“There are those who think that after 1945 the poetry of Bunting is manifestly better than any other poetry in English written in the same period. It is in a class of its own. But this was so far from received opinion that it could not be taken seriously.” Thus Donald Davie, writing at the end of the 1980’s, summed up the critical standing of Basil Bunting’s poetry. The title chosen by Davie for the book from which this assessment is quoted, Under Briggflatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain, 1960-1988 (1989), alluding to Bunting’s long poem Briggflatts (1965), leaves no doubt about his own high estimation of Bunting’s verse. Similarly, in A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers (1987), Hugh Kenner celebrated Bunting’s achievement, noted the general incomprehension with which it was met, and suggested that in order to come to terms with Bunting “we must relearn our reading skills.” Now, with the publication of Peter Makin’s Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse, the case for Bunting has been made at book-length by a superb advocate.
One of the virtues of the much-publicized debate over the canon is that, potentially at least, it should prompt a wholesale reexamination of why we read what we read, why we deem certain works worthy of study. In practice what we have got has largely been argument at a very low level. On one hand there are the defenders of Western civilization, for whom the list of set books has the authority of the tablets on Mount Sinai. (And yet it was T. S. Eliot who asked, in 1918, “Who, for instance, has a first-hand opinion of Shakespeare? Yet I have no doubt that much could be learned by a serious study of that semi-mythical figure.”) On the other hand there are the spokespeople for various groups (usually defined in terms of race, ethnicity, or gender) said to have been underrepresented in the canon. What the two sides have in common is a readiness to accept uncritically whatever ideal reading list their ideology endorses, a disinclination to form firsthand opinions.
In contrast, consider Bunting’s answer when asked by an interviewer to name the poets he judged to be “world-class”: “Homer, Ferdosi, Manuchehri, Dante, Hafez, Malherbe, Aneirin, Heledd, Wyatt, Spenser, Sidney, Wordsworth” (Paideuma, Spring, 1980). Whatever else can be said about that pugnaciously unconventional response—a similar roster appears in the preface to Bunting’s Collected Poems (new ed., 1978), with some variations—it is clearly a personal selection. Not a list sanctified by custom or promoted by any consensus of literary commissars, it reflects Bunting’s firsthand opinions based on a lifetime of reading.
In Peter Makin, Bunting has found a reader whose judgments are as independent and as deeply grounded in firsthand knowledge and experience as his own. Anyone can have an opinion—the student, for example, who disliked Dostoevski because “the names of all the characters sound the same”—yet too often, literary study consists of replacing such laughably ignorant responses with a set of approved opinions which the student has not formed for himself or herself. That is one reason Bunting generally held professors of literature in low regard. He preached against excessive bookishness; writing needs to measure itself always against the real. One of his models was Sir Walter Raleigh: “a great poet, a pirate, a statesman, and a million other things. You can’t write about anything unless you’ve experienced it.”
Makin’s book is divided into five sections. The first part, “Development,” consists of a sketch of Bunting’s life to 1965 interwoven with an analysis of his development as a poet. Chapters are devoted to “Villon” (1925), Bunting’s free adaptation drawing from several of François Villon’s poems, somewhat in the spirit of Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919); “Chomei at Toyama” (1932), another free adaptation rather than a literal rendering, this time based on an Italian translation of a thirteenth century Japanese poem; “The Well of Lycopolis” (1935), an anti-love poem that uses classical allusions to underline the poet’s disgust with the sordid state of “modern life”; and “The Spoils” (1951), which reflects both his World War II experience and his intensive study of Persian poetry, begun in the early 1930’s.
“The Spoils” was followed by a long hiatus, nearly fifteen years in which Bunting simply was not able to write. During the war he had advanced rapidly to a position of great responsibility. (In World War I, Bunting had been an uncompromising conscientious objector, as a result of which he was jailed and brutally mistreated. World War II, in contrast, he embraced with gusto.) “By 1946,” Makin tells us, “he was in Baghdad as acting chief of Combined Intelligence, covering the further half of the Middle...
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