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An Interview with Basil Bunting

Born at Scotswood-on- Tyne, N orthumbria, in 1900, Basil Bunting was brought up as
a Quaker. He was a conscientious objector during the Great War and as a consequence
spent nearly two years in prison. In the early twenties in Paris he worked as Ford
M adox Ford's assistant on the Transatlantic Review and it was here that he met Ezra
Pound whose poetry was to become an enduring influence on his own (Yeats once
described Bunting as "one of Ezra's more savage disciples"). It was at Pound's urging
that Bunting published his first collection of poetry Redimiculum Matellarum in
[930; Pound included him in Active Anthology (1933) and Iacer dedicated Guide to
Kulchur "ro Louis Zukofsky and Basil Bunting srrugglers in the desert". Zukofsky,
uho had printed Bunting in his Objectivist Anthology in 1932 became a lzfe-long
friend, and an acknowledged influence.
Bunting worked for British Intelligence in Persia during the Second World War (he
had taught himself the language in order to read its classical poetry). Afrer theW ar he
returned to Newcastle where he worked as a journalist; a second collection Poems 1950
had by this time been published in the United States, but Bunting was co remain
unpublished in his own country until 1965. In 1966 Bunting's longest, and by
consensus, his greatest poem, Briggflatts, appeared; it immediately won him the
general recognition that had been denied for so long. Bunting's poetry has been
applauded by a wide range of poets -Robert Greeley, Allen Ginsberg, W.S. Merwin,
Sir Herbert Read. Hugh MacDiarmid compared his neglect to that of Hopkins and
called his poems "the most important ro have appeared in any form of the English
language since T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and such poems of W.B. Yeats as
'Sailing to Byzantium' and 'The Second Coming'." In I977 Donald Davie said of
Briggflatts: "this is where English poetry has got to, it is what English poetry must
assimilate and go on from." For Hugh Kenner "there is more to be learned from
Briggflatts than from most anthologies" . .. "There is no better poet alive than Basil
Bunting's Collected Poems were published by Fulcrum Press in 1966 and in a new
edition by Oxford University Press in 1978.
In January 1982, the editors of Scripsi conducted this written incerview with Basil
Scripsi: You've often talked about the way Yeats wouldkeepworkingona poem,
even a short poem, over a lengthy period of time, until he had it right. Is that
something you've done with any of your own poems?
Bunting: Of course.
Scripsi: In practice, is getting the sound right in your poetry a way of getting the
sense precise?
Bunting: The sense is mainly in the sound. Precision is needed in both.
Scripsi: You have always emphasised the primacy of rhythm, of musicality, in
verse. Is this a sufficient quality for the greatest poetry? What else is there?
Bunting: What is the 'greatest' poetry? Homer, Dante, Firdausi? Or do you let in
'Full fathom five' and 'Uber allen gipfeln'? Neither Shakespeare nor Goethe
bothered much about anything but the sound in those two bits, but is it possible
for anyone to forget them? I've said often enough that without the sound there
isn't a poem; but if you want to involve some sense in the sound and have the skill
to do it, why not? Lucretius made a text book sing. Dante included a whole
theological system. MacDiarmid was doing something similar just recently.
However, poets are usually content to repeat commonplaces, mere pretexts for the
sound, though most of them probably persuaded themselves that they were
thinking. What nonsense Keats (say) would seem in prose.
Scripsi: Do you agree with Pound that "technique is the test of sincerity"?
Bunting: Pound meant that an honest man takes the pains to learn his job.
Scripsl: Do you see a close link between what is called "free verse", and the
attempt to approximate quantitative metre in English?
Bunting: No. 'Free verse' is a French 19th century term, at first a mere slackening
of the very strict conventions of their alexandrines, which has gradually
degenerated into bad prose chopped up. That gets confused with verse that is
derived from Walt Whitman (mainly by Pound and me) which is constructed by
modifications of the musical phrase, in the manner of music, which seems 'free' to
people who don't have ear enough to Quantity is no doubt one
element in it -there are semibreves as well as crochets etc. in the music. To write
purely quantitative poems in English, as Sidney, Spenser, Campion sometimes
did, is very difficult because the stress in English is so strong that people, at least in
the south of England, don't notice anything else. Besides, the stress sometimes
modifies the quantity. English phrases with stress on a short syllable are not
common. But a poet ought to be always aware of the quantities and it is very good
exercise to imitate quantitative patterns.
