Few modern poets served so long an apprenticeship as Basil Bunting, none had so adventurous a life and few poets’ lives have produced such lasting rewards. Along with Philip Larkin (whose partisans often ignore Bunting, and vice versa) Bunting (1900-85) is the major poet of postwar Britain: a master of concision, a superb literary translator, a great lyricist of love and disillusionment, a trustworthy poet of war and of peace, and the author of one of the great long poems in the language.
Though Bunting declared that in poems “sound…is all that matters,” readers have been glad to know his eventful life. He grew up in Newcastle, in England’s Northeast, and remained loyal to its scenery and regional dialects, which he once described as the “Northumbrian tongue travel has not taken from me.” In 1918 he refused military service, spending several brutal months in prison. The next twenty years saw Bunting living in London, Paris, Italy and the Canary Islands, all of which figure in his early poems. Inspired by Ezra Pound, he also took to translation, teaching himself classical Persian just so he could read the Shahnamah, the Persian national epic, in the original. In 1940 he joined the Royal Air Force, which sent him to North Africa and Iran; though archaic in Tehran, Bunting’s Persian enabled him to speak with desert tribes whose help the Allies needed. (Their customs would inform his poetry, too.) Bunting stayed there as a diplomat and a British spy until his 1948 marriage to a vivacious Persian teenager sank his career; he stayed on in Tehran as a journalist, only to be expelled by Iran’s nationalist government in 1952. After a hair-raising international escape, the Buntings settled uneasily back in Newcastle; he returned to poetry in the 1960s, finding readers for the first time.
Assimilating Modernism’s new methods–quick cuts, allusions, extreme condensation–Bunting used them, paradoxically, to demonstrate how little in human life changes, how well poetry can frame enduring truths. The earliest work he preserved sounds much like the young Pound; “Villon” (1925) voiced the disillusionment–and the prison experience–of the medieval French poet François Villon, whose captors left him “lying on my back in the dark place, in the grave,/fettered to a post in the damp cellarage.” Bunting later mixed such bitterness with stoicism and with praise, showing how language and its most diligent users can endure, if not repair, a damaged world. “The Spoils” (completed 1951) addressed his war experience; the title quotes the Koran (“The spoils [of war] are for God”), and the poem’s three segments compare ancient and modern warfare, both of which leave men with ways to exhibit their bravery, but with nothing to keep. Scenes from Persia and the North Atlantic flank lyrical passages as clean as this one, about a falcon:
His wings churn air
with sun, he rises where
dazzle rebuts our stare,
wonder our fright.
In 1964 the 17-year-old Newcastle poet Tom Pickard called on Bunting for advice; the older poet was soon drawn into the atmosphere of group readings and youthful enthusiasm that Pickard helped create. The experience moved Bunting to consider his own youth and especially his time with Peggy Greenbank, with whom he had an intense romance in his teens. The resulting twenty-one-page poem, “Briggflatts,” incorporated all his previous concerns–their romance, his war, northeast English and Near Eastern history, Quaker pacifism, this-worldly delight. (Bunting dedicated the poem to her; after she read it, they met again.) The poem contrasts frustrated traveling conquerors (Eric Bloodaxe, Alexander the Great) with emblems of patience, humility and endurance (a mason, a worm); both are aspects of Bunting, who suffered for conscience and traveled through a world at war but fled in shame from his first love.
That summary shows the poem’s goals, and its pathos, but not the virtues of its individual parts, which include a dirge, a love song, a lament, an incantation, sentences of crystalline descriptive power and passages of athletically vigorous narrative. “Stocking to stocking, jersey to jersey,/head to a hard arm,” Bunting’s young lovers “kiss under the rain,/bruised by their marble bed.” “Take no notice of tears,” the poem continues; “letter the stone to stand/over love laid aside”; “Then is Now. The star you steer by is gone,/its tremulous thread spun in the hurricane/spider floss on my cheek.”
Tracing armies through Asia, or his own walks through local lands, the poet contemplates ambition and its futilities, attachments and their demise: “Who cares to remember a name cut in ice/or be remembered?/Wind writes in foam on the sea.” The poem’s structure, with its five “movements,” recalls T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets; Bunting himself invoked the composer Scarlatti, who “condensed so much music into so few bars,/with…never a boast or a see-here.”
Bunting’s compact oeuvre has an astonishing scope, not only within his longer poems but in his translations from Persian and Latin, and in the short poems he called “odes”; these range widely in form (singsong couplets, dense trimeters, long-lined free verse), in kind (erotic lyric, sarcastic rebuke, scenic meditation) and in mood (angry, regretful, devoted, excited, resolved). Clunky early on, the short poems got better and better; the best date from after “Briggflatts.” A 1975 lyric ends “Look how clouds dance/under the wind’s wing, and leaves/delight in transience”; a 1971 version of Horace achieves terse, melodic gravity: “We must let earth go and home,/wives too, and your trim trees,/ yours for a moment, save one/sprig of black cypress.”
The poet and scholar Richard Caddel, who died suddenly last year, worked hard to assemble this complete volume, whose final version appeared in England in 2000. It offers adventure, a confident voice, neat takes on history (both recent and archaic), an attractively careworn secular ethics and an even more attractive combination of archaic and vernacular English models. It also offers superb verbal command, chiseling every stanza to the fewest, densest possible words, giving each an aural shape. Those shapes are not always mellifluous–sometimes they are harsh, a mouthful–but each demonstrates Bunting’s mastery, proving itself on the page as well as in the ear, where all good poems find their place.