Basil Bunting and the Work of Poetry
Throughout Bunting’s small, precise oeuvre, the theme of work—and the notion of poetry-making as a form of work—is a constant presence. Key to Bunting’s presentation of different kinds of work is the advocacy of craft work as a counterpoint to alienated and enervated cultures. In this essay I will attend to the question of what, for Bunting, constitutes art “work”, and will consider the making of poetry as a kind of labour or craft. I ask what craft connotes, and what that connotation might mean to Bunting’s poetry. This is an exploration, therefore, of what the craft of his poetry entails. Bunting, who was born in the North East of England in 1900, was apprenticed in the 1930s to Ezra Pound, and wrote poetry until he died in 1985, was an important progenitor for a number of late-modernist poets. By looking at what the work of poetry meant to Bunting, as well as looking at some of the ways in which he wrote poetry about work, this essay provides a background to the growing tradition of post-war experimental writing infused with ideas about work and labour.
Basil Bunting, who was born in the North East of England in 1900, was apprenticed in the 1930s to Ezra Pound, and wrote poetry until he died in 1985, was an important progenitor for a number of late modernist poets. He is a major link between poets writing in the modernist tradition today and the high modernism of the 1920s and 1930s. In “What the Chairman Told Tom,” poetry is framed “a hobby”:
As the Chairman then explains to Tom, a young poet: “You could advertise soap.” By contrast, in a lecture celebrating Yeats’s work, published in 1974, Bunting describes poetry as “a craft hard to learn and only acquired by long apprenticeship.”1 Moreover, throughout Bunting’s precise, condensed oeuvre, work emerges as a major concern—if not the primary concern. Bunting pays attention variously to Horatian odes, Francois Villon, Persian poets Saadi, Hafez and Ferdowsi (among others), the wartime teashops of Britain and the spring soundscape of the Northumbrian Fells, but this theme of work—and the notion of poetry-making as a vital form of work, despite its social relegation to the status of “hobby”—remains present throughout.
Key to Bunting’s presentation of work is his advocacy of craft as an antidote to the alienated and enervated work culture of modernity. In this chapter I read his influential mid-century modernist poem, Briggflatts, and collate, for the first time, the numerous instances of work that appear in the poem. By applying the lens of work to Briggflatts I also consider what the work of poetry meant to Bunting, and the effort he made to promote poetry as a kind of work, rather than an activity that takes place after, or around work. This essay therefore provides a background to the tradition of post-war experimental writing infused with ideas about work and labour.
The association that craft has with a particular kind of manual, physical labour is important here. So, too, is the process of learning a craft, though Bunting regrets that in the twentieth century, the poet must be their own apprentice.2 Additionally, the notion of the craft practitioner as one who engages in a type of unalienated work that is disavowed, maybe even eradicated, by industrialisation and the capitalist mode of production, is also evoked. Craft, in late capitalism, risks losing its radical potential as it becomes associated with leisure activity, or the pastime of an amateur conducted outside the boundaries of the working day, rather than a tradition and history of vernacular artistic practice and work, a tradition that Bunting upholds by aligning poetry with craft.
names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake. Craftsmanship cuts a far wider swath than skilled manual labor; it serves the computer programmer, the doctor, and the artist; parenting improves when it is practiced as a skilled craft, as does citizenship. In all these domains, craftsmanship focuses on objective standards, on the thing in itself. Social and economic conditions, however, often stand in the way of the craftsman’s discipline and commitment: schools may fail to provide the tools to do good work, and workplaces may not truly value the aspiration for quality.3
Haven’t we all, poets, been riding much too high a horse for a long time? A bit of the Yeatsian Grecian gold-smith or just plain potter (not for teacups though) or the guy who paints the Sicilian cars and British canal boats… Poets still act as though they thought they had some special claim. A skill worth preserving, with possibly some rather tenuous uses from the economic-social point of view: but if nobody buys my pots I don’t accuse the customers of anything worse than poor taste, if nobody buys my poems what’s the difference?4
Comparing a poem to a woodcut, Bunting also stated, in an interview in 1973: “I have never supposed a poem to be organic at all. I don’t think the thing grows, it’s built and put together by a craftsman.”5 Sennett similarly explains, according to his definition of craft, that “all skills, even the most abstract, begin as bodily practices.”6 Craft is a dedication to “good work for its own sake.”7 Informed by Arendt’s distinction between work and labour, Sennett believes that craft is work that is not “a means to another end.” Instead, “[t]he craftsman represents the special human condition of being engaged.”8 So, is it possible to be a craftsperson at one moment, and a different kind of worker another, or can craft constitute a more enduring identity? Does craft merely describe the action of making, or a set of beliefs? To maintain the political potential of craft as an alternative to the capitalist mode of production, it is important to bear in mind the social structures necessary to the cultivation and practice of craft, as well as the rich socialist tradition and history behind craft work, and craft societies. Bunting would agree with Sennett’s view that craft work is about practised expertise: “All craftsmanship is founded on skill developed to a high degree.”9 In terms of poetry, concision is the definitive skill that Bunting believes the poet-craftsperson must hone. In ABC of Reading, Pound, who was similarly opposed to superfluity and verbosity, attributed the phrase “dichten = condensare” (poetry = condensation) to Bunting.10 Bunting wrote, in a letter to Denis Goacher, 26 May 1965, that even Allen Ginsberg still needed to master “the respectably ancient art of the pumice.” His work was “far too diffuse,” in Bunting’s view (Letter held in Basil Bunting Poetry Archive, Durham University Library, UK).
