Basil Bunting as a young man

“Dear Ezra … Yours Ever, B Bunting”

The voice of a poet whose chequered career reads like a cockeyed novel


This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Bunting, Avanti! What a pleasure to read these letters. We get six decades’ worth, carefully selected, from the 1920s to the 1980s, and any student of 20th century literature, or any student of writing, will find much to chew over. Alex Niven is conscious this publication is another piece in the great (often mysterious) Basil Bunting jigsaw puzzle. He argues that “there is still much to do where Bunting scholarship is concerned”.

Letters of Basil Bunting, Selected and edited by Alex Niven (OUP, £35)

The introduction maps out the critical history since Bunting’s death in 1985: Victoria Forde’s The Poetry of Basil Bunting (1991) and Peter Makin’s Bunting: The Shaping of his Verse (1992), as well as the important work of Peter Quartermain (Basil Bunting: A Poet of the North) and Richard Caddel (Basil Bunting: A Northern Life). 

More recently the growing Bunting industry has been turbocharged by Don Share’s capacious The Poems of Basil Bunting (2016) which supersedes Complete Poems (2000). An assiduous reader of the letters might wish to have Share’s work to hand. Biographies of Bunting, too: Keith Alldritt’s rambunctious The Poet as Spy: The Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting (1998) and Richard Burton’s A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting (2013). 

The letters, in part, complement and illuminate these works, but above all , and herein lies the pleasure, they provide us with a voice of a poet whose chequered career reads, at moments, like a cockeyed novel. In a variety of registers, from the high-minded to the demotic, the letters consider (literary material aside) travel, food, restaurants, waiters (“the true glory of Paris”), incarceration, elevators in New York, marriage and war.

Niven’s editorship is tactful and unobtrusive. The letters are allowed to sing their own songs, whether plaintive, joyous, droll. We can listen to Bunting, no mean letter-writer, whose address book housed the greats of Anglo-American literature, including Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Harriet Monroe, George Oppen, Allen Ginsberg and Ted Hughes. 

He was born in Northumberland in 1900. Niven structures the sweep of his long and varied life into three parts: Late Spring (1920-1938), Midway (1939-1963), Revival (1964-1985). Readers with some knowledge of Bunting’s career will be able to navigate the poet’s transformation from bit-player in the 1930s to the great literary breakthrough of the 1960s. 

Basil Bunting (right) with Allen Ginsberg at the Morden Tower

“Bunting experienced decades of false starts, dead ends, and what might be called serial underachievement,” writes Niven. Bunting writes to Pound and Zukofsky in 1934: “Most of my writing is shit, which is one reason why I don’t write more … if you think my poems get shitty … please say so in no mistakeable phraseology.” 

The creation of his masterpiece Briggflatts, named after a Quaker Meeting House, is documented in the letters. Published in 1966, it was a resurrection after years of obscurity and tedium at the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. If Pound had been his “mentor” in the early years (Yeats described Bunting as “one of Ezra’s more savage disciples”) it was now a boy-poet who became, out of the blue, the catalyst of the later years. 

This is a letter to Zukofsky (13 June, 1964) — Bunting’s most constant correspondent — “I am writing … because there is a boy here you can help, who seems to deserve help. He looked me up … His name is Tom Pickard, his age is 18, and he is a poet.” This serendipitous encounter led Bunting to the youthful, counter-cultural poetry scene at Newcastle’s now “mythological” Morden Tower and galvanised the ageing poet into writing the epic poem that would transform his life and reputation. 

It continues: “You were 18 yourself once, Louis, and you’d managed to get to a university … He seems to me the only spark of talent I’ve come across in my own country, and I would hate the spark to go out or go smoky for lack of whatever encouragement I can give.” 

Bunting’s experiences are punctuated with Edenic interludes

The life of Bunting is a one of places and in large part the letters reflect this — London, Paris, Berlin, Rapallo, the Canary Islands, New York, Isfahan, Northumberland. In the early years it’s a bohemian, impecunious life. Financial worries haunt the letters from the beginning. His life of twists and turns, conflict and significant encounters led, in the 1920s, to his friendship with Pound and two periods in Rapallo — at the Ezuversity — where he forged his modernist credentials. “The 1930s letters to Pound are a seminal document in their own right,” Niven argues. 

Bunting’s letter to Pound on 16 December, 1938, which shows the rupture of that friendship on the eve of war, commands attention. Bunting writes from New York, having discovered Zukofsky had been subject to Pound’s antisemitism. “Dear Ezra,” it begins: “ … I wish I were not as much indebted to you as I am … Every anti-semitism, anti-niggerism, anti-moorism, that I can recall in history was base, had its foundations in the meanest kind of envy and greed. It makes me sick to see you covering yourself in that filth … To spue out anti-semite bile in a letter to Louis … is not a mere lapse of taste: it is uncommonly close to what has got to be called the behaviour of a skunk.” Although letter writing resumed after the war, the rock was split.

Not a few of Bunting’s experiences have a purgatorial quality but these are punctuated with Edenic interludes. Imprisoned during the First World War, Bunting had “a good war” in the second. His interest in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh led eventually to Persia (1942-52). On 18 July, 1945, now vice-consul of Isfahan, he is writing to the artist Karl Drerup: “My lawn is studded with bright flowers, just like a Persian brocade; and the impossible mountains you see in the background of the miniatures actually exist just beyond the town … Isfahan is so full of gardens that from a little distance you would think the minarets rose out of a forest.”

The last poignant letter in the book — 20 March, 1985 — was written weeks before his death, to Massimo Bacigalupo on the Italian Riviera, whose father was Pound’s doctor. The letter is full of literary observations and memories and characteristically there are references to Pound. Rapallo must have seemed impossibly distant. “My age,” Bunting says, “prohibits me from travelling. Old men are really disgusting to themselves. … I shall not revisit Italy … Snow and cold winds still imprison me. I survive with whisky’s help. Auguri. B.”

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