Friday, October 18, 2013

A strong song tows us: the Life of Basil Bunting by Richard Burton (part one)

A strong song tows us: the Life of Basil Bunting (2013) by Richard Burton.Infinite press ltd.

This is a fine book. The narrating voice is enthusiastic, friendly, critical, knowledgeable. Don Share’s use of “companionable” on the dust jacket is an inspired description. 

Basil Bunting’s position in the history of twentieth century poetry is decidedly odd.  At the end of his long active life, he could wryly comment on a circle of readers that had been painfully small, but which had consisted of Pound, Zukofksy, Yeats, William Carlos Williams, David Jones and Hugh MacDiarmid.  His collected poems in the Blood Axe edition (2000) only runs to 176 pages (the book is bolstered by some ‘uncollected’ pieces to 238 pages but it’s still tiny compared with the collected poems of any of his friends).

Poets from Ed Dorn, Thom Gunn to Alan Ginsberg, to Roy Fisher and Tom Pickard  admired his work. Hugh Kenner not only dedicated his book on British poetry, the Sinking island,  to him, but thought his obscurity a national disgrace. Donald Davie called his history of poetry in Britain from 1960-1988,  Under Briggflatts,  acknowledging that Bunting’s great poem dwarfed its contemporaries. 

By the time he died there were numerous well-informed voices arguing he was one of the greats of the twentieth century and Briggflatts was as good as or equal to The Waste Land,  Four Quartets or any other poem you want to put beside it.

He died in 1985. And then, he disappeared.

Compared to the outpourings of books about someone like Ted Hughes, it’s a fascinating glimpse of how poetry world works. 

In the years since his death the number of book length studies of his work can be counted on one hand (there are two that I know of,  possibly three depending on your definition). The number of books devoted to him might require  both hands to count them,  if you are generous and include slim pamphlets like “Descant on Rawthey's Madrigal” or “Basil Bunting, a Northern Life” in the list, both of which can cost you more pounds or dollars on the second hand book market than they have pages. (This is not an exaggeration. Descant’ does not have fifty pages but it cost me fifty pounds.)

The Faber Collected has been endlessly delayed, new books about Bunting might be advertised by they tend to disappear unpublished.  So for a poet of his stature there is no critical collected or complete poems to set beside his old friends. There is no edition of his letters. The only book length biography,  Kieth Alldritt’s The Poet as Spy (1998) was described to me as “so inaccurate as to be worthless.”

So a full length biography was long overdue and the chances of it being awful or just disappointing were fairly good.  The good news is that Burton’s biography is a long way from awful, in fact it’s very good. It’s readable, and if you knew nothing about Bunting or his work and you ignore Bunting’s own belief that the biography of a poet is an unnecessary distraction from the poems,  this book should have “START HERE” written on it.

Alldritt’s biography is described and dismissed in two crushing one sentence summaries.  The first is worthy of Roy Forster: “That said, Aldritt’s biography is a good story, and it subject would undoubtedly have approved of its sacrifice of accuracy to imaginative narrative”(p6).  Like Forster,  Burton is good at the art of the footnote. The footnote to that sentence adds: “Almost every verifiable assertion in Alldritt’s book , from Thomas’ entry on the Bunting’s birth certificate to the cause of death cited on his death certificate, is wrong.”(Intro, fn 8. P531)

For anyone who hasn’t read Alldritt this isn’t a problem, but if you have, then the book hangs round like an unwanted guest who wants to be involved in the conversation and isn’t  getting the hint he should depart.

Incidentally, if you do want to know the cause of death, you’ll have to read Burton’s footnotes.

The first task of the biographer is to get the facts right and create the scaffolding of a chronology.  With Bunting this is difficult. The outline of the life is fairly straightforward and well known. But the devil is in the detail. There is a lack of evidence: Bunting didn’t keep a diary and liked to burn letters, urging his correspondents to burn his. There is also the problem of Bunting’s ‘diplomatic years’.  Although his RAF record was released in 2010, exactly what he was doing In Persia in the early 1950s might never be known. 

If that isn’t problem enough, what evidence there is often partial, incomplete and contradictory.  The Elizabethans believed ‘lover liar poet” were synonyms, and Bunting was obviously not above embroidering a story. Did D.H. Lawrence really feed him hash cakes? Nor can other witnesses be taken at face value. His first wife’s testimony seems anything but objective which is understandable in human terms but difficult for a biographer. 

Burton deftly works his way through this problem.  He gives contending versions, weighs their merits when he can, has obviously worked hard to track down “objective facts” and sensibly refuses to get bogged down in the impossibility of trying to discover exactly what got Bunting arrested in Paris, or how many countries he was arrested in and what for.

It’s a delicate balancing act, mostly pulled off with a cheerful aplomb. At times it seems to falter: having proved Bunting’s habit of embellishing a story,  Burton seems willing to take everything he wrote from and about Persia as fact.  It’s true his letters suggest the world lost a great book on Persia, but while Burton writes: “You can’t imagine he was making this stuff up.”(302) I’ve bent too many similar stories; so I can.

