Free of Our Humbug: Notes on Basil Bunting

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All through my twenties I read Basil Bunting with a kind of avid awe. The sounds and forms of his poems seemed to me at once remote and exemplary, too singular to learn from in any direct way, perhaps, and yet guiding examples nonetheless. I loved the aural imperative of the verse, which you hear before you understand, or which, in a sense, to hear is to understand. I loved the dense textures, the sculpted syllables, the way the lines seem almost to bristle with contempt for anything extraneous or merely ornamental. Most of all, I loved the way you can feel the form of this poetry, over large stretches of verse, the way it accretes without losing precision, is in some major way as abstract as music yet never loses specificity. You cannot exhaust a poetry like this:

   A mason times his mallet
   to a lark's twitter,
   listening while the marble rests,
   lays his rule
   at a letter's edge,
   fingertips checking,
   till the stone spells a name
   naming none,
   a man abolished.
   Painful lark, labouring to rise!
   The solemn mallet says:
   In the grave's slot
   he lies. We rot.

What I'm wondering, then, is why, at the age of thirty-seven, and not having read Bunting carefully for some years, should I have found making my way through his Collected Poems in the past few weeks so damned hard?

Bunting was born in Northumbria--Wordsworth country--but it took a long time for his life and work to find their way back there. (The best book on Bunting--indeed, one of the very best books on a single poet that I know of--is Peter Makin's Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse.) He had a modernist's life, in a sense--Paris and Rapallo, Pound and Eliot and Yeats, the range of languages and learning, the romp through cultures and times. He was in the mix.

And yet, in a way, he wasn't. Bunting's first substantial book didn't come out until he was fifty, so he was always a very marginal figure. Even more than that, though, Bunting was in life in a way that Eliot, with his fastidious repressions and deflections, and Pound, with his dogged intellectualization of everything, and even Yeats at times, with his masques and mysticism, weren't. Bunting had no time for theories, programs, or dogma of any sort and could be searing in his contempt of them. He lived and wrote very, close to the ground.

Close, but not rooted, at least not until late in life. Restive, self-educated, fiercely independent, Bunting lived with great range and at great risk. He worked as an editor, a sailor, a music critic; he was a foreign correspondent for the Times in his forties, a lowly proofreader for a provincial newspaper in his fifties. He lived at sea--alone--for a year. He went from serving rough prison time as a conscientious objector during World War I to being head of all British intelligence in Persia in World War II. It says something about his character that neither of these roles was out of character. Briggflatts, his masterpiece, and certainly one of the best poems of the twentieth century, is governed both by a contemplative quietism that Bunting associated with Quakerism and the violence that he saw both forging and deforming culture through the centuries. Can a meditation be both focused and raucous? That's what Briggflatts feels like.

To read Bunting is mostly to read that poem. He didn't write much. Even a casual glance at the dates of composition reveals long years of silence between poems. Pound's influence is everywhere in the early work, and there is very little that doesn't seem either merely precocious or massively pretentious. The series of "sonatas" that Bunting wrote from his mid-thirties on can be striking in random moments, and some of the brief odes are fully intact and truly beautiful. It's strange, though, how consistently provisional--or perhaps peripheral--it all feels, how there seems to be no coherent center from which the poems issue until Briggflatts--which, by the way, was begun when Bunting was well past sixty. …