Tag Archives: modernism

A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting, by Richard Burton

A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting (2013), by Richard Burton


I’ve finally caught up with Richard Burton’s biography of poet Basil Bunting (1900-1985), published two years ago.  It’s a hefty, generous biography: generous in the length of its quotations from never-printed, rarely reprinted, and otherwise difficult-to-obtain materials; generous in providing both a biography and a series of critical readings, in the old critical-biography mode, and indeed a fairly detailed account of the critical reception of Bunting’s books; and generous to Bunting in — unlike many classic critical-biographies — not judging him or offering any overt interpretation of his character or his behaviour. If there is a covert interpretation of the life inscribed in the narrative, it’s the well-known one: that he was neglected for much of his lifetime and redeemed by the composition and publication of Briggflatts. It’s also seems to be implied that, until the Second World War, Bunting as man hadn’t completely come into adulthood, and that he was transformed by his wartime roles and responsibilities. A moment in Bunting’s mid-teens, when he threatened to leave the Quaker boarding school to which he had been sent, becomes a kind of reference point for later self-destructive moments, but only in the vaguest of ways: Burton is reluctant to interpret what was going on in Bunting’s faintly angry, frustrated, and mildly paranoid teenage outburst, so while the later episodes are similar, the narrative repetition doesn’t  amount to interpretation of the poet’s psyche or to narrative patterning.

All that is good. I enjoy reading biographies, but I worry about the distortions that they involve in order to create a compelling narrative, and I worry about the marketing-driven need to have a major new revelation (usually sexual) to offer to the world, around which the narrative must then be shaped.  Bunting’s teenage crush (or whatever it was) on Peggy Greenback, and his being reunited with her 50 years later, offers potential to create that kind of biography, but Burton doesn’t over-work it.  (In the Literary Review, Matthew Sperling drew attention to Bunting’s relationships with teenage girls, and Burton has responded briefly on the Infinite Ideas website about the difficulty of interpreting what was going on.)

Burton can get away with writing a biography without an overbearing interpretation or narrative line because Bunting’s life is itself full of interesting developments.  His Quaker-inspired opposition to the First World War is moving and fascinating.  His adventures in Persia are sometimes hilarious — I’d previously heard the one about his joining a mob who were baying for his blood — but Burton also conveys Bunting’s love for the country and its culture.  Bunting’s contempt for a southern English political and cultural establishment is a consistent connecting thread.

Generous = Hefty

Generous = Hefty

Burton can also get away with it because Bunting himself is such a vivid and at times hilarious teller of his own life. As Burton acknowledges, Bunting the anecdotalist at times seems to have taken a leaf from the master of unreliable memoirs, Ford Madox Ford, who was briefly his employer, so the record may well be exaggerated and in other ways distorted, but the stories are consistently engaging.  As well as being sceptical about the written record, Burton is alert to the theatrical elements in Bunting’s self-fashioning, especially late in life when he was able to play the role of Grand Old Man and Last-Living-Modernist. But his scepticism isn’t pushed into the position of reductive debunking.

If there’s a weakness in the narrative, it comes in the post-Briggflatts years, from 1966 to Bunting’s death, where Bunting himself seems to have begun to believe that his best years were behind him, creatively, and where Burton cannot find, or is unwilling to impose, any other narrative shape. The narrative can only be one of waiting for death; or, worse still, waiting for death while being forced, through financial necessity, to take a series of visiting professorships at universities. This phase is kept lively by Bunting’s contempt for universities, north American Creative Writing programmes, and the Arts Council, but by the late 1970s even those possibilities have evaporated.  Burton tends to flit around more freely in his source materials, so that a 1983 letter to Jonathan Williams will be followed by one from 1973 to Hugh MacDiarmid (p.488) (and of course, between those two letters, MacDiarmid had died, so that Bunting’s remarks about having ‘just’ written to MacDiarmid, when ‘just’ might seem to refer to 1983, is momentarily disorienting.)

