Fifty years a letter unanswered

“I never reached Russia: the police were too efficient for me”, writes Basil Bunting (1900-85) in the first of Alex Niven’s selection of his letters. Dating from October 1920, this dispatch details the twenty-year-old’s foiled plan to participate in civil war and revolution, and reports on his enjoying a Riddle of the Sands-style adventure while in jail and heavyweight books while outside it. Later letters come from several different Buntings, among them the penurious, wayward young tyro in London, Paris and Rapallo in the modernist 1920s; the RAF officer who saw assorted fronts of the Second World War in the 1940s and went on to be vice-consul in Isfahan, chief of political Intelligence in Tehran and Times correspondent to Iran; and the man who was repeatedly back home at his parents’ house in Northumberland, and who spent much of the mid-1930s in accidi on Tenerife, and much of the 1950s and 1960s commuting to Newcastle and the finance desk of the local newspaper. Occasionally there are dispatches from a creative burst: in the late 1920s and early 1930s, 1951 and 1964-5, the Indian summer brought on by a visit from the teenage Tom Pickard and exposure to the poetry scene around Newcastle’s Morden Tower. More often, though, Bunting is a poet not writing poems. Most disspiriting – for the reader, if not for Bunting – is the period of recognition that followed the publication of the long poem Briggflatts in 1966, during which he frittered away grants and residencies while resting on his laurels, waiting for the muse.

Briggflatts is Bunting’s autobiography, albeit one told through myth, music and parables – it sets little store by precise biographical details. About the only topic on which Bunting heartily agreed with WH Auden was “how lousy it is to publish people’s letters, alive or dead”. He asked his correspondents to burn his letters and destroyed those he received himself. Niven gives us 200 of the roughly 800 letters he has found extant. Many are addressed to the same few poets: Ezra Pound in the 1920s and 1930s; Louis Zukofsky from the 1930s to the 1960s; and, in Bunting’s last three decades, Denis Goacher, Jonathan Williams, Tom Pickard and Gael Turnbull. Their quality and tone is very much contingent on mood and recipient, but, when motivated, Bunting demonstrates the virtues of a good letter writer, offering news, anecdote and keen-eyed description. His misanthropy and complaints can be draining to read, but Bunting is at times an entertaining grouch. Aged eighty-four he writes to Pickard: “The London trip tired me very badly, and the drive home was bad – chiefly because Gregory Corso had wished himself on the journey. He is a clot.” In loftier mode Bunting offers insights and pronouncements on philosophy, history, religion, European and Persian literature, and poetic practice.

There are noticeable gaps in the correspondence: there is nothing from the Northumbrian childhood or long stretches of the 1920s; little, too, from the 1940s or the years 1953-64. Some of these gaps result from letters lost or never penned owing to busyness, despondency or evasion, and Niven informs us that in the case of “personal material” [that] ran the risk of negatively affecting Bunting’s relatives and other people alive at the time of writing, letters have been automatically omitted at the explicit request of the estate”. Family correspondence is confined to some touching letters to Bunting’s grown daughter, Roudaba. There are no letters here to Bunting’s two wives, Marian and Sima, nor to the dedicatee of Briggflatts, Peggy Greenbank. Those familiar with Marian’s reminiscences, the fact that Bunting married Sima when she was fourteen (maybe fifteen, says Niven) and he was forty-eight, or indeed certain of the poems, will be unsurprised by Bunting’s comments on the attractiveness of underage girls. There are, though, no great revelations about his private life here that did not already appear in Richard Burton’s A Strong Song Tows Us: The life of Basil Bunting (2013; TLSJune 20, 2014).

