Blackfell’s Scarlatti

August Kleinzahler

  • 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’.

But the older Bunting was a good deal more than a distinguished physiologist and physician. He was an early Fabian and took a serious interest in the circumstances of the coal miners who made up a good share of his practice. The politics argued in the household with men like Graham Wallas were decidedly anti-capitalist. Basil’s parents were also members of Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society. As a local journalist many years later, Basil Bunting could be found on wet lunchtimes in the Lit and Phil, where reporters were allowed to use the reading room.

Basil’s father read Wordsworth to his son and took the boy climbing in the Lake District. The family was deeply involved in the musical culture of Newcastle and Basil was a trained chorister who considered a professional career in music. This training was evident years later in the intricate modulations and timbres of his reading voice. But most important, perhaps, Bunting was raised in an atmosphere of Quakerism, though his parents were not members of the Society of Friends. He was educated in Quaker boarding schools and was a conscientious objector during World War One. He spent periods in the Newcastle Guardroom and Wormwood Scrubs, where he almost certainly took some serious knockings-around. It is a subject he chose thereafter not to discuss.

After prison Bunting settled for a time in London. He would be away from Northumberland, apart from circumscribed visits, until 1952, when Mossadeq threw him out of Persia (he was then the Times correspondent in Tehran and probably an Intelligence operative as well). His life during these thirty years makes up the bulk of the Alldritt biography: the principal locales are, after London, Paris, Rapallo, Berlin, America, the Canaries, Persia, Sicily, Tuscany and back and forth. He drops out of the London School of Economics. He is arrested in Scandinavia while trying to enter Russia so he could put Lenin straight. In Paris he works as a road digger, an artist’s model and Ford Madox Ford’s assistant at the Transatlantic Review, a job Ezra Pound managed to find him after helping Bunting get out of jail, a very old jail where Villon had also been incarcerated. Pound found the younger poet with a copy of Villon, a fact that ever after endeared the deeply hungover and trembling young man to his liberator.

Pound was a large force in Bunting’s life, as a friend and a teacher. He was 15 years older and of a different temperament but the two became very close when Bunting followed him and his wife Dorothy down to Rapallo, and remained close until the late Thirties, when Bunting broke with Pound over his Fascism and anti-semitism. It was a private falling out. Bunting was always to defend Pound, tooth and claw, in public. He remained good friends with Dorothy and took considerable interest in the Pounds’ son Omar. Wordsworth and Whitman were Bunting’s earliest masters, but the Pound of ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’ was the chief influence of his twenties and further along still. The concentration of sharply observed detail, the flexible rhythms determined by musical phrase instead of fixed metres: all of this was incorporated into Bunting’s mature work. From Pound as well he almost certainly picked up the importance of the poet as translator: learning poems in their original language, examining the structures, patterns, methods of expressiveness – and bringing them across in English, or trying to, all in the service of making it new.

During a winter in Rapallo with Pound and his circle in 1930, while browsing in the bookstalls along the harbour quays in Genoa, Bunting came across Kamo-no-Chomei’s work in prose, the Ho-Jo-Ki, later adapting it into English as a long poem, ‘Chomei at Toyama’, one of his more considerable successes. It was along these same quays that Bunting made the discovery that would most change his life. He came on a French translation of the Persian poet Firdusi’s epic Shah na Meh, a poem of nearly 60,000 couplets. Pound bought Bunting a three-volume edition of the Shah na Meh in Persian, and Bunting taught himself the language so he could get to the poem in the original.

Ten years later Bunting enlisted to fight in the Second World War (a ‘good war’ worth fighting), having faked his way through the eye exam and into the RAF with the aid of one of his father’s old cronies. After working with balloons in Hull and off the east coast of Scotland, Bunting succeeded in getting himself assigned to Iran as a translator and interpreter for an RAF squadron there. He knew only a very antique and literary Persian, but this was to his benefit when he had to deal with Bakhtiari tribesmen: they understood him just fine, and relations with them were very important in keeping the Germans away from the Anglo-Persian oil refinery at Abadan near the head of the Persian Gulf.

So far as I can make out, there is nothing at all improvisational about Bunting the poet. He is the most deliberate of makers, every vowel, pitch and duration, very considered and part of a pattern among other patterns that make up a structure he had in mind before he began the poem. For Briggflatts there is even in existence a drawing he made laying out the structure of the poem, and the drawing in turn emulates the sonata structure one encounters in Scarlatti. In fact, he was thinking of Scarlatti’s sonata in B minor, L.33, at least in the second part of the poem’s fourth movement. Actually, Scarlatti’s sonata L.204 would go between the first and second movements of the poem, L.25 between the second and third, L.275 between the third and fourth, and L.58 between the fourth and fifth movements. The other structural model is the interlaced ornamentation of the Lindisfarne Gospels with their numerous twinings and interrelationships.