Bunting’s own mastery of concision is apparent throughout his poems, and his presentation of stonemasonry as akin to the precision of good poetry-making is repeated throughout his work. The following example, taken from his 1930 poem, “Nothing,” is brief in both content and syntax as the poem rises in its middle to the climactic imperative:
Only two adjectives, “shapeless” and “sharp,” make it into this stanza. Carefully placed and close in sound, the two words contrast each other to highlight the skill of the mason in chipping away all that is unnecessary or that clouds or confuses the final product, resulting in the revelation of clarity: out of the unknown or unintelligible comes solid meaning in object form.
Bunting first performed Briggflatts, at the Morden Tower in 1965 and it was published by Fulcrum in 1966. The long poem, “an autobiography,” is exemplary of the methods, themes, and concerns that run throughout his oeuvre. The poem itself is an intricate work of craft: its structure based, partly, on the plaited patterns in the illuminated Lindisfarne Codex. In the twenty-first century it continues to represent a significant conceptual, temporal, and transnational link between the high modernist experiments of Williams, Eliot and Pound (who was a close friend and poetic mentor to Bunting) and the avant-garde and some of the regional scenes of British poetry in the post-war period for whom Bunting was a sort of poetic pater familias. Bunting represents a vital, and vitalising, transition between these stages and schools. He was also a socialist with connections to the Fabians and to William Morris’s politicised craft philosophy and practice, and his poetry constantly attended to the universalising idea of work. Bunting’s poetry shows that work—from the unalienated chip of the stonemason’s chisel (Briggflatts) to the tearing of coal from the earth by the miner (“They Say Etna”), to the scrutiny of the government bureaucrat (“The Passport Officer”); from the “knack” and unpredictability of fishing to the serving work of “teashop girls” (“Mesh cast for mackerel”); from the counsel and support of the poetic muse (“The Well of Lycopolis”) to the poet racking their brains and enduring poverty to keep up the art (Part II, Briggflatts)—is something everyone does.
Bunting’s own work is manifestly masculine, even masculinist, and this is something that warrants more criticism than it has heretofore received. Indeed, the traditional craft model that Bunting draws on is stereotypically masculine. Elsewhere, I have written about Bunting’s exploitation of female characters, and their work, sometimes included to provide a soft, idle, or trivial contrast to the physicality, hardship, or importance of men’s labour, but this chapter will focus on the more progressive aspect of Bunting’s presentation and philosophy of work.
Bunting’s poetry raises important questions about work: what constitutes work? Why do we do it? How are we judged by what we do? How is twentieth-century society and beyond set up to favour and support certain kinds of work, and to devalue others? Bunting is both for and against work—perhaps this has something to do with being caught between two stages of modernist writing that represent earlier and later periods of capitalism. Bunting is pro-work when depicting specific forms of handicraft, always carried out by male characters, which tend to be portrayed as unalienated (surplus value is not appropriated by an owner of industry). The sort of making-work, including the making of poetry, portrayed by Bunting, is vitalising, redemptive, and contrasts with the hardship of mining work, the tedium of service work, or the emptiness of white-collar and office work. Bunting’s positive work ethic leads him to repeatedly justify in poems and letters the validity of poetry as a form of work, and this project boils to outraged ridicule in “What the Chairman Told Tom” (quoted at the beginning of this chapter), which satirises the young poet Tom Pickard’s encounter with the Chairman of Newcastle Council in the 1960s, and indicates the general antipathy that local and even arts councils had towards poets in the post-war period. Pickard was friend, supporter and apprentice to Bunting in this time and his poetry, which grows out of Bunting’s, is even more explicitly outraged by the hardships which poets are expected to bear in order to produce their work.
