In “A Strong Song Tows Us” Richard Burton attempts to account for Basil Bunting’s ‘disappearance’. “Mention Bunting to a literate, educated young person these days and you will be met by polite incomprehension. It wasn’t always so. In the 1960s and 1970s he was arguably the world’s most celebrated living poet.”(p7)
Burton investigates the disappearance. He lists as reasons: regionalism (Bunting is ‘a northern poet’) religion (Bunting is a ‘Quaker Poet’) voice (I don’t understand this one), his association with Pound, difficulty, difficulty of getting short bits of long poems in anthologies, but finally plumps for “auto-regionalisation” as the main cause. (p17)
I think he’s wrong. This is not a criticism of his book. I think it’s a misunderstanding of the way poetry works in the modern world. Quality of poem as poem is not the issue. The shrinking of poetry from the public domain into academic institutions means that what gets read at school and taught at university, sets up a perverse kind of brand loyalty and what is read at school has more to do with what schools have to do, than with any kind of poetics. If no one ever published another poem, schools could continue blithely teaching their compulsory version of poetry because it have never borne much relationship to how poems operate outside.
Burton demonstrates this when, discussing ‘war poetry’. He writes:
“We now think of the poetry of the first world war as overwhelmingly critical of political and military leaders’ strategy and tactics, articulating a sense of the hopelessness of valour in the teeth of insuperable horror, but that is largely because the poetry that has survived (because it is the best) was written by poets-Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves- who subscribed to the view that it was the futility and horror that needed to be in a perverse sense celebrated. If fact of the 2,225 poets who published during the years of the war hardly any expressed the views that have for generations of students defined it’s poetry.” (61)
It’s the bit in brackets that betrays him: ('because it is the best'.)
Is it? On what grounds?
In terms of getting a reaction from students, if your class doesn’t respond to ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ you might want to join hands and contact the living: does that make it a great poem? Schools use Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath not because they are great poets, but because their poems get a reaction and can be discussion starters for ‘Meaningful issues”. After all, isn’t great literature supposed to be about important stuff?
The problem is that discussing poetry, as poetry, requires both knowledge and a high level of verbal sophistication. Burton has this, as he demonstrates reading Bunting. He is able to explain why Villon is worthy of our attention, not because of its content, but because of its rich verbal texture.
But how many people in a class room can do that? How many have ever heard of Yeats’ objections to Owen’s poetry and could navigate that criticism? or Geoffrey Hill's "the poetry had better not be in the pity". How many have actually asked themselves if their choice of poets is about the quality of the poetry, or because in one way or another, they still are “Sandwich board men [and women] of the revolution", in the case of “War Poets” representing values we’d like to think we’d have in that situation.
Poems get chosen partly because of the syllabus requirement, but partly because of the values they espouse. Are those four poets Burton names really ‘the best’? Are there really no good pro war poems written by one of the 2,221 other poets?
Bunting is not appearing any time soon on a school curriculum. Imagine the essays they’d make you write, at seventeen. Briggflatts is a great poem: discuss. Imagine trying to explain what “the greatest British Modernist’ might mean in terms of taking a class through I am agog for foam, or Briggflatts, or Villon. I don’t think there are many people who could do that. And I don't think many people would see the exercise as worthwhile. Once you've proven how good it is, what do you do next? Analyse the discourse of nationhood or masculinity it it?
For a poet to live in the academy he or she has to be useable. And Bunting for all his brilliance, is resolutely not useable. It's one of the reasons he's brilliant.