restricted access A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting by Richard Burton (review)
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A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting. Richard Burton. Westport, CT: Prospecta Press, 2013. Pp. 618. $49.95 (cloth).

In “On the Flyleaf of Ezra Pound’s Cantos,” British poet Basil Bunting wrote of his friend’s work:

There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .you will have to go a long way roundif you want to avoid them.1

Now, after years of peaks and troughs of attention, Bunting’s own Alps may be veering ineluctably onto the horizon. After all, Richard Burton, in his monumental new biography, asserts that Bunting might well be “Britain’s greatest modernist poet” (7).

Bunting claimed that his 1965 magnum opus Briggflatts, “An Autobiography,” contained all the personal information a reader of his work would ever need. This warning might deter his followers from delving into a murky—even mythic—personal history, but it is with Bunting’s warning in mind that Burton begins his biography: an epic of some 618 pages. Bunting encouraged his correspondents to make liberal use of the hearth and the waste paper basket, as he did, in order to ward off future pesterers, so it is fitting that Burton wonders whether Bunting had “some kind of posterity death wish” (9). Indeed, 471 pages in, Burton quotes Bunting, admonishing potential biographers as “industrious compilers” and stating: “I’d rather leave the lid on my dust-bin and the earth on my friends’ graves” (471). Nonetheless, Burton bravely soldiers on.

In spite of such caveats, the temptation to uncover the biography of a man who lived multiple lives as “a conscientious objector, prisoner, artists’ model, journalist, editor, sailor, balloon [End Page 379] operator, interpreter, wing commander, diplomat, spy and, above all these, a poet” (1) is irresistible. The story of a life more interesting than fiction deserves to be told in detail.

Basil Bunting, born in Scotswood-on-Tyne in 1900, lived in London in the early 1920s, rubbing shoulders (and more) with modernist muses in Kleinfeldt’s, or The Fitzroy Tavern: a London boozer, perched next to Bloomsbury and frequented by artists and free thinkers. Bunting moved on to Paris, where he worked for Ford Madox Ford’s Transatlantic Review. Next, he traveled to Rapallo, Italy, where he was mentored by Ezra Pound. He also lived in Spain, the United States, Isfahan, and Tehran before returning to his native Northeast of England, where he was part of a revivification of avant-garde and British poetics in the 1960s and onwards.

Although Bunting enjoyed periods of some publishing success, as A Strong Song Tows Us shows, his reputation has been in perpetual flux since his first poetic outputs. Burton explains that most readers who have heard of Bunting at all are aware of him simply as an acolyte of Pound (398). The biography addresses how the fits of inattention afflicting Bunting studies can be remedied. He explains the need to both revive and restore the poet’s reputation, as well as to rescue him from what Burton perceives to be his diminution to the status of a regionalist writer of little relevance. A Strong Song Tows Us suggests: “the way to interest people in the work of a neglected poet is to tell his story, not to harangue them” (3).

Bunting repeatedly insisted that poetry’s primary concern was not sense but sound. He resisted readings of his work that prized the personal over the poetic, although Burton shows that Briggflatts, for all its musicality, is as personal as a poem gets. Nevertheless, the facts of Bunting’s life are less important than the verse that lives on after him, and Burton’s book addresses this issue with care. Its title is a line from the long poem Briggflatts, which remains the “strong song” that “tows us” through this biography. The book is modeled on the sonata structure of Briggflatts, which is ordered into a chronological sequence of five parts and concluded with a coda. The biography also begins with an epigraph from the poem, and never strays far from the poetry.

The chapter titles are lines taken from the poem sections to which they correspond. And Bunting...