Monday, September 19, 2016

Basil Bunting 'The Poems of Basil Bunting' edited by Don Share

I have been putting off posting this because I know it sounds churlish. But being but a churl (OED sense one, two and five). There are three previous posts about annotation that are background to what follows. 


Reviews of a book like this usually start with a general statement about Bunting and his poetry.  It gives the reviewer the opportunity to strut his or her stuff and show how much he or she  knows. Discussing a poet who was painfully meticulous in his use of words, the reviewer scatters empty terms like ‘legend’, and ’modernist’ and refers to Ezra Pound and Yeats, or Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.  He or she would make the usual silly claims that get trotted out every time there’s a ‘re -appraisal’; something critically vacuous like ‘central to the tradition of poetry in the twentieth century’. Last year it was Louis MacNeice, this year it's Bunting.

But a review of this book that discussed Bunting’s poems would miss the point.

The poems are currently available elsewhere and if they are not well known this book isn’t about to change that. At the time of writing,  the Bloodaxe Collected is selling on the Book Depository for 18 Aus dollars and some cents. The excellent Bloodaxe standalone edition of Briggflatts, which contains not only the poem, but a CD of Bunting reading it and a DVD of Peter Bell’s short film about Bunting is also available, currently priced at 16 Aus dollars and some change.

Towards the end of his life Bunting claimed:  What I have tried to do is to make something that can stand by itself and last a little while without having to be propped by metaphysics or ideology or anything from outside itself, something that might give people pleasure without nagging them to pay their dues to the party or say their prayers, without implying the stifling deference so many people in this country still show to a Cambridge degree or a Kensington accent.

If you read the poems, or listen to recordings of Bunting reading them, you might be inclined to agree with him. They work without being ‘propped up’.  

Jonathon Culler, in his recent Theory of the Lyric (2015), perhaps ironically, makes a related claim. Interpretation is not the only game in town. For centuries poets got by without academic critics. They had critical users. People liked their work or didn’t. At times Culler drifts close to suggesting that the minority status of poetry is linked to the overwhelming weight of critical interpretation and its assumption that the purpose of poetry is to provide critics with a launch pad for shows of erudition.

Faber’s much awaited, much anticipated hardback The Poems of Basil Bunting is an enormous book and is currently on offer for 44 Aus dollars. The Bloodaxe collected has 244 numbered pages.  The new Faber consists of 571 numbered pages, preceded by 40 pages of front matter numbered using Latin numerals.  The poems themselves only take up pages 5-271. 

The first thing to note is that the poems are buried under the editorial apparatus.  This is Don Share’s book. Poets need partisans and propagandists and publicists and Bunting has one in Share.

There is some new material, but it’s is hardly likely to make Bunting readers think they have been missing out on a previously undiscovered masterpiece. His translations of the Shahnameh were finally published in 2013 in ‘Bunting’s Persia’ and are included here. Eliot may have been right in rejecting them. There is a section of ‘False Starts and Fragments’, three unexceptional limericks, a facsimile of drafts of ‘the fifth sonata’ which became The Spoils, and some alternative versions.
For anyone who has read the existing Collected, none of this new material is going to alter their perception of Bunting as a poet.   

So would I recommend it to someone who doesn’t know Bunting’s poems? No.  It’s off putting, expensive and perpetuates the myth that Bunting is ‘difficult’. The poems become assimilated into gossip and speculation and are swamped. A book like this reshapes the act of reading and the effect that has on the poems might be worth considering.   
However, if you want everything in one place, then not only do you get All the poems but Share has pulled together information from books that are difficult to obtain and often out of print or very expensive. So if you were interested in Bunting, rather than his poems, and didn’t want to go the expense of tracking down the critical work about him, you’ll find a lot of it in here.

Share admits that he has ‘relied heavily-and with great gratitude-upon the work of Makin, Forde, Lesch and Burton among others, for this material. While doing so is not an original contribution to scholarship I am sure that my bringing together and organising this material from disparate sources as it bears upon individual poems is useful and unprecedented’.

Relying on other people’s scholarship is inevitable and nothing to apologize about. But if bringing together information about Bunting’s poems is unprecedented, the question is how useful is that information. I suspect it will be lost in admiration for the effort involved.

Would I recommend it as a scholarly edition? 

Cards on the table, I spend a lot of time using heavily annotated texts. It’s one of the joys of being interested in Medieval and Early Modern poetry. Based on that experience I would offer a simple criteria for judging an annotation: a) does it explain an unusual or foreign word, or note an unusual usage b) does it explain who names refer to c) does it identify sources, or meaningful literary allusions which might enhance the understanding/enjoyment of the text  and d) is it sufficient to itself.

D might need explaining.  I’m not suggesting that annotations can ever be all in all sufficient, and what one person feels needs annotation might be painfully obvious to another. But if you’re writing footnotes/endnotes/annotations then using them to point the reader to an unavailable book to check a statement when the editor could have done so is bad practice.

On those four criteria, the annotations here are inconsistent, often baffling, not always useful, and sometimes plainly irrelevant. It’s true that there is a vast amount of information in the critical framework but the editorial method is reminiscent of Nennius’s.  

