Friday, September 15, 2006

Bunting's Voice

Thanks to Dave Lull, via Frank Wilson at Books, Inq., for the link to Basil Bunting reading his poem “At Briggflatts Meetinghouse” (1975), not to be confused with his masterpiece, Briggflatts, from 1966. Bunting said “poetry, like music, is to be heard,” and his reading of this typically densely crafted three-stanza poem introduces us to the rugged seductiveness of his Northumbrian accent.

I remember checking out Caedmon recordings from the library when I was a kid, and even then instinctively recognizing that some poets were masterful readers – Eliot, in particular, with his sepulchral voice – and others were histrionic frauds, like Dylan Thomas. I like a “straight reading,” appropriate to the work at hand, without attention-getting flourishes. If it is to be effective, the reading ought to reflect an understanding of the poem, just as some singers give the impression of having incorporated lyrics into their lives and now they are simply “telling” them, “living” them, like conversation. Bunting manages a balance between “telling” and “singing,” all the while following the musical score of his own devising.

Some Bunting admirers seem to be partisans of Olson, Creeley and Co., dreary poets who are fundamentally unpoetic, and this is unfortunate. Bunting was too great a poet to be shanghaied by lesser talents who serve only to scare off potentially appreciative readers. That’s why it was refreshing in April 2004, when Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry, published a useful essay on Bunting in The New Criterion. Without partisanship or theory, he laid out his attraction to Bunting’s work:

“I loved the aural imperative of the verse, which you hear before you understand, or which, in a sense, to hear is to understand. I loved the dense textures, the sculpted syllables, the way the lines seem almost to bristle with contempt for anything extraneous or merely ornamental. Most of all, I loved the way you can feel the form of this poetry over large stretches of verse, the way it accretes without losing precision, is in some major way as abstract as music yet never loses specificity.”

In other words, Bunting’s words give him pleasure, as poetry should. A clue to the authenticity of Wiman’s response is his use of the verb “love,” which defies theory. Hugh Kenner, like Bunting, had an acute ear. The scholar/critic befriended the poet and in 1979 recorded an interview with him for National Public Radio. I have never heard it – does any reader know where it might be found? – but Kenner said of Bunting’s talk:

“The voice of Basil Bunting was not shaped by all those decades of craft to the end that its simulacrum might lie pressed flat on a page.”

Listen, in other words, to Bunting. And listen to Guy Davenport, who wrote “For Basil Bunting”:

“Northumbrian master
of number and pitch

“honor far sent, a gift
of words only but meant

“to be Greek as a curl
on a flat cheek

“the coil of white
the Ismene lily

“spirals, hound’s tail
when his nose is down

“snail shell, paper nautilus
wavetop scroll

“ear, weather, world
this shape of turning

“for light through matter
makes it spin

“and all is round, rounding,
atom, sound, space

“through its curves, orbits
of Pluto, are long, long

“old wheat of Turkestan
stone age zea

“Pumpelly found
in the clay of an Anau pot

“when we had thought
Demeter of Enna

“took it from Enna
fire alive in fields, to eat

“and gave it to any
who listened with grief

“when she asked at door
had they seen her daughter?

“Pumpelly of the golden beard
last of the real Americans

“kept waiting in Japan
until the Shogun learned his rank

Smokes a seegar, his man said,
with Ulysses S. Grant

“so they placed a rose and poem
before him and bowed flat

“learned Russian at seventy
to find the cultivation of wheat

“in Turkestan. Crossed China
quoting Confucius for his needs

“Great men have been among us
A few are with us still.”

(From Thasos and Ohio, North Point Press, 1986. “Pumpelly” is Raphael Pumpelly, the American explorer who surveyed the Gobi Desert. Pound refers to him in The Cantos.)

1 comment:

Amir said...

That'd be lovely to read your thoughts on Bunting's 'The Spoils' someday too.