- A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting by Richard Burton
Infinite Ideas, 618 pp, £30.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 1 908984 18 0
Just as some faces are a gift to the photographer (Artaud, Patti Smith), so certain lives are a gift to the biographer. These are, broadly, of two types: the hard and gemlike, abbreviated, compressed, intense; and the lengthy, implausible, exfoliated, whiskery, picaresque. Vehement or even violent emotion is good, overt drama, prominent contacts or associations, sudden changes of orientation, movement through different societies and settings. Physical distance is helpful (the father of letter-writing), marriages (more than one), a hint of scandal or controversy, achievement and neglect, both in moderation (poverty is a great preservative, celebrity or laurels a terrible corrosive, too obvious or excessive greatness is dreary). A late flowering is ideal, but not essential. For the former, one might nominate Trakl, Laforgue, Keats and Shelley (I don’t think I breathed while I was reading Richard Holmes’s Shelley: The Pursuit all those years ago); for a rare, artful blending of long and short, one can’t do better than Rimbaud and Hölderlin; and for the latter, Hamsun, Yeats, Shaw – and Bunting. Incidentally, or maybe not, Bunting also shows beautifully on film and still photographs, from the waggingly imperialled steely young man (‘one of Ezra’s more savage disciples’, Yeats called him) posing in Rapallo in 1930 or 1931 on the cover of A Strong Song Tows Us and the New Directions Complete Poems, to the waggingly eyebrowed, scruff-bearded, snaggle-toothed, twinkling-eyed dome he presented as an old man in his eighties.
Basil Bunting – not a nom de guerre but his actual given name, as Pound hastened to assure a doubtful Harriet Monroe, long-suffering and mostly tame editor of Poetry – was the missing link back to the heyday and personalities of modernism. He wrote little (‘The mason stirs:/words!/Pens are too light./Take a chisel to write’), but what he wrote ever more powerfully endures. Reading him now, there is an overpowering drench of the 1920s and 1930s, and a suggestion of how the style of progressive verse might have gone on, if Pound hadn’t disappeared into funny money, the Cantos and obloquy, or Eliot into verse drama and High Anglicanism. Bunting’s Complete Poems are a tantalisingly small and pure uchronia, and as for his life, his model in these things was Walter Raleigh.
A Life of Bunting, then, was for many years the most obviously ‘missing’ book I could think of. For all the reasons – the ticked boxes – above; for a rather beautiful relation between the life as old as the century (1900-85) and the small, sharply flavoured work (the Complete Poems are with difficulty bulked up to 240 pages: they make Elizabeth Bishop look lax if not garrulous); for the unusual way time – history – is precipitated in a literary life. ‘Bunting had a knack of being in the thick of things,’ Richard Burton observes in this first proper biography: it feels like a flagrant understatement. Adventures of the mind are two a penny; here are actual, palpable scrapes: individuals sent to kill him, crowds baying for his blood, a life spent on four continents (and at sea), never far from the breadline. In 1934, when he wasn’t even halfway into it, when most of the most outlandish things still lay ahead of him, and he was stuck in the Canary Islands, William Carlos Williams wrote: ‘Bunting is living the life, I don’t know how sufficiently to praise him for it. But it can’t be very comfortable to exist that way. I feel uneasy not to be sending him his year’s rent and to be backing at the same time a book of my own poems.’ Imagine Tintin not as a supposed journalist with a cowlick, but Haddock-bearded and a rare poet, and you get Bunting. Even if he had written nothing at all, his life would still be worth telling: as an extravagant shape, as an example of what is possible, or just to give oneself a fright.
Bunting was born the son of a progressively minded doctor in Scotswood-on-Tyne. He was not a Quaker, but was educated at Quaker boarding schools. In 1918 he was sent to prison for being a conscientious objector; this seems to have involved a certain deliberateness, even wilfulness on Bunting’s part. Quite often, his life frays into uncertainty, competing versions, colourful mists of low factual density, ultimately the beguiling wraiths of myths, suitably embellished by himself or the other gifted embellishers among whom he mostly lived. (Take a bow, Ford Madox Ford, take two!) Pound tells the story (in Canto 74) of ‘Bunting/doing six months after that war was over/as pacifist tempted by chicken but declined to approve/of war.’ Burton agrees that the Sun-worthy ‘Pacifist Tempted by Chicken’ – when Bunting went on hunger strike, a freshly roasted chicken was said to have been brought to his cell on several successive days by his jailers – sounds a little too good to be true. On his release he enrolled in the newish London School of Economics, but left in 1922 without taking his degree. He was radical (the lovable politics of the Occupy movement), brilliant, but also ‘a great poseur’, feckless, improvident and prone to ‘nerve storms’: the type of individual who looks, if not to poetry, then to some other re-evaluative hierarchy to adjust his low standing, his perceived lack of usefulness, his reversed poles. A scalene peg. He was impatient with institutions, with convention, with medium-term thinking and planning, with England. He began to go abroad: to Denmark (‘on his bicycle the Dane is a beautiful creature, but off it he does not feel at home, and looks as awkward as an automaton’); to Paris; to Rapallo. In 1924 he met Pound there, supposedly – the mythopoeic embellishment – at the top of a local hill. ‘Villon’, his first long poem, was written in 1925, and published, with Pound’s help (one might say, passim), in Poetry five years later. The poem won a $50 prize, which straightaway – that’s hand to mouth – went to pay the expenses incurred by the birth of a daughter, Bourtai, in 1931. (Bunting’s children with his first, American wife, Marian, had Persian names; two later children, born to his Persian wife, Sima, were called Maria and Thomas.)
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