I imagine most readers will come to this biography because they already know and love Bunting’s poetry. Reading it is no substitute for reading the  poetry, and only in small details does the biography (as distinct from Burton’s critical discussions) illuminate the poetry.  But Bunting is an intriguing character, and, by standing at one remove from him, quoting generously and framing documents sensitively and sympathetically, Burton allows us to reach our own conclusions.


#bookadayUK (24): Hooked me into reading

As Biblicists know, eating an apple can get you into all kinds of trouble.  I’m not writing about the work that first hooked me into reading, because that was Ted Hughes’s The Iron Man, and I’ve already written about it.  The work that took my reading to a new level was T. S. Eliot’s group of short poems ‘Preludes’.  I’d been a voracious reader at primary school, but lost interest between 11 and 16 because no-one could recommend anything suitable for me. Then a couple of works grabbed my interest during my O-level years.

The first was Edwin Muir’s ‘The Horses’, which we covered  as a poem in our anthology, Rhyme and Reason.  I wrote an essay on it, had a spine-tingling moment when I realised that it was a kind of parallel creation myth, and the teacher was lavish in her praise.  (She didn’t even grade it; just wrote ‘Superb’.  You could overdo that kind of praise, but it was an important endorsement and confirmation.)

The other encounter happened by accident in the last lesson one Friday afternoon; spring or early summer, I’d guess.  The teacher, Mrs Harris, was off sick, and the lesson was being covered by a youthful, likeable Geography teacher, Mr Koenig.  I was hungry (my packed lunches were never big enough), and realised I still had an apple in my bag, so figured that I might as well eat it.  The chairs were arranged in double horseshoe configuration, so even though I was on the outer row, there wasn’t a great deal of cover.  I was spotted, and as a punishment, Mr Koenig took an old anthology from the cupboard, found a poem by a poet I’d never heard of and told me to write an essay on it: write about the urban imagery in ‘Preludes’ by T. S. Eliot. He must have done English Lit at A-level, to be able to identify a suitable topic with such speed.  At first I was resentful, as eating when you’re hungry didn’t seem such a terrible thing to do, and I’d never before been set a punitive essay or subjected to any ‘demerit’ or detention.  But at home, when I began to read the poems, and still more when I began to write about them, I was really blown away: the tone and manner were completely different from anything else we’d done.

My guess is this must have been the spring of my O-level year.  I can’t remember whether there were any other Eliot poems in the anthology, but somehow I must have found out more about him.  At the point when I left secondary school I was signed up to do science A-levels at sixth-form college (Maths, Biology, Chemistry, Physics), with a vague plan of going on to do a medicine degree; but over the summer I started to feel that I needed some expressive, artistic dimension to my studies, so after the O-level results came I phoned the sixth-form and swapped one of the science subjects for English Literature. At some point in September of that year, I bought Eliot’s Collected Poems; I wrote the date September 1984 in it, but nothing more precise. I remember distinctly buying it in Wallingford, a small market town ten miles from home where we didn’t shop very often; or rather, I remember beginning to read it in the car on the way home.  Within a year I’d dropped another science subject, and set myself on studying English at University, now with the unusual subject combination of Chemistry, Maths, and English.


My copy, bought September 1984

#bookadayUK (22): Out of Print

Pig Cupid, a small pamphlet of poems in response to Mina Loy’s ‘Songs to Johannes’, was where I first became aware of this neglected modernist poet.  That was in 2000; later, when Lawrence Rainey’s Modernism anthology came out (2005), I read her for the first time, and was amazed by ‘Parturition’ in particular, for the way it connected intense physical experience with philosophical abstractions. Rainey’s selection led me to what remains the most readily obtainable selection her poetry, and undoubtedly the best place to start, The Lost Lunar Baedeker, ed. Roger Conover (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996; later published by Carcanet).  But tantalisingly, what Conover wasn’t able to include in that selection, given that he wished to include annotations and an introduction, was Loy’s autobiographical poem ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’.  He had included it in an earlier collection of her work, The Last Lunar Baedeker (Jargon Society, 1982), a beautifully made and hefty book that now re-sells for equally hefty prices.