Scaffolding in place, create the character. And here Burton does a good job, with an awkward, sometimes baffling subject. The book raises questions the evidence won’t answer. Burton quotes Roy Fisher: “..But there was also the inaccessible sense of a demon of delinquency and improvidence –the absences, the goings to ground, the impulsive initiatives, the periods of yielding to circumstance in a curiously-I’m tempted to say suspiciously –passive manner. A sort of anti-matter countering the will to achieve good things, and in some way ministering to it.”(454)

But can never really explain the essential conundrum Fisher outlines: there’s an almost willful self-destructiveness at work. Before and after Persia BB seems to have regularly shot himself in the foot.  It’s almost as if he needed to lash out; at school, at Eliot, at the arts council, at the universities that hired him, at the students he was hired to teach.  But why he did this is remains a mystery. Burton suggests some kind of mental problem, as early as his run in with his headmaster at Leighton park “Bunting’s parents had clearly feared for their son’s sanity for some years” (p51), but it’s dropped though the incident itself is explored with an admirable thoroughness.

Likewise his love affair with Peggy, which Burton describes as one of the great love stories of the century, seems curiously off stage. The only evidence for their youthful passion is in Briggflatts, and while there was a  reunion after the poem’s publication, it slips past us. 

A literary biography has to deal with the work. It  stands or falls on the biographer’s ability to do so on two fronts. The first is the extremely delicate task of trying to relate fictive texts to lived experience and using the texts as biographical evidence. The second is to give the reader some sense of why that work is important.

Burton is very very good on the second one. He provides the evidence for the reception of poems and books.  Unlike Harriet Munroe who returned some of Bunting’s marked  ‘Ret’d too complicated for me”(p133), Burton’s close reading of the poems, particularly Villon is able to demonstrate why the poem is good, and what is most characteristic of Bunting’s poems. As someone who already thinks Villon is excellent, it’s almost comforting to read someone explaining why it is. If you didn’t know the poem, after reading this you’d want to find it and read it. Burton also resists the temptation to write an essay on each poem, though using the structure of Briggflatts to shape the book makes the whole book an essay on Briggflatts.

Using the poetry as biographical evidence is more difficult. Burton is wary, and judicious but his problem can be easily demonstrated.

The evidence for Bunting’s adolescent relationship with Peggy Greenbank is in Briggflatts, and no where else any more. Burton writes:  ”It is a great twentieth century love story and it is commemorated in one of the century’s most influential and moving poems. Indeed it is a love story that is contained almost entirely within the poem”(P33 his italics)  The within suggests something that isn’t explained.  But it’s assumed that what is described happened. 

Later  Tanya Crossey is named three times in two pages (522/3) and it’s not til the third that she is identified in any way, as “Bunting’s young friend”.  This is a minor stylistic tic, but anyone who has read Alldritt will remember meeting her, opening Bunting’s door dressed in her underwear (188). Alldritt gives no source for this story.  Alldritt’s book manages to avoid and simultaneously ghost an evil innuendo.  Burton buries the slur,  but does the burial in a foot note where suddenly the fictive nature of Briggflatts invalidates itself as evidence:

“I have come across no evidence (with the possible exception of Briggflatts itself, although that is a poem) that these girls ever became more than companions. He was intensely attached to some of them but there is no evidence of any of them became either muses of lovers.”(Chapter three, fn 39, Page 567 Italics in the original.)

It’s a fine book. There are a couple things I was surprised to miss: one of my favorite Bunting stories is about his appearance at Tom Pickard’s trial: Alldritt tells it briefly. Pickard tells it dramatically in More Picks than Prizes building to a great exit line. But you can’t have everything.

A reader not particularly interested in Bunting will still find a lot to think about. Bunting’s long life, and his dedication to the craft of poetry, meant that not only was he a part of the modernist revolution, but he lived long enough to see the institutionalizing of poetry: in Arts Council Funding, in the Poetry Society, and in the  development of creative writing programs in universities. That none of these could deal with Bunting, who epitomized everything they were supposed to celebrate, support and stand for, is a damning comment on them, not on Bunting’s awkwardness.

A final point, the book raises the question of why Bunting seems to have disappeared. Burton argues that Bunting’s presentation as a specifically Northern Poet, and as a Quaker poet, have isolated him. I think he’s wrong. The academic process thrives on such distinctions. Critic A writes that Bunting is a Quaker, critic B demolishes A’s argument, but C comes along, supports A by refuting B, developing a new argument which A and D can then attack. And so it goes on. The absence of poetry as good as Briggflatts from the general knowledge of poetry, says so much about how the world of poetry works, how academic treatments at both school and tertiary levels work, and what it says is not complementary to any of them.  

(But I want to come back to that last point later. It's no flaw of the book. Read it.)

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