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: