In Under Briggflatts, Donald Davie declared that Thom Gunn has a public, whereas Basil Bunting has a following. That the former may no longer be guaranteed might have been confirmed with the recent news that August Kleinzahler has had to step in and buy the deceased Gunn’s library, because no-one else wanted to. But those who might have constituted Bunting’s ‘following’ might have been surprised to hear Richard Burton’s exhaustive new biography of Bunting, being discussed on Radio Three’s flagship arts programme, Night Waves. Perhaps more surprised to find ‘The Poet who Hated’ as the tagline atop one of ALDaily.com’s columns, when Matthew Sperling’s Literary Review review of this biography was linked in to the website. And if the spikey poetry of Britain’s last major high modernist still remains a coterie interest, then a biography of the great man is likely to remain such, too. Perhaps that will all change when Faber finally publish Don Share’s long delayed Complete Poems.
If that poetry often seems spikey and difficult, as if shouldering the reader away, then the person who produced that writing was clearly even more so, particularly in the first half of his life. The man whose wife leaves him part way through her pregnancy with that man’s child (the son, Rustam, who died before Bunting ever met him), can’t have been easy. And Burton produces a number of comments from Marion Bunting, his American first wife, which show, from her point of view, just how difficult Bunting was. For most of his marriage to Marion, the family finances were sustained by money sent by his wife’s father sent each month. In 1934, when his father-in-law had brought off a land deal, Bunting wrote to Pound, ‘To celebrate [the land-deal], he deducted the cost of Xmas presents for the children from the monthly cheque.’ At this time, Bunting seems to have lived a life of parallel penury and spendthriftedness: taking taxis when there were buses and travelling first class by train when there was a third class. It is clear that, until the beginning of the second world war, and usually deep in family life and commitments, Bunting made few attempts to find real work, even when provided with a range of introductions; as Pound gave him when Bunting went to New York.
He was a man who seems, from an early age, to have made an equal art out of biting the hand that fed him. This started at school when Bunting appears almost systematically to have squandered his chances of a place at Oxbridge. When his first major poem ‘Villon’ won the Lyric Prize in Poetry in 1931, after considerable personal lobbying by Pound, Bunting wrote to the editor, Harriet Monroe, explaining that the money had gone ‘some way towards paying the expenses of my daughter’s birth, arriving the same day’; but quarrelling with the judges by saying that Zukovsky should have won the prize. Bunting’s fulminations against T.S.Eliot fill more pages in the biography than it is possible to summarise here; at one point he compares Eliot unfavourably to Kipling, and calls The Criterion ‘an international disaster … blunting the English intelligence as systematically as the quarterlies of a century ago.’ So when Eliot, at Faber, turns Bunting down finally in 1952, one wonders why Bunting is surprised!! And Eliot was only one of many on whom Bunting turned his excoriating critical pen. It was a practice Bunting continued well into his seventies; Burton quotes a letter from 1970 which virtually attacks the Arts Council for giving him a grant!!
The sense of deliberate waywardness changed with the outbreak of the Second World War. Bunting ‘rushed across the Atlantic’ from New York to enlist. And he did so, after having been turned down by the Army and Navy on grounds of ill health and poor eye-sight, and only after memorising the sight test for the Air Force. After stints in Hull and Scotland where he was involved in the operation of barrage balloons, he sought and was given a position in Persia. Here, for the next ten years or so, with a short stint in Italy, he was, more or less ‘Our Man in Teheran’. His knowledge of medieval Persian meant that, initially, he was better at communicating with local tribesmen than with the inhabitants of Teheran. Bunting had ‘a good war’; and, like others, it seems to have brought out the best in him; as a more than capable administrator, and, as someone who made contacts easily and effectively. At the end of the war, Bunting became The Times correspondent in Iran. In both those situations, it’s clear that Bunting worked long hours for not very much remuneration.
