The last modernist monster

William Scammell salutes the late great Basil Bunting mxczx xcvzx zxarbkjdnfikz nvkfzi zxfkgh kxl nvx;lfijiu;d
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The Independent Culture
"ONE of Pound's more savage disciples," said Yeats of Basil Bunting, and the alleged (and real) Poundianism has stuck, though Bunting himself said that Wordsworth was his great hero. Maybe he had to fight for a long time to effect some sort of a marriage, or middle way, between the two. He was an intensely literary poet (though he wanted not to be), as every page of Basil Bunting: Complete Poems (OUP £10.99) demonstrates.

Time and again he sets one register against another - "Out of puff/noonhot in tweeds and gray felt", say, against "What mournful stave, what bellow shakes the grove?" in "Attis" - or juggles with modes of speech in order to get at the matter of his own life. And it wasn't until Briggflatts that he managed it, in 1965. The rest is experiment, imitation, irritation ("Spell out a fart/and have it printed?"), false notes, snorts and brags, being got the better of by protean language and precedents.

Briggflatts is the last of the big modernist monsters, complete with arcane sources (a Scarlatti sonata and the Lindisfarne gospel for starters), multiple allusions, and challenging prosody. It owes much more to Eliot than to Pound, especially epic Eliot of The Waste Land and Four Quartets. The opening of Part IV, for example - "Grass, caught in willow tells the flood's height that has subsided" modulating within two pages to "Where rats go go I, accustomed to penury,/filth, disgust and fury" is inconceivable with Eliot, and this pervasive debt needs to be acknowledged alongside Bunting's own contribution to modernism, most apparent in that famous opening: "Brag, sweet tenor bull,/descant on Rawthey's madrigal..." To my ear that has something of Marvell's sweetness tucked away, in its gruff alliterative jerkin.

He was insistent about the importance of sound in his poetry, but this doesn't differentiate him very much from Pope or Donne. There's a Bloodaxe record (YRIC0001) of him reading the poem in an almost comical affected adagio and northern burr. He got this "chaunting" from Pound, who had it from Yeats, who probably inherited it from Tennyson. If this aural tradition is to be trusted, perhaps Milton and Shakespeare sawed the air too when they read aloud. Sit up and listen! - this is language on a bender, drunk with possibility.

Briggflatts also has that modernist, reflexive obsession with poetry itself, and the nature of art, as well as a beautiful excursion into some of the many particulars of Bunting's own life. "It is easier to die than to remember. It is a love poem, a poem of places and histories, a wrestling with words and (the same thing) with honesty: a story of the seasons out there on the fells and in here in the interior life - "Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart", as Wordsworth puts it in "Tintern Abbey". "Pens are too light... Take a chisel to write".

Bloodaxe also publish The Poetry of Basil Bunting by Victoria Forde (£9.95), which takes everything Bunting said at face value but which also contains valuable information and letters. I wish the Complete Poems were ordered chronologically rather than thematically, so that we could follow Bunting's progresses and regresses more sensibly, but, like Wordsworth, he had his own notions of how his poems should be arranged, and these have been respected.