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Basil Bunting

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I once heard a president of a publishing house say that the greatest joy of working in publishing was that it provided an education. Certainly, in my decade of working in publishing, I’ve been lucky to be exposed to many books in various categories that I would never have even heard of if it wasn’t for the companies I worked for and with. At New Directions, the central aesthetic of Modernism which shaped James Laughlin’s tastes abides and extends to even recent publications as an important tradition.

I was reminded of that in scanning through my shelves at work and randomly picking up Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems which were published by New Directions in 2000. Here’s a poet who was influenced by Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky (Pound’s Guide to Kulchur is dedicated to Bunting and Zukofsky), who almost fell into obscurity until the publication of the masterful Briggflatts. Yet, as someone who spent quite a few years studying poetry, I had never heard of him until, while working with New Directions, the editors presented the book. This is a language melodic but hewn, playful but elaborate and grand, words that should be read by most anyone who cares about poetry.

Here is a portion of the first part of Briggflatts.

Brag, sweet tenor bull,
descant on Rawthey’s madrigal,
each pebble its part
for the fells’ late spring.
Dance tiptoe, bull,
black against may.
Ridiculous and lovely
chase hurdling shadows
morning into noon.
May on the bull’s hide
and through the dale
furrows fill with may,
paving the slowworm’s way.

A mason times his mallet
to a lark’s twitter,
listening while the marble rests,
lays his rule
at a letter’s edge,
fingertips checking,
till the stone spells a name
naming none,
a man abolished.
Painful lark, labouring to rise!
The solemn mallet says:
In the grave’s slot
he lies. We rot.

Decay thrusts the blade,
wheat stands in excrement
trembling. Rawthey trembles.
Tongue stumbles, ears err
for fear of spring.
Rub the stone with sand,
wet sandstone rending
roughness away. Fingers
ache on the rubbing stone.
The mason says: Rocks
happen by chance.
No one here bolts the door,
love is so sore.

Stone smooth as kin,
cold as the dead they load
on a low lorry by night.
The moon sits on the fell
but it will rain.
Under sacks on the stone
two children lie,
hear the horse stale,
the mason whistle,
harness mutter to shaft,
felloe to axle squeak,
rut thud the rim,
crushed grit.

Stocking to stocking, jersey to jersey,
head to a hard arm,
they kiss under the rain,
bruised by their marble bed.
In Garsdale, dawn;
at Hawes, tea from the can.
Rain stops, sacks
steam in the sun, they sit up.
Copper-wire moustache,
sea-reflecting eyes
and Baltic plainsong speech
declare: By such rocks
men killed Bloodaxe.

Fierce blood throbs in his tongue,
lean words.
Skulls cropped for steel caps
huddle round Stainmore.
Their becks ring onlimestone,
whisper to peat.
The clogged cart pushes the horse downhill.
In such soft air
they trudge and sing,
laying the tune frankly on the air.
All sounds fall still,
fellside bleat,
hide-and-seek peewit.

Bunting covers a range of subjects within such brief lines. His smooth transitions from a bull dancing to death and decay to a kiss and then hide-and-seek peewit are all accomplished in an alliterative language that combines plainer language with powerful consonants (such as “Decay thrusts the blade/wheat stands in excrement” with its dental sounds).

–Soo Jin


Written by New Directions

July 7, 2009 at 4:25 pm