Spontaneous Poetics (Ballads) – 15 – (Basil Bunting)

There’s a modern ballad by Basil Bunting which is worth listening to. The reason we got onto ballads, incidentally, is purely by accident. It was just that I had to begin somewhere in this course. Jack Elliott was present and Helen Adam was present. It was a good place to jump in with a form that was familiar to you now from pop or folk music, and, at the same time, it’s an archaic form, so we could start back in time and go back to the Scottish ballads and post-Elizabethan ballads that Helen laid out. One of the things we were talking about, or one of the things that thinking about the ballad brought up, was juxtaposition or jump-cutting, or fast cutting, or haiku-like setting (of) disparate images side-by-side, or gaps in time created by jumping. That was one thing we were talking about. The other was sharpness of focus of the eye – and one of the best people for that sharp-eye focus in the 20thcentury is Basil Bunting, who was a friend of Ezra Pound.

(Bunting) came to London, at the age of seventeen, from Newcastle, in England, and acted as a young kid as a secretary between Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad. Then Bunting met Pound and (William Butler) Yeats and the Pound circle, and spent some time as Yeats’ secretary in Rapallo, and he turned on Pound to a couple of very clear ideas about poetry, which Pound quotes in his book(s), “(Guide to) Kulchur”, and ABC of Reading(which is in the library, (and) is a good summary of poetic practice). Bunting found in a German dictionary – “Dichten = condensare” (“Poetry equals condensation”, or “To make poetry is to condense”). So Pound picked up on that by getting rid of extra words, condensing the writing of the poem down to the factual material, without editorial comment, without bullshit. Just the sensory images, or the visual images, lined up in some logical order suggested by the mind, but condensed down, so that you don’t say “Naropa School of Poetry”, you say “Naropa Poetry School”. In other words, talking faster, more or less as you would talk if you were actually talking (you wouldn’t necessarily use “of the”, you wouldn’t use a lot of syntactical fat). You might likely talk pretty fast and say “He’ll go downtown”, instead of “He will go downtown”. So it would be condensing and getting rid of extra syllables.

Then Bunting went on to be Chief of British Intelligence in the Middle East in World War II, reporting directly to (Winston) Churchill, and so not (strictly speaking) in (the) Civil Service, and so, not covered by pensions. After the war, he retired to Newcastle, where he was the Financial Editor of the Newcastle Times, living in obscurity – and he stopped writing poetry during the (19)50’s. Then, around 1963, he was discovered by a gang of young hippies in Newcastle, who turned him on to some local Newcastle hash, which reminded him of his great days in the Middle East when he was hanging around Persia. So he started writing poetry again. The only book of his that was extant was a book called “Selected Poems”, put out by Dallam Flynn in Austin, Texas in 1950 with a preface by Ezra Pound, which is a famous preface because it says, “If you’re interested in sound, follow the tone leading of the vowels”. It was the first time that Pound had said that that clearly. “Follow the tone leading of the vowels” – in other words, the musical sound of the vowels, the vowels leading one into each other Pay attention to the tone leading of the vowels if you want to sharpen your ear. Then, a book of Bunting’s was put out in England by Fulcrum Press, Collected Poems, (19)68 (and it’s (currently – 1976) out-of-print in America, so this [holding copy] is probably the only copy in Boulder, and it’ll be in the library). (So), out of this book, Basil Bunting – Collected Poems, 1968 – the ballad, “The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer”  [Allen reads, in its entirety, all ten stanzas of Bunting’s“The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer”] – (“On the up-platform at Morpeth station/In the market-day throng/I overheard a Morpethshire farmer/ Muttering this song/ Must ye bide, my good stone house,/To keep a townsman dry?/ To hear the flurry of the grouse/ But not the lowing of the kye/ To see the bracken choke the clod/ The coulter will na turn/ The bit level neebody/ Will drain soak up the burn?/ Where are ye, my seven score sheep?/ Feeding on other braes!/ My brand has faded from your fleece,/ Anothr has its place/ The fold beneath the rowan/Where ye were dipt before/ Its cowpit walls are overgrown,/Ye would na heed them more./ And thou! Thou’s idled all the spring,/ I doubt thou’s spoiled, my Meg!/But a sheepdog’s faith is aye something./We’ll hire together in Winnipeg./ Canada’s a cold land/Thou and I must share/A straw bed and a hind’s wages/And the bitter air./Canada’s a bare land/For the north wind and the snow/Northumberland’s a bare land/For men have made it so./ Sheep and cattle are poor men’s food,/ Grouse is sport for the rich/Heather grows where the sweet grass might grow/For the cost of cleaning the ditch./ A liner lying in the Clyde/ Will take me to Quebec./ My sons’ll see the land I’m leaving/As barren as her deck.”)

