In 1949, Basil Bunting wrote a short poem which he called “On the Fly-Leaf of Pound’s Cantos.” It opens with the comment, “There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?” The implications are clear, and to most students of English literature of the twentieth century, inescapably true: the accomplishment in verse of the late Ezra Pound is as baffling as it is massive.
Bunting ends that poem with the words, “There are the Alps,/ fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble.” Though Bunting’s poem pays homage to Pound, it provides good advice, which the Northumbrian poet took a few years later. Bunting’s publication in 1966 of his long work “Briggflatts,” an autobiographical work as he calls it, marked his final declaration of independence from the method and manner of Pound. Rather than to deny the prosodic and technical lessons to be learned from Pound, Bunting absorbed the lessons so wholly that he could, at last, return wholeheartedly to the language of his region and the concerns of his homeland.
Reading the collected poems of Basil Bunting seems, in some ways, like embarking on a highly selective survey of twentieth century English poetry. Unlike most surveys, it lacks inferior work, for Bunting excises and revises ruthlessly. As early as 1929, he addressed a poem “To a Poet who advised me to preserve my fragments and false starts.” The upshot of the poem is that Bunting’s “numerous cancellations” prefer the garbage can to “printed ignominy.”
The preface to the 1968 Fulcrum Press edition of Bunting’s Collected Poems says that “heaped together,” the poems he had written “here and there now and then over forty years and four continents . . . make a book.” Now, ten years later, Bunting has added a three-line preface to the new edition of his poems. The new edition, this diffident poet writes, gives him a chance “to put right a few words and stops the compositor got wrong, and to add four short new poems.” His admirers in England and the United States will regret that by the writer’s stern standards, a fifth new poem “seemed better lost.”
Sixty-eight poems may seem a slender stock on which to base a literary reputation, but that reputation by now is established. The future may raise or lower Bunting’s stock in accord with literary vogue, but he is unlikely to drop from sight. He has never claimed a place among the major writers, but the nature of his originality wins admiration from more readers—particularly other poets—every year.
A friend of Ezra Pound (with whom he worked to edit the Active Anthology, 1931) and of Louis Zukofsky, Bunting acknowledges their influence upon his work—along with that of “poets long dead whose names are obvious.” Bunting’s 1968 preface names those influences: Wordsworth and Dante, Horace, Wyatt and Malherbe, Manuchehri and Ferdosi, Villon, Whitman, Edmund Spenser. The list underlines Bunting’s eclecticism and erudition. For a biographical dictionary, he wrote of himself: “educated at Ackworth, Leighton Park, Wormwood Scrubs Prison and the London School of Economics. Successively music critic, idler, soldier, diplomat and journalist. Travelled much. Read much in several tongues.”
The final section of Bunting’s Collected Poems is devoted to what he calls “Overdrafts,” or translations. A note cryptically warns the reader—“It would be gratuitous to assume that a mistranslation is unintentional.” He does not hesitate to intrude the expression “fit wine for a pope” into a translation of Horace, and, after several verse paragraphs in another poem, he breaks into his own work with the comment, “—and why Catullus bothered to write pages and pages of this drivel mystifies me.” In a neat turn-about, he provides (“Verse and Version”) a poem in English by Louis Zukofsky followed by his Latin Version.
These are not the poems for which Bunting is best known, though his proficiency in the classical languages and modern languages doubtless aided him in honing his diction to its present fine edge. Bunting writes (in his preface) that he has set down words “as a musician pricks his score, not to be read in silence, but to trace in the air a pattern of sound that may sometimes . . . be pleasing.” The reader who takes this statement at face value may safely forget the poet’s considerable learning and his allusions. As Bunting writes, “unabashed boys and girls” may enjoy his poems.
Unfortunately, such “unabashed boys and girls” are hard to find. Poems so self-consciously hewn, even when they achieve perfectly natural rhythms, repel readers accustomed to plentiful “filler” in language. The taut muscles of Bunting’s verse shame the sloppy speaker and reader—who retaliate by finding Bunting “hard to understand.”
Perhaps it will help some readers to know that Bunting’s concern is not to be understood; he writes in the firm belief that, like music, poetry is to be heard. The “living voice” of the poem is the poetry; extracting a bundle of maxims or philosphic ideas is not the point. Too often,...
(The entire section is 2113 words.)