So, on the one hand using the term “work” to describe poetry-making lends the activity credibility and a sense that it is a serious and worthwhile pursuit. On the other hand “work” gets in the way of writing poetry. Bunting’s oeuvre is relatively compact as a result of his commitment to concision. However, his correspondence and his biography reveal a poet constantly distracted from writing by the need to earn a living. He is anti-work in the sense that he appears to have hated many of the jobs he was forced to do in order to survive: work that got in the way of writing poetry; another reason for his modestly sized collected works. He refuses to attribute value to all forms of work, and while he fights for poetry to be recognised as a form of labour, he scorns other kinds of work. The apparent work ethic that Bunting’s idea of craft as something that redeems base human existence is at odds with his apparent desire to be free from work. We might ask why the word “work,” associated in the post-war period as it is with alienated, alienating, piecemeal, unrewarding, even useless, toil is of any use or interest at all to a poet describing their art and practice.
I have suggested that craft is increasingly understood as an alternative to work, rather than a component or an example of it. Reinforcing the original sense of craft as a type of specialised, skilled work is therefore important, conceptually, as a matter of maintaining the dignity and value of work that entails making. More practically, it is important to a craftsperson, or an artist, that their making activity is recognised as a form of work as opposed to a form of leisure, so that they may claim time and a wage for that work. Even in the early twentieth century, Bunting scorned what he perceived as a privileged dilettantism of the British elite that jeopardised the job of the poet, and this was epitomised in his view by what he saw as the closed-system of the Bloomsbury Group. His poem, “The Well of Lycopolis,” attacks the group, via an extended homophobic and sexist conceit about emasculation and idleness: floppy writing. By the mid-1960s, however, Bunting was living even further on the outskirts of mainstream literary society. After a protracted hiatus, he was resurrected by the Newcastle poet, Tom Pickard, and began to write again. The result of this friendship (and Pickard’s apprenticeship to Bunting) was Briggflatts.
Nothing sounded like Briggflatts when Bunting first read the poem at Tom and Connie Pickard’s Morden Tower Book Room, Newcastle, in 1965. Popular British poetry chugged along to Betjeman’s train track beat, or bounced ironically through the well-worn forms that Larkin had reached back into the pre-war era to reclaim for his disillusioned lyrics. Established verse forms were back to stay, and it seemed that for many British poets, the high-modernist experiment had ended. But for Bunting, the work that the poet should be engaged in—I refer to Sennett’s conditions of craft—is work which produces verse prioritising its sound over its verbal comprehensibility. Bunting represents the continued experimentalism and honing of the craft of poetry of late modernist poetics, that imagines formal experiment as a progression. Contributing to a collection of essays on writers and craft, Mark Rudman considers the “free verse” of Briggflatts, as “a good example of how free verse can be seen as an advance over the strictly metrical.” He describes the poem as having “rhythm drawing its sound from the world’s body.”11 For Rudman, an American poet, free verse marks a progression in English language poetics, thus “it is retrograde to write primarily in fixed forms.”12 Rudman notes the difference between external form and the ethics of a poem (which might constitute form in another way). Rudman also cites Pound’s project, expressed in Canto 81 (a poem in which Bunting features): “to break the pentameter, that was the first heave.”13 The physical, combative words Pound uses to describe the change imply that this was a violent revolution.
Briggflatts does not give up the hard-won ground of a post-pentameter poetics, and even without a prescribed verse form, it is structured around sound. Rudman writes that the occasional instances of rhyme that feature in the poem’s free verse “have been dictated by the materials, the ‘solemn mallet’ repetitions” and so his reading links the work of poetry to the work of the poem’s stonemason.14 In this way, the poem is built from primary material gathered in the outside world—often from the natural world—in the same way that a mason makes an object from natural resources.
Nature often features in Bunting’s poetry, often alongside human work, and there are many examples of this coalescence in Briggflatts, which develops earlier concerns into a long poem. The following analysis of the poem’s presentation of work is broken into numbered parts and a “coda” corresponding to the six parts of Briggflatts.
