Basil Bunting’s Birthday

“Basil Bunting and Allen Ginsberg in Tom and Connie Pickard’s flat, Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne, 22 May, 1965.

Today is Basil Bunting‘s birthday.

We feature a guest posting today from poet and Bunting editor and scholar, Don Share

On Thursday, March 1, 1900, Basil Bunting was born in Scotswood-on-Tyne in the north of England. Bunting’s life extended through a large part of the twentieth century, beginning just as Queen Victoria’s long reign was nearing its end, and ending in 1985, the year the first mobile phone network in the UK was established and the internet Domain Name System was created. If you didn’t call Bunting a modernist in terms of his poetry, you’d have to call him modern simply in terms of the circumstances of his biography, which showed him to be alive to – and prescient about – the most momentous events of the twentieth-century, from two World Wars through crises in the Middle East to vivid changes in the politics and character of British life.

In effect, and this is especially resonant now when poets are often also activists, Bunting’s life was always one of protest. During the First World War, fresh out of school, he was a conscientious objector; for this he was imprisoned, in very harsh conditions, and eventually went on a hunger strike. The experience helped power his early major poem, “Villon,” connecting with a more infamous legacy; and also earned him a spot in Ezra Pound’s “Canto 74”. With regard to Pound, though they were friends, Bunting was one of the first to criticize Pound for the “abomination” of his anti-Semitism, writing in a letter to him that it “makes me sick to see you covering yourself with that filth.” And by 1939, observing that Britain was headed again toward war, different but equally strong principles were at work than previously, and in 1940 Bunting volunteered to serve on a minesweeper. He failed the medical exam, but eventually, joined the Royal Air Force, writing of the experience in his fascinating war poem, The Spoils”. That poem partly documents Bunting’s 1942 reassignment to service in Iraq; in 1944, he would be in Iran – “Persia” – which he loved and called “one of the most civilized countries in the world.” He presciently observed the politics around, and implications of, oil concessions in the Middle East, and the importance of Muslim culture and history to the west, well ahead of his time. By 1947, working mysteriously for British Intelligence, he lived and worked in Teheran, cultivating a long interest in translating classical Persian poetry – and marrying a Kurdo-Armenian woman, Sima Alldadian. After his expulsion by Mosaddeq in 1952 amidst the turmoil resulting from the latter’s nationalizing of the country’s oil industry, followed by a UK/US sponsored coup, Bunting was forced to return to Britain.

Spending the rest of his life back in the North, Basil Bunting was, as almost everyone now knows, taken up by a new generation, spearheaded by Tom Pickard and the Morden Tower reading series in Newcastle; the resulting rejuvenation culminated in the landmark poem “Briggflatts,” published in 1966, the work for which he remains best known now – though that is but the capstone to a great literary career. Among the poem’s most remarkable characteristics is its powerful embodiment of his devotion to a deeply-rooted regionalism that presaged linguistic and political causes in our own time. And, although he wrote less poetry after that, he continued to exert a garrulous influence, particularly as a wonderfully controversial and contrarian president of Northern Arts and as a brilliant letter-writer, as a forthcoming edition of his correspondence will reveal.

Nearing the end of this long and eventful life, Bunting realized that he had already outlived his contemporaries and friends, (W.B.) Yeats, (Ezra) Pound, David Jones, (William Carlos) Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Hugh MacDiarmid, Lorine Niedecker, and Marianne Moore among them. He went so far as to imagine his best epitaph would be “He had such friends.” But that was a characteristic and rueful underestimation that does him no justice; the corrective lies in the body of his poetry, now easily available after years of being in and out of print.

In a late reading at Keats House in London, Bunting remarked: “I’ve noticed in the past few years a darker reaction than any I remember except at the beginning of the 1930s, in all things, in politics, in social morals, in literature.” That was uttered in 1979, but it might aptly characterize our own dire times. As his biographer Richard Burton observed, “This is classic Bunting rhetoric, rolling up a number of sincerely held criticisms of the modern world.” Though the world arguably has failed to improve much since Bunting’s death in the 1980s, we do now, at least, have the gift of “classic Bunting” as his durable legacy, which we may celebrate on this, his 118th birthday.

Basil Bunting, Cumbria, UK, 1980. Photograph by Jonathan Williams

Some other Bunting posts on The Allen Ginsberg Project may be viewed – here – and here, here, here and here

Today is also the birthday of Lucien Carr.

For more on Lucien Carr – see here

One comment

  1. Great remembrance on a fellow Piscean spirit. Briggflatts remains, to this day, one of my favorite poems, and I first read it in the 1960s when it was published. Don is right about Bunting being so utterly modern, in utterance, most importantly, but in the arc of his life, too, living in Persia, knowing Pound and his circle, being a war resister. It is the classic poetic stance that we all have used as the template and paradigm to live justly and honorably in an unjust and dysfunctional world. Many thanks for the piece.

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