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)