Bunting told the story of how he had become interested in Persian poetry several times, but the version which interests me is the one recorded by Jonathan Williams in “Descant on Rawthey’s Madrigal”.
I found a book-tattered, incomplete-with a news paper cover on it marked “Oriental Tales”. I bought it, in French. It turned out to be the part of an early 19th century prose translation of Firdausi, and it was absolutely fascinating. I got into the middle of the story of the education of Zal and the Birth of Rustam-and the story came to an end! It was quite impossible to leave it there , I was desperate to know what happened next. I read it, as far as it went, to Pound and to Dorothy Pound and they were in the same condition. We were yearning to find out, but we could think of no way. The title page was even missing. There seemed nothing to do but learn Persian and Firdausi, so, I undertook that. (np)
He records and pays tribute to the oldest pull of narrative, the ability of a story to create in the reader the powerful need to know what happens next. His Persian was soon good enough to allow him to begin to translate Ferdowsi and he encountered an inevitable problem. The Shahnemeh belongs to a tradition that was just as prevalent in Europe as it had been in Persia. Poetry had been the major vehicle for narrative. But the long narrative poem in English had been struggling against the prose novel since the beginning of the19th century and by the 1930s the “lyricization” of poetry was well underway.
Bunting would remain convinced for the rest of his life that Ferdowsi was one of the world’s great poets but he wasn’t happy with his translations. He wrote to Pound in 1934:
Hope to send you a lump of Firdusi before long…as to onomatopoeic accompaniment, which is the marvel of the whole thing, alliterations, internal rhymes, contrapuntal arrangement soft stress against ictus against succession of longs , hopeless task for anybody except Homer translating Fidusi or Firdusi translating Homer. (qtd in Makin p76)
But neither was Pound, for a different reason.
Wot I feel about yr/persi[a]ns is tha[t] shucks wot does it ma[t]ter if some nigger knifed a few others. (qtd in Makin p76. Marks in the original)
Or less offensively:
Bunt’s gone off on Persian, but don’t seem to do anything but Firdusi, who he can’t put into English that is of any interest. More fault of subject matter than of anything else in isolation. (qtd in Makin p.119)
Although much of the translations have only been published in 2012, Peter Makin, the only critic to have written book length studies of both Pound and Bunting, had traced the argument though an exchange of letters.
Bunting to Pound:
the literature of the past-how long-has all of it been psychological; people talking or thinking about things they didnt [sic] do or would like to do, or why and why not. Even in the Cantos you nearly always prefer to show somebody thinking or writing or telling, and the interest is as much or more in the person as in the deed contemplated.
in the same letter he wrote:
It occurred to me a long time ago that this indirect business had gone about as far as it would go without degenerating . Nobody is going to do it better than you for a hell of a long time, and Zuk can only introduce further complications of method that remove it from a possible reader, step by step, until somebody will rise who will… be totally unintelligible (BB to EP 4th of January 1936 qtd in Makin p77. ellipsis in Makin.)
The argument turns on the relative importance in a poem between What (is being said) and How (it is being said). Lyric privileges How: narrative demands What.
Reference to the letters are from Peter Makin’s Bunting: the shaping of his verse Clarendon press, Oxford, 1992.