Basil Bunting’s Lectures on Poetic Origins – 1

Basil Bunting (1900-1985)

AG: Some of the ideas that (Basil) Bunting was laying out, I would like to lay out here because they’re just very interesting. He was saying that, first of all, English poetry was sung up until the 17th century. All the poets wrote for singing including, of all people, John Donne! – Donne was sung. He was put to music by a fellow named Ferrabosco of that era (do you know anything about that?) – Well, apparently Donne was actually sung. Donne is usually taught nowadays as if he… you know.. he has one or two songs, like Go And Catch A Falling Star”, but, generally, it doesn’t look like it can be sung, but he was actually, and there were composers who delighted in doing it, tho’ they were… there was a kind of singing of that time that was…

Student: Was that after the fact?

AG: No, at the time, contemporary.

Student: No, But I mean, was the poems first and the poets, or was the music..

AG: It was composed by a composer. He was friends with composers. It was close enough that it was actually of the same circle and it was thought of as words for a song. But it was a different kind of singing. Both Ralegh and Donne apparently had songs that were like somber readings, that were more like… that were approaching song, but it wasn’t really a song, but with music… Bunting pointed out that the idea of song of this kind was.. (song as song, like we have with Wyatt), was imported, and that the originator of the… the great cultural center for that was – Lorenzo de’ Medici (what century is he? does anybody know?) Medici – Lorenzo de Medici, I guess fifteenth-century actually, probably. fourteen-something probably….[Editorial note – Lorenzo de’ Medici was born in 1469 and died in 1492] – and that he himself, Lorenzo, sang songs which were, as Bunting describes them, “the “top ten” of their day”, that he himself sang, and was known to go around the streets, (I guess, (in) what was that? – Florence?), and sing, during festivals. And that the tradition of songs that was brought from Europe came to England .

And, naturally, other courts picked up on it, (and) thought it was great, so, apparently, Henry VII and Henry VIII were accomplished musicians and cultivated music. Lorenzo de Medici cultivated all the great painters of his time as well as the musicians. So it was a great era. And (Ezra) Pound describes that, (some of it), himself, in the Cantos, picks up on the Medici brilliance, the brilliance of the Medici court(s), as an ideal social State.He points out that syllabic meter (that’s the count of syllables) is French (everybody knows that – well, not everybody, but it’s commonly understood that the French count syllables – but also Welsh is a syllabic count) – And where it gets its variety is from… (because the accents fall almost anywhere), it’s a strict count of syllables, a certain amount of syllables to the line – (And) you can see examples of the Welsh style in a later form in Marianne Moore.

Her count is just syllable count, letting them, letting the stresses fall where she wants them conversationally – But that Doctor.. he points out, Dr. Johnson, in his poetry, (Dr.Johnson was a great learned man and a pedant (but) a little bit square in that way), tried to imitate a syllabic count, tried to unite syllabic count and stress – simultaneously. In other words, an exact count of syllables. plus an exact arrangement of stress. (So Bunting..) (So) In the poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes”… And Bunting points out that it’s sort of a monstrosity. Johnson, like radio-announcers, put(s) a heavy stress on an insignificant syllable. “Like a radio-announcer, puts a heavy stress on an insignificant syllable”!– “Well, ladies and gentlemen, the weather tonight will be” – “plenty in the morning”

Then, Bunting was dividing the different kinds of measure as – one stress – one count – regular arrangement of stress, regular arrangement of syllable, count syllable. And then he said, “Some languages measure the time it takes to speak a syllable – that’s called quantitative” – “Some languages measure the time it takes to speak a syllable” -Some languages for their measure distinguish the tone of the voice pronouncing, pronouncing voice, so it’s a measure of different tones (five high tones, four low tones)

Student: Like Chinese?

AG: Yeah, Chinese. And he also suggested for alliterative verse, partly, and where it was chanted – and Persian verse (his own specialty) repeated cadence (or) a syntactical unit – like in, I suppose like.. “Syntactical unit” would be like the Bible, that is parallelism. “Repeated cadence” would be a little cadence of five-syllable special cadence at the end of a line (I think that’s Homeric, I’m not sure).

In other words, he’d have a little rhythmic thing that would occur regularly at the end of each line, and you could put as many syllables as you wanted in before – you could have a long long long line like Howl but as long as it ended with “google mop” [sic] each time. I think he spoke of Firdosi as being like, the Persian writer, as being like that.Then he went into what is the difference between spoke… between prose and poetry, and he suggested it was… to some extent, it could be – Prose – spoken; Poetry- chanted. – (that) would be one possible difference. And he was pointing out that the comparison (is there) between Herodotus, which is spoken, and Homer which is chanted, which is told in a chant – (Homer is told in a chant and Herodotus is just spoken).