I think critics, biographers and editors should be held to the same levels of scrutiny that poets are. Would I recommend it as a scholarly, critical edition? No. My reasons……

An Example

‘Villon’ provides an interesting test case.

It begins the collection.  It’s a fine, uneven, underestimated poem which should be far better known than it is.  It would stand comparison with The Waste Land  if the last (3rd) section didn’t feel awkward.  There are recordings of Bunting reading it that reveal just how beautiful it is when read aloud.

However, unlike most of Bunting’s subsequent poems, it is a very self-consciously erudite poem and therefore because of its subject matter and its numerous references, notes could be helpful to a third or tenth reading.     

The poems runs from page 5 to page 9.
Starting on page 275 the notes run to page 284.  This kind of imbalance is inevitable and not in itself a bad thing.

A general introduction to the poem precedes the publication history. This general introduction is full of literary gossip. It’s entertaining background, but the first thing to note is that nowhere does the editor say who or what Villon was.

There is a long note explaining who Clement Marot was, and a quote from Burton’s biography explaining the various puns in ‘hatching marrow’ (line five). But the model reader of this book is obviously meant to be familiar with who Villon was and why he might seem a sympathetic or attractive character.  

The first note to the poem refers readers to Villon’s Le Grand Testament, which is logical, although nowhere does the editor say which edition of Villon he’s referring to. This might sound like a pedantic observation, but Villon’s poetry differs from edition to edition; as with any early modern author there are arguments over who wrote what and the titles slide around.

Did Bunting read Villon in French or English? What were his sources? If this is a critical scholarly edition, then one obvious critical question is how well did Bunting know Villon’s poetry. You won’t find the answer here.  While noting that Bunting owned this that and the other books related to Villon, Share omits the key information as to whether he owned them when he was writing the poem.

Bunting obviously had a copy of the poems because he was reading them when he met Pound in 1924, as the general introduction to the poem notes. However, in 1924, he couldn’t have owned the copy of Oeuvres completes de Francois Villon which Share listed amongst books he owned because the publication date given here is 1929.

In this general introduction, before the gossip, there is what turns out to be a characteristically unhelpful piece of information:

‘Guedella B11 suggests that parts of the poem contain ‘borrowings from Hamlet, The Vulgate Bible and Chapman’s Translation of Homer’s Odyssey’

Guedella B11 is a strange reference as the only bibliographic reference it seems to point to is ‘Basil Bunting ; a bibliography of works and criticism’. So it’s not even clear who is making the claim.  If this is a critical edition, then surely the notes should identify these borrowings?  The use of ‘suggests’ leaves the editor free to make the point without substantiating the claim. This gives the notes an erratic quality because at times Share does identify borrowings and translations and give the relevant lines from the source.  

Either there are borrowings, and they should be identified, or there aren’t, in which case the claim is irrelevant?  There is no reference to Hamlet in any of the subsequent foot notes. Nor is there any reference to Chapman.

This turns out to be a characteristic of the annotations. Later the notes will tell us that ‘according to Forde ‘the mouldy bread’ and dry crusts’ allude to lines in ‘Ballade pour laquelle Villon crye merci a chascun’, and the vanished dancers and somersaulters recall lines in the ‘Epistre, en forme de ballade, a ces amis’ (Forde 154)

Although there is a page reference to Forde’s book there is no line references or supporting quotes from Villon’s poems.

What matters if someone else said or suggests or claims? Checking the reference in Forde’s book, one finds that Forde herself does not give line references to the poems in question either, and so the act of substantiating the claim involves at least two further steps. At the end of the trail one confronts the pointlessness of the activity. Did Bunting know these two poems, which are not part of the Grand Testament, and even if he did, what difference does it make? Prison was ‘dry bread and water’, if the bread wasn’t mouldy, or the crust wasn’t dry, it might be worthy of note but having a prisoner eat dry crusts and mouldy bread is not unique to either Bunting or Villon.
Reading the poem you encounter the line:

 And I too shall have CY GIST written over me.

Not knowing what Cy Gist means you turn to the appropriate page of annotations (p.279) and find:
Cy Gist. From the first line of Villon’s ‘Epitaphe’, ‘Cy Gist et dort en ce solier…’

which leaves the baffled reader none the wiser. What does it mean? Later in the poem Homer? Adeste? Etc  is translated.

The poem launches into that sequence of quatrains which Hugh Kenner so admired in The Sinking Island, and which Rosenthal and Gall, in their study The Modern Poetic Sequence, claimed would have been 'his major claim to attention' if he hadn't written Briggflatts. 

Remember imbeciles and wits
Sots and ascetics…

And you didn’t grow up when and where I did, where sot was still an insult easily blurring into the more offensive sod or you did, and you remember that both sot and drunken sot were insults, so you wonder if it matters which meaning Bunting might have meant here.

Either way you look up sot and the annotations provide this explanation:

'Sot. A common word in British poetry, including six appearances in Samuel Butler’s Hudibras and several in the works of George Crabbe…'

At which point I stopped reading.

