Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Basil Bunting the Complete poems, The problems of Annotation 2a/3

To add to the previous post before completing the sequence.

Literary critics  habitually  use the statements made by poets about poetry or about their own poems as though they were forensic evidence relevant to an enquiry, given under oath by a poet who has not only considered the idea carefully before writing or speaking, but has polished the statement and spoken or written in full knowledge that it will be used, publically, in evidence against him or her for eternity. 

I've done this. 

But the assumption this practice is based on won’t stand scrutiny. People change their minds, they say things off the cuff, they exaggerate, forget, they shape the story for the audience. Letters are written late at night, to old friends, for their amusement, a line is tried out, thrown into silence to see what it sounds like? We all do this.  But apparently Poets are different. Anything a poet says about poetry or poems or poets can be treated as revelation from the mountain. 

Critics plunder the letters and interviews, journal entries and articles for a quote that substantiates their preferred reading of the poem, or illuminates the poem for them and then they ignore the things that don't.

But what happens with the poet who grew up, became well-informed and changed her mind, realizing her youthful enthusiasms were just that: youthful enthusiasm and over confidence. Or the one who worked his way through a sequence of half-formed ideas to a point that was only final because it was the last one he wrote down? What about the gulf between half-guessed theory and the reality of practice? ‘Fear adjectives, they bleed nouns” wrote Bunting. Go scan the first line of Briggflatts

Imagine taking Pound’s early statements about poetry and applying them to his own later work. How may interviews are there with Bunting in which he feels obliged, or is asked, to clarify what he might have meant when he made that famous statement about poetry and sound?

We talk about Poetry as though all poems were the same, all poets operating under the same conditions, with the same aims and expectations. Which in itself is stupid, so consider how strange it is when one poet’s ideas, lifted from its context, can be used as some kind of Law of Poetry which is then applied not only to his or her poems which were already written, but to all poems.  

Frost’s “poetry is what gets lost in translation’ is a fine example. His definition of poetry was idiosyncratic. But people with no idea what that definition was will happily quote or misquote his statement about translation as though it were a law on the level of ‘pure water boils at 100 degrees centigrade at sea level’.

It’s rarely that you see a Critic take conflicting statements made by the poet at different times and in different contexts.

One of the many fine things about Richard Burton’s Biography of Bunting, A Strong Song Tows Us, is the way he gives alternative versions of the same event. His handling of  ‘What happened to Bunting in Paris’ is not only a fine piece of biographical juggling, but a salutary warning against the simplicity of finding a useful quote and using it to explain the poem or the poet’s beliefs and attitudes.

To return to that line: I hear Aneurin number the dead,  which I was imagining annotating in the previous post. Sister Mary Forde records Bunting saying Aneirin was someone who ‘ought to be known to all, but probably isn’t, the great Welsh poet of the early Dark Ages who left a splendid poem called Gododdin mourning the men killed at the battle of Catterick by the newly arrived English”. Qtd Forde, 1991 The Poetry of Basil Bunting p. 233

So we should add to our note on Aneirin: ‘Bunting believed Aneirin should be known to all’.  That’s what the words say. Convicted out of his own mouth yer honour?

But was he that silly? Does ‘known to all’ really mean everyone, including Mandarin speakers, Inuit and Basques? Of course not you say, you’re being silly.  

Does it even mean ‘known to all the people present where I’m currently speaking’, or ‘known to people with an interest in my poem’, or does it just mean  ‘There’s this chap Aneirin and I think he’s interesting and you should look him up?’ Or was Bunting being mischievous and name checking a poet he knew most people have not heard of?  Either the statement, taken at its denotative value is nonsensical, or it obviously can’t be taken at face value and its usefulness is questionable.  

And ‘Known’ what does that ‘known’ mean? The indisputable facts about Aneirin could be written on the back of a fag packet. The poem? Is he really suggesting everyone read Y Gododdin? Hands up all those people who have read the whole thing in translation, not just the odd extract? Not many.  Why would you? What's splendid about it? The number of people who have read the whole thing in the original, if you excluded undergraduates slogging through it under duress, could probably be written on the other side of the same fag packet.
This was a small digression. Back to annotations next post.

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