Collected Poems

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2113

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.

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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, however, Bunting assumes knowledge, both linguistic and factual, which few of his readers today will have—or care to secure.

Early and late, Bunting’s poems reflect the breadth of his reading and experience. He has lived in Italy and France as well as in Iran. He has visited the United States, and, for a time, he was captain of a private yacht sailing the Mediterranean and crossing the Atlantic. His long poem “The Spoils” (1951) is sensuously redolent of the Middle East, where he served as a Royal Air Force officer and later as a civil servant and journalist. An earlier long poem, “Villon,” written in Rapallo while he was with Pound in 1925, derives in part from his experiences in prison as a conscientious objector during the final years of World War I. The Nazi threat to civilization in the 1930’s led him to abandon his pacifism.

Among the earliest poems Bunting has preserved, “Villon” demonstrates the depth of Pound’s and T. S. Eliot’s influence on the young writer. Bunting objectifies a very personal experience, that of his imprisonment, and through a shifting time-focus allows the events and details of the poem to grow larger and more generally significant. To dismiss “Villion” as either “Poundian” or “Imagistic” misses the mark. Bunting was an imagist; Poetry Magazine’s editors, he writes, “have been kind to me one after another.” At the magazine, with Pound as its foreign correspondent, writing which deviated from the rhythms of the metronome and which dealt directly and concretely with its subject was likely to win editorial approval. Poetry Magazine nurtured modern poetry.

“Villon” moves toward the hardness and precision of much of the best recent poetry. The poem’s reliance on the historical, as well as its diction, makes one think more of a poet like Browning than of Wordsworth. Rhyme works frequently, but freely, in the poem. As early as “Villon,” Bunting apparently recognized the importance of quantity, or duration, in English verse. In 1966, his “Briggflatts” would exploit that awareness more fully.

Bunting opens the notes of the new edition of his Collected Poems with the statement that notes “are a confession of failure, not a palliation of it, still less a reproach to the reader, but may allay some small irritations.” Most readers will find the notes to “Briggflatts” more useful than any of the other notes: the poet fills better than a page with simple definitions of Northumbrian words. One note, for instance, says “we have burns in the east, becks in the west, but no brooks or creeks.” Bunting’s notes emphasize the importance of the Northumbrian tongue. “Southrons,” he writes, “would maul the music of many lines in ’Briggflatts.’” One writer has said one should read “Briggflatts” with broad, soft vowel sounds and sharply enunciated consonants. Another critic says Bunting marries “dour, arresting imagery with suggestive abstractions” to produce a poetry “of barren magnificence and no ease.”

Bunting labels “Briggflatts” as an autobiography, “but not a record of fact.” He adds, “The truth of the poem is of another kind.” “Briggflatts” marks the poet’s return to his region and his rediscovery of his native dialect. Like much twentieth century literature, the poem is as much “about” poetry and the making of poetry as it is about anything else. The poem’s first section sets in opposition (or perhaps complementary relations) a “slowworm” and a stonemason. Both will recur, and sometimes the slowworm recurs at climatic points in sections of the poem; Section Three, for instance, concludes: “So he rose and led home silently through clean woodland/where every bough repeated the slowworm’s song.” Both the slowworm and the mason relate to themes of persistence and dissolution. “A mason times his mallet/ to a lark’s twitter.” The mason works until the “stone spells a name/ naming none,/ a man abolished.” The poet then names the “shining slowworm part of the marvel.” The mason stirs: “Words!/Pens are too light./ Take a chisel to write.” A page later, the first section ends with these lines:

It is easier to die than to remember.Name and datesplit in soft slatea few months obliterate.

Bunting’s poem opens, then, with variations of the carpe diem theme and with an echo of Theophile Gautier’s injunction to the artist to work in durable materials. With true Anglo-Saxon fatalism, Bunting allows the “sweet tenor bull” of the poem’s first line to become beef—and he gives concrete form to passing time with the statement that “amputated years ache.”

Section Two of “Briggflatts” touches upon the relationship of the poet to the rest of society. The “Poet appointed,” writes Bunting, “dare not decline/ to walk among the bogus. . . .” The poet, “sick, self-maimed, self-hating obstinate,” mates “beauty with squalor to beget lines still-born.” The section ends with an extended allusion to the Queen of Crete, Pasiphae, whose desire for a bull led to her giving birth to the minotaur. Neither flesh nor spirit flinched, Bunting writes, “till it had gloried in unlike creation.”

The entire poem achieves unity through reiteration of specific images and variations of those images. The poet manages through sharp precision of language and juxtaposition of images to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. The poem’s coda opens, “A strong song tows/ us, long earsick,” thus suggesting again the power of native speech and native rhythms to move people—both literally and figuratively.

“Briggflatts” is Bunting’s most important achievement, but he could not have earned that poem, with all its austere richness, without what came before. Such poems as “Chomei at Toyama,” written in 1932, reveal much about the strategies of Bunting’s mind and his ability to make poetry of foreign sources; still, that poem stands more nearly as a literary artifact than as a poem with its own life. Interest in the Orient inevitably accompanied the imagist and avant-garde literary activities of the 1930’s, but Bunting’s erudition is rarely as satisfying as his purely poetic efforts.

The ordering of poems in Bunting’s Collected Poems sometimes disturbs, as, for instance, when one goes abruptly from “Briggflatts” to “Chomei at Toyama.” The book’s third section, “First Book of Odes,” ends with strong poems of the 1940’s, followed by the “Second Book of Odes,” with poems dating from 1964 to 1975. The final three poems in this section are among the four short new poems Bunting added to the new edition. The fourth new poem is a translation of Horace (1971). Going from Bunting’s work of the 1970’s to a translation of 1927 provides a jolt, particularly since the final poem in the “Second Book of Odes” is the truly extraordinary “At Briggflatts meetinghouse.”

In twelve lines, this particular ode recapitulates the themes of “Briggflatts.” Bunting proves here what he has gained in some fifty years of writing. As much as any poem in the collection, this short one makes the reader think of the naturalness of art. “True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,” wrote Alexander Pope. The lines here are as natural as they are memorable. They make one think also of the contemporary American poet James Dickey, who has said that he revises his poems to take the “worked-on quality” out of them.

Useful though it is to have all of Basil Bunting’s poems in a single volume, many readers will prefer to linger over the major accomplishments since 1951, “The Spoils,” “Briggflatts,” and the odes of “The Second Book of Odes.” Other poems in the collection deserve study, but the later poems give sheer pleasure. Hugh Kenner was right when he said there is no poet better than Bunting.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 31

Book World. July 9, 1978, p. E6.

Books and Bookmen. XXIII, May, 1978, p. 43.

Christian Science Monitor. LXX, September 18, 1978, p. B10.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLVII, November, 1978, p. 81.

New York Times Book Review. July 2, 1978, p. 7.

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