Scripsi: In the early twenties you worked as an assistant to Ford Madox Ford on
The Transatlantic Review. Ford has some hilarious anecdotes about you in his
memoirs. Could you tell us something about this period in Paris? Was Ford a
good teacher?
Bunting: No gossip. Read my preface to The Selected Poems of Ford Madox Ford
for an estimate of the man.
Scripsi: Do you recall how you first met Louis Zukofsky?
Bunting: No.
Scripsi: You say in your introduction to the Collected Poems that you learnt a great
deal from Louis Zukofsky. What sort of thing do you think your own work has in
common with his?
Bunting: Concision.
Scripsi: You must have known Eliot fairly well. Did The W asce Land have a great
impact on you as a young poet getting started?
Bunting: 1922, with The Waste Land and Ulysses, a great year.
Scripsi: Of Ezra Pound's poetry you have said, "a man who is not influenced by at
least some of his tools is simply not living in the twentieth century". What do you
think are the main lessons to be learnt from Pound?
Bunting: Pound provided a great museum of poetical forms, found and
perceived, or invented by himself, equivalent in the 20th century to the similar
museum constructed by Spenser in the 16th century. 'The Shepherd's Calendar'
was a tool box for English poets for generations, and Pound's poems should be
another for us.
Scripsi: In the 'Drafts and Fragments' of Pound's Cantos there are lines that
remind us of your own verse. For instance: "a pale flare over marshes I where salt
hay whispers to tide's change". You have acknowledged Pound's influence on
your own writing. Do you think you influenced him at all?
Bunting: Pound said that I influenced him. I didn't perceive it, apart from tiny
Scripsi: Did Ezra Pound read Briggflatts? Did he tell you what he thought of it?
Bunting: Pound did read Brz'ggflatts. The only thing that might be a comment
was a card saying: "If I had your quick eyes I might have done something good".
But I think his eyes were quite as quick as mine, though somewhat differendy
directed. He meant, I suppose, an eye for unnoticed or unrecorded items of the
Scripsi: Ho.w much do you think Pound was attempting to approximate classical
metres and how much do you think he was working with out of the way English
Bunting: Pound did experiment with Latin and Greek metres at one time, not, I
think, very successfully. But he used his ear on English, not, like so many
contemporaries, only his reading glasses.
Scripsi: Do you think there has been a negative side to Pound's influence on
poetry since, say, the Second World War?
Bunting: No.
Scripsi: What is a poet likely to learn from translating?
Bunting: To handle his own language.
Scripsi: Is knowing other languages important for the perspective it allows on
rhythm in poetry?
Bunting: Of course. There are plenty of devices in Welsh, in Persian, in Arabic
that English should try to use, to mention only languages usually neglected of
which I happen to know a little.
Scripsi: Did you ever attempt any large scale translation of the Persian poet
Bunting: Yes. It was no good.
Scripsi: We both admire your early translation of Lucretius' 'Invocation to
Venus'. He is someone translators seem to have shied away from. What do you
think are his merits as a literary model?
Bunting: A great poet operating in an area poets mostly neglect. I have tried off
and on to get English departments to make The Origin of Species a set book, but
they scoff. So no Lucretius for our literature.
Scripsi: You've also translated Horace. Is it that mixture of extreme brevity
without obscurity which you like in him?
Bunting: Young, I liked Horace's way of changing the whole mood of a poem in a
single line. Now I am astonished at the feats he was able to perform with Latin
syntax. There is also the matchless onomatopoeia of '0 fons Bandusiae'.
Scripsi: Compared to your later work 'Villon' has an overtly dramatic quality.
That sort of "Shakespearean" grandiloquence you exploit so successfully there
seems to be something you turned away from. Why?
Bunting: It takes time to shake off the bad habits of English poetry. It took me
about fifteen years to tum Shakespeare out of the parlour.
