Saturday, July 30, 2022

Letters of Basil Bunting #3. Pound, Bunting and Persian literature

Bunting’s Persia revisted. 



Ten years ago, trying to study Bunting’s disagreement with Pound over Bunting’s Persian translations, I had to rely on the available snippets of Bunting’s correspondence. taken out of content, often with ellipsis, I  could only wonder what was hidden by the frequent ellipsis in the quotations.


It's a delight to see the letters printed in full here. Niven says of them: 


The following two letters to Pound repay close attention, because they contain arguably the most revealing statements about Bunting’s literary development in this part of the correspondence. (p.91)


If we leave the bus that goes to Briggflatts, beyond any possible significance they have for Bunting’s literary development, the letters illuminate a problem central to one strand of poetics in the twentieth century. Bunting, Pound, William Carlos Williams et al were minimalists by instinct. But they were touched by the thought that Great Poets Write Long Poems. Disdaining narrative, their problem was how to make a long poem cohere. 


One of the many benefits of Niven’s edition is obvious when a quote that was available ten years ago is compared with the letter it’s taken from.


It occurred to me a long time ago that this indirect business had gone about as far as it would go without degenerating. Nobody is going to do it better than you for a hell of a long time, and Zuk [the American poet Louis Zukofsky] can only introduce further complications of method that remove it from a possible reader, step by step, until somebody will rise who will… be totally unintelligible. (Bunting qtd. Makin 1992,  p.77. Ellipsis in Makin.)


…somebody will rise who will justify the kind of things the academic nincompoops used to say about you, and be totally unintelligible. Hence ‘Chomei’ to reduce it to such simplicity as I could, which thereupon ended the matter so far as I am personally concerned. I can do nothing with it that will satisfy me. It is much better to leave the field to you and perhaps Zuk’s elaborations and try telling a story.


This leads to the wretchedly unsuccessful attempt to do a bit of Machiavelli, and consequent considerable thinking. (p.93)


Niven’s footnote suggests that the ‘bit of Machiavelli’ hadn’t survived, but ‘How Duke Valentine Contrived’ had been published by Pound two years earlier and ‘wretchedly unsuccessful’ is an apt description.  


From the 1930s Bunting was looking for the exit from the inevitable stylistic cul-de-sac, and his instincts, reinforced by reading Persian, was to return narrative to the mix. Pound wanted none of it. Their clash over Bunting’s attempts to translate The Shahnemeh made the problem explicit. 


Rather than let the letters speak for themselves, Niven imposes an interpretation on them:


Though it would take him another three decades to work through the impulse, one of Bunting’s distinctive contributions to late Modernist poetics (announced tentatively in The Spoils and much more emphatically in Briggflatts) was an embodiment of the sorts of epic, narrative values he advocates in this letter. 

Perhaps fairly, given the emphasis on heroic action in the cantos, Pound took umbrage at Bunting’s suggestion […] (p. 91)


‘Perhaps fairly’ misses the point of Bunting’s ‘suggestion’ and is an odd reading of the Cantos.


The problem, how to tell a story using the techniques that Bunting admired in ‘poetry’, or how to reconcile modernism and Traditional narrative if you prefer, was not one he solved. The kind of ‘epic, narrative values’ he advocates in these letters are not evident in The Spoils and only occasionally in Briggflatts.  The latter is a poem with narrative passages, and it purports to be an autobiography, but how much could readers learn about Bunting’s life if they only had the poem as evidence? 


The test of that thought is whether his criticism of the Cantos in the second of these two letters applies to his own later work. ‘But the literature of the last-how long-has all of it been psychological: people talking or thinking about things they didnt do, or would like to do, or why and why not,’ describes much of The Spoils and some of Briggflatts. In the following quotation replace Sigismundo with Basil, the Encyclopedia Britannica with Burton’s biography, the Cantos and works of E.P with Briggflatts and the comment applies to Bunting’s poem.


Sigismundo was presumably an active lad, but the cantos dont relate his activities , they allude to them or show him alluding to them. IF I want to know what Sig did I goter consult the Encycl.Brit whose contributor presumably had found out somewhere not in the works of E.P. (p.95)




Friday, July 29, 2022

Letters of Basil Bunting Selected and edited by Alex Niven. #2

 The letters as biographical evidence;

‘Letters are meant to be written to affect one bloke, not a public. What is true in the context of sender and recipient may be a bloody lie in the context of author and public…’ (Bunting to Zukofsky, June 1953 qtd in Burton, p. 354)


What becomes obvious, when Bunting's letters are printed in full and in some kind of sequence, is how limited they are as biographical evidence.


A skilful biographer, like Richard Burton in his biography of Bunting, makes cautious use of letters as biographical evidence. On their own they don’t constitute biography. Something mentioned in a letter may be fictional; an absence in the letters doesn’t necessarily mean it’s absent from the life. Burton’s biography makes it clear that Bunting loved a good story and wasn’t above embellishing one to make it more interesting.


Before email killed it, letter writing was a performance art where content and expression were shaped towards the recipient.  Unless explicitly so, a letter wasn’t testimony delivered under oath, or an essay written for examination, despite the tendency of scholars to treat letters as both. The one letter in this collection, explicitly written ‘for the record’ is different in tone and syntax from the others. 

Bunting repeatedly told his correspondents that his letters were not written for publication or posterity: ‘None of what I write in letters is meant in any permanent way, it isn’t thought out or deliberated on. It is offered merely in passing, not meant to be dwelt upon’ (p.193).


It's a caveat worth keeping in mind. Thanks to Niven, interested readers now have access to complete letters, contextualised in the sequence in which they were written. 


The letters hint at biographical events for which there is no external evidence. ‘I am off for the continent, and I hope to be in Italy sometimes in the spring and I hope to visit Rapallo and I hope to meet you there. My Girl Died’ (p.24).


Niven can only note: ‘This curious elliptical aside ,-for which I can find absolutely no context-brings home how little we really know of the minutiae of BB’s early years’ (n. 67 p. 24). The same is true of Bunting’s strange claim to have led some kind of protest in London during the succession crisis.


Later in life, Bunting was adamant, in both letters and interviews, that Wordsworth had been a major influence on him from childhood. When Bunting discovered that Peggy Greenbank was still alive, he tells his correspondents that he had never not been in love with her. It would be possible to extract such statements as ‘evidence’, there is no reason to doubt him, but it’s now possible to see that neither claim is mentioned in any of the letters prior to the ones in which the claim appears (1953 and 1965 respectively). 


Whether this means the statements are ‘false’; demonstrates the limitations of letters as biographical evidence, or opens up the rabbit hole that ‘true or false’ might have different definitions in different contexts and is rarely a straight forward binary,  it’s now possible to ask those questions.  

Sunday, July 3, 2022

A reading of Jeremy Hooker's '1st of July 2016'

Clicking on the link below will take you to the poetry voice podcast. The poetry voice podcast is an audio anthology of poems from the earliest times to the present day. You can also listen to it on Apple Podcast as well as Spotify. This is episode 183. There is a complete index of all previous episodes  on

This poem is taken from Jeremy Hooker's collection 'Word and Stone' (Shearsman 2019)