Reviewed by John Garth
Basil Bunting has no secure footing on the sliding scree of literary reputation. He wrote fairly challenging modernist poetry, did so sporadically between long intervals, and achieved fame in his mid-sixties. He has been anthologized and enshrined in syllabi, but many more people must recognise his chiming, faintly absurd name than have any clue what he did. In this book, half a century after Bunting’s late renaissance, Oxford author and publisher Richard Burton gives the poet a much-needed push.
History hangs heavily around the early pages. Amid expository asides ranging from the relief of Ladysmith to the origins of Quakerism, Bunting the Northumbrian boy, born in 1900, is a shadowy figure darting from monument to monument in a curiously curated museum. Paucity of records for childhood and youth often pose a challenge for biographers, but here the problem is acute. Bunting despised biography and destroyed his personal papers; his life survives in a smattering of tall tales told in letters to friends. The digressive Burton creates a sometimes frustrating patchwork. But he makes a fair fist of it, aided by the engrossing, repellent charisma of Bunting.
The obscure boy first makes his personality felt through the heterodox voice of his juvenilia, culminating in a gung-ho tale of corpse-heaped battlefields – ‘a loud raspberry of farewell’ (as Burton puts it) to the values of his Quaker school. Once school is behind, and Bunting begins to communicate with friends by letter, he springs vividly to life.
He lived by extremes. He was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the First World War, having refused any work that supported the war – even landwork. He dropped out of the LSE to travel to Soviet Russia, but was arrested and deported home en route. He wound up in Paris working for Ford Madox Ford, becoming a protegé of Ezra Pound; but this productive literary interlude was cut short in one cinematically spectacular night of bad behaviour. By Bunting’s own account, he drunkenly went ‘home’ one night to the wrong hotel, found his room key didn’t work, relieved himself in the hallway, and then assaulted the police officers who were summoned to arrest him. Oh, and while the complainant phoned the gendarmerie, Bunting had jumped into bed with his wife. He ended up back in England, destitute.
Much of the interest lies in watching the off-duty poet crash about, hurling abuse at foe and friend alike, railing against the social and cultural establishment, taking gross liberties with strangers. It is hard to discern his charm to those who did suffer his company; his acute eye, his untrammeled intellect, and his willingness to speak his mind or act on his impulses must have made up for a great deal.
In his marriage to an American daughter of a wealthy family, Bunting’s charms proved unable to counterbalance his horrendous egotism. While moving his growing family from England to Italy to the Canaries and back to England, he refused to lift a finger to work, living instead off his father-in-law’s largesse. This he seems to have done with open-eyed callousness – ‘it’s a fairly difficult job bleeding flints,’ he complained to Pound.
The biographer’s attempts to drum up sympathy for Bunting around this time fall flat. Marian leaves the poet while five months pregnant, taking their two children to America; Burton urges that her bitter reminiscences of Bunting’s character be ‘heavily discounted’, but it won’t wash. The Bunting of the Thirties, on Burton’s own account, was blustering, vicious, and shiftless.
Outside his marriage, his unpleasantness must be measured against the yardstick of the inter-war years, when barely suppressed violence seems to have throbbed beneath all. Bunting is no more vicious to his critics and enemies than Pound – tired of what he thought a fruitless obsession with Persian poetry – is to Bunting himself. And Pound’s nastiness has an inhuman edge which Bunting’s lacked. Bunting broke off their long association over Pound’s increasingly bug-eyed rantings about international Jewish conspiracies, though he later offered a supportive ear when Pound was committed to the lunatic asylum for collaborating with fascism in Italy.
The Second World War brought Bunting some measure of happiness, providing him with a decent job in Iran for the RAF – on the strength of his expertise in Persian poetry. He married a 14-year-old Persian girl, Sima, exercising tastes which Burton does his best to downplay. But when war was over, he found his talents were no longer required either by the military or the newspapers. He brought long-suffering Sima back to the North of England, where he lost his compass again, and they endured financial hardship. Bunting was only saved from final obscurity by young Newcastle poet Tom Pickard, who sought him out and helped revive his reputation.
Then came the long poem Briggflatts, inspired by his long-lost (and briefly revived) first love – a work which brought Bunting fame at last. It is strange after this to find the old curmudgeon mellowing, to the extent that he found himself acting as peacemaker when he was president of the absurdly fractious Poetry Society of the 1970s.
Bunting’s poetry is certainly tough stuff, sometimes ‘condensed to the point of paralysis’, as Burton concedes. He was a born iconoclast who dived wilfully into the tide of modernism when it had few followers, when it really was something shocking and new. He saved his highest praise for Pound’s Cantos, on which he wrote:
There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?
They don't make sense… fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!
What Pound famously did to The Waste Land, carving some astonishingly durable fragments out of Eliot’s prolixity, Bunting did with his own poetry, claiming to have cut Briggflatts down from 20,000 words to 700. He took a pencil through entire pages of Pickard’s verse, leaving only a few lines and saying, ‘Try that. It’s not what you wanted to say, but it makes a poem.’ Something similar could be said of Bunting. Much of his 85 years seems wildly off-target, and its record was edited almost into oblivion by the man himself; yet what remains here makes a life that sticks in the mind.