- The Poet as Spy: The Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting by Keith Alldritt
Aurum, 221 pp, £19.95, October 1998, ISBN 1 85410 477 2
In 1964 Basil Bunting began writing his long poem Briggflatts on the train from Wylam to Newcastle, where he was in charge of the financial page of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. In June that year Bunting had written to a friend: ‘Nothing about myself. I feel I have been dead for ten years now, and my ghost doesn’t walk. Dante has nothing to tell me about Hell that I don’t know for myself.’ Bunting’s poem was completed in a year. At least a couple of reliable commentators think the original version of the poem ran to 20,000 lines. In its final form it is about 700. Although he’d published nothing in 13 years and written no new poems as such, Bunting had been filling notebooks. Wretched as he was at his job, and struggling at the age of 64 to support two children and the wife he had brought back with him from Persia as a teenage bride, he’d had a transforming experience. A local 18-year-old had phoned Bunting out of the blue and asked him if it would be all right if he showed the older man some of his poems. Bunting told him to come round and the boy showed up an hour later, ‘longhaired and fairly ragged, with a fist full of manuscript. He said: “I heard you were the greatest living poet.” ’ Bunting got a kick out of the young man, Tom Pickard, and found much in the poetry that excited him. He wrote to Dorothy Pound in June 1965: ‘Well, I thought, if poetry really has the power to renew itself, I’d better write something for these younger chaps to read ... I planned a longish poem, about 750 lines, which I finished about a month ago and have just revised and sent off to Poetry Chicago today. I believe it is the best thing I’ve done.’ As we close in on the centenary of Basil Bunting’s birth at Scotswood-on-Tyne in 1900 it looks more and more as if this long poem written late in his life is not simply the best thing that Bunting had done but among the very best poems anyone has done this century.
The Poet as Spy is the first full-length biography of Basil Bunting. It is deeply welcome. The text runs to just over 200 pages, which is remarkable given the range and concentrated eventfulness of a long life, the life not only of a poet and literary scholar but of a man of action. One needs to go back to Chaucer, Wyatt, Raleigh or Byron to find anything equivalent; and their lives were not nearly so various. Alldritt’s biography is briskly, even hurriedly, written in a kind of literary journalism that is serviceable and occasionally not quite that. The author has written a biography of Yeats and critical studies of Orwell, Lawrence and T.S. Eliot. Bunting knew Yeats and Eliot; he may or may not have met Orwell. He truly detested Lawrence, first for locking him out on a window-ledge at a party (in Paris, I think) and then for slipping him some hashish baked into a pastry of some sort and not telling him. Bunting did, however, greatly admire Sons and Lovers.
Alldritt mentions only that Bunting thought Lawrence a ‘jerk’, which, given his novels, whatever their merits, comes as no surprise. He also leaves out a number of other details I vaguely recall from my time as a student of Bunting’s and later as a visitor, briefly, to the council house where he lived in Blackfell New Town outside Newcastle. Bunting was a font of stories, many of which Alldritt would have heard during the poet’s extended visit to Vancouver in 1970-71. All his stories were entertaining, the majority of them largely true, many of them embellished, and almost certainly a goodly number fashioned from whole cloth. The inventions and embroiderings were not self-aggrandising but meant only to amuse. Alldritt exhibits some canniness in his siftings and winnowings.
Bunting always thought of himself first and foremost as a Northumbrian man. His mother’s father was a mining engineer and colliery manager from Throckley. Annie Cheesman was a harbour to her son Basil throughout her long life, and not just to him but to his wives and children. The vicissitudes of his adult life required all of her love and generosity, which would have had to have been in ample supply. Basil’s father was a remarkable man. His people were from Derbyshire, which his poet son certainly didn’t advertise. Thomas Lowe Bunting took a Gold Medal for his MD thesis. He was later elected to the Royal Society in Edinburgh for his work on the histology of the lymphatic glands of all sorts of creatures. Bunting recalled his father’s ‘tiny surgery with a desk about two feet by 18 inches long and a microscope’. Dr Bunting had an arrangement not just with the local pet shop, which would call him as soon as some poor creature died but also, apparently, with travelling circuses and nearby zoos, so he managed to have the glands of lions, tigers, leopards and monkeys on hand with the rest. Bunting remembered that his house was ‘sometimes full of lizards that had escaped from their box in the cellar’.
