Letters of Basil Bunting by Alex Niven (ed) - review by David Wheatley

David Wheatley

Long Road to Briggflatts

Letters of Basil Bunting


Oxford University Press 496pp £35

Basil Cheesman Bunting was one of literature’s great dodgers. A Northumbrian Quaker, he was born in 1900 and enjoyed a largely undocumented childhood before registering as a conscientious objector in 1918, earning himself a year in prison. Gravitating to Paris, he fell under the spell of Ezra Pound and dabbled in reviewing before a drunken assault on some gendarmes landed him in prison again. As he read François Villon in his cell, having realised that the poet had passed through the same prison centuries before, Bunting conceived the first of his long poems, or ‘sonatas’, as he called them. Drifting around Europe, he furthered his Poundian apprenticeship in Rapallo before starting a family with his American first wife, Marian Culver, in the Canary Islands. ‘A strong song tows/us,’ he would later write in his masterwork, Briggflatts. At that point, though, any defining pattern to his vagabond existence seemed a long way off.

The record of Bunting’s life, not least in his correspondence, is full of holes. Passing over the blank of his childhood, section one of this book is dominated by letters to Pound. All through the 1930s, the American bombards Bunting with his screeds on economics, which the Englishman absorbs with tragicomic stoicism (‘I remember your showing me a piece of Wisconsin token-money issued by a lumber company last century’). Nervous mimicry of Pound’s rough banter gets him nowhere, and when he cracks at last it is with an unforgettable put-down of the older man’s anti-Semitic bullying of Louis Zukofsky (‘It makes me sick to see you covering yourself with that filth … Either you know men to be men, and not something less, or you make yourself an enemy of mankind at large’).

In 1936, Bunting’s wife abandoned him while pregnant with their third child, Rustam (who died of polio in 1952 without ever having met his father). Thereafter, Bunting passed through a more than usually erratic phase, one highlight of which was his storming of the House of Commons with a ‘short tail of young men’ in an ‘uprising’ against the abdication of Edward VIII. His motivations were and remain opaque, though opacity served him very well in the period that followed. After stints with the RAF Balloon Command in Hull and Fife, Bunting used his knowledge of Persian to wangle a posting to Iran, where he continued to work for military intelligence after the war. His marriage to the fourteen-year-old Sima Alladadian proved too much for MI6, who sacked him, after which he became Tehran correspondent of The Times. He was deported by Mossadegh’s regime in 1952.

Leaving Iran, Bunting drove his family all the way to his mother’s house in Throckley, Northumberland, where a difficult decade ensued. Bunting’s fifties are often painted as years of poverty, but as the editor of this volume, Alex Niven, points out, by 1957 he was inhabiting a large suburban house with an orchard in the garden. The real problem was the shrivelling of his intellectual life. Yet Bunting’s creativity had always been fitful. In 1933, he had swapped Rapallo for the Canaries, whereupon ‘his confidence faltered’ and ‘his great recession began’, we read – on page 4! The next wave of inspiration did not materialise until nearly two decades later, when he wrote Loquitur and The Spoils. We then wait until 1966, while Bunting proofreads bus timetables for the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, for the heroic breakthrough that is Briggflatts.

Bunting shared an office at the Chronicle with a young Mark Knopfler, but it was his encounter with another teenager, Tom Pickard, that jolted his muse back to life. Pickard tempted Bunting to the readings he was organising at Morden Tower, where an adoring audience awaited. Briggflatts is the most sui generis of modern long poems, a modernist grand tour by way of the Orkneyinga Saga, Bach’s The Art of Fugue and Bunting’s favourite Northumbrian saints. It is also impossible to read without the author’s recording whispering in one’s ear, transforming ‘Brag, sweet tenor bull’ into something closer to ‘Brahg, sweet taynore booll’.

Another thing underpinning Briggflatts is Bunting’s disturbing interest in young girls. Behind the poem is a memory of a childhood companion, Peggy Greenbank, with whom the poet is drawn to reconnect across the decades (‘Then is now’). Following the poem’s publication, Bunting did reunite with Greenbank, with whom he may have had a brief fling, only to drop her again afterwards. Ideas of lost innocence and impossible return exercised a powerful spell on the poet, but only rarely did the visionary realm of Briggflatts accord with everyday life. More often than not, Bunting was, in Roy Fisher’s description, ‘a demon of delinquency and improvidence’, with his ‘absences, the goings-to-ground, the impulsive initiatives, the periods of yielding to circumstance in a curiously … passive manner’.

Whatever his furtive instincts, there was no dodging the fame that Briggflatts thrust on Bunting. His circle of correspondents enlarged to include Allen Ginsberg, Hugh Kenner, Donald Davie and Ted Hughes. Hugh MacDiarmid comes to stay – ‘as near as I can calculate he drank 3½ bottles [of whisky] during his 36 hours on Tyneside’, Bunting notes. Encounters with metropolitan literati such as Cecil Day-Lewis (‘The last time we met was in 1930’) are strained and awkward, and the words ‘sordid’ and ‘squalid’ are much bandied about to describe the public events at which he finds himself on parade. At this time, British poetry was enjoying a radical moment, much of it centred on Bunting’s own publisher, Stuart Montgomery’s Fulcrum Press. The paranoid Ian Hamilton Finlay attempts to inveigle Bunting into his war with Montgomery, but elicits an implacable refusal. Bunting was in fact a reluctant joiner of any cause. His response to an unsolicited Arts Council grant in 1970 was a furious letter of rejection: he called the offer a ‘humiliation’, given the expectation that he thank the Arts Council in print in his next publication.

In 1977, tired of his hebephile ways, Sima ended her marriage to Bunting, throwing him out at the height of a pitiless winter storm. Preposterously, in a letter to Jonathan Williams he blames her decision on the ‘“change of life” troubles women undergo’, suggesting that limited self-awareness must be added to the long list of his shortcomings. Feeling he has lived too long, he gripes his way through his final years with miserabilist panache, describing his new home town of Washington near Sunderland as a ‘huge slave barracks designed by a team of lunatics’. ‘Old men are really disgusting to themselves as well as to those who try to put up with them,’ he writes to Massimo Bacigalupo in 1985, a month before his death.

Niven’s footnotes are helpful and chatty, though Jon Silkin’s death date (1997) is wrongly given as 1970. Elsewhere, Philip Larkin is described with a theatrical flourish as a ‘hard-right British poetaster’.
Bunting too had little time for Larkin (‘It isnt so easy to tell Larkin from a corpse’), but decades’ worth of poetry wars lay behind that description. Yet today, after decades of neglect at T S Eliot’s editorial hands, Bunting sits alongside Larkin on the Faber poetry list. Since Larkin’s death in 1985, his reputation has taken its share of hits, often targeted at the cosy image of the poet as mid-century everyman and national treasure. Few people, by contrast, have ever taken Bunting, in his deep strangeness, as representing anything or anyone beyond himself. This may have held him back professionally, while also liberating him into the private dreamscapes where his great poetry was made. There was a lot of wastage in Bunting’s life, and he did not wish to see his correspondence preserved (‘I dont write letters for posterity but for pulp,’ he told George Oppen in 1973), but Briggflatts endures. Letters of Basil Bunting is the essential record of everything that made that masterpiece possible.

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