “Basil Bunting’s poem ‘Briggflatts’ has been hailed as the successor to Ezra Pound’s ‘Cantos’ and T. S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets.’ Bunting himself, meanwhile, has been almost forgotten.” I have heard that another “almost forgotten” poet, F. T. Prince, whose work I greatly admire, was “hailed as a successor” in similar fashion. Collections of both poets were ultimately rejected by Faber — though Prince had initially been favoured.
In wartime, I guess, Prince’s Catholicism was not as fashionable as Auden’s social commitment. And while Bunting’s collection was rejected by Eliot in 1951, we might bear in mind that The Pisan Cantos was awarded the first Bollingen Prize in 1948 – and this caused a great deal of controversy. Pound was only released from incarceration in 1958. Despite his splendid war record, being “too Poundian” may have counted against Bunting in more ways than one.
OF COURSE MY GRAPES are sour when it comes to the lionising of poets. I cogitate on the industries which, since time immemorial, have accompanied, and shored up, the reputations of poets. Homer’s work had already spawned a sizable industry even in the classical era. Dating from the 7th century BC, the thirty-three Homeric hymns appear to be a genre inspired by the Iliad and the Odyssey that persisted into Hellenic times and maybe even later. While the two great epics were probably the culmination of a tradition, Homer, as a personification of that tradition, was seen as divinely inspired and, as The Macrohistory and World Timeline has it, “The Greeks would study Homer like Jews would study the Talmud.”
The industry surrounding Dante Alighieri has been so prodigious that, along with the Petrarch industry, it established “courtly love” as the overwhelming sensibility of the late middle ages. It’s not really the case. Completely overshadowed by Dante and Petrarch, there are the Sonnets of Cecco Angiolieri (ably translated by C. H. Scott and Anthony Mortimer – and published by One World Classics). Cecco has the temerity to suggest that it is advisable to only love those who are truly fond of you. His wonderfully burlesque poems are full of brilliant jokes and should be as celebrated as the ballades of Francois Villon; but though Rossetti included a few of them in Dante and His Circle, Cecco remains buried beneath the sprawl of Dante with his unrequited guff.
The Joyce industry is sponsored by Guinness, of course, or is it the other way round? And Faber does well out of the Eliot industry and the more recent commerce surrounding Plath and Hughes. Bunting himself contributes mightily to the Pound machine, and he does have a wonderful poem, “On the Fly-Leaf of Pound’s Cantos”, that brought tears to Ezra’s eyes (according to these annotations):
There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?
They don’t make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb
jumbled boulder and weed, pasture and boulder, scree,
et l’on entend, maybe, le refrain joyeaux et leger.
Who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is
There they are, you will have to go a long way round
if you want to avoid them.
It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!
Pound himself said, “Basil wrote a small amount of extremely good poetry, some of which I even remember.” The remark is astute, and expresses perfectly how I feel about it.
FOR ALL MY GRUMBLES concerning the launch of thousand PhDs, this volume is very good fun. At the foot of each right-hand page, there is listed the number of the page where its annotations can be found, along with its textual variants. This makes the comments and anecdotes associated with each individual poem simple to find and the variants easy to compare with the finally approved text.
I was reminded of Pale Fire, the novel by Vladimir Nabokov, which is set up as a 999-line poem written by one John Shade, with a foreword and lengthy commentary by a neighbour and colleague of the poet. The reader pieces the narrative together by comparing the text of the poem with its commentary. The novel spawned its own literature of exegesis and was a forerunner of the games novels of today.
It is in a similar way that the editor provides us with the text of the poems and, in a miscellaneous way, a portrait of their author. Bunting’s own comments are printed in bold. He’s referred to as BB – which throws me a little, as I associate these initials with a French film actress popular in the sixties.
BUNTING SAW HIMSELF as aligned with the innovations of Pound and Zukofsky. What does he bring of his own? For me it’s his interest in dialect and Early English verse – which is expressed most fully in “Briggflatts”. The poet saw himself as a Northumbrian, with a truculent reiver mentality that paid scant regard to the “Southron” establishment. This may be why his heroes were American. There’s a rich literature associated with Northumbria, which can claim Caedmon and Bede among its ranks, and poems such as “The Pricke of Conscience” and the book of mystical history known as Cursor Mundi. Northumbrian vowels elicit different rhymes to the literature of the South. Bunting has pointed out that Wordsworth had a broad-vowelled Cumbrian accent fellow romantics found difficult to understand.
