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  • An Annotated Homecoming
  • Samuel Rogers (bio)
The Poems of Basil Bunting edited by Don Share. Faber & Faber, 2016. £30. ISBN 9 7805 7123 5001

There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?

They don't make sense.

('On the Fly-Leaf of Pound's Cantos', p. 117)

The key poets of british modernism are united in being unique examples of the great British eccentric. David Jones, the Blakean artist-poet, invented at least one new form ('painted inscription') through his diverse cross-discipline practice. Hugh MacDiarmid, who once fell from a bus and was apparently saved only by his unruly hair,1 defined his job as 'erupt[ing] like a volcano, emitting not only flame, but a lot of rubbish'.2 Basil Bunting (1900–85), who once joined a paid mob outside his Tehran hotel shouting 'Death to Mr Bunting!',3 earned his bread as a journalist, diplomat, spy, and sailor, but seldom as a poet. All three poets have, like Ezra Pound in Bunting's estimate, produced mountainous work, difficult to either scale or bypass – but sometimes a joy to behold 'if the reader doesnt spend time and energy looking for a nice logical syllogistic development which isnt there' (Bunting to Harriet Monroe, quoted p. 285). A disciple of Pound, Bunting would later form a vital link between high modernism and the literary experimentalism of 1960s Britain. As Don Share rightly points out in this book, 'That Bunting's work has so often been published defectively is a poignant and crucial fact about the circumstances of his life and the fate of his work' (p. xxvi).

For those wishing to consider the original contexts of Basil Bunting's poetry, it can be hard enough to find a concise, thorough account of the [End Page 382] poet's publication history, such as Share supplies (pp. xxvii–xxxv) in his introduction. The early stages of this history figure a variety of formats and almost as many setbacks. An early pamphlet of 1930, Redimiculum Metallarum, was privately printed in Milan, and followed by appearances in a number of 1930s anthologies. However, the most important of these, Active Anthology (1933), famously lost half of its print run to wartime bombing. The 1935 typescript, Caveat Emptor, was the first substantial grouping of Bunting's work, but a publisher could not be found for it. A breakthrough came with Poems: 1950, containing many of the poems Bunting is now known for; however, the edition was prepared without authorial input and contained numerous errors.

Something of a turnaround came in 1965, when The Spoils was printed in Newcastle, at Tom Pickard's expense, and distributed by Migrant Press. The first run of these books, though not blown up in the Blitz, was lost in the post from Newcastle; but a second printing began to cement Bunting's new position not only as 'a major poet', but also as belonging to the 'older generation' of the 'British Poetry Revival'.4 It is seemingly in this capacity that Bunting would later be persuaded by Eric Mottram to serve as president to a radicalised Poetry Society.5 As well as Pickard and company, Fulcrum Press did much to solidify Bunting's overdue presence in print, issuing his First Book of Odes and a selection of his work, Loquitur, both in 1965. Without the receptiveness of a younger generation of poets and publishers, it seems unlikely that Bunting would have found energy for the crowning achievement of his career, the completion and first performance of Briggflatts in 1965, followed the next year by its publication in Poetry and in its own volume from Fulcrum. The relative success of the latter indicates that Bunting had at least partly emerged from 'obscurity and penury' (p. xxx). As Share details, the hardback edition was followed by 3,000 paperbacks, plus second impressions of both.

In the remaining two decades of his life Bunting published few standalone volumes of material: Share details only two small pamphlets of 1967 and two incarnations of 'Version of Horace' in the 1970s. Much more activity occurred in the way of ordering and extending his collected body of writing through a series of different editions...


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