The Poems of Basil Bunting edited with and introduction and commentary by Don Share.
In 1952, Basil Bunting visited T. S. Eliot with a view to getting Eliot to publish his Poems 1950. This volume had been published in America by one of Pound’s acolytes, Dallam Flynn, although Bunting had little involvement with the book, as much because Bunting was living in Teheran at the time. The book contained a strange introduction written by Flynn, part of which was an attack on John Berryman. Flynn was described by Pound’s daughter, Mary, as ‘mad as a hatter’, and Bunting himself told Dorothy Pound that he was completely baffled by the introduction. He also told Victoria Forde that the introduction was ‘florid, effusive as John Barrymore.’ That introduction and Bunting’s refusal to withdraw it, out of loyalty to Flynn, was one reason why Faber and Faber refused to publish the book in the UK. Another reason was Eliot’s own opinion that Bunting was too influenced by Pound and that ‘there wasn’t sufficient divergence to really justify [Bunting’s] being published by them.’ And Eliot rejected him again in 1960. Eliot did, also, tell Bunting that his poetry was ‘good, some of it very good indeed, and writing [sic] is clean and workmanlike with no fluff.’ However, as Bunting’s recent biographer, Richard Burton points out, Bunting had never fought shy of criticising Eliot, calling The Criterion an ‘international disaster’. And Michael Schmidt has suggested that Bunting’s poem ‘Attis, or: Something missing’ satirises Eliot as a eunuch.
That Faber are now publishing Bunting some sixty-four years after their initial ‘rejection’, and publishing Bunting’s complete oeuvre in Don Share’s wonderful variorum edition is clearly to be welcomed. And, although Share doesn’t add much to the poems we’ve had for some time in the Oxford/Bloodaxe editions, his meticulous scholarship, and excellent introduction to the publishing history of the poems, means we can now see the writing in the context of their production. By this, I mean the ways in which Bunting worked his poems; as, in the commentaries on the poems, Share introduces Bunting’s own commentaries on the forms and functions of the poems. And Bunting was not shy of talking about writing; famously writing about the ‘metric of the ear’ and that ‘poetry is sound’.
Which is, as they say, true ‘up to a point, Lord Copper’. When Bunting wrote the introduction to the Fulcrum Press Collected Poems, he commented that he had learned from poets including Horace, and others such as the Persian poets Manuchehri and Ferdosi. Bunting published a number of versions of Horace, including a poem with that title. Bunting was a great student of prosody and would have ‘listened’ to the quantitative metre in Horace. That study sometimes leads his poetry up certain cul-de-sacs, as quantitative metre, the measuring of syllables in terms of length and weight, doesn’t work with the prosody of contemporary English(es). And some of the early ‘First Book of Odes’, such as ‘to Helen Egli’ which begins ‘Empty vast days built in the waste memory seem a jail for/ thoughts grown stale in the mind, tardy of birth, rank and inflexible:’ use patterns of long and short syllables which may seem odd and costive to the contemporary ear. And yet this oddness doesn’t seem to affect the writing of other poets he cites in that introduction, such as Edmund Spenser, who would have been just as, or even more, familiar with these Latin metres as Bunting himself.
So there is quite a lot of Bunting’s writing which will strike that contemporary ear as resolutely minor. But what Bunting does with this ‘sharp study and long toil’ of prosody is to produce the marvellous long poems, or, as Bunting calls them, ‘sonatas’, of which the most famous is ‘Briggflatts’. These sonatas all contain varieties of form, from his first long poem ‘Villon’ with its burst of pseudo-ballad, to Briggflatts which Bunting said contained ‘an undisciplined and indiscriminate use of Cynghanedd’, the Welsh prosodic form. This prosodic form is in its own way related to the alliterative forms of Anglo-Saxon prosody.
What all this means is that, to state the obvious, Bunting is not an easy poet. His writing is dense and costive. It is writing which also requires its own ‘sharp study and long toil’. And that also implies that it might be a slightly acquired taste; a taste which varies from reader to reader. Roy Fisher chose ‘The Orotava Road’ for a small anthology he produced of his favourite poets. Written when Bunting was living in the Canary Islands, it is, perhaps, one of Bunting’s more immediately accessible poems. It begins ‘Four white heifers with sprawling hooves/trundle the waggon./ Its ill-roped crates heavy with fruit sway./The chisel point of the goad, blue and white,/ glitters ahead,/ a flame to follow lance-high in a man’s hand/ who does not shave.’ Don Share’s notes reproduce Bunting’s comments when reading the poem that it was written ‘to see how much I could annex of Dr Carlos Williams’s early technique about the year 1935.’ Share also reproduces Bunting’s comments on living on Tenerife, a place he hated; which is odd, considering that this warm, observant poem written in a version of Williams’ stepped line, shows a writer who looked at and absorbed his surroundings in detail. And leads to the question of what Bunting might have done if he had chosen to write more in this mode.
But Bunting is clearly a restless technician. Looking at the collected poems, we can see how he moves from one mode to another in the short lyrics. And this restlessness culminates in his masterpiece, Briggflatts. Share notes that, while composing the poem, ‘he would try out a number of lines and expand these into sections of verse. Then he would rewrite the sections, incorporating revisions, and in some cases cancel the earlier sections. When a section had been finished, a new one was begun and worked on. At times, he drew scansion marks above or near certain lines.’ During its composition, Bunting remarked to Roy Fisher that ‘The music is complete; all I have to do is to make adjustments to the content.’ And one of the best ways to appreciate Briggflatts is to listen to one of the recordings Bunting made of it, in his gruff Northumbrian tones.
Briggflatts consists of five sections ranging over episodes from Bunting’s ‘autobiography’, but don’t go looking to this work for confession. Bunting is too elusive, and allusive, a poet to offer easy revelation. Even the first section, with its recall of a childhood love affair, places childhood sexuality within a context which includes the killing of the Norse king, Bloodaxe, the work of the girl’s father, a stone mason, and landscape of the Northumbrian fells. The poem goes on to describe an existence on the edges of Grub Street London, a kind of ‘exile’ in Italy, the journey of Alexander the Great across the then Persia to meet the Angel, Israfel, at the top of the mountains of Gog and Magog, via the Welsh bards Aneurin and Taliesin, to include the sheepdog trainers of Newcastle. And the poem ‘ends’ with a sense of nostalgic regret for what might have been. Into all of this, Bunting threads allusions to Byrd, Scarlatti and Monteverdi and Schoenberg. It is a poem which received very mixed reviews on publication. The big reviews in the Observer, Guardian and TLS were uniformly sniffy; its publication came at a time when Larkin held much sway in British poetry. But those whose tolerance of Poundian modernism was greater, such as Cyril Connolly in the Sunday Times, called it ‘one of the best poems I have read and re-read for a long time.’ This collection of Bunting’s poetry and Don Share’s meticulous editing of them will keep us reading and re-reading the poems for a very long time.