The long poem’s scene is set by the sounds of nature coming together, like the start of a symphony. We hear the descant brag of the bull; the splashing of Rawthey providing the main refrain; pebbles bouncing in the river’s water. The second stanza introduces the mason whose work provides the recurring conceit for poetic labour, impermanence, memory, and life’s close relationship with death:
The mason’s work takes place within the sounds and the rhythms of the natural symphony that surrounds him, and his labour provides an example of non-alienated work. The next stanza maintains the interplay between nature, work, life, and death: “Decay thrusts the blade,” suggesting that death compels work, and gives life on earth rhythm and purpose (61).
Two children, representing Bunting and his first love, Peggy, take a journey on the mason’s cart, from the hamlet of Brigflatts, through the fells and dales of Cumbria (Bunting would say Northumbria) to the quarry at Stainmore. Then, the quarry-workers’ labour joins the soundscape: a macrocosmic version of the mason’s mallet. “Their becks ring on limestone, / whisper to peat.” Such is the synchrony with nature, that the fruits of the quarry workers’ labour are abundant and so in this real-life idyll, even the horse’s work is done for it: “The clogged cart pushes the horse downhill.” The air is “soft”: the atmosphere of this scene of making within nature is gentle, and within this landscape, the poet makes his first foray (as far as the poem shows us) into verse: “laying the tune frankly on the air” (62). The ease and honesty involved in making song presented here contrasts with the “bogus,” still-birthed lines in the next section (65). “Knotty wood, hard to rive” is not struggled with here, as it is later on, but it “smoulders to ash” (76, 63). The interplay of nature and human life and work is responsible for the “insufferable happiness” the protagonist experiences (64).
The work portrayed in the opening part of the poem is idyllic, but the references are to tough work: “[f]ingers / ache on the rubbing stone”; “[p]ainful lark, labouring to rise!”; and show that the work is not Arcadian (61). This is poetry that retains the Romantic tradition of a belief in the deep relationship between humankind and nature, but dismisses the ideas of poetic superiority, special purpose, or spirit. Part II abandons the idyll altogether as the poet-protagonist moves to London. Within the city’s confines, his creativity is stifled by an unnatural urban world and capitalist industry:
These “bogus” prefigure the journalists in Part III, who steal, exploit, and scavenge for a career. London is presented an unreal world full of horror; an artificial landscape in which true craft (making poetry) is impossible. Bunting presents the poet’s work:
The unhappy, uninspired poet is an outsider, a misogynist and a misanthrope in this melodrama: his job has been degraded; he spies on women, and the bile-filled insult, “slut,” is demonstratively aggressive. A list of quotidian sounds pause at the suspended word, “feels,” bathetically aligning strong emotion with “porridge” and “pipes.” His work is even sacrilegious: Buddha’s basalt cheek (such a statue is held in the British Museum, just off Tottenham Court Road) is compared to a Bloomsbury bar-goer’s breast. All the poet’s observation and scansion produces nothing: “mating / beauty with squalor to beget lines still-born” (65).
Escaping from London, the poem develops one of its most sonically rich sections as it turns to the sea, depicting a group of rowers instructed by a pilot, who faces the rowers, and steers the boat.
lose touch altogether with the simplicity of the dance, with the motions of the human body and the sounds natural to a man exerting himself, people will no longer feel them as music and poetry. They will respond to the meaning no doubt, but not with the exhilaration that dancing brings. They will not think of them as human concerns. They will find them tedious.15
The whole work system of the boat is displayed, and it’s not ideal. The rowers “hate and serve”; they don’t share the perspective of the pilot: “Nothing he sees/they see” so this seems to be an example of divided and hierarchical labour. However, the poetry, sounding grunts and gasps, the “sounds natural to a man exerting himself,” maintains that invigorating contact with the physicality and movement of the human body at work. Bunting is surely comparing this sort of making work with sexual energy and exhilaration, too.
