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Alan Baker

On First ‘Looking Into’ Basil Bunting

We had been to my elder brother's local pub - the Harbour View, Sunderland - a group of us, and we came back to his terraced house and settled down in the front room. He took out a vinyl LP (it was late the 70s), and I expected the usual weird jazz or obscure blues. "Hey", he said, "I've discovered this local poet. He's called Basil Bunting" (the name struck me as slightly comic), "listen to this". Listen? I thought poetry was something you read. I sat back in the darkened room, slightly under the influence, and after the crackles, Bunting's voice intoned:

Brag sweet tenor bull
Descant on Rawthey's madrigal...

That voice, the accent, the carved and crafted words, each given its due weight - the effect was electric; I was instantly hooked. I was a poetry enthusiast already; but it had always been a choice between something read, or something listened to in the form of song lyrics. But the words being intoned here were like music, and when I picked up the book on the coffee table, I saw that here was a lyricist who both quoted Dante (always a sign of Real Poetry, I used to think), but who also used the word "spuggies", our word for sparrows, which I'd never seen written down. And he spoke in a regional accent. Although Bunting hammed it up on his later recordings of Briggflatts, the early ones are more natural. He grew up in Throckley, west of Newcastle, and as my best friend lived there (his father worked at the pit), I can attest that his accent was authentic. Here was a poet who spoke my language. Which is not to say it wasn't puzzling. What did 'descant' mean? Who was Rawthey? What was a madrigal? It didn't matter (although when I later found out that the Rawthey is a river in Cumbria, it added a real beauty to those lines); it sounded magnificent, and was laced with descriptions of the Northumberland landscape that I knew well, as well as more exotic locations and scenes:

…ibex guts steaming under a cold ridge,
tomcat stink of a leopard dying…

At the time, Bunting was living just a few miles away (I've always regretted that I never met him, or went to readings at the Morden Tower, although I walked past it everyday on my way to work); he was a local poet; but one who had been a long-time associate of Ezra Pound, who knew Eliot, was a friend of Yeats, and of course, had those American connections; Zukofsky, Neidecker, Ginsberg. But he lived in a modest house in Newcastle, worked in ordinary jobs, and had friends among the shepherds and fishermen of Northumberland.

There are lots of things I could say about Bunting's poetry; that he was a pioneer of modernism in the 1920s; that he was the only British objectivist; that he helped to bring about the revival of poetry as public performance. But for me, personally, it was the way his poetry, however literary and 'difficult' it could be, was rooted in everyday speech and local dialect.

In fact, for a long time Bunting was seen as a Northumbrian dialect poet, mainly because his poem ‘The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer’ was included by Pound in the ‘Active Anthology’ of 1933. This poem reflects Bunting’s experiences with the hill farmers of Northumberland, whom he lived with for a time, many of whom were forced to emigrate by the land clearances of the thirties. The farmer asks whether his house will remain after he has gone:

To see the bracken choke the clod
The coulter will na turn?
The bit level neebody will drain
Soak up the burn?

This is the metre of the Border Ballads, and the rhythms of local dialect. A ‘coulter’ is a plough, and in ‘bit level neebody will drain’ the iambic beat is broken up to approximate the spoken voice. In a poem written soon after this, it’s possible to see a further development, where common speech is merged with different a different type of phraseology:

‘Mesh cast for mackerel by guess and the sheen’s tremor,
imperceptible if you haven’t the knack.’

(Ode 22)

The colloquial ‘haven’t the knack’ combined with ‘imperceptible’ and the more poetic ‘sheen’s tremor’ make for a verse which is moving towards a different register while retaining it’s link to everyday northern speech. During the bleak years of the 1950’s Bunting maintained his links with American avant-garde poets, including Lorine Niedecker, Jonathan Williams (of Black Mountain College), and his friend Louis Zukofsky. Then there was his meeting with Tom Pickard and his subsequent contribution to the poetry renaissance on Tyneside. ‘Briggflatts’ is a seminal work in the modernist tradition; it encompasses material as diverse as Pound and Zukofsky, Persian folklore (Bunting was a fluent Persian speaker) and ancient Welsh poetry. Yet we can see in that poem a thread linking it back to the pre-war poems mentioned above. Here, though, the speech rhythms have become fused into a distinct poetic idiom:

Who sang, sea takes,
Brawn brine, bone grit.
Fells forget him.
Fathoms dull the dale…

This is alliterative metre in the English tradition of Langland and the Gawain poet. In another passage we have:

Lark, mallet,
Becks, flocks
And axe knocks.

This is even more concentrated, and is close to contemporary ‘sonic’ poetry of abstract sounds; indeed, Bunting is an important influence on poets like Nicholas Johnson and Maggie O’Sullivan. So, we see Modernist experiment merged with a Wordsworthian ethos of poetry as common speech. Yes, a Wordsworthian ethos. I was puzzled in those early days by Bunting’s insistence that Wordsworth was a member of his pantheon; the list of twelve poets acknowledged in the preface to his Collected Poems, only three of whom are English. My subsequent appreciation of Wordsworth, was partly due to Bunting’s insistence that he was a poet of the spoken voice and of local idiom. Hearing a tape of Bunting reading ‘Michael’ must be the nearest thing to hearing the author himself intone that story. Wordsworth, I now realized, with his ballads and stories, and his north country accent (his fellow students at Cambridge complained that they couldn’t understand a word he said), was part of, and was helping to reconstruct, an oral tradition.

Poetry as oral tradition; as epitomized by my experience in that darkened room in a terraced house by Sunderland harbour, as the words rolled on to the poem’s magnificent close:

A strong song tows
us, long earsick.
Blind, we follow
rain slant, spray flick
to fields we do not know.

Copyright © Alan Baker, August 2004. Acknowledgements are due to Poetry Nottingham in which this article was first published.