Why does six uses of the word in a poem that few people read anymore warrant a note…George Crabbe? 
Is this a parody of an academic footnote? Does our editor have a subversive sense of humour?
but read on and one encounters Share’s strange use of Cp. I thought Cp. meant ‘compare’….

'Cp. Notably Dryden ‘To Sir Godfrey Kneller’, 160, “good Heaven! that sots and knaves could be so vain’, and ‘Palamon and Arcite,’ L.432-3 ‘like drunken sots about the street we roam/well knows the sot he has a certain home’; also ‘Pope, an essay on Man’ IV.215; ‘What can enoble sots, or slaves, or cowards/Alas not all the Blood of all the HOWARDS’, and ‘An Essay on Criticism’, 271:’Concluding all were desp’rate sots and fools’.

There is no explanation of what the word means and whether or not the word is ‘common in British poetry’ hardly seems a point worth making. So are ‘wits’ and ‘Remember’.  Sot was a word in common usage, not a ‘poetic word’ at all.

The note surely isn’t suggesting that Bunting is using the word sot to allude to these other poets? Or that if you go and read Hudibras your understanding of this section of Villon will be enhanced?  Why are we being told to compare Bunting’s use with Dryden and Pope’s?  There is no definition of Intertextuality which I know of which will validate this information. 

If you cared about such things you’d find the OED gives two meanings, 1) A foolish or stupid person, a blockhead a fool (obs). 2) One who drinks to excess or stupefies himself with drinking.   The question would be which was Bunting’s usage.  I remember the word being used loosely in both senses. If 1) then it duplicates Imbecile in the preceding line and Bunting of all people is padding his line, if the second then he isn’t.

But this habit of linking a word or a phrase to other poems using the abbreviation cp. is often bizarre:
1) ‘Fat and scant of breath’ Cp. Siegfried Sassoon, Base Details, I, ‘if I were fierce and bald and short of breath’.
2) Shipless, Cp. Byron, Ode to Venice, 1ii ‘That drives the sailor shipless to his home’.
3) ‘Blacked by the sun, washed by the rain,/hither and tither scurrying as the wind varies’, from Villon, ‘Freres humains quie apres nous vivez’, which describes corpses hanging from a gallows. Cp. Tennyson, ‘St Simeon Stylites’, 75, ‘Blacked with thy branding thunder’.

In (1) the link is so vague as to be pointless. Comparing the phrases which aren't that similar leads nowhere. In (2) shipless isn’t exactly an unusual word, and the link to Byron is baffling. What drives Byron’s men shipless home is not really relevant here. 3) is a good example of how inconsistent the notes are. The first part identifies the source and does so simply and without fobbing the identification off onto to someone else. But what purpose could the Tennyson reference serve? And how is it relevant. It links bodies hanging on a gallows blackened by the sun with a saint up a stick blackened by thunder?   

In the quatrains there is a run of names. If you don’t know who they all are, it doesn’t matter; the point is everybody dies. But the list includes Henry the Fowler, Charlemagne, Genee, Lopokova, General Grant and General Lee, Patti and Florence Nightingale.  All are identified in separate notes, except for Patti who might have been several people and this is acknowledged in the note on her. 

However, when you reach Tyro and Antiope and have no idea who they were, the note informs you:
'Cp. Homer, Odyssey, Book XI. During Odysseus’ descent to the other world, the ghosts of these legendary women (amongst others) appear'.

Which is not informative. Who are these ‘legendary women’, what were they legendary for? Either it doesn’t matter, in which case annotations are unnecessary, or they do, and there is a purpose to Bunting’s choosing of these names and not other women from ‘amongst others’. Later Circe will be explained.  

And so it goes.

An editor once returned an article I’d written. I'd travelled all the way to Samarkand, been arrested and told to leave. After telling me how well-written my article was, she added: 'We all have disappointments, but we don’t publish them.’

I have a feeling that’s what I’m doing here.

Does a poet’s reputation rest on the quality of the poems he or she produces, or on the willingness of someone to turn those poems into the springboard for an academic performance?

Has Bunting finally ‘Arrived’ and can now be comfortably assimilated and quietly forgotten. The book is a fine resource for the kind of literary criticism that produces Phd’s no one reads. Should you be interested in the absence or otherwise of commas in some of the poems this is your book.   


A.E.M. Baumann said...

Not churlish at all. The small demonstration is all that is necessary to speak the nature of the book and its apparatus . . . and continue my low estimation of Don Share's editorial abilities. (Did he farm out the notes to undergrads?) Unfortunate, for I was looking forward to the book.

(It's selling only $25US new here, not that much higher than what _Bunting's Persia_ is selling new here, $16US, nor than the complete at $17 and change -- the oddities of international sales. Perhaps of better value here . . . and my complete was damaged by water, alas.)

Liam Guilar said...

In all fairness, it's unlikely that any one person could be expert enough in all the areas required to know the possible allusions and references, or know enough to be able to assess all the claims and statements other critics have made. IF 'editing' means producing a text, and assembling the variants and the variables, it's a possible activity. Once it involves 'annotating', it shifts into a very different realm of scholarship. So you could say there's nothing wrong with Share's editing, in the restricted sense.

A.E.M. Baumann said...

That's true.