Vol. 21 No. 4 · 18 February 1999
From Peter Stansill
Reading August Kleinzahler on Basil Bunting (LRB, 21 January) took me back to the first Monday I reported for work as a sub-editor at the Newcastle Evening Chronicle in August 1967. The deputy editor steered me to the huge subs’ table, around which clustered a dozen journalists, and pointed to the vacant seat that I was to occupy for the next seven months. ‘You’re filling the chair of an officer and a gentleman,’ a neighbouring colleague announced, ‘a poet and a scholar who translates from the ancient Persian.’ I had inherited not only the chair but also the workplace effects (though not the job) of Basil Bunting, who had retired only a few days before. These included a foot rule, a copy of the house style book and thick wads of copy paper, all kept in a locker in the hallway to the printing plant.
It was a terrifying honour. First, the unduly auspicious nature of the circumstances – it was my 24th birthday and my first ‘proper’ job after four years as a freelance (including Buntingesque escapades in war zones). Even more worrying was my recent pathetic attempt to write something intelligent about Briggflatts for International Times, London’s first countercultural publication. The review was cryptic and hurried, silly but enthusiastic. I can just imagine his ‘violently alarming’ laugh as he read it (if he did). By then Allen Ginsberg had alerted ‘the poetic public in Albion’ to Bunting. Also writing in International Times, Ginsberg described Bunting as ‘one of the masters of the age of poetic invention that starred Pound and Williams’, and added: ‘He remains for me the most alert prosodist in England. I mean the best poet alive, of the old folks.’
Seeking some trace of this glory, I searched for Bunting the poet in his workaday world, for some clue to the ‘remote blood and ancestry’ that preoccupied him. Nothing but a few squiggles on scraps of paper which I took for shorthand notes and discarded, though they may indeed have been immortal lines from some Persian epic he was translating between copy-editing and headline-writing for the eve ning financial page.
Coincidences apart, the only real contact I had with Bunting was through his language, the one authentic medium for bonding with a poet. For me it started with the foreword to Briggflatts: ‘The spuggies are fledged.’ To an expatriate Yorkshireman any poet who calls a sparrow by its real name has already achieved immortality.
West Linn, Oregon
Vol. 21 No. 7 · 1 April 1999
From Marilyn Bowering
If August Kleinzahler, an American poet acquaintance of mine at the University of Victoria many years ago, is the person of the same name who reviewed The Poet as Spy (LRB, 21 January), he should know that Basil Bunting spent the year 1970-71 in Victoria on Vancouver Island and not in Vancouver. Knowing that Bunting was short of money, Robin Skelton, head of the creative writing section of the University of Victoria's English department, had invited him to apply to teach. The story went that the committee (all non-writers) reviewing applications had turfed out Bunting's at once on the grounds that they had never heard of him. It may have been Bunting himself who later told the story that he had been turned down, similarly, for a Guggenheim many years before when the committee refused to recognise the validity of references from Yeats, Eliot and Pound. In any case, once that embarrassment was out of the way, Bunting arrived to lead what was by all accounts an inspired class, although he was quoted in the local press, to Robin's great chagrin, as saying that creative writing could not be taught.
Bunting was always courteous, if not courtly, and often wore a blue tweed jacket that brought out the blaze of his eyes. I am surprised that Kleinzahler didn't comment on his eyebrows, unlike any I have seen before or since. It wasn't just their size – each the wing of a small bird – but that they were groomed and waxed, predatory and, well, sexy. They gave me shivers: odd, I thought then, when he was such an old man, although it doesn't seem so odd now.
Sooke, British Columbia
Vol. 21 No. 9 · 29 April 1999
From August Kleinzahler
Marilyn Bowering was apparently so smitten by Basil Bunting’s eyebrows (Letters, 1 April) that she has forgotten what year he was at the University of Victoria. It was 1971-72. Rod Stewart’s ‘Maggie May’ was on the jukebox and my distinguished fellow alum was, if I recall, in charge of the mimeograph machine at the English Department, which always made visits there worth looking forward to.
Bunting that year got himself into a nasty scrape with Robin Skelton, one that eventually involved lawyers; but of course you can’t teach someone to write poetry, just as you can’t teach someone to be kind or a wizard with languages. Bunting’s method of teaching was simply to read good poetry aloud and, when possible, to have us listen to music. In this he favoured Dowland, Byrd and Purcell. I remember him playing a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as well, the first time I’d heard it. I believe he thought we might absorb some of the possibilities for rhythm in poetry by keeping our mouths shut and listening. Can you imagine trying to get away with teaching a writing course in this manner now?