- Bunting: The Shaping of his Verse
“I’ve been good for nothing for fifteen years and most people have very properly forgotten me,” Basil Bunting wrote in a letter published in Conjunctions in 1980, five years before his death. And still more bitterly, “Three days after the funeral I’ll be in Limbo for a long stay.” Fifteen years before had been the publication of his superb poem of 700 lines, smoked down from 20,000 lines, Briggflatts (1965). On either side of Briggflatts stretches the desert of Bunting’s career: after the War, in the 1950s he worked absolutely unknown as a rewrite man on provincial newspapers in the north of England, and then in the late 1960s and early 1970s he kept himself and his family barely afloat with some non-renewable teaching jobs in Newcastle, Vancouver, Buffalo, and Santa Barbara. As a pugnacious northerner he despised the Southrons who controlled the literary establishment, and he wrote with local words like kelts, hogg, kecking, and iceblink, and he argued in The Listener in 1976 that Southrons could not fully grasp Wordsworth because they couldn’t pronounce his northern sounds; so mostly those in London publishing who control the canon have kept Bunting out (as with Hugh MacDiarmid, and for many of the same reasons, except Bunting was no Communist).
When Peter Makin’s superior full-length critical study came out, Lachlin Mackinnon in the London Times Literary Supplement brushed it aside—acting amazed that Clarendon Press would sponsor major-poet treatment, impressed by the biographical side of Makin’s book but not his work as critic. Against that let it be said: Bunting is the Alexander Pope to Ezra Pound’s Dryden and the only British Poundian worthy of the master. Bunting wrote few poems, but they are all strong and perfect without a weak line or word, and Peter Makin has written a book that definitively supports these claims. Donald Davie in Under Briggflatts (Manchester: Carcanet, 1989) is an eloquent defender, and Victoria Forde published an adequate earlier book, The Poetry of Basil Bunting (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1991), but Makin is the one who hauls Bunting back out of limbo.
Peter Makin spends the first 125 pages tying together biographical development with the early poems, notably “Villon,” “The Well of Lycopolis,” and most of the odes. The middle two parts of the book, 135 pages across five chapters, concern Briggflatts: “Plot and Parables,” “Warriors” (Eric Bloodaxe and northern history), “Saints” (Cuthbert and northern spirituality), the Lindisfarne Gospels and Bunting’s imitation in sounds of their visual interlacings, and “Music” (sonata as Bunting’s model of clear-cut form). Finally there is a part called “Theory,” of which more below, and a brief last years/last poems “Coda” that takes up (among others) the 1975 poem for the Quaker meeting-house at Brigflatts, “Boasts time mocks cumber Rome.” Overall, the book is about the shape of a modernist life and the shape of the poems from phoneme up to larger intellectual framework, finally to the ambiguous shape of Bunting’s belief (raised as a Quaker, Bunting at the end would think Hume and cell biology and God in the same thought, and Makin’s cautiousness here supports my own doubt that Davie can be right in claiming Bunting for Christian orthodoxy). As Peter Makin knew Bunting, and corresponded with him in the 1970s and 1980s, many footnotes contain essential new material that helps understanding of the poems (for instance, Hastor in part 3 of Briggflatts turns out to be the director of The London Times, Hugh Astor, making the outrageous passage about the turd-bakers an attack on the dirt-language of journalism; we would never otherwise have known). Makin has also read all the fugitive and manuscript works and all the drafts in archives from Durham to Austin to Buffalo, and has plainly travelled Bunting’s [End Page 157] Northumberland and County Durham ground, as well as having studied the myths and histories of North England that make up Bunting’s lore. To complete the...