Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Poems of Basil Bunting

Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Poems of Basil Bunting

Article excerpt

The Poems of Basil Bunting. Edited by Don Share. London: Faber & Faber, 2016. 624pp. ?30.

A few years ago I was shown around the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh by a friend, an object conservator there, who pointed to an elaborately carved Maori waka taua, a war canoe, hanging from the ceiling. The waka was made before 1827 in Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. When it first arrived at the museum, it was badly damaged and was kept behind the scenes, for years deemed too difficult for the public to interpret in its fragmented state. But recently the museum enlisted the help of Maori artist George Nuku, as well as a team of conservators, who rebuilt parts of the boat, most strikingly refashioning the missing stern using clear and colorless acrylic, carved to match the rest of the highly ornate patterning, to complete the object-make it interpretable, visible, as a canoe. The point of the project, as of much modern-day conservation, was to preserve the object and enable people to see it in its full glory. Rather than attempting to hide the marks of repair, and restore the object to an approximation of its former guise, these additions announce themselves as additions and present the history of the making, the breaking, and the remaking of the object. The repairs are also reversible, bearing in mind that future generations of conservators might adopt a different view on restoration and intervention. The resulting object was magnificent, beautiful, a little ghostly, and perhaps even greater than the sum of its parts.

It is this kind of attentive crafting, this meticulous and respectful work, that Don Share has carried out, too, in putting together his critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems. While we might not say that Bunting's oeuvre is in disrepair in the same sense that the waka taua was, Bunting is a poet whose modernist complexities have surely baffled his readers; his work can be difficult, fragmentary ("polyphonic" is a more positive term), paratactic, replete with obscure references to ancient and contemporary world literatures and historical events, peppered with arcane terms and various dialects and languages. Bunting spoke about his work infrequently, wrote slight, often mischievous or deliberately abstruse notes, and famously requested that his correspondents burn his letters, especially those that might reveal something more about his poems, or himself, than was there on the published page. Share's book is a work of conservation because it gathers, for the first time, material to supplement and elucidate Bunting's poetic oeuvre. It uncovers abandoned works, drafts, variant editions, as well as commentary from Bunting's published prose, private correspondence, and critical work on the poet. Furthermore, it offers, for the first time, comprehensive footnotes to all of Bunting's work, including Bunting's own notes. Like T. S. Eliot's modernist project for The Waste Land, Share shores these fragments, both preserving and bolstering them by pairing them with the poems, simultaneously aiding the reader in the difficult task of interpretation.

Scholars of Bunting's work have been troubled by his warnings and admonitions against certain kinds of scholarship that involve just such shoring of fragments. Warding off "industrious compilers," in 1977 he declined an invitation from R. B. Woodings at Faber & Faber to introduce a new volume of his friend Ezra Pound's work: "I'd rather leave the lid on my dustbin and the earth on my friend's graves." Pound himself appears to doubt Eliot's aim for The Waste Land, altering the lines in his own Canto VIII: "These fragments you have shelved (shored)." Pound implies that Eliot's project has been "shelved" or "shored"-the latter verb also means "to run aground." The shelving, I think, also and alternatively implies a mistrust of putting the vivacious, great works of former ages into books, to be filed away in dusty libraries. Similarly, Bunting spoke out against particular kinds of exegesis and had a strong antipathy toward academic scholarship and its shelf-heavy institutions (though he taught in several universities). …

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