An English Objectivist? Basil Bunting's Other England

By Seed, John | Chicago Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

An English Objectivist? Basil Bunting's Other England

Seed, John, Chicago Review

The publication of Basil Bunting's Briggflatts in 1966 was quite simply one of the most important events in postwar British poetry. And there was a Chicago connection: the whole poem first appeared in the pages of Poetry (Chicago) in January of that year and was only published in book form in England some months later. With Bunting's Collected Poems two years later the main body of work of one of the generation of interwar modernists was finally, and belatedly, made available. If for some Bunting was no more than a minor disciple of Ezra Pound, an outdated exotic unassimilable to the English cultural environment, for a new generation he provided an important link to the American successors of Pound and Eliot. As Alan Brownjohn ruefully commented in 1968: "Basil Bunting has come to have, for the States-oriented intellectual wing of the Sixties avant-garde, the English Black Mountain Poets, something of the status and influence that William Empson had for the Movement...."

Though he had developed some of the key elements of his own poetics independently, Bunting remained in many ways a man of the literary generation of the 1920s, a proponent of the kind of poetry represented by Eliot's "The Waste Land" and Pound's early Cantos or "Homage to Sextus Propertius." He continued throughout his life to praise Pound as the master craftsman of modern poetry. "He made himself, early in his career, one of the most consummate masters of the technique of versification that our literature has ever seen," Bunting wrote in 1932.(2) And forty years later, despite their profound political differences, he was still praising him as the greatest poet of the twentieth century, recalling "the rice-pudding poetry on sale before Ezra Pound restored crispness and density to English verse."(3)

Bunting's idiosyncratic publishing history testifies to the vital supporting role that Pound played in his survival as a poet. His first collection, Redimiculum Matellarum, was privately printed in Milan in 1930 and its impact in Britain was, unsurprisingly, zero. Over the next few years his work was generally published under Pound's auspices. He was, for instance, generously represented in the latter's Active Anthology, published by Faber in 1933. It was also through Pound that he was brought into contact with Louis Zukofsky and William Carlos Williams in New York in the summer of 1930. He had a poem, "The Word," included in the special issue of Poetry which Zukofsky edited in February 1931. Here for the first time Bunting's work was associated with American contemporaries such as George Oppen, Carl Rakosi and Charles Reznikoff. A year later his writing was represented in Zukofsky's An 'Objectivists' Anthology. And over the next few years Poetry under the editorship of Marianne Moore was the only journal which consistently published Bunting's work. As he noted in the preface to his Collected Poems: "I am grateful to those who printed my poems from time to time, above all to Poetry, of Chicago, whose editors have been kind to me one after another."

By contrast, Bunting was isolated from literary groupings in London and struggled to find any British journal or publisher who would take his poetry seriously. At Faber, despite Pound's pressure, T. S. Eliot rejected proposals to publish a collection of Bunting's verse in 1935 and again in 1950. It was largely through Pound that his Poems 1950 was published by Dallam Flynn in Galveston, Texas. A few of his poems were in circulation via such American anthologies as Hugh Kenner's The Art of Poetry and the New Directions anthology which Pound co-edited in 1964. Bunting's two major postwar poems, The Spoils and Briggflatts, were first published in Poetry in, respectively, 1951 and 1966. In postwar Britain, apart from a few translations in Peter Russell's fugitive magazine Nine, Basil Bunting was unpublished and almost completely unknown. F. R. Leavis pronounced in 1951: "If we ask what other poets Pound backed" - other, that is, than Robert Frost and T. …

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