Bunting wrote his long autobiographical poem Briggflatts in the 1960s in his native Tyneside, where he had been living in obscurity for a decade and a half, after being ejected from Iran, where he had used his knowledge of Persian to aid British interests during and after World War Two. He worked at the local newspaper, The Evening Chronicle, and his association with some of the leading lights of modernist poetry was a distant memory. Ezra Pound, Bunting’s old mentor, lived in Italy, working fitfully on his Cantos. Occasional attempts to rehabilitate his reputation were still overshadowed by his heinous activities during the war, as an anti-American mouthpiece for fascist Italy, by his still active association with neo-Fascists and his uncompromising contempt for America. He had only escaped conviction for treason by pleading insanity, quite convincingly. Bunting was persuaded to work on what would become his greatest work, not by Pound, but by a young fellow North-eastern poet, Tom Pickard, who tracked him down and encouraged him to write poetry again. And yet when one reads Briggflatts, one sees the Poundian influence running through it, in terms of poetical technique, or at least in the leanness of Bunting’s own technique, and perhaps in the emotional tone and even in Bunting’s disposition towards the modern world, despite some very obvious differences.
While Pound felt that he had found his spiritual home (and, rather incredibly, the last best hope for civilisation) in Mussolini’s Italy, Bunting found his in a half-remembered and half-mythologised Northumbrian past. To a large degree, this was really his own past, the memory of a love affair in his childhood, that formed the basis of the first part of Briggflatts, representing the spring of life,where the fells echo with the twitter of lark, the ringing of beck on stones and mason’s mallet on stone, and of course the bragging of that “sweet tenor bull”. At the beginning of the second part, the young poet finds himself in London, trying to reconcile his own chosen vocation, a “poet appointed”,with his environment.
In this fragment, the young Bunting scans his surroundings, from a vantage point in his favourite pub, and tries to make poetry of what he sees:
Secret, solitary, a spy, he gauges
lines of a Flemish horse
hauling beer, the angle, obtuse,
a slut’s blouse draws on her chest,
counts beat against beat, bus conductor
against engine against wheels against
the pedal, Tottenham Court Road, decodes
porridge bubbling, pipes clanking, feels
Buddha’s basalt cheek
but cannot name the ratio of its curves
to the half-pint
left breast of a girl who bared it in Kleinfeldt’s.
From Briggflatts, Basil Bunting, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, Northumberland, 2009
These are the thoughts of the young Bunting, unsuccessfully trying to make poetry of his life in London – ‘still born’ lines, he later calls them – as rendered by the mature Bunting, who finally makes decent poetry of them. It is easy to imagine Bunting asking himself, ‘What would Pound do with this?’as he edited his manuscripts, having benefitted from a long friendship and correspondence. But why, we wonder, was the young Bunting unable to write the poetry he wanted to?
Was he in the wrong place, unable to find anything worthy of poetry? That was certainly part of it. In earlier lines, Bunting has already expressed is a distinct distaste for the capital’s commercialism, with its ‘toadies’ and ‘kept boys’. Perhaps Pound’s influence is felt here – look at Canto XLV for Pound’s take on 20th Century economics. Bunting may have been inclined to dislike London long before he met Pound, not least as a Northumbrian in a definitely ‘Southron’ city (Bunting’s word for southerners – George R.R. Martin didn’t invent the word). So much for Samuel Johnson’s dictum that a man bored of London is bored of life – Bunting seems just uninspired by London. A dray horse may seem a romantic image from the point of view of the 21st Century, but it marks a sharp contrast with the freer, more expressive animals of the first part.
He seems to have been distracted from his calling by the enticements of the Flesh too – he was a young man after all. Two of the images of London relate to girls in states of undress. And here too is a contrast with the more natural love affair of the first part of Briggflatts. Those London girls, eh? They don’t inspire poetry like the girls up north, but they can just as well distract you from it!
More importantly, perhaps, the young Bunting had not found his voice yet, or his theme. He seems to be thinking about things he could write about here, and finding that he has nothing much to say about them. For other poets writing in the early Twentieth century, the modern city, the automobile, and all that is automated and noisy were the proper subject for modern poetry, not least the Italian Futurists led by the apostle of the future, Marinetti, who really did see in cars and planes the dawn of an exciting new future. But for Bunting this mechanisation is a prosaic sort of subject, and a repetitive one ‘bus conductor / against engine against wheels against / the pedal, Tottenham Court Road’. this is not the dawn of a new age – it is a rather dull commute. For Futurist painters, and their British counterparts, the Vorticists, the world is represented in angular lines, and the younger Bunting is experimenting with such imagery here – only to find it wanting.
The phrase ‘decodes thunder’ is interestingly reminiscent of the title of the last book of The Wasteland. Is this a veiled reference to T.S. Eliot, another, rather different apostle of modernism? In his introductory note to a later publication of the poem, Bunting remarked on the neo-Platonism and mystical Christianity inherent in Eliot’s work, and pointed out that ‘No scheme of things could be further from my own’. ‘Decodes’ is a rather cool verb to use to describe his attempt to understand thunder. It is as if he is saying, well Mr Eliot, I really did try and discern divine meanings in the rumblings of storms, in my Quakerish fashion, and I spent some time trying to emulate your poetry, but in the end it wasn’t for me, like London, or Italian Futurism…
But what’s this about Buddha’s basalt cheek? Did Bunting flirt with Buddhism while he was in London, or is did he just make a trip to the British Museum? I bet they have one or two Buddhas lying around. We know Ezra Pound had a long preoccupation with Chinese and Japanese poetry and a great admiration for the far east. The most famous of his short Imagist poems contrasted a scene of discombobulated modern western souls with an oriental scene of stark beauty:
In a Station of the Metro
THE apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Poems of Ezra Pound, Faber, London, 2005
Is Bunting gently poking fun at this kind of civilisational critique? He too is contrasting west and east: a girl bears her breast in the pub in London, and yet he cannot fruitfully compare this to the oriental image of Buddha’s cheek. Perhaps he is really poking fun at himself, the young wannabe poet distracted by beer and girls. Unlike Pound, who moves from West to East, Bunting moves from an, admittedly slightly ridiculous, image of Oriental transcendentalism, and ends by ogling a drunken girl, moving East to West, or East to breast even… Bunting may have learned a great deal from Pound, but he rejected certain things too.
Kleinfeldt’s by the way, is not a real pub name, but what Bunting and his associates would call their favourite London watering hole, owned by a Russian Jewish immigrant. Why mention this rather personal name at all? Why, because unlike the Futurists, the Vorticists, and other modernists and mystics, Bunting is interested in the concrete and the particular, the humble, the forgotten and the hidden. This part of the poem may reflect on a time of Bunting’s poetic and personal failure, but it also seems to record some important rejections that he made in the course of his development, a crucial stage in his finding his own voice.