The scene changes again and, as a counterpoint to Part I’s Northumbrian stonemasonry, the poem portrays the Carrara marble-quarrying industry:
William Wootten’s study of the meaning of stone in Briggflatts, describes this part of the poem as a denunciation of Pound’s fatal faith in monumentalism. In a Duchamp-esque move, Bunting renders the marmoreal medium, that Pound celebrates throughout The Cantos, urine-stained. According to Wootten, Bunting “amends the Poundian description of marble […] [It] is described in terms that link it inextricably with human, industrial and economic process, and, especially, with excretion and death.”16
The noisy and destructive machinery, coupled with sweaty industrial toil in this section of the poem clearly contrasts with the earlier (in both senses) stonemason’s work, and even the quarrying of Part I. The visual landscape presented here “stained like a urinal” and surrounding the local environment with clouds of dust is starkly different from the “stone white as cheese” which “jeers at the dale” in the earlier landscape (63). The contrast in sound, too, suggests that the stonemason’s work has an affinity with nature: in Part II we hear rapping and ripping: a centre of “clamour” in an otherwise still landscape; whereas the stonemason’s landscape “in such soft air” is so quiet that he hears not only larks, but the stone “resting” (62, 61).
A sudden staccato of four quatrains of emphatic trochaic dimeter follow the Carrara scene, depicting metal mining that might be ancient or modern, and the stonemason reappears “reproached” and “uneasy” (68). “Shaping evasive ornament,” like the poet struggling to find and, through articulation, regain what he has lost, the mason now “litters his yard / with flawed fragments” (68). A few paragraphs later, the connection is made between uneasy mason and poet who has lost his landscape, love and labour, as the poet’s work is directly portrayed, and questioned:
Part III is based on Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh story of Alexander the Great encountering the Angel and harbinger of apocalypse, Israfel. The section descends, “[d]own into dust and reeds” into a Dantean Hell holding journalists, fat cats, and politicians. A surreal scene is created mingling city life with the natural world, in which “scavengers” “scoop droppings / to mould cakes for hungry towns.”
Richard Burton suggests Hastor is a caricature of Bunting’s former boss, the Times-owner Lord Astor, and calls this section “grim portrait of the journalist’s trade.”17 The “scavengers” who scream out to the protagonist, their shit-scooping, and their theft from each other, which is work carried out for a “hungry” audience, indicate Bunting’s feelings about the relationship journalism has with language. Journalism is presented as a commodified, sold-out, form of writing, headed by a grotesque capitalist aristocrat who is so powerful that he has the Divine as a dining partner. Hastor swears that “there is no trash in the wheat / my loaf is kneaded from,” but this protest reveals either his mendacity or the unnaturalness of his product, as it contrasts with the positive organic quality of the trembling wheat at the beginning of the poem. Rhythmically synchronous with the river, Rawthey, and the mason’s mallet knocking in non-alienated labour, in Part I: “wheat stands in excrement/ trembling. Rawthey trembles” (61).
The vista of hell then expands to include alongside journalists, entrepreneurs, financiers, tricksters, or even world leaders: all the “[g]uides at the top” who “claim fees / though the way is random” (72). Chaos and horror ensue until Alexander’s epiphany occurs, thanks to Angel Israfel, and a prophetic slowworm, to remind the reader of mortality and the swift march of time, of natural “measure” reminiscent of the mason’s mallet:
Part IV imagines poetry’s relationship to nature. Images of hunting represent the hierarchies in the natural life that are turned into tiers of death in the food chain:
Aneurin and Taliesin, ancient Welsh bards, represent the freedom of the oral poetic tradition and the affordances for unalienated labour within wholesome and unalienated craft work. Bunting links this earlier freedom with the freedom granted by progressive, modernist “free verse,” against the excessive prosodic pedantry that constrains poetry to trivialities.
Bunting also relates the history of the natural world to the human world through poetry (and poetry’s history). The poem at this point develops its nonlinear chronology through the proliferation of transcultural and transhistorical references, and the random sounding of various voices. The section, at the same time, makes repeated reference to the poem’s structure through the recurring “weaving” conceit. With its references to the bardic tradition there is a nod to storytelling and chronicle, and this links the poem again to the Lindisfarne Codex. Thus voices and historical figures, and events, are woven together into an alternative British history. In notes to the poem Bunting writes: “Northumbrians should know Eric Bloodaxe but seldom do, because all the school histories are written by or for Southrons” (226).
