Friday, 12 November 2010


Basil Bunting’s greatest poem Briggflatts was written in a context of enforced misanthropy in the mid 1960s. Some years earlier, his friendship with Ezra Pound had resulted in the publication of Poems 1950, which was put out (in Texas of all places) by the Poundian acolyte Dallam Simpson. But the post-war years had mostly been a total washout for the aging poet. In the US, he enjoyed a very modest renown because of the Pound connection, and because of his association with 1930s “Objectivists” like Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen. In the UK, he was more or less a total non-entity. There are rumours that Eliot refused to publish Bunting at Faber on more than one occasion. But at least he was listening: in the age of Larkin, Amis, and Betjeman, pretty much no one else in Britain seems to have acknowledged Bunting’s existence.

Living in Wylam, Northumberland with his mother and a scandalously young Kurdish wife, Bunting resigned himself to a career as financial correspondent for the Newcastle-based Journal and Evening Chronicle newspapers. Fine publications though they were (and remain), this was a depressing low-point for the onetime modernist adventurer, during which almost no poetry was written. Finally, in 1964-65, Bunting sprang to national attention with the appearance in print of The Spoils, which was followed by Briggflatts and a collected poems.

Most people will be familiar with the story of Bunting’s mid-sixties “rediscovery”: how the teenage Beat poet Tom Pickard knocked on Bunting’s door and persuaded him to become the focal point of the Morden Tower poetry readings in Newcastle, how Ginsberg and Creeley visited and wrote encomiums about this living link with first generation modernism, how Bunting seemed to become an unlikely godfather of that nebulous beast, the so-called British Poetry Revival. Bunting was transformed into a public figure almost overnight and had to deal with the ramifications, good and bad. At least he showed a degree of self-awareness about this when he joked in the early seventies that he was thinking of getting himself registered as a local monument so he could charge people sixpence to come and visit.
Baz + Ginsberg + lads
Briggflatts itself however was largely written before this modicum of poetic celebrity struck. In fact, Bunting wrote it on the train on the commute into work, on the Tyne Valley line between Wylam and Newcastle. It is the poetic autobiography of an isolated individual engaging with the only things to hand: with poetic form, with memory, and with a surrounding environment that traversed the rural-urban divide in a way that is perhaps unique to this part of the country. (I'm aware that Cornwall/Devon might be a corresponding instance).

On the one hand, Briggflatts embodies the cosmopolitan urbanism of its high modernist author. On his way into work Bunting would have passed the thrusting Brutalist developments of council leader T. Dan Smith’s assertive new Newcastle. (NB: The striking affinities between the arch-regionalists Bunting and Smith will be explored in more detail elsewhere). Smith had tried unsuccessfully to get Le Corbusier to build his first British work in Newcastle, and the buildings which did spring up in post-war Tyneside reflected this hubristic, hyperborean modernist spirit. The tower blocks of Cruddas Park would have loomed large to Bunting’s left as the train made its way into town. Meanwhile Owen Luder’s iconic Trinity Square car park, sadly demolished in the last few weeks, was being built on the other side of the river (in non-T. Dan-controlled Gateshead) at exactly the same time as Briggflatts was being composed. If there was an architectural correlative for Bunting’s difficult, muscular verse (see Bunting’s poetic gloss on Pound’s Cantos “There are the alps … / They don’t make sense … crags cranks climb …”), Luder’s visionary Brutalist monolith was it. 

Towards the city of Dioce. The late Trinity Square car park, Gateshead, designed by Owen Luder.
Mountains, masonry, and stones of all kinds are perennial fixtures in Briggflatts, where they are often linked to motifs of strenuous labour and human ambitiousness. It seems certain that Bunting’s experiences of the industrial north - and urban Newcastle in particular - were significant influences on this aspect of the poem. There is a unmistakably Geordie flavour to lines like

hear the horse stale,
the mason whistle
harness mutter to shaft,
felloe to axle squeak,
rut thud the rim
crushed grit.

However, for all its urbanity, Briggflatts is on the whole a distinctly rural poem, reflective of Bunting’s great love for the Tyne valley. While Newcastle/Tyneside is (or was) a bustling international industrial port, a little further inland the terrain very quickly becomes bleakly bucolic. This is not the Archers-esque countryside of the English Home Counties, where affluence and Anglicanism are the shibboleths of a largely upper-middle-class populace. The Tyne valley has always had its aristocratic and professional caste like anywhere else, but it is also a longtime stronghold of the non-conformist rural proletariat, a place where mines and factories pepper the landscape from Gateshead to the foothills of the North Pennines. Bunting’s Briggflatts is a poem that draws heavily on the mixed heritage of artisanship and rural hinterland that defines this part of the north-east.

A key figure to introduce at this stage by way of a historical antecedent for Bunting’s peculiarly Northumbrian version of pastoralism is the eighteenth century engraver and radical Thomas Bewick. Bewick was born and lived for most of his life in Mickley, the next village but one along the river from Bunting’s Wylam. Like Bunting, Bewick worked sporadically in urban Newcastle, but it was to the countryside of the Tyne valley that he looked for inspiration. In seminal works of natural history like A General History of Quadrupeds (1790) and the History of British Birds (1797-1804), Bewick recorded the animal life of his rural surroundings in a series of precisely observed visual vignettes. Unlike many engravers of the period, he would frequently juxtapose scientific naturalism with touches of social commentary: beggars, snarling dogs, and haggard old men populate his portraits, hardly the stock stuff of the sublimated pastoral idyll. Bewick’s naturalism is harsh and difficult as often as it is pretty and welcoming.