You can get a good feel for Loy’s poetry without reading ‘Anglo-Mongrels’, but nevertheless, it attempts something quite different: an autobiography.  And it’s an autobiography that explores where personhood comes from, so rather than beginning with Loy’s childhood, it begins with her parents: her Hungarian-born Jewish father, Sigmund Felix Lowy, and her English mother, Julia Bryan. And her presentation of them isn’t straightforward: Sigmund becomes ‘Exodus’, and Julia is initially named ‘English Rose’, later to become ‘Ada’. In consequence, we see them as types rather than individuals, she ‘simperiing in her / ideological pink’, and he something of  Jewish stereotype, ‘loaded with Mosaic / passions that amass / like money.’  Mina Loy herself is born twenty pages into the poem (it’s about sixty pages long in total) and is referred to as ‘Ova’; her later lover Arthur Cravan is presented at the moment of his birth as ‘the male fruit / of a Celtic couple’, and is named ‘Colossus’.  The narrative doesn’t carry the main characters far beyond their early childhoods and formative impressions.  While ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’ is by no means perfect as autobiographical poetry, it’s a singular and striking experiment that deserves to be more widely read.



#bookadayUK (16): Can’t believe more people haven’t read

Obscene, obscure, and over-long: from that sort of account of James Joyce’s Ulysses, I can understand why it’s not read more widely, but I’m still surprised by how many people mention it as the work they pretend to have read.  Reading it is so much more fun than pretending.

I first heard of Ulysses as one of the classic texts of high modernism.  At that point I was familiar with modernism almost entirely through T. S. Eliot, so I assumed that Ulysses would be an extended account of the decay of Western civilisation with the usual Eliot scenery of fog, smoke, canals, rats, and general urban debris, and an equivalent level of quotation from obscure texts in languages I didn’t understand.  Nevertheless, brave teenager that I was, I looked forward to reading it.

No-one had told me it was funny: raucously, mockingly, obscenely funny; wittily funny, childishly funny, exasperatingly funny. Mr Joyce’s emporium stocks every variety of funny.

And no-one had told me it was beautiful: not because of the world it depicts, which is only rarely beautiful, but in the shaping of the prose.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air.

What captivating opening sentences.  Never mind that it’s hard to visualise how you might cross a razor and a mirror (even an old-fashioned cutthroat razor); never mind that the first thing anyone says is in Latin.  The cadence is enough to reassure that Joyce is utterly in control of his materials, and that he’s worth persevering with.  And the parody of the Mass that Mulligan is performing sounds the note of mocking scepticism that runs throughout.

Ulysses (OWC)


It’s true that it’s a different reading experience from even the biggest Victorian novels. The length isn’t really the issue. You have to learn to live with a degree of confusion; some things only fall into place on a second or a third reading.  The Ithaca episode (the penultimate) is where we learn the most factual information about the characters, but by then it’s too late to be of use; in any case, much of the information is deliberately in excess of usefulness. You have to learn when to follow something up and when to let it lie, but a well annotated edition will enable you to do that easily.  Jeri Johnson’s edition for Oxford World’s Classics has over 200 pages of notes.  I wish this had been available when I first read Ulysses; the best that was available was Harry Blamires’s The Bloomsday Book, which on reflection probably had too much paraphrase but too little annotated.  You have to hold things in your head and connect them across long distances, but not in a detective-story mentality: plenty of connections can escape you and you’ll still gain a lot from the experience.

The first version I read, the Penguin edition of Hans Walter Gabler’s ‘corrected’ text, came with a reassuring Introduction by Richard Ellmann which said (though I paraphrase), Joyce’s theme was simple; he used the most elaborate methods to present it.  The theme, on Ellmann’s account, is love.  Leopold Bloom’s love for Molly; his love for his lost son and for the daughter who’s just moved away from home; the love of family and the love of nation and place. I don’t much care for claims about ‘universality’, and it’s a novel about a predominantly male world, but it’s still a novel with a wide reach.