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Complete Poems by Basil Bunting
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Jan 17, 2008

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bookshelves: poetry
Read in January, 2004

Basil Bunting: Complete Poems

Associate Editor: Richard Caddel
New Directions Press
239 pp. $ 16.95 paper
Reviewed by Jamey Hecht for American Book Review

This new edition of a great Modernist innovator is a gift for the reading public. Everybody who’s ever been changed by Ezra Pound, Eliot, Jeffers, H.D., or even Dylan Thomas will recognize the landscape of this work. Like Pound, Bunting is a floridly learned, serious character. He worked with Pound at Rapallo from 1929 to 1933 (the span from the market crash to the rise of Hitler), cultivating a genuine cosmopolitanism that remained essentially untainted by Pound’s fascist sympathies. In fact, Bunting was so much his own man that Pound’s narcissism and megalomania don’t seem to have held him at all tightly. For instance, in his copy of Guide to Kulchur, on the page where Pound enthusiastically cites Confucius’ motto, ‘I have reduced it all to one principle,’ Bunting commented: ‘A very dangerous and deeply ignorant thing to do: impoverishing language, establishing as real relations merely linguistic.’ Anti-systemic thought pervades the poetry, too. Bunting’s love of local particulars bears a commanding authority in its sad nonchalance, without the pedantry and hectoring of The Wasteland’s footnotes or The Cantos’ encyclopedic sprawl.

The pathos of the transitory arises from Bunting’s thousand evocations of a crumbling British landscape, but it’s even stronger in his commitment to his native Northumbrian dialect. Nobody talks that way anymore; most of the old dialects are gone (like the twenty-two thousand kilometers of England’s hedgerows lost since the end of WWII ). The residual Welsh in Dylan Thomas made for a similar kind of fruitful difficulty. Bunting is hard. But what might seem like obscurantist cleverness turns out to be real memory: as a child in the 20th Century’s first decade, he heard his nurse singing Northumbrian folksongs. That genuine inheritance of a vanishing oral tradition made him an aural poet in a world of silent print, and the verse is full of reminders to heed the music. This is from the poet’s masterwork, the autobiographical longpoem in five parts (plus a coda), Briggflatts:

Flexible, unrepetitive line,
to sing, not paint; sing, sing,
laying the tune on the air,
nimble and easy as a lizard,
still and sudden as a gecko […:]

Instructed to read aloud, we can’t miss the contrast between the voiced sibilants in “easy as a lizard” and the staccato glottal stop in “gecko.” And this is iconicity: the sibilant line is about the moving animal, and the choppy line is about those instantaneous head movements it makes when its body stays put. A few stanzas on, the naturalist’s sight and the speaker’s ear converge again:

It sounds right, spoken on the ridge
between marine olives and hillside
blue figs, under the breeze fresh
with pollen of Apennine sage.

It feels soft, weed thick in the cave
and the smooth wet riddance of Antoinetta’s
bathing suit, mouth ajar for
submarine Amalfitan kisses.

It looks well on the page, but never
well enough. Something is lost […:]

The erotic spell of the “soft” stanza is enhanced by a subtle /th/ sound system, now voiced and now unvoiced, always sounded with the tip of the tongue between the teeth. Bunting knows what he’s doing to the reader’s physical head; despite his pen he seems to compose like an oral poet who has to use phonetics for the induction of a trance in the reader. Plato’s Ion is all about this, a propos of the rhapsodist’s performance of Homer’s hypnotic verbal music. So it’s not altogether surprising to find that Bunting was a music critic in his own right; for most of 1927 he even managed to earn a living that way. Almost half a century later, he taught at the University of Victoria in Canada with the same orientation:
Bunting's method of teaching was simply to read good poetry aloud and, when possible, to have us listen to music. In this he favored Dowland, Byrd and Purcell. I remember him playing a recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations as well, the first time I'd heard it. I believe he thought we might absorb some of the possibilities for rhythm in poetry by keeping our mouths shut and listening. Can you imagine trying to get away with teaching a writing course in this manner now? --- August Kleinzahler, London Review of Books, 29 April 1999.

I’ll leave it to the reader to discover the astonishingly beautiful passages in Briggflatts about the emotions latent in the night sky of the Northern winter. But it’s worth noting that this 20-page poem follows Dante in its cosmic scale, mapping self-experience onto a shared world-picture that ends with the stars. It opens in May and by closure time we’re on a mountain, “watching Capella steer for the zenith.”

Basil Bunting was — like so many of those odd individuals who remain far more influential than the written record shows — a person of conflicting characteristics united by his depth of character. A member of British military intelligence stationed in Tehran during and after WWII, he was not a cynical bastard. Touched by Ezra Pound’s solipsistic intellectual flame, he was not burnt. Wedded to the idiom and idiosyncrasies of Northumberland, his sympathies and learning embraced Italy, Persia, Canada and Japan. Twenty years after his death in 1985, his crucial role in the Modernist movement and the enduring power of his best poetry are only now being appreciated at the level they deserve. This new paperback is a fine instrument for that timely change.

I hope it’s no slight against him to recall his famous stanzas about Pound’s Cantos, this time with the more difficult of Basil Bunting’s own Complete Poems in mind:

There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?
They don't make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb,
jumbled boulder and weed, pasture and boulder, scree,
et l'on entend, maybe, le refrain joyeux et leger.
Who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?

There they are, you will have to go a long way round
if you want to avoid them.
It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!

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message 1: by Joanne (new)

Joanne Baines Beautiful! I'm so glad that you posted this here.

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