When I first started reading and writing poetry in the early 1990s Basil Bunting was hard to stumble across. Anthologies like The Faber Book of Modern Verse included extracts from Briggflatts, and in Croydon public library I once found a scuffed volume containing the whole thing; there was a wonderful essay in Thom Gunn’s Shelf Life; but mostly it was as if Bunting – then only eight years dead – had been airbrushed out of the picture.
It isn’t hard to see why. His poems – difficult, hard-won, magnificent – didn’t fit the prevailing fashion. In the intervening two decades that fashion has diverged further from anything Bunting would have endorsed. But in the same period two things have happened: many of our finest poets have stubbornly continued to see Bunting as one of the most significant English-language voices of the twentieth century (just as they’d always done, quietly and persistently, while the conventional wisdom flitted elsewhere); and a handful of critics and publishers have started to give Bunting the attention he deserves.
I first got to know Bunting properly in the Bloodaxe edition of the Complete Poems (2000). Over piles of shellfish in a restaurant on St Clements, Andrew McNeillie had urged me to read Bunting as an antidote to the sub-Auden nearly-poems I was then writing. It was sunny and payday so I called in at the bookshop on the way home to buy the Complete Poems. Here were not just Briggflatts but dangerous, hypnotic poems like Villon; the fabulous oddness of Chomei at Toyama; and (strangest of all) The Spoils – that seemed to make no sense at all but made it magnificently. For the first time I began to grasp what all the fuss was about.
Inevitably I was missing the point. “Follow the clue patiently and you will understand nothing.”
In 2009 Bloodaxe published a deluxe edition of Briggflatts: the poem itself, a CD of Bunting reading it, some superb critical appendices and a DVD of Peter Bell’s 1982 documentary film. For me, this is the best entry-point to Bunting’s work currently available. Here we meet an enigmatic and difficult character: conscientious objector in the first world war and intelligence officer in the second, emerging in the 1960s from decades of critical neglect to write perhaps the most significant English poem of the late century. To be able to hear – and see – Bunting reading his “autobiography” aloud adds layers of meaning that even the most sensitive reader would struggle to conjure from the page alone. And, crucially, the book reprints Bunting’s “The Poet’s Point of View” (1977) that leaves us in no doubt as to the importance of the heard poem:
Poetry lies dead on the page, until some voice brings it to life, just as music, on the stave, is no more than instructions to the player. […] Poetry is seeking to make not meaning, but beauty; or if you insist on misusing words, its “meaning” is of another kind, and lies in the relation to one another of lines and patterns of sound, perhaps harmonious, perhaps contrasting and clashing, which the hearer feels rather than understands, lines of sound drawn in the air which stir deep emotions which have not even a name in prose.
Bunting’s Persia (2012), edited by Don Share, illuminates one of the most-important and least-appreciated aspects of Bunting’s work. Bunting had begun learning Persian in 1930 to translate Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh and continued to explore Persian poetry for the rest of his life. It was his knowledge of Persian (albeit the classical variety rather than the kind actually spoken) that led to his intelligence assignment(s) during the second world war, and he lived in the country for some years afterwards – both as an agent of the British government and as a Times journalist.
Share’s volume brings together 80 pages of Bunting’s translations from the poets Rudaki, Ferdowsi, Manuchehri, Sa’di, Hafiz and Obaid-e Zakani, including previously-unpublished material omitted from the Complete Poems. It’s a beautifully-produced and necessary book that quietly and persuasively demonstrates the centrality of Persian poetry to Bunting’s thought and work. To my ear Bunting’s Ferdowsi sounds most like Bunting (unsurprising, given Ferdowsi’s structural importance to Briggflatts), but the other translations are just as intriguing. The Rudaki in particular is breath-taking, even to someone with nil knowledge of the original.
Last year Infinite Ideas published Richard Burton’s A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting. On a first read-through it doesn’t feel hyperbolic to say this could be the best biography of a poet since Stallworthy’s MacNeice (and possibly longer). Meticulously researched but never stale; generous to its subject but far from hagiographic; erudite but never pretentious; a joy to read.
Bunting emerges as a damaged and difficult individual, compassionate and irritable in equal measure. In Burton’s narrative, Bunting’s role in the second world war and in 1940s Persia rescued him from his own irresponsibility; discarded by the establishment afterwards, he endured decades of poverty during which he wrote the defining work of postwar English-language modernism. In his 85 years Bunting remade himself as frequently and substantially as Yeats: conscientious objector; expat drunk; student; lecturer; hack-writer; skipper; spy; military tactician; diplomat; foreign correspondent; jobbing local journalist; professor; husband; father; neglected genius; lauded poet. Burton’s biography brings him to life in all his dazzle and contradictions.
A few months ago I gave a talk on poetry to some local sixth formers. Towards the beginning I asked them all to close their eyes and listen to the closing lines of Briggflatts, but to resist the urge – ingrained from years of classroom dissection – to paraphrase it into any kind of “meaning”. This is harder than it sounds, but I was genuinely moved by the atmosphere in the room. Fifty teenagers hearing – truly hearing – the words of a deadman. A curious enacting of Eliot’s assertion that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood:
Finger tips touched and were still
fifty years ago.
Sirius is too young to remember.
Sirius glows in the wind. Sparks on ripples
mark his line, lures for spent fish.
Fifty years a letter unanswered;
a visit postponed for fifty years.
She has been with me fifty years.
Starlight quivers. I had day enough.
For love uninterrupted night.
Inevitably, I was still missing the point. But by now I was (perhaps) beginning to understand that it doesn’t matter.
Complete Poems, Basil Bunting, £9.95, Bloodaxe Books, 2000
Briggflatts, Basil Bunting, £12, Bloodaxe Books, 2009
Bunting’s Persia, Basil Bunting ed Don Share, $15.95, Flood Editions, 2012
A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting, Richard Burton, £30, Infinite Ideas, 2013