Through Pound and Ford, in 1927, Bunting was offered the job of music critic in London for the Outlook. He liked to tell the story that he received a call from Otto Theiss, the weekly’s literary editor, who asked him if he knew anything about music. Bunting replied: ‘Not a damn thing!’ Theiss told him he’d better learn quickly then, because he was the new music critic. Learn he did: Bunting was instrumental in introducing Schoenberg to a new English audience. He championed Elizabethan composers like Byrd, then outside the performance canon, as well as Palestrina, Monteverdi, Lully and Purcell. Along with Pound he helped introduce and popularise the work of Vivaldi, who was known hardly at all.

It was this sort of improvisational acumen and appetite that he brought to Intelligence work. He appears to have been brilliantly suited to it and thrived as never before, discovering in himself facets and strengths he never knew existed. He turned out to be an astute judge of men and situations, a more than able commander whom other men would put trust in and follow without hesitation. He was always fearless, recklessly so (except when it came to his American brothers-in-law from his first marriage, who filled him with terror), a man who liked to live by his wits outside the prescriptions of any institution.

He had always been obstinate, rambunctious, impulsive. In dame school and in the family nursery, which was presided over by Miss Wraith, he brought on himself not a few spankings. Bunting thrived at his first Quaker boarding school, Ackworth, but was sent by his father to Leighton Park School in Berkshire for sixth form so that he might have a better chance at Cambridge or Oxford. It was a rough transition. In 1916 Bunting presented his headmaster at Leighton Park with a document which read, in part: ‘I have utterly failed to be happy here ... I think there must be some great underlying difference between North & South which makes people with Northern manners comfortable & easy to deal with, but people with Southern manners are, for me, utterly impossible & hateful ... I think it is your duty to give me my fare to Newcastle.’ I don’t believe Bunting’s feelings towards ‘Southrons’ (as he called them) ever really changed.

Few men have so enjoyed a war as did Bunting in Persia and the Near East during World War Two. Among other things, his material circumstances changed. The man who had struggled against terrible poverty (and would struggle again on his return to Britain in the early Fifties) lived in considerable comfort if not opulence. He adored the Persian people, their fatalism, hedonism, dignity. He became deeply knowledgeable not only about their literature but their other arts and broader culture.

Bunting rose through the ranks swiftly: flying officer, flight lieutenant, squadron-leader, retaining that rank until 1954. As early as 1941 he was recommended for a commissioned rank in the Intelligence Branch. It is unclear just how much authority Bunting ultimately had in British Intelligence, although some commentators have him, in effect, as director of Intelligence in the Near East. In 1945, as Vice-Consul in Isfahan, Bunting wrote to the American poet Louis Zukofsky:

my taste for variety has certainly been gratified in this war. I have been on almost every British front worth being on except Dunkirk, travelled through every rank from Aircraftsman First Class to Squadron-Leader, seen huge chunks of the world that I wouldn’t otherwise have visited, been sailor, balloon-man, drill instructor, interpreter, truck driver in the desert, intelligence officer to a busy fighter squadron, recorder of doings of nomadic tribes, labour manager, and now consul in a more or less crucial post.

On his way home to England in 1946, Bunting again wrote to Zukofsky, this time from a transit camp in Cairo:

So my responsibility for telling our two governments what happens in Western Asia – between the Jordan and the Indian border, between the Hadhramaut and the Ukraine – is ended at last. So are the pleasant journeys ended, among mountain tribes, long trips on horseback, moufflon hunts, banquets with provincial governors and cocktail parties with diplomats ... All the tribesmen ask the same question: ‘Why are you taking these officers away from us? Who will be left to understand the Kurds and tell the Powers what we need?’

Bunting also fell dramatically in love in Persia, and of all the tales recounted in Alldritt’s book, his marriage to Sima Alladallian, a Kurdo-Armenian from an affluent family in Isfahan, at the British Embassy in 1948 is the most beguiling and beguilingly told. Bunting was 48, his bride was 14. The Foreign Office was obliged to fire him under these circumstances, and Bunting became a correspondent for the Times.