Well, that’s pretty powerful, actually, because, like Pound, Bunting was interested in economics and history, and he has actually condensed a whole social history and economic history into a brief ballad. Morpethshire is (in) Northumbria, Northern England, around Newcastle, right below Scotland – “Sheep and cattle are poor men’s food,/Grouse is sport for the rich,/Heather grows where the sweet grass might grow/For the cost of cleaning the ditch” – I don’t think it was meant for singing, probably. It could be sung easy, probably. So,(going) back in time. I don’t know all the references. I don’t know (for example) what the is – “Kye” is cows, cattle [to Students] – Do you know the other words? – no? – let’s check them out – “Bracken”? – “the bracken choke the clod”? – Weeds, I guess.

Student: Bracken is a kind of fern.

AG: Uh-huh.

Student: It’s got one single strand and then very lacy feathers.

AG: So, “To see the bracken choke the clod/ The coulter will na turn”? The “coulter” would be, then, some sort of plough. The plough won’t churn the clod because the brackens choke the clod.

Student” Bracken is very dense, it grows very densely.

AG: Yeah, “The bit level neebody/Will drain soak up the burn?”? Anybody know that?
“To see the bracken choke the clod/ the coulter will na turn/The bit level neebody/will drain soak up the burn”?

Student: “The bit level” – the little bit that is level that nobody will drain..

AG: Yeah. Yeah! – Right.. “The bit level neebody/Will drain soak up the burn?”. Okay, great. I never (before) understood that line. I thought a “bit level” was a tool.

Student: Like a bit?

AG: Yeah.  “The bit level neebody/Will drain soak up the burn?”. Terrific..okay.. which is interesting.. So, unless you actually understand a poem, you can’t actually pronounce it rhythmically correct (which is interesting to know, because most people don’t realize that). I had pronounced it, thinking it was.. well, actually not knowing what was a subject and what was an object, I was just reading it – “The bit level neebody/Will drain – pause – soak up the burn?”. So you’d have to have a little caesura beteeen “drain” and “soak up the burn?”, a little cut, a little hesitation. “The bit level neebody/Will drain – pause – soak up the burn?”

I found that insetting (William) Blake’s songs to music that lines that I took for granted and really didn’t know, obviously I couldn’t set to music, because I couldn’t figure which way the voice would go. I couldn’t figure whether the voice would go up or down, whether there’d be a little rest or hesitancy, or how the music would go. Generally, people don’t get that much into poetry that syllable-by-syllable they know the tone, or that they know a poem so totally, syllable-by-syllable, the significance or meaning of every single syllable, in even a short text such as this. I found for years, for instance, I’d know the first two lines of a poem and have absolutely no idea what the rest of the poem was like! – “Sweetest love, I do not go/ For weariness of thee”</ais a poem of (John) Donne‘s. I’d read it a thousand times and had no recollection of the rest, just a few key lines stuck in my head.
“The fold beneath the rowan/ Where ye were dipt before..” – “The fold beneath the rowan” – what was that?

Student: Colts. The baby ones

AG: Oh, “fold”  [i.e. not “foal”] – F-O-L-D – “The fold beneath the rowan/ Where ye were dipt before..”

Student: Rowan is a tree.

AG: It says, “its cowpit walls are overgrown..” A sheep-dip.

Student:  (A slaughter pit?)

AG: Huh?

Student: (They) used to do that sometimes..

AG: Dipped? (“Dipt”)?

Student: A sheep.. where they shoot them..

AG: Yeah, but what is “”The fold beneath the rowan/ Where ye were dipt before..”, I wonder. Anybody know that? – I just don’t know the language. Helen (Adam) would probably know that.. Helen Adam would have known that, though this is (a) Northumbrian, rather than a (Scottish) ballad we’re discussing.  Well, this (Collected Poems) will be in the library, and I’ll probably go over Bunting later, so, if you have a chance, in terms of homework, in the front I’ve checked, throughout the book,specific poems and I’ve made a list of the poems to look over, poems that are the easiest to read, basically, or the easiest to get into.

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