‘Briggflatts’ at Fifty
Basil Bunting wrote his long poem Briggflatts over the course of 1965, much of it while on the train commuting from Wylam to Newcastle, where he worked as a subeditor on the financial pages of the Journal, then part of the Thompson newspaper empire. Bunting had published nothing in the previous 13 years, nor had he written any poems, as such. Aged 65, he was struggling to support two children and his second wife, Simia, whom he had brought back with him from Persia to Northumberland in 1952 after being expelled by Mossadeq.
In spring 1964, Bunting had written to Dorothy Pound: ‘Nothing about myself. I feel I have been dead for 10 years now and my ghost does not walk.’ A few weeks later, he received a phone call from a young man, out of the blue: ‘I’ve got a magazine. Can you send me a few poems?’ Tom Pickard had heard of Bunting and his work from the American poet, publisher and gadfly Jonathan Williams. Bunting had no poems to offer but invited Pickard over to join his family for lunch. Pickard turned up with a fistful of his own poems and, when Bunting opened the door, said: ‘I heard you were the greatest living poet.’ Bunting’s mother-in-law was visiting from Iran and had brought with her a ‘load’ of caviar. ‘As Basil was the only one who liked caviar he shared it with me,’ Pickard remembers. ‘The poet’s life for me, I thought!’ They drank whisky while Bunting read aloud to Pickard an earlier long poem, “The Spoils.”
Pickard’s poetry was rough stuff, the grammar and spelling appalling. (‘He’s working-class,’ Bunting told Hugh MacDiarmid at a gathering of mostly young people in 1965, nodding towards Pickard, who had left school at 14. ‘He spells cunt with a “k”.’) But amid the mess, Bunting found the kernel of a remarkable lyric gift that excited him, so much so that he presently began work on his long masterpiece. ‘I wrote Briggflatts to show the boy how it was done,’ he later remarked. ‘Well, I thought, if poetry really has the power to renew itself, I better write something for these younger chaps to read,’ he wrote to Dorothy Pound.
Bunting ‘would often come to our flat in Newcastle after work for a meal and a drink and would read the latest version or lines to Connie and me’, Pickard says. ‘Also, he and I would more frequently meet on his lunch break and go for a pint upstairs at the Rose and Crown which was next to the Empire Musical Hall theatre and a short walk from his work. We’d usually drink a couple of pints of Bass ale and he’d read me the latest revisions or additions.’
Bunting finished Briggflatts – named after a Quaker meeting house in Cumbria – at midnight on 15 May, almost exactly a year after Pickard knocked on his door. He first read the poem in public on 22 December 1965 in a small, crowded chamber of the Morden Tower on Newcastle’s City Wall, which had recently been converted into a poetry venue by Pickard and his wife Connie. It was about to become one of the most storied poetry venues of its era.
Briggflatts appeared in Poetry magazine in January 1966 and was published as a pamphlet by Fulcrum Press later that year. I first picked up a copy at the Wilentzes’ Eighth Street Bookstore in Greenwich Village in the late spring of 1971. As I began reading the poem in the shop the hair on the back of my neck bristled. It must have been adrenaline. I hadn't known exactly what I was looking for at age 21 but this was definitely it: the mix of rhythms, expertly controlled, the dense sound patterning, the textures of vowel and consonant music, all in the service of an elaborate, ever unfolding weave of motifs, both exotic and local, alternating the mythic and autobiographical. Briggflatts struck me immediately as the spiky British – a very particular Northumbrian British – flowering of all that Pound and Eliot had earlier achieved in their modernist project, while at the same time more emotionally freighted, more 'human' than The Cantos or The Waste Land. I read it over and over again for weeks. It changed everything for me.
A 50th anniversary celebration of the publication of Briggflatts will take place on 24 and 25 June at assorted venues in Newcastle, including the Morden Tower, and will conclude with a tribute concert at the Mining Institute.
Read more in the London Review of Books