Scripsi: A poem like 'Chomei at Toyama' is remarkable for its spare clarity of
statement. Do you think it's important for poets to try to master prose techniques
in their verse?
Bunting: Certainly Pound was right to say that poetry ought to be written at least
as well as prose. Translated, that should mean: Learn syntax.
Scripsi: Your Collected Poems emphasise quality over quantity. Do you think
poets write (or at any rate publish) tc;o much?
Bunting: Yes, even the best.
Scripsi: Did you ever contemplate writing a large scale poem like Pound's
Cantos? Or again, rather differently, like Zukofsky's "A "?
Bunting: No. What's the use of starting a long poem if the world's idea of itself is
going to change completely before you finish it? Long poems were possible in
Dante's time, while late scholasticism endured. Not now.
Scripsi: David Jones' work is full of a sense of place. It also challenges
comparison, in its ambition and techniques, with Pound, Eliot and Yeats. We have
read that you are a fan of Jones' poetry. Do you think that your own work is parallel
to his in any way?
Bunting: No.
Scripsi: In 1931 Louis Zukofsky noted that the diction in your poetry tended
"towards a classical selection". Briggflatts pulls towards strong and simple native
words. Can you tell us something about this development, if it is really a
Bunting: I do not know what Zukofsky meant by "a classical selection". He, like
me, preferred short words, and I think he always had done. So had I. My native
language (Northumbrian) does not take kindly to French and Latin importations.
Scripsi: In the original drafts of Briggf/atts were you working in terms of a
Bunting: A very short narrative - nine stanzas - was needed to set the key for
Briggf/atts. For the rest, I'd learned from Spenser that there's no need to tell the
reader what he can see for himself. Perhaps that assertion might puzzle trudgers
through The Faerie Queene; but consider the 'Amoretti-Epithalamion' volume.
No reconciliation after the tiff, the sequence ends in sadness. Then two pages of
time filling. Then straight into the greatest of all processional hymns. The reader
feels an enormous elation, which wouldn't be there if he'd had to read all the
details of making up. Many times I've read it and still I almost cry aloud with
delight. Why waste such possibilities, whether for delight or for something
Scripsi: Pound once said that 'Mauberley' was an attempt to get the novel cut
down to the size of verse. 'Mauberley' and Briggflam are obviously very different
poems, but is that one of the things you tried to do in Briggf/atts?
BWiting: No. The novelists (of this age) have not Spenser's genius.
Scripsi: Donald Davie has made the point about your work that you don't try to
woo the reader with easy rhetoric. In doing so he quoted George Oppen as
saying that the image should exist for the sake of the poet, not for the sake of the
reader. What do you think of Oppen's statement?
Bunting: I have no idea what Oppen could mean by it.
Scripsi: Did you always think that you would return to Northumbria and write a
specifically Northumbrian poem?
Bunting: Yes.
Scripsi: Do you think of yourself as a religious poet in any sense?
Bunting: If Saint Francis's praise of all creation in 'Altissimu onnipotente bon
signore' etc. or the ideas implied for Saint Cuthbert in the three lives of him can be
reconciled in any way with what is commonly called religion, no doubt I am a
religious poet. But I know of no church that would put up witheitherofthemfora
moment. At one time of his life I think Wordsworth might have understood that a
man was no more important than the louse in his shirt or the stone under his feet,
but it is not a common perception nor usually a lasting one; and it is altogether at
variance with what everybody else seems to think of as religion. The writers of the
gospels don't seem to attribute any such perception to Jesus: he lacked sufficient
humility. So I can't be convicted of Christianity. Still less of the absurdities of Zen
as now advocated.
Scripsi: You've said that the poetry of Wordsworth has always been with you.
What do you particularly admire in him?
Bunting: Look at the narrative complexity of 'The Brothers'. Wordsworth could
tell a story better than anyone in English at least since the middle ages. His
humour, so utterly English, so like Chaucer's. The splendour of his sound, lost
unfortunately on people who insist on reading him in the pronunciation of
southern English. His economy (not always exercised, but usually). And so on. . .
He wrote too much, not all at one level, but the best, say, three-quarters of his work
seems to me indispensable.
Scripsi: Are there any younger poets whose work you admire?
Bunting: Tom Pickard.