The modernist Basil Bunting was one of the most important British poets of his generation, but over his career he dropped in and out of obscurity. Emily Van Houten reviews a monumental new collection of his poetry, edited by Don Share, which conveys Bunting’s work with the depth and detail it deserves.
Poetry? It’s a hobby.
So begins ‘What the Chairman Told Tom’, one of Basil Bunting’s poems in the Second Book of Odes. Cheeky as ever, the sarcastic tone in this line from a poem written late in Bunting’s career only solidifies this modernist fixture’s role as a well-traveled, too-tired, and under-funded poet. The aged, curmudgeonly Bunting’s years of unacknowledged poetic effort embittered the writer, prompting him to end with the command: ‘Go and find work.’
But the poet had been working various jobs (as a translator, sailor, editor, etc.), and it only discouraged him. In fact, his humbly titled Overdrafts imply the sensitivity of a man always re-writing, always moving. We can’t forget the twitching feet of his poetry – and the poet himself. He absorbed and disseminated, went from Northumberland to Persia, and raced cars only to stall back in his homeland. Following a many-year slump in which he didn’t publish, Bunting eventually drew the attention of a young Tom Pickard, then an eager Jonathan Williams and Robert Creeley. Pickard, a monumental aide in finishing Bunting’s best-known poem, ‘Briggflatts’, was not only developing his own voice as a poet, but gathering Northumbrian writers into a scene that stylistically and socially gave them a platform while gaining international respect, such as when the American beat poet Allen Ginsberg brought to, and took practices from, his Newcastle visits with Bunting.
In Faber’s newest edition, Don Share neatly sets readers up for a smooth collection, not because the words are easy to pass over, but because when ‘such syllables flicker out of grass’, a fleeting but particular ‘fever of tune’ is present, pushing and pulling readers along. And it is thanks to Share’s careful organization that it is easy to get absorbed in these lines. In all honesty, it is hard to be mean in this review. It is just not quite possible, because of the amount of editorial work Don Share put into this volume, because of the streamlined and careful layout of the texts, and, of course, because of the universal benefit of having this many pieces of Basil Bunting’s work in one necessarily swollen book. If there has to be a downfall, it is that a volume holding this many pieces of writing cannot be carried around in one’s pocket. Almost 600 pages bind the reader to Bunting’s work – but for the student or researcher looking for comprehension, it is obviously a dream.
In The Poems of Basil Bunting, Don Share has completed more than just an unprecedented task but a greatly needed one. Critical work on Bunting is already accessible to curious readers, but the content of the poems has been expanded and integrated into this one edition to show what Share has collected from earlier bibliographical research and found in Bunting’s letters, interviews, and detailed publishing histories. They give us not only the annotations and explanations needed for modernist research, but provide the joy of simply having more of Bunting’s work in our hands. Bunting’s expansive intonations edged the modernist scene for a while, but this edition allows Bunting to gain the wider audience his sprawling lines have long-deserved. For Bunting approached poetry not only with consideration of the economy of words, but as Zukofsky noted, with a keen sense of their writhing energy as well.
The only thing better, I think, is being able to hear the words in Bunting’s sprawling Northumbrian accent itself. At a lecture at Newcastle University, Bunting noted the rhythmic importance of poetry on the page and as it is performed. He clarified that, ‘Poetry and music are both patterns of sound drawn on a background of time. That’s their origin, and their essence.’ The tonal importance of language, and of Bunting’s Northumbrian drawl in particular, is critical. Even after stints in the Canary Islands, the Middle East, the United States, and the pastoral setting of Briggflatts, in Cumbria, Bunting’s poetic and actual voice push readers into melodic bouts of hypnosis. In some cases, a poet’s voice reading their words aloud – the resonance of his or her physical, intoned vocal chords – can complicate a work beautifully, and Bunting’s is one such voice. There is spoken word poetry, and there is the word, spoken as poetry. Don Share has previously noted that Bunting was a “kind of a proto-performance poet”, vocalizing a great modernist word, intentionally international and still pointedly Northeastern in dialect. Those eager to listen to Bunting’s work can visit Durham University’s Palace Green Library, which contains the letters to and from Zukofsky and worked and reworked manuscripts of poems, and where recordings of readings and films are accessible to visitors.