And a difference in what’s spoken and what’s chanted is, perhaps, in the pattern of the lines, or the ending of the lines (the pattern of the line or the ending of the line, or some pattern at the end). And that, he thought, came from, before there were any written records, there are archaeological and anthropological records of what the earliest kind of poetry might be and where it proceeds from – archaeological, in the sense that certain kinds of musical instruments, or drums , or rhythm instruments, from ancient times, correspond to artifacts
anthropologists could find in recent times, and so you could compare, perhaps, the earliest poetries, archeologically detective-d with anthropological evidence and that suggests that poetry proceeds originally from the condition of dance, or that the repeated patterns proceed from the condition of dance. And he pointed out that even gorillas dance! (family by family). So dance is the most primaeval of the arts, and that music and poetry come, then, out of dance.. Yeah?

Student: I was just thinking that the repetitions of dance and the repetitions of sound in poetry both aid in memory. (If ) you don’t have any record to go to..

AG: Well, naturally..

Student: (Well some people suggest that the one is derived from the other, but I mean they’re just contemporaneous)

AG: Well he was just…I was just.. Why would poetry have to be derived from dance?

Student: Yes

AG: Because..well..

Student: It seems to me the basis of patterns of poetry, if you go back (is)…

AG: I think you’re thinking too theoretically.

Student: Yeah

AG: It’s just purely.. totally theoretical what you’re saying. So what Bunting was suggesting was there would be dance, and in between dances there might be a grunt – uh – like in a dance – and that’s the first poetry. And then there might be a word substituted for the grunt. In other words, he was building up slowly.

Student: It sounds like a bunch of anthropologists.

AG: Pardon me?

Student: It sounds like a bunch of anthropologists

AG: That was what he was saying – that checking archaeological and anthropological records, that’s what it suggests. And if you were going to do..go back before texts..

Student: But all language comes from (it too) doesn’t it?

AG: Yeah. So he was just pointing it.. Well..language might not come from the dance but poetic language might come from dance

Student; Why wouldn’t it? It has nothing to do with the beat of the heart and the flow of the blood and the..?

AG: Dance has.. Well..
Student: Language
AG: Pardon me?
Student: Language. No?
AG: Well, let us say primates dance (that’s why I was pointing out the gorilla families dance)
Student: Right
AG: It’s their first, the first thing that they do do
Student: (First)
AG: …Yes it’s sort of interesting

Student: Would there be any distinction between language and poetry at all?

AG: Well, in the first place, there was no poetry maybe. It was just people sort of jumping up and down. going uh uh uh. And then uh was the first poem. Then “want” might be…Anyway, he says it. Let me just present Bunting’s ideas and you can think about it because there’s a lot more little interesting insights.

Dance is the most fundamental of the arts and the parent of music and poetry, he claims, and that, within the dance step,the sub-rhythms within the dance step, he believes, come, from the following situation…
He was.. what? he was..Bunting himself was travelling in Kurdistan and he heard a.. there was a group.. there was a sound like a.. [AG percussively claps his hands together here] which was interesting to him and he stopped in the street to find out what it was, and there was a group of women carrying giant burdens and their breasts were flapping as they walked and that was the slapping sound.

Student: (That was..that was the sound?)

AG: He was.. he was guessing that feet, hands, breasts, and limbs beat time, that time, the sub-rhythms suggested by the different parts of the body (in the dance) suggest.. suggest.. – the breasts flapping, particularly, was his gig – suggests, as in Zulu dancing (where the flapping of the breast is part of the sub-rhythms, actually) and is considered a major part of the rhythmic percussion session in the dance in Zulu – and, apparently, he says, in Kurdish situations).

So he was saying feet, hands, breasts, limbs, as they beat time in the dance, then that suggests the next step which is the first instrument, the drum. And dancers huff and grunt, cry out , and then begin to articulate words (and then) the first poetry. And he points to Franz Boas’ transcriptions of Menominee Indian chants. The first words are just sounds made as part of the dance and are pure nonsense and then, those are.. it progresses to very sharp lyrics, like one or two lines like “In my one-eyed ford – hey-way hey-nay -yo hey-nay-nay yo – I’m going home from town in my one-eyed Ford – way hey-na-yo- hey-hey-way-yo tra-la-la-la-la tra-la-la-la – in my one-eyed Ford tra-la-la-la la-ley- yo” So…

to be continued

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately eight minutes in and concluding at approximately twenty-and-a-half minutes in]

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