Friday, March 28, 2008

`Piles to Drive into the Quaggy Past'

“Peewit and curlew, clint and gryke, bear garlic and may, glishy slutch and Roman Wall – these are certainties of the music. From these come variations and descant, one human being to another.”

Not Finnegans Wake but Jonathan Williams on Basil Bunting, a pastiche of Bunting’s idiosyncratic language and themes. No 20th-century poet’s work is more pleasurable to read aloud, to relish on the tongue, lips and palate. Concision is his engine, accounting for the preponderance of monosyllables and rare words. Who doesn’t enjoy saying clint, gryke and glishy slutch?

Thoughtful readers know peewit and curlew are birds (as is bunting), and a visit to the Oxford English Dictionary illuminates the rightness of the other exotics. Gryke is a “crack or slit in rock”; clint is a “hard or flinty rock; a hard rock projecting on the side of a hill or river, or in the bed of a stream; a part of a crag standing out between crevices or fissures.” The OED gives no glishy but glish is a verb meaning “to glitter, or shine.” As a noun, slutch means “mud, mire, slush” and echoes slush, clutch and slut. Bunting is a magician of sounds fierce and hard, gentle and refined. Few have so reveled in the sheer musicality of verse. Listen to this from Briggflatts, one of the last century’s supreme poems:

“Mist sets lace of frost
on rock for the tide to mangle.
Day is wreathed in what summer lost.”

Now read it aloud. Three lines, 19 words, 17 of them monosyllables, nary a trace of Latin. No stutter but a broken eloquence. This is English poetry, alive to the English past.
Bunting described Briggflatts as “an autobiography, but not a record of fact.” Read this from the fourth section of Briggflatts:

“Today's posts are piles to drive into the quaggy past
on which impermanent palaces balance.”

And this from the fifth section:

“…silence by silence sits
And Then is diffused in Now.”

The passage at the top of this post is from the introduction Williams wrote in 1985, the year of Bunting’s death, to The Collected Poems of Basil Bunting, later included in Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems, and Photographs. It’s insightful, yes, but also loving, for Williams had known Bunting for more than 20 years, had interviewed and photographed him and shared his Glenfiddich. This is from Williams’ introduction, with his ellipses:

“There was something sidereal about Basil Bunting; something feral as well. He could be as remote as the stars he regarded over the Pennine Dales [in England’s modest mountain range, its “backbone”]. He occasionally twinkled like them, but mostly kept silence…He loved the company of the red weasel by the beck…He composed words as carefully as hill farmers build blue rag [a blue limestone mentioned by Gilbert White in his incomparable The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne] into stonewalls…Men he endured, because now and then they also got their words right – when they were being unabashed…Bunting’s severity-cum-wit; no one else seems to have it, and that’s what I shall miss most from this great man. Great, a somewhat too-human word, not often one that stars and weasels and stones bandy about.”

Beck, here, is revealing. It dates from the early 12th century. Again, the OED: “A brook or stream: the ordinary name in those parts of England from Lincolnshire to Cumbria which were occupied by the Danes and Norwegians; hence, often used spec. in literature to connote a brook with stony bed, or rugged course, such as are those of the north country.”

In other words, Bunting’s North. His responsiveness to the natural world, noted by Williams, makes him an odd duck among the Modernists. In it I hear a spiritual note.
Bunting was a sort of pagan Quaker. Here’s what he said in a 1977 interview:

“There is a possibility of a kind of reverence for the whole of creation which I feel we all ought to have in our bones, a kind of pantheism. If the word `God’ is to have any use it must include everything. The only way to know anything is to consider yourself a student of histology, finding out as much as carefully controlled common sense can find out about the world. In so doing, you will be contributing to the histology of God.”

Back again to the OED. Histology: “The science of organic tissues; that branch of anatomy, or of biology, which is concerned with the minute structure of the tissues of animals and plants.” Histology, dismissed as mere dissection, is given by Bunting a spiritual/moral/poetic renewal of meaning: “Carefully controlled common sense.” When Williams asked in an interview, “If you did have virtues, which would you want?” Bunting replied, “Inconspicuousness, combined with enterprise.” A poetic credo condensed, typically, in four words.


john hanson said...

i first heard bunting read aloud
in a book bedraggled room in helena montana
rick newby and bill borneman
both i think a bit drunk at the time
were chopping and spitting and whispering and bleeting out the words
and i was enchanted

for sound texture most definetly
my favorite poet of the 20th century
thanks for writing this


Anonymous said...

Lovely post, Patrick. One little thing: Basil died in 1980, not 85, if memory serves. He certainly was one of the most awesome & simultaneously lovable gents I ever met (cf my obit for Jonathan Williams on Nomadics blog). – Pierre, still in Albany, NY.

Anonymous said...

Pierre, he died in 85 at the end of the year long miners' strike--which he supported fully, by the way.
gan canny
Tom Pickard

Anonymous said...

A word of thanks to Tom Pickard,who twenty-five years ago now transformed the poet's life and fortunes. Since he has already corrected one date, perhaps he could put us right about when exactly that first meeting took place - 'one Sunday evening' in 1963 according to Keith Alldritt (The Poet As Spy, 1988, p. 149), the summer of 1964 according to Richard Caddel and Anthony Flowers (Basil Bunting: A Northern Life, 1997, pg. 47)?

A word on 'beck'. The most common word for stream in the area Bunting grew up in would actually have been 'burn' since Norse settlement was patchy in Northumberland. In one of his little Southron-baiting notes to Briggflats Bunting states 'We have burns in the east, becks in the west, but no brooks or creeks.' This makes sense in the poem since it was westward that Eric Bloodaxe was fleeing when he was murdered at Stainmore
'to trace
lark, mallet
becks, flocks
and axe knocks.'

More importantly, beck or 'bekkr' is the word Bloodaxe himself would have known in the 10th century, but on Anglo-Scandinavian the OED can have nothing to say.
Beck might have held an added attraction for such a musical and music-loving poet as Bunting - its German cognate is 'bach'.
Eric Thomson

Anonymous said...

sorry, forty-five years ago