But then we should also recall that Keats would have recited his own odes in a Cockney accent. Bunting became friends with Tom Pickard, and had always celebrated the poetry of the working man, as in such poems as “Gin the Goodwife Stint” and “The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer”. This complaint demonstrates a knowledge of what may be referred to as “labouring class poetry”. Thomas Tusser’s “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry” – written in the sixteenth century, is a precursor here, though Tusser was in fact a chorister and a courtier before he became a farmer. Three centuries later, John Clare, James Hogg and Robert Burns prove in this regard to be the tip of an iceberg. Coming to the fore in the eighteenth century, labourers inspired by the muse who were far more popular in their own time than they are today.
Today they are all but forgotten. Stephen Duck the thresher, for instance, the son of an agricultural day-labourer who rose to prominence at the court of Queen Caroline. He was the Elton John of his time. “The Thresher’s Labour” is a descriptive poem to rival anything by James Thomson but it has a down-to-earth realism that heralds the upsurge of a working sensibility. And what of Edward Chicken, who wrote “The Collier’s Wedding” – as raunchy an account of a couple getting spliced as was ever penned? Bricklayers, footmen, weavers, they all wrote stunning poetry, and many were befriended by Pope. The women among them – lady’s maids, actresses, charwomen and washerwomen – were the pioneers of women’s rights – names such as Jane Holt, Mary Collier, Mary Leapor and Elizabeth Hands should be far better known than they are. Bunting, it is clear, was as aware of this labouring tradition as he was of the poetry of Northumbria.
And while many of these poets wrote within the strictures of the established verse of their time, there were others who celebrated their own dialects – Robert Burns, famously, and the learned William Barnes (not a labourer but a Dorset poet who was a tutor to Thomas Hardy). Theirs is a tradition stretching back to Beowulf, and Early English; a tradition augmented by the Norse sagas and the border ballads and that Northumbrian dialect Bunting celebrated and saw as the root of his own vocabulary.
“BRIGGFLATTS” IS THE MATTERHORN. Gone are the mannerisms of Bunting’s apprenticeship: the phrases reminiscent of the way Pound might conclude a snide portrait in Personae, the fusions of word with word that works for Gerald Manley Hopkins but not for the aspiring Northumbrian. Bunting denigrates form in the poem – harking back to an earlier versification crying/before the rules made poetry a pedant’s game – but his poem is nevertheless very finely crafted. The stone-mason’s chisel is a leitmotif accentuating this; indeed, the work, which Bunting describes as an autobiography, continually contrasts a sense of crafting with the sweetness of love-making. One gets the sense that throughout his life he wrestled with these twin desires, the wish to find love and the wish to find the poem.
Bunting described “Briggflatts” as a poem that reflects, fragmentarily, my whole mind. Completed in 1965, it is still a resolutely modernist work, a mosaic – it needs no explanation. Being naturally garrulous, as far as I can make out, he could not resist doing quite a bit of explaining. But I resist delving too deeply into his view. Think of the savage wrenchings and ructions of Picasso, or of Gertrude Stein’s repetitive yet melodious obscurities. There are too many glosses to The Waste Land, and Don Share’s annotations of “Briggflatts” persist for thirty-three pages — which is longer by a third than the poem itself. Yes, it’s meticulously done, but does it merely serve to “make sense” of it all? Didn’t modernism choose to tear up narrative, do away with sense, question the transparency of figuration?
I prefer to revel in the juxtapositions, the violent Eric Haraldsson contrasted with the saintly Cuthbert; opposites clashed together as jarring colours might be in a collage. I enjoy the way in which, as with the interlacings of the Lindisfarne Gospels, every intricacy is interrupted by another, as if the microscope had taken us down to a deeper layer, where we witness the atomic dance – within the letters of that sacred text, within and between the words of Bunting’s poem. The poet himself recognised that poetry and music are both the children of dancing. In Peter Bell’s moving film about him (available as a DVD from Bloodaxe), he talks of a naturalist he knew who had seen the great apes dance.
