The Book review is in part one.
What follows is not a criticism of Stanard’s book more thoughts provoked by it.
Stanard follows the obvious path and “All roads lead to Briggflatts”(p88) and “Briggflatts was Basil Bunting’s defining triumph’ (p.117). In a recorded conversation, Hugh Kenner told Charles Tomlinson that without Briggflatts Bunting would have been ‘a minor British poet working in the Pound Tradition’ or words to that effect. Burton structured his biography to mimic the structure of Briggflatts.
While I would happily argue that Briggflatts and The Waste Land are the only two successful long poems in the Modernist manner, I think that standard narrative of Bunting’s life and career should be challenged, if only as a thought experiment. Doing so might force a re evaluation of the man’s work which illuminates its excellence. I’m not about to launch into the detail such a re evaluation might require here: I’m floating it as a suggestion.
The other aspect of the story that should be reconsidered is the role of Ezra Pound. Assumptions about Bunting’s relationship with Pound are used as a short cut to explain Bunting’s relative obscurity, to avoid considering what makes him unique, or to put him in a safe box where he can be ignored. Or to inflate Pound's influence and reputation. It doesn’t just gloss over their falling out; it obscures the differences between their poetry.
Just as Pound never managed to write a poem to rival The Waste Land, he didn’t write anything that was as good as Bunting as his best. Bunting wasn’t a slavish disciple. He was too bloody-minded to be anyone’s acolyte. Put Bunting’s Odes beside Pound’s shorter poems and Pound's don’t come off well in the comparison. Put Villon beside anything Pound had written to that point (mid 1920s) and see which is better?
'All roads lead to Briggflatts' because it’s used as a vantage point from which to look back over the life and career. Inevitably this confers retrospective coherence and significance. It’s difficult not to do it because there’s the feeling that in writing the Big B he solved the problems that produced flaws in the earlier pieces. But reading everything as a progress towards that one poem implies that the only interest the earlier poems have is as failed experiments on the way to a singular success.
As a thought experiment, acknowledge the brilliance of Briggflatts, and then imagine Bunting’s Collected without it. This would force attention on to the individual poems.
The Odes, like the Sonatas, are uneven. Being uneven is not a criticism. It's hard to imagine a Collected works which doesn't deserve that epithet. But it might be interesting to argue that Bunting’s development had more in common with Yeats’ than Pound’s or Eliot’s. There’s not a great deal of development in style or form or technique across Yeats’ or Bunting’s Collecteds, rather an ongoing refinement. Whatever Bunting had, like Yeats, he had it from the start, and while their contemporaries were off to redesign the spoon, and discovered the spoon is the way it is because it works best the way it is, Yeats went on refining and improving the lyric poem and Bunting went on hitting and missing the mark he seems to have been aiming at.
From the start of the Collected the poetry has a characteristic drive to reduce, condense and omit. It never has the bookishness of Eliot or Pound. Never explain, said Bunting, your reader is as smart as you are. Which is an ideal to aim at and OK if your readers are Zukovsky, Pound and Yeats.
When Bunting gets it wrong, the drive to omit and condense produces a ‘terse’ expression that gets to pithy and stalls. He makes the mistake he criticized Pound for; alluding and not presenting. Some of the Odes and sections of the failed Sonatas read like private messages that lack any kind of public context. The reader is a mere third party observer overhearing less than a complete conversation.
When he gets it right, the drive to condense and omit produces poetry, but it’s ‘terse with music’ and a treatment that presents what’s happening so the reader can follow. Often the poems combine the diction and syntax of everyday speech without affectation. This wasn’t something he finally succeeded in doing in Briggflatts at the end of his writing career. It’s there from the start.
Leaving Briggflatts and Pound out of the discussion does not deny their importance, but it might lead to an interesting valuation of Bunting as a poet. However Kenner might have wanted to define ‘minor’, and it should be said that in print he was much more enthusiastic about Bunting’s work, Villon is not the work of a ‘minor poet.’ Nor are some of the Odes and Overdrafts.