Bunting is explicit about the need to record, or retrieve, a northern history; but Briggflatts is also a history of work. A vista of the work that makes the world is compared to weaving, as the scenery moves from “text carved by waves / on the skerry” to an address to the reader:
This bustling scene of natural creative activity has an unpleasant side: the lice that feed on the result of the collaborate work of the rest. Bunting wards off scholarly exegesis, but perhaps also hints at his wider life view which finds pattern and sense in the big picture of nature, and not through individual acts of human intellection or reasoning:
The music of the poem continues to build. A reference to piping, which Bunting’s earlier poem about creative hermitism, “Chomei at Toyama” suggests, is a reference to the redemptive and individual work of making music with one’s breath, lifts the poem’s mood. The poem now presents work taking place in harmony with nature:
Sara R. Greaves’ eco-poetic reading of Briggflatts considers Bunting as a late Romanticist. She looks in particular at how Wordsworth and Bunting connect the work of poetry to the natural world. She recognises in Briggflatts, the preponderance of “men whose livelihood relies on their intimacy with the natural world,” naming among these “local men and Wordsworthian simple folk.”18 According to Greaves, Bunting’s references to weaving and webs aim to “heal” (with craft) what the modern world severs: the relationship between person and place.19
As the poem approaches its end—“[s]olstice past, / years end crescendo” (78)—nature comes to the fore and provides a way of understanding mortality. The message that the cyclical natural world delivers is that death is a part of life, not other or separate. Part V aligns the seasons with stages of human life as it conjures the dead of winter. Natural imagery abounds and seems to redeem the futility of life and here we see nature at work, making, and weaving, continuing the conceit introduced in Part IV:
Even maggots, “gentles,” are creative and generative, rather than destructive: feeding on dead flesh they “compose decay” rather than decompose, borrowing from the ongoing musical theme. The increasing patterning and interweaving of images, themes, sounds, and phrases at this point not only portray memories re-remembered, but also Bunting’s bigger vision: the overarching pattern of life; the “soft / web” woven “not for bodily welfare nor pauper theorems / but splendour to splendour, excepting nothing that is” (75). The song laid “frankly on the air” by the children in Part I is recalled in the instruction to “[s]ing / strewing the notes on the air / as ripples skip in a shallow” (78). Poetry is compared to other kinds of natural noise. A voice repeats Part II’s instruction to “Go/bare,” encouraging the precision, concision and simplicity in making verse that Bunting repeatedly recommends:
The implication is that the natural world balances usefulness and decoration: the useless excess that predominates in modern human culture does not exist in the natural world. Even rotting seaweed is doing something: death and decay are not purposeless.
In this web of memories and images, the mason is summoned once more: this time his craft is aligned with the sea’s marks made on stone (a recurrent image itself, appearing in parts IV and V):
The next verse moves inland, and shows “[s]hepherds,” who are able to “follow the links,” contrasting the nature attuned work of the shepherd to the pedantic poetry-reader’s futile effort to “follow the clue patiently” (79, 75). “Links,” also a term for bumpy grass terrain, plays with the former lines to suggest that local, natural knowledge surpasses institutionalised learning. The poem praises the shepherds’ “silent, accurate lips”: precision, skill, and the oral tradition are celebrated once again.
Stars, light and musical analogies take the poem towards another seascape some lines later until suddenly bookbinding is portrayed in the last few verse paragraphs of the fifth part, the book’s necessarily fixed (and thus chronological) order contrasting with the poem’s advocacy of layered chronology and looping patterns:
The diminishing stanzas, containing fewer and fewer lines, mime the dying light of the year’s end. In these last few lines of the Part V, Bunting draws attention to the poem’s construction, defying his authorial supremacy by highlighting the poem’s fabrication and subjectivity. It attempts to effect what he repeatedly called for: that all that should remain are his poems.
In the last part of Briggflatts the rhythms of work and song unite to compel the speaker, and the listener, towards the final lines. Time has moved on, and the change of pace and of mood is reflected by the decreased line length. In contrast to the long verse paragraphs of Part IV that reflected a final burst of communicative energy, the coda’s terse, rhymed lines communicate the closing down of the poem and the poet’s life, too:
As the poet’s work reaches completion, blindness, uncertainty, and darkness arrive. It is “[n]ight” and only sounds, memories, and visions remain.