It is verse that celebrates the tangy vocabulary of specifics – grommet, halliard, fipple, skillet. The words have a taste on the tongue. And, although a mosaic, it certainly makes more sense recited. Poetry, like music, is to be heard, the poet said, locating himself within an aural tradition that surely Skelton was also a part of, despite his being a favourite at the court of Henry VIII.
THERE IS A Quaker meeting house in the tiny hamlet of Brigflatts in Cumbria. Bunting first visited this remote place when he was twelve, and “Briggflatts” is dedicated to Peggy, who was his childhood flame. In Bell’s film, we join Bunting at a meeting of the Friends in that meeting house. Unless the spirit moves, they sit in silence. The spirit may move them in the silence. The friends make sense out of silence, as the listener may make sense out of a sonata by Scarlatti – in meditation, poetry and music there is more to sense than explanation.
I’ve discovered that I went to the same school as Bunting – Leighton Park, a Quaker school near Reading. Bunting talks about how difficult it was for the youngsters to sit in silence for an hour. At school, that silence lasted only half an hour, but my what fidgets we were! I have also taught Creative Writing (for what it’s worth) at Wormwood Scrubs – where Bunting was incarcerated during WW1 for being a “conchy”. Thus personal interlacing links me to a poet I have always cherished. Bunting took up arms against Hitler, having distanced himself from the maniacal ravings of Pound, and he served in intelligence. Rumour has it he was a spy. Assigned to Iran, because of his knowledge of classical Farsi, which wasn’t much use in a contemporary context (as he recalls in biographic sketches), for some three years in the 1950s he was the Times correspondent in Teheran. One of his accurate reports prompted a vengeful mob to seize him.
As the fanatics shrieked “Death to Bunting!” outside the hotel where all the foreign journalists were sheltering, the Times correspondent was nowhere to be seen, but when questioned afterwards said he had been amongst the mob waving copies of his paper and yelling “Death to Bunting!” as vociferously as the next zealot.
—”Nothing else worth speaking about”, by Neil Astley; Bloodaxe Edition of Briggflatts
ASIDE FROM “BRIGGFLATTS”, what I most admire of Bunting’s oeuvre are his “overdrafts”. These versions of the work of poets he was moved by never fail to achieve that rare alchemical change — a fine poem in one language becoming a valid and vibrant poem in another tongue.
Horace, the Persian poet Firdosi (author of the Shahnameh epic), along with other Persians, Rudaki, Manuchehri and Sa’di, come alive in English, thanks to these overdrafts. I particularly enjoy his versions of Horace and Rudaki’s Lament in Old Age, in which the poet bemoans the fact that he was very much a success while he was young and good to look at but:
Times have changed. I have changed. Bring me my stick.
Now for the beggar’s staff and wallet.
Strikes a chord!
The editor prefaces the annotations to these overdrafts with a note by Bunting on translation:
It would be gratuitous to assume that a mistranslation is unintentional.
A good translator intends to make the same impression on his readers as the original poet made on his. He will not employ archaisms unless the original employed them, which is hardly ever the case. He will employ anachronisms as often as seems needful to avoid the kind of obscurity that gives footnotes an excuse. He will never write as the contemporary of an antique original but will try to make an antique original write like the best of our contemporaries.
A poet, however, is concerned only to make a good poem. He owes no fidelity at all to former poets, They are all to be pillaged and altered at discretion since all alike, we share the legacy. They are in any case out of copyright.
BY INCLUDING ANYTHING and everything Bunting wrote about his poems in the annotations, we get to know a lot about the man through Don Share’s painstaking scholarship and his discreet editing. He limits his introduction to supplying further biographical and bibliographical information rather than foisting his assessment of the work on the reader. One fascinating section, on the editing of this volume, provides insights into Bunting’s punctuation which was often inconsistent, wilfully omitting apostrophes and inventing contractions. This is as far as I can see as much evidence of the modernist impulse to “make it new” (in Pound’s phrase) as the imagism stripped of connectives. A freedom to punctuate according to the needs of the expression was part and parcel of vers libre. The poem thus became a wholly new object; its look on the page a matter for the poet to make his own.
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here.
Note: Edited after publication to correct a formatting error.