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A Strong Song Tows Us, by Richard Burton - review

12 October 2013

9:00 AM

12 October 2013

9:00 AM

A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting Richard Burton

Infiniteideas, pp.608, £30

How minor is minor? ‘Rings a bell’ was more or less the response of two English literature graduates, now successful fifty-somethings, when asked what the name Basil Bunting meant to them. It is, after all, a good name, a memorable name. I asked a younger friend, about to start his Eng. Lit. degree at Keble: ‘Nothing.’ I asked a former literary publicist: ‘No, nothing.’ I quizzed a chap from the FCO: ‘Nothing, I’m afraid. Sorry.’

Perhaps not deep research, but I’d be surprised if Basil Bunting’s work was familiar to anyone not a poet or scholar of English modernism. Is this as it should be? Does he deserve a 600-page biography (any more than any other minor poet)? As a matter of fact he does.

Tehran, 1951, the Ritz. A mob is outside shouting for Bunting’s life. Bunting wrote that he ‘walked into the crowd and stood amongst them and shouted DEATH TO MR BUNTING! with the best of them.’ Most poets don’t find themselves in such situations, or, if they do, don’t react in quite this way.

He was a man of many parts, and his life was a fascinating one, running concurrently with the last century.  Born in 1900 in Northumbria he remained staunchly Northumbrian, despite long spells in London, Italy, France, Spain, the USA and Persia.

He was educated at Quaker schools, and when old enough conscientiously objected to the waging of war against Germany.  Indeed so conscientious was his objection that he refused to do work that freed other men to serve, and spent time in prison. He was later to spend more time in prison in France for violent behaviour while drunk. He saw, too, the insides of Norwegian and Russian jails, for having the wrong papers.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s he lead a classically bohemian life, drinking with Nina Hamnet in Fitzrovia while writing as a music critic for Outlook, assisting Ford Madox Ford in editing the Trans-atlantic Review in Paris, and hanging out with Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats in Rapallo. In Tenerife (which he hated, refusing to learn Spanish) he played chess with the future General Franco. He had children with an American heiress whose parents allowed the bohemian ideal to be maintained; but she finally tired of artistic poverty and fled home with their two daughters, while pregnant with a son whom Bunting was never to meet. After this departure Bunting more or less stopped writing poetry. He was not seriously to be published again until the 1960s.

He began the second world war as an aircraftman second class, putting up barrage balloons in Hull; by 1947 he was ‘chief of all our political intelligence in Persia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc’. This was due, in no small part, to the fact that in Rapallo in the 1920s he had taught himself Persian in order to translate ancient oriental poetry.

The war changed Bunting. He ‘enjoyed it very much’, and found himself transformed from passive observer to active participant. He remained in Persia after the war, first as a diplomat and then, after marrying the 14-year-old Armenian Kurd, Sima Alladadian (passed off as 16 when returning to the UK), as the Times correspondent. He smoked opium with the head of the Persian secret police. By the time he was expelled by Mossadeq in 1953 he was probably the best connected, most knowledgeable westerner in the Middle East.

And then Bunting more or less disappears, re-emerging as a kind of grand old man of modernism, visited in Newcastle by American luminaries such Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and publishing, in 1966, his autobiographical long poem ‘Briggflatts’, which was hailed a masterpiece by Cyril Connolly among others. Bunting maintained always that the meaning of a poem resided in its sound and rhythm, that a poem had to be heard, not read. There is an easily available recording of him reading ‘Briggflats’. The ‘r’s roll as if coming in with a strong wind and a high tide, the delivery just the right side of declamatory, and syntax that looks troubling on the page becomes obvious in the poet’s slow, plump, Northumbrian delivery. It is a joy to hear. Filtered through a knowledge of his full life, it releases its meaning even more fully.

In 2015 Faber will publish a new Collected Poems, which I suspect will at last place Bunting unalterably within what Hugh Kenner called the corpus poeticum. Quite right too: ‘A mason times his mallet / to a lark’s twitter.’

This biography contains almost everything you would want to know about Basil Bunting, and if not terrifically well edited (do we really need to read correspondence from someone who ‘nearly met Bunting’?) must surely stand as the definitive reference work.

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