A poet must write by ear (nearly all poets compose aloud); if he starts counting syllables and heeding the rules prosodists invent, writing verse becomes a pedantic game on a par with crossword puzzles.20
In Briggflatts, Bunting is not only inventing his own forms, but opposes contemporary poetry that writes to a prescribed metrical form; to “heeding the rules” like a pedant. His natural rhythms are rooted in the environment and in human work that takes place in that environment, and they distinguish his works from those of his more popular contemporaries. Though his experimental poetics link him with other modernists, his rural, local, and natural sounds distinguish his work even from that of his predecessors. So, not only is his poetry highly crafted—the product of a long labour—but it is also about work. Bunting believed his sound-centred poetics made his work more accessible to a wider audience, as well as granting more freedom to the poet. He worried in 1932 that, due to the dominance of upper-class writers, the gulf between literature and “the British subject” was “unpassable.”21
Rather than turning to established forms, Bunting’s sounds and rhythms are derived from nature, and from humans’ interaction with nature, in the way we see in the opening verses of Briggflatts. Work is essential, Bunting’s poem suggests, to this process and transformation. Later, the poem comments wryly on the job of the poet in modern society, and asks: “But who will entune a bogged orchard”? (69). The music of the poem comes from “entuning” the natural scenes and the historical events of the poem, writing them into verse. Bunting believed that sound was of primary importance to the poem, sometimes even asserting that it was the only “meaning” worth looking for in a poem.22
It is significant that Bunting continues to write about poetry and work in the 1960s. In this era of cultural optimism, and a shakeup of regional arts councils, the public were enjoying a burgeoning poetry scene, featuring the proliferation of small press publications, new bookshops dedicated to supplying poetry magazines and pamphlets from across the UK and from further afield. People—particularly young people—were attending small, underground readings. There is an inherent craftiness in this small-scale production that bypasses the alienating production process of mass culture. But the trouble lies in supporting these activities in a big—and growing—capitalist society, and this is where the Chairman of Newcastle Arts Society, quoted at the top speaking to Tom Pickard in Bunting’s satirical poem, comes in. Even in this era of optimism, and apparent institutional beneficence towards the arts, poets had to fight for their reputation as artists, and as workers. Tom Pickard’s journals—recounted in Work Conchy (2009); More Pricks Than Prizes (2010); and “Kronika: A Warsaw Journal” (Chicago Review, Summer/Autumn 2015)—reveal a constant struggle with the establishment to keep his poetic projects going. Bunting, who had reached retirement age by the 1960s, endured financial hardship in his later years. Asides from a stint working for British Intelligence in Tehran, which he enjoyed, finding paid work seems to have been the scourge of Bunting’s poetry-writing.
With sleights learned from others and an ear open to melodic analogies I have set down words as a musician pricks his score, not to be read in silence but to trace in the air a pattern of sound that may sometimes, I hope, be pleasing.23
Although he is typically wry in implying his work is a kind of trickery, the craftiness implied by a sleight of hand also signals his more sincere beliefs about training and working as a poet. “Sleights” refers to specifically manual practice, and the propensity to wield a tool, and so its use here connects poetic skill to other, more physical, kinds of craft. Bunting writes, of poetry, “[i]f I ever learned the trick of it, it was mostly from poets long dead.”24 This modest, even dismissive, preface, a sleight of hand in itself, is easy to overlook, but his employment of the word, “sleights” at the outset of his Collected Poems is a key to understanding his work as a whole. In bringing to mind hands and handiwork, dexterity, and skilled manual work, Bunting’s definitive “sleights” indicate the uniting concern of Bunting’s life works: the link between the hand and the head forged by wholesome work, or craft.
Pre-empting the mason of Briggflatts, the 1941 poem, “These tracings from a world that’s dead,” aligns poetic work with the handicraft of the stonemason, who writes in stone. The mason’s work is described as “sharp study and long toil” (129). In Briggflatts delivers an epiphany in Part I:
Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature. He develops the potentialities slumbering within nature, and subjects the play of its forces to his own sovereign power.25
Marx stresses the processual, as opposed to the merely productive, nature of work: time, energy, and human life go into the making of a commodity. In this extract, he outlines how primary the relationship between human beings and nature is: it gives humans a “sovereign power” and thus the freedom that comes with autonomy: the freedom of self-expression in work and the freedom to make and exchange the products of one’s own labour. Marx describes labour as essential to the development of this relationship: it defines the human’s spatial and physical boundaries; thus a sense of self, being, space, and purpose are created by work.
The work in Briggflatts that is attuned to the rhythms of nature represents the relationship a non-alienated worker has with their world. In aligning the work of the poet with the work of the stonemason, Bunting shows that even in 1965 an alternative model for work is possible, and it may be through writing poetry that a worker can find this potential for sovereignty, or freedom in work.
it is one of the chief uses of decoration, the chief part of its alliance with nature, that it has to sharpen our dulled senses in this matter: for this end are those wonders of intricate patterns interwoven, those strange forms invented, which men have so long delighted in[.]26
His description of intricate patterns and strange forms, and an “alliance with nature” could be applied to Briggflatts, and thus the poem might reasonably count as a craft, according to Morris’s definition. Morris’s lecture, given in 1877 to the Trades Guild of Learning, represents one of his early forays into socialist thought, as he started to politicise his ideas about craft.
