RICHARD BURTON, A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting,
Oxford, Infinite Ideas Ltd. (2013), pp. 618, £30.00.
Basil Bunting (1900-1985) was the longest lived and the last to die of the great moderns, but he seems condemned to suffer cycles of neglect and rediscovery, his own lifetime beginning and ending with the former. It seems extraordinary now that such an acknowledged masterpiece as Villon (1925), for example, should not have appeared in book form until 1950 (the 1930 Milan-printed pamphlet Redimiculum Matellarum, unfindable today, was far from readily available back then). Even that 1950 Poems was put out by the relatively obscure Cleaner's Press, of Galveston, Texas, and it was not until the 1960s, when Stuart Montgomery's admirable Fulcrum Press published in quick succession First Book of Odes, Loquitur (both 1965) and Briggflatts (1966), followed by a first Collected Poems (1968), that it was even possible for the general poetry reader to get a broad overview of his work. Briggflatts of course was picked up on by a number of influential critics, notably Cyril Connolly, and swiftly recognised as a key feature in the poetic landscape of the twentieth century. As a consequence Bunting enjoyed a late hour in the sun, being invited to teach at Santa Barbara and Buffalo in the United States and at a couple of Canadian universities besides. He was also a sonorous reader of his own work (as can still be sampled here and there on the internet) and remained in demand for public performances until the end of his life. None of this, however, was spectacularly enriching in pure cash terms, and his last years were darkened by penury and returning neglect.
Richard Burton's exhaustive new biography (the title is from the closing lines of Briggflatts) speculates at some length why this was, and is, so. He is inclined to blame particularly the poet's «self rooting in the north». Of course Bunting was from the North, more particularly Scotswood-on-Tyne, now a suburb of Newcastle, but he lived much of his life elsewhere, in Iran among other more or less exotic locations, and did not, according to his friend Denis Goacher, have much of a northern accent in his day-to-day speech, putting it on for readings, from where, in his brief years of fame, it leaked back into his talk. His maintaining that his own poetry should, or could only, be read with a broad Northumbrian lilt was therefore something of an affectation. A belligerent attitude to the «southrons» of the Arts establishment was doubtless also less than career-enhancing. To this extent Bunting was, as Burton puts it, «in some ways the architect of his own ghetto». But these are considerations that cannot be said to apply to the first sixty years or so of his life, and they need hardly concern us now. It may be that the problem has been simply that nearly all his best work is in long poems: Villon, Chomei at Toyama, The Spoils, Briggflatts, which do not lend themselves to anthologising or easy memorisation (although Philip Larkin did get the whole of Chomei into his Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse). It may also be that remaining to all intents and purposes unpublished until his sixties deprived Bunting of the chance to become properly embedded in the poetry of his age, or rather in our perception of it, still less in the school or university curricula.
It would not be entirely fair, given how well he was served by Montgomery's handsome Fulcrum editions, to add that Bunting was unlucky in his publishers, but that press closed its doors in 1974, after which the Collected Poems were taken on by the Oxford University Press, who then themselves notoriously reneged on modern poetry altogether in 1998 (another betrayal by those pesky southrons). BB's work has latterly found an appropriate, and one hopes safe, home with Bloodaxe Books, whose headquarters is in Tarset, |Northumberland.
Such exposure as Bunting's work did enjoy in the inter-war years was due (once again) to the tireless efforts of Ezra Pound in advancing the work of his friends. Pound bullied Harriet Monroe into publishing parts of Villon, and Chomei at Toyama, as well as a number of shorter lyrics, in Poetry, and gave over fifty pages of his own Active Anthology (Faber, 1933) to Bunting. In the long run Pound's championship was not without its drawbacks, in so far as there was a tendency even among some of the more enthusiastic reviewers of his 60s flowering to see his work in the light of the master's.
In view of the above it is perhaps not surprising that Burton feels the need to (again) make the case for Bunting, with a degree of close reading of individual poems, and he is clearly a wholehearted enthusiast himself. But you would have to be deaf to read «Brag, sweet tenor bull, / descant on Rawthey's madrigal, / each pebble its part / for the fells' late spring. / Dance tiptoe, bull, / black against May. / Ridiculous and lovely . . .» and not be mesmerised by its music. What is needed is to get folks to the door of the museum, not force them to admire its contents, and biography is surely as good a way as any – not least because BB lived life robustly, for a twentieth-century poet: imprisoned as a «conchie» in the First World War, imprisoned again, drunk and disorderly, in Paris in the 20s, ballooning in the Second World War, then, as Wing-Commander Bunting, running «Spitfire operations in Malta and Sicily», Our Man in Teheran after the war, subsequently Times correspondent in Iran. Burton is very good on all this, particularly the Persian years, during which he married the fourteen-year-old «Sima Alladadian, a Kurdo-Armenian from Isfahan», with whom he returned to England in 1952 to embark on his darkest age of poverty and obscurity.
For some reason Bunting's vie sentimentale gets rather less persuasive treatment. His American first wife Marian, met in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, hardly comes to life. Burton does deal, if only in a footnote, and then to dismiss it, with the old rumour of his hero's paternity of Omar Pound, though it is clear from his text that Bunting remained very close to Dorothy Pound, with whom he corresponded assiduously, until her death in 1973. She was even, in 1969, «a very welcome guest at Shadingfield» where «Basil and Sima enjoyed showing her Northumberland» according to BB's earlier biographer Keith Aldritt, a visit which seems to have eluded Burton (who is rather snooty about Aldritt's The Poet as Spy, which he labels «a good story», adding that «its subject would undoubtedly have approved of its sacrifice of accuracy to imaginative narrative»). Peggy Greenbank too, the pivot and dedicatee of Briggflatts, rather fades from our grasp. Sima, it is true, is a stronger presence, but you get the impression (from Aldritt too) that Sima was a strong presence.
Still, this is a minor cavil, and Bunting himself would certainly not have approved of our directing our eyes anywhere but on the poetry. It certainly seems unlikely that the cantankerous old Northumbrian will be as well served again in the near future, if ever, and it is to be hoped that the very heft of Richard Burton's labour of (one assumes) love does not contribute, like the length of BB's best poems, to bury him again. It will apparently be followed, in the not-too-distant future, by an edition of letters.
A strong song tows
us, long earsick.
Blind, we follow
rain slant, spray flick
to fields we do not know.
Night, float us.
Offshore wind, shout,
ask the sea
what's lost, what's left,
what horn sunk,
what crown adrift.
Where we are who knows
of kings who sup
while day fails? Who,
swinging his axe
to fell kings, guesses
where we go?
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