Niven’s glosses on allusions, people and places are full and helpful. Given Bunting’s principled disregard for grammatical niceties, the decision to leave his uncorrected words makes sense. The lack of a bracketed sic or its equivalent, however, leaves one unable to distinguish Bunting’s idiosyncrasies from what can read suspiciously like errors of transcription. Niven is clearer-eyed about Bunting’s self-mythologizing than were earlier Bunting scholars, many of whom knew him personally. It is only when the poetry politics of the 1960s-1980s blend into today’s that his editorial detachment falters: the place to call Larkin a “British poetaster” and writer of “light verse”, if there is one, is not the biographical footnote. Not that Bunting was above equivalent antics himself: the letters routinely park disinterested literary judgment to boost friends, from the near-forgotten 1920s poet J. J. Adams to Pickard, or to denigrate perceived enemies, from the Auden group to Ian Hamilton Finlay.

The most fascinating literary-historical documents are the letters to Pound, especially those charting the breakdown of their relationship. Bunting’s political views slide from liberal to socialist to conservative and back again, depending on the date and the topic. In 1934 he writes respectfully of Mussolini, but wishes he had been democratically replaced in 1932. Letters that follow repeatedly take on Pound’s fascism and antisemitism, as well as his economics (Bunting’s unfinished studies at the LSE stand him in good stead), and the decline in quality of the Cantos. Bunting himself is not averse to laying down the cultural law or writing snatches of Poundese, but the letters’ increasing appeals to reason, reliable evidence and tolerance become ribostes to the style of the Poundian dictat as well as its substance.

In December 1938 the discovery of antisemitism in a letter Pound has written to Zukofsky proves the final straw. “No, I am sorry, and thankyou: but I cant take it. I wish I were not as much indebted to you as I am, Bunting writes – the “I cant take it” probably referring to Pound’s money rather than his opinions. His appeals to reason exhausted, Bunting accuses Pound of “licking the asses of blackguards”. Bunting owed his literary life to Pound. His wife had recently left him, taking the children with her, and he was painfully short of friends and money. The letter may lack the Boy’s Own quality of the one in which Bunting relates how he pretended an insecticide was an atomic bomb to escape robber barons in the Zagros Mountains, but it is, in its way, the more heroic.

“Ezra is no longer a danger to things I hold to be the essence of Christianity”, writes Bunting to Zukofsky to explain that he has resumed contact with Pound in 1947, before delivering a creed of pan-religious and pan-racial tolerance, albeit one somewhat embargoed by his use of racist language. Niven maintains that Bunting’s Quaker upbringing had a more active role in his later life than commentators such as Burton are prepared to admit. Certainly, the break with Pound, like Bunting’s decision to be a conscientious objector during the First World War, is in the tradition of the Protestant “Here I stand”. Christianity also helps to explain how the poetry can seem prescient of contemporary ecological concerns. A critique of western societal values ​​and the extension of our “power over nature”, in another letter of 1947, is prefaced by an admiring reference to St Francis. While the writer of Briggflatts was living his version of the imperialist heroics of Alexander the Great, he was thinking of the saints.

Reporting T.S. Eliot’s rejection letter of 1951 with its message that the poetry is “still too much under the influence of Pound” (and, he might have added, T.S. Eliot), Bunting barely demurs. Moving on from that poetic influence was a long struggle. In 1935 Bunting is impatient of modernist reflection and indirection, favoring a poetry of narrative action inspired by the Persian poet Ferdowsi, but not until The Spoils (1951) does he start to put this into practice. Wordsworth—a significant passion only from the 1950s, the letters reveal—helped significantly. As did the 1960s. In January 1965, while composing BriggflattsBunting is coming to his own terms with the decade’s autobiographical turn, seeking to “abandon my lifelong reserve about myself” and the “limitation” of not being able “to stand emotionally naked”, wondering if he has the capacity to “write, for instance, as [Robert] Creeley does”.

The more one reads Briggflatts, the more one realizes how successful Bunting was in this. Its lines speak more honestly to its author’s life, lies and art than do all the letters in Alex Niven’s selection – and, quite probably, all those Niven left out as well. Near the end of the poem comes the regret for “Fifty years a letter unanswered.” The poet’s long-denied but central flaws turns out to be linked to his shortcomings as a correspondent.

William Wootten is the editor of Reading Walter de la Mare and author of the poetry pamphlet Looking at the Horsemenboth 2021

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