The marriage, Bunting’s second, lasted thirty years and produced two children, and I’m sure there must be a few grandchildren knocking about. I met the second Mrs Bunting in 1978 when I visited Basil at Blackfell. By that time the two had divorced but Sima regularly looked in on the old man. There remained great affection between them and Sima liked nothing better than taking the piss out of him, especially in front of an adoring, young American admirer. She made us a beautiful Persian dinner of lamb in pomegranate sauce and said: ‘Do you know why I divorced him? Because he promised me he would die twenty years ago and he never did. The old bastard will never die. He’s preserved in whisky and cigarette smoke!’ Basil laughed his always alarmingly violent, sixty years of unfiltered Players, chain-smoker’s laugh. Sima was very much a Near Eastern woman: warm, voluble, emotionally intense, sharp as a tack. And at 44, still extremely handsome and a strong sexual presence. Basil was very proud of her.

Bunting is, I think, pre-eminent among modern love poets. Briggflatts itself, a uniquely dense weave of many motifs, is first and last a love poem to a girl named Peggy Greenbank, whom Basil had met at Briggflatts in 1913 when he was 13 and Peggy was eight. It was a relationship that continued for six years, with Basil making the ‘train journey across the Pennines to spend his holidays with his sweetheart. During one of his later holidays when he was about 17 and Peggy 13, they crept into the old whitewashed meeting house with its heavy mullioned windows and under the wooden gallery inside went through a pretend Quaker marriage ceremony together.’ Upon completing the long poem in 1965, and through the good offices of his younger poet friend Gael Turnbull, he found the white-haired Peggy, now married and the mother of two grown daughters, near Wolverhampton in the West Midlands. Having not seen her in 50 years, Basil turned up with a copy of the poem, which is dedicated to her, and they began a second love affair. Sima, then in her thirties, seems to have been amused, Peggy’s husband somewhat less so.

Bunting was drawn to pubescent girls throughout his life. He seems never to have got into trouble over it and quite clearly liked adult women too. The love poems he wrote in the Twenties, in his twenties, are unusually mature, singular and accomplished. At the time I visited him, he was in his 78th year and had recently suffered a mild stroke, although he was still very keen. Something like a Schubert string quartet was being broadcast over BBC radio while he was upstairs doing washing one morning when all of a sudden he was at the top of the stairs screaming savagely at the players: ‘You’re playing it too bloody fast!’ A couple of rough little Geordie girls, about 12 or so, liked to come by and visit. It seemed innocent enough: the three of us made a little dance together, which pleased Basil. When they left Basil told me with great relish that the local girls’ track coach had recently been caught ‘fooking the whole team!’ This clearly thrilled him.

Alldritt’s book is uncommonly frank and inclusive but never goes into much psychological depth, nor is it any way reflective. Its subtitle, ‘The Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting’ is a bit sophomoric and would better suit a biography of some rocker or other shot by a jealous girlfriend in a motel room. For those who have previously read Peter Makin’s extraordinary book Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse, Alldritt’s book may well seem meagre, even superficial. But the books are different in kind and, I think, the judgment unfair. Makin’s was the second full-length study of Bunting’s poetry. It was preceded, by a year, by Sister Victoria Forde’s The Poetry of Basil Bunting (1991). Sister Forde had corresponded with Bunting from 1970 and visited him. Bunting read a draft of the book and sent her six sheets of corrections: it is a very useful, intelligent book. The Makin book, however, is of another order. It is brilliant, and of a sustained muscular alertness and erudition that makes it exemplary by any standard for criticism. I doubt it will be improved on and it is most regrettably now out of print, not least of all because Oxford University Press was charging £50 for it. Both books contain considerable biographical information, and both had Bunting’s attention and help.

For someone so blatantly dismissive of literary criticism, and for someone whose work has been so shockingly neglected, Bunting has been unusually well-served by various essayists, interviewers and bibliographers. He liked to say that there was no excuse for literary criticism after Dante’s De Vulgari Eloquentia. The contemporary critic he most admired was Kenneth Cox, who wrote two of the finest essays on Bunting. Remarkably, there has never been a collection of Cox’s essays published. Donald Davie addressed the neglect of both the poet and essayist in his collection Under Briggflatts. He traces the failure of any UK publisher to collect Cox’s criticism to his ‘fierce repudiation of the well-regarded Geoffrey Hill’. On Bunting, it is worth quoting Davie at some length:

The deeply ingrained Englishness of Briggflatts has to be insisted on, because British insularity has sometimes tried to push Bunting into the margin by representing him as a rootless cosmopolitan. To such insular prejudice, none of Bunting’s foreign attachments – not even his devotion to classical Persian poetry ... – has given so much offence as his fellow feeling with several Americans, particularly the two to whom he dedicated Loquitur, Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky.

Davie goes on to say, a bit further along: ‘And so Bunting’s existence is an embarrassment to the numerous English historians who would have it that Modernism in poetry was a temporary American-inspired distraction from a native tradition which persisted, undeterred though for a time invisible, behind the marches and countermarches of Modernist polemics.’