It was during that period that Bunting met and married the fourteen-year-old Sima Alladian. She wasn’t the first fourteen-year-old with whom he’d had a relationship, as Burton tells us of a fourteen-year-old secretary whom Bunting had fallen in love with in his time in Hull. And one of his comments to his first wife, Marian, was that he wished he’d met her when she was ten years younger i.e., in her early teens. In his sixties, he rekindled the relationship with Peggy Greenbank which is at the heart of Briggflatts, a relationship of two pubescents. Burton shows that Bunting was deeply in love with these young women. When Sima broke off the relationship, at one stage, his secretary locked his small arms away. But official attitudes to the subsequent marriage were just as censorious as we might adopt today.’
After Mossadeq threw him out of Iran, Bunting converted the car The Times had provided him with so that Sima, pregnant with their second child, Thomas, could lie across the back. Then Bunting drove them from Teheran to his mother’s house in Throckley. Burton makes rather less of this astonishing journey than Keith Alldritt in his biography of Bunting; and that seems like an opportunity lost.
The marriage to Sima and the return to the North-East at the start of the fifties with their two children was the start of period of extraordinary poverty for Bunting. At first, he couldn’t get any work, and since he’d lived abroad for most of his life was not eligible for monies from the newly instituted welfare state. And his previous employers, the Foreign Office and The Times also did nothing to help; for which Bunting mercilessly satirised the editor, Hugh Astor, in Briggflatts. For most of this time, Bunting’s family lived with his mother and for some of that time at least, they owed so much money that his mother’s house was under threat of repossession. It’s quite clear from Burton’s book that Bunting was the absolute opposite of work shy at this period, finally getting menial work as a copy editor at a local printer’s and eventually moving onto the Newcastle Express.
In the sixties comes the legendary, fateful meeting with Tom Pickard, that led to Bunting’s writing Briggflatts and the publication of that and most of Bunting’s other verse by Stuart Montgomery’s Fulcrum. The reviews for these books are somewhat ‘over-enthusiastically’ reported by Burton. But the net result was that Bunting was suddenly catapulted into the position of Grand Old Man of British poetry. None of which did an awful lot for his finances, and the university posts he gained in America were always temporary and the fees tempered by the demands put on him. Famously, his ‘lecturing’ was to read chunks of his favourite poets out loud to his students. And August Kleinzahler, who attended Bunting’s classes, notes that the classes got smaller, and ended up in his bungalow! But that was nothing to the scrapes he repeatedly got into with staff in North American universities.
Finally, one simply wonders ‘why’. It’s not enough to erect over Bunting’s epic life, the tag-line ‘The poet who hated’. Though it’s certainly true he had little time for poets normally placed in the Pantheon. When Robert Lowell wanted to visit Bunting, Bunting read through as much of Lowell as he could get hold of and found, ‘…not a single poem worth a damn.’. He found Geoffrey Hill ‘empty’. When asked to judge the Arvon Poetry Competition, in the 1,800 entries he was asked to read, Bunting found five lines that he liked.
The question has to be asked where all this stemmed from. Some have speculated that Bunting might have been bi-polar. And perhaps it is the way of the early twenty-first century to turn to the pharmacopoeia to provide answers. That seems like a question that Richard Burton can’t answer in the midst of this magnificently researched book, which is clearly a labour of love. Burton tells a complicated tale mostly clearly and mostly well, and this is ans near as we are likely to get to being a definitive biography. In the early chapters, Burton is often too keen to show all the research he has done and we meet characters such Graham Wallace, who was clearly an exceptional lecturer at LSE. There are also moments where Burton is far to keen to throw in wild interpolations, such as, ‘Is it an exaggeration to suggest that Mossadeq’s expulsion of Bunting and the refusal of The Times to support him set back diplomacy for sixty years in what I’m afraid we still call the Middle East?’ But this is a good book about a man who was a character on a gargantuan style, of a kind it would be difficult to envisage in the early twenty-first century. And finally we are left with the poetry, of which Donald Davie also said, ‘Briggflatts is where English poetry has got to, it is what English poets must assimilate and go on from.’ It is certain that Bunting will be with us in a hundred years time; as he write in ‘On the Fly-Leaf of Pound’s Cantos’, ‘There they are, you will have to go a long way round/if you want to avoid them.’