Howling From the City Walls: Poetry and Counter-Culture in 1960s Newcastle

From the mid-1960s onwards, the Morden Tower helped to make Newcastle a centre of poetic counterculture. One reader at the venue was the Northumbrian modernist Basil Bunting. In this Late Summer Lecture, Annabel Haynes looks back at the history of the poetry scene in mid century Newcastle to pay homage to Bunting and an often forgotten cultural treasure

On 22nd December 1965, something was stirring deep in Newcastle’s city walls. In the small upper room of the West Wall’s medieval Morden Tower, a seasoned poet sat surrounded by attentive young listeners. He began to read what would become his magnum opus, and a bastion of British modernist work. Basil Bunting’s first performance of Briggflatts signified his long overdue return to poetry, a revival instigated by a series of readings organised in the Tower by Newcastle poet Tom Pickard and his wife Connie.

The readings had begun in 1964, and throughout the 1960s the Tower helped to make Newcastle a centre of counterculture, hosting experimental poets from all over the world, including Beats and Black Mountain poets Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlenghetti, Robert Creeley, Gregory Corso and Ed Dorn, as well as British and Irish poets Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison, Ivor Cutler, Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill.  What happened in Morden Tower captured the feeling of the time: a time when the positive potential of the new resonated in the architecture, art, music, and writing of a young generation.

Bunting was born in Newcastle in 1900, but spent much of his life travelling around the world, living in Paris, where he worked for the editor and famous author of The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford; Italy, where he found his first bout of success in the poetry world, befriending modernist luminaries, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams; Tenerife, where he played a game of chess with General Franco; and Teheran, where he worked as a correspondent for the Times and as a spy for the British government.  After this period of international intrigue and activity, the poet settled in the North East again, where the financial demands of a growing family led to a decline in his creative pursuits.  The Morden Tower and a group of young poets based in the North East were integral to Bunting’s recovery.  Bunting’s interest in the music of poetry, in oral and folk culture and his attention to local environment, coupled with a Quaker and socialist upbringing made him a viable father figure for the alternative culture and activism of the times: the group showed that poetry was for the people, not just professors.

The Morden Tower still stands today, and readings still take place. This lecture looks back at Basil Bunting’s life and at the history of the poetry scene in mid century Newcastle, using verse and photographs to help document this exciting time, and to pay homage to an often forgotten cultural treasure.

Late Summer Lectures is a series of lectures given by PhD students, bringing new research to a public audience. All the lectures from the 2013 series can be downloaded here.

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