Magpie by Bewick. Toon Toon.
In composing Briggflatts, Basil Bunting set about recording exactly the same ecological locale as Bewick, and with a similar mixture of affection and anomie, a stance that differed markedly from the Romantic-pastoral idealism of the mainstream of English literature, and that reflected the generally isolated, marginal character of this geographical setting. While he maintained a Pound-like virulent opposition to the London-based “obsequious idlers” and “insidious charlatans” who “fill chairs and fellowships at universities, write for the weeklies, or work for the BBC”, Bunting remained dedicated to a Poundian artistic project of objectivist right-naming, an outlander’s naturalism that recalled the radical Thomas Bewick’s meticulous, unregulated engagement with a rural environment.    

Both Bunting and Bewick can be situated in an alternate tradition of pastoralism that is quite different from the more typical English perspective, epitomized by a contemporary example like Prince Charles: an establishment figure with an urban power base who rehearses the late-Wordsworthian fallacy of the countryside as refuge, as an inviolable conduit of all the goodness, truth, and beauty that is absent from the metropolitan “court”. Bewick’s anti-establishment radicalism was politically oriented, while Bunting’s sprang mainly from his Quaker background (he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the First World War, and Briggflatts takes its title and much of its setting from a Quaker meeting house in the North Pennines).
More Bewick, this time in social crit mode
In both cases, there is a notable affinity with the American and American-leaning wing of Romanticism - with Blake, Paine, and the nineteenth transcendentalist tradition – which existed at arms length from the more orthodox English lineage that culminated in Housman and Hardy. As such it is appropriate that Bunting’s late-twentieth century poem Briggflatts should have much in common with American modernist poems like William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, Paterson, and Charles Olson’s “The Kingfishers” and The Maximus Poems, works that updated the transcendentalist mode, and that moreover offered a distinctly fluid view of the rural-urban divide.

While Bunting knew and counted WCW as an influence, there does not seem to be any definite connection with Olson. Nevertheless, these “sons of Ezra” were in many respects parallel figures in the world of post-war modernist poetry, both intent in their different ways on realizing Pound's ambition, stated in the Pisan Cantos: "To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of stars". Bunting would certainly have agreed with sentiments of Olson’s Maximus (“O tansy city, root city / let them not make you as the nation is”) though he would have substituted English Newcastle and the Tyne valley for New England Gloucester and its environs. Olson’s avowal of civic communitarianism – his notion of “polis” – is mirrored by Bunting’s galvanizing relationship with north-east regionalism and with urban Tyneside, the high-watermark of which arrived with the 1960s readings in the Mordern Tower that took place a near-derelict section of the old Newcastle city walls.

Bunting’s view of the natural world also closely resembles that of Olson. For now, let us look very briefly at just one naturalistic trope: birds. The first poem in Donald Allen’s seminal anthology The New American Poetry (1960) Olson’s “The Kingfishers” describes animal subjects that are stripped of any magnificent literary heritage:

But not these things are the factors. Not the birds.
The legends are
legends. Dead, hung up indoors, the kingfisher
will not indicate a favoring wind,
or avert a thunderbolt.

In a vignette that is redolent of Bewick’s demystified portraits of rural life in eighteenth century Tynedale, Olson’s kingfishers are seen nesting on a bed of fecal fishbones:

On these rejectamenta
… the young are born.
And, as they are fed and grow, this nest of decayed excrement and decayed fish becomes a dripping fetid mass.

The opening section of Bunting’s Briggflatts echoes this juxtaposition of birds and organic ugliness as a metaphor for creative generation:

A mason times his mallet
to a lark’s twitter …
Painful lark, labouring to rise!
The solemn mallet says:
In the graves slot
he lies. We rot.

Decay thrusts the blade,
wheat stands in excrement

For both writers, birds exist in tandem with a harsh, unlovely ecology, a countryside that does not differ markedly from the city (note the presence of the industrial mason in the Bunting extract), and that is not described by way of a form that is lush and magniloquent in the manner of a Keats or a Tennyson. This is anti-conformist organicism, American-esque literary minimalism that revels in the mulchy unpleasantness of nature, in its realism, in its potential to enact a radical overhaul of the past. 

For Bunting, birds emerged out of a painful, realistic engagement with an ambiguous environment. His fondness for birds in his sixties poetry (see also the 1964 ode “A thrush in the syringa sings”) if nothing else embodies the sheer boredom of a commuter's grey daily routine. Riding on his scooter to and from night shifts at The Journal, he was taken with the exotic range of bird and animal life of all kinds that came out of the woodwork in the dusky twilit hours. In keeping with this backdrop, birds in his poetry are symbolic of a yearning for unbridled magical expression, spiritual sustenance for an internal émigré living out a lonely life on the margins of a culture, like the nineteenth century urban industrial migrants who kept birds in cages as a reminder of the ambience of rural life they had left behind. At this point, like countless frontier-dwelling Britons and Americans before him (since at least as far back as St Cuthbert and his eider ducks), Bunting seized on these little paragons of bathos and indomitable beauty, not because they were part of some pastoral myth of organic order, but because they were very close to being everything he had.

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