Bunting, like Morris, and Marx, was concerned about the well-being, or happiness, of the worker, including both the producer and consumer of poetic works: he wrote in 1953 to Zukofsky that he wished “more people would have written in a way to give them pleasure.”27
Can you say how you define a poet’s place in a society like this one? Are you an unacknowledged legislator of the race? an ordinary bloke with a job of work like any other? a vestigial craftsman? an oligarch? a democrat? It often seems to me that it requires more confidence than one can afford to find a place nowadays, so maybe you don’t even think about these things?
There is no provision made for poets in this society. I try, under very difficult conditions, to maintain the art.28
poetic subjectivity is itself indebted to privilege: the pressures of struggle for survival allow only a few human beings to grasp the universal through immersion in the self or to develop as autonomous subjects capable of freely expressing themselves.29
However, Adorno suggests that a worker’s articulation can nonetheless prevail, despite the prohibition of wholeness under the system of divided labour. He writes that of the need to express the consciousnesses of “those who stand alienated”—the workforce—who have the greatest right “to grope for the sounds in which sufferings and dreams are welded.” “This inalienable right has asserted itself again and again, in forms however impure, mutilated, fragmentary, and intermittent.”30 Briggflatts, with its proliferation of sources, sounds and voices, and its rejection of prescribed metrics, is surely an example of such a fragmentary form, and of late modernist work, that thus aligns itself with experimental poetics, progressive politics, and the promise of better work for the world.
Basil Bunting, “Yeats Recollected,” Agenda, vol. 12 (1974), 45.
Bunting, “Yeats Recollected,” 45.
Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008), 10.
Dale Reagan, “Basil Bunting Obiter Dicta,” in Basil Bunting: Man and Poet, ed. Carroll F. Terrell (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1981), 232.
Dale Reagan, “An Interview with Basil Bunting,” Montemora, vol. 3 (Spring 1977), 78.
Sennett, The Craftsman, 10.
Sennett, The Craftsman, 20.
Sennett, The Craftsman, 20.
Sennett, The Craftsman, 20.
Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (London: Faber and Faber, 1991 ), 36.
Nicholas Delbanco and Laurence Goldstein, Writers and Their Craft: Short Stories & Essays on the Narrative (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), 154–155.
Delbanco and Goldstein, Writers and Their Craft, 153.
Ezra Pound, “Canto 81,” in The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New Directions, 1993 ), 538.
Delbanco and Goldstein, Writers and Their Craft, 155.
Basil Bunting, “The Art of Poetry” (lecture, 1970), quoted in Dale Reagan, “Basil Bunting Obiter Dicta,” in Basil Bunting: Man and Poet, ed. Carroll F. Terrell (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1981), 232.
William Wootten, “Basil Bunting: ‘Uneasy Mason’,” English, vol. 51, no. 201 (2002), 237.
Richard Burton, A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting (Oxford: Infinite Ideas, 2013), 355.
Sara R. Greaves, “A Poetics of Dwelling: In Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts,” Cercles, vol. 12 (2005), 75.
Greaves, “A Poetics of Dwelling,” 71.
Basil Bunting, Basil Bunting on Poetry, ed. Peter Makin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 36.
Basil Bunting, “English Poetry Today,” Poetry, vol. 39, no. 5 (1932), 265.
Jonathan Williams and Basil Bunting, Descant on Rawthey’s Madrigal: Conversations with Basil Bunting (Lexington: Gnomon Press, 1968), 32.
Basil Bunting, “Preface,” in Collected Poems (London: Fulcrum Press, 1968), 9.
Bunting, “Preface,” in Collected Poems, 9.
Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, translated by Ben Fowkes and edited by Ben Fowkes and David Fernbach, Vol. 1 (London and New York: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1981), 283.
William Morris, “The Lesser Arts,” in Stories in Prose, Stories in Verse, Shorter Poems, Lectures and Essays, ed. G. D. H. Cole (London: Nonesuch Press, 1934), 496.
Reagan, “Basil Bunting,” 232.
Andrew McAllister and Sean Figgis, “Basil Bunting: The Last Interview ,” Bete noire, vol. 2, no. 3 (1987), 127.
Theodor Adorno, “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” in Notes to Literature Volume One, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 45.
Adorno, “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” 45.
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