Basil Bunting is a poet known primarily for his long poem ‘Briggflatts’. When the critic Donald Davie came to write an account of British poetry in the second half of the 20th century he called it Under Briggflatts. It is, in fact, a rather late poem, published when Bunting was 66 and after he had returned to his native Northumberland after spending much of his life abroad, in particular in
France and where he was part of the circle of Ezra Pound (who published much of Bunting’s early verse in his Activist Anthology). He also lived in what was then Italy and counted Persian poets amongst his influences. Like many of the Poundian modernists he was learned and sought to make new his many influences from Classical and other literature. He was particularly interested conveying musical cadences in verse and also used the analogy of sonata form to structure some of his longer poems. The keyboard sonatas of Scarlatti provided a particular model in this respect. The brief notes to his Collected Poems are occasionally informative, often tetchy and sometimes puzzling. One note on some poems from classical authors states that “It would be gratuitous to assume that a mistranslation is unintentional”. Or the information that “as a native of Paphos, Venus was until recently entitled to a British passport”. Persia
‘Briggflatts’ is written in a distinct though accessible Northumbrian dialect. But sound is important here and he expressed the view that “Southrons would maul the music of many of its lines”. Any ‘southrons’ (or others) who wish to know how it should sound can listen to the clip attached above. This is taken from a film made about Bunting by the BBC not long before his death in 1985. It shows him in the Northumbrian landscape and at the old Quaker Meeting House of Briggflatts (he expressed the view that silent Quaker worship is “pantheistic”, finding God in everything : “By God with whom I lunched! / there is no trash in the wheat / my loaf is kneaded from.”). The whole film is now available HERE on a DVD, together with a CD of Bunting reading the poem, the text of the poem and some other background material all packaged in a cover showing a page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. In this poem ‘objectivism’ is much more than a technical exercise. His lines here vividly evoke an experience of the physical environment:
Under sacks on the stone
the children lie,
hear the horse stale,
the mason whistle,
harness mutter to shaft,
felloe to axle squeak,
rut thud to rim,
It is the intersection of experience with the things that are experienced that delivers the poem’s charge. But the objective world is also enacted as an emergence into consciousness and relationship in the early part of the poem. The staging of the erotically charged account of young love is particularly vivid:
He has untied the tape
of her striped flannel drawers
before the range. Naked
on the pricked mat
his fingers comb
thatch of his manhood’s home.
As the poem develops, wider perspectives of landscape and history come into play, back to Norse and Celtic tribes inhabiting this land on the Scottish border. He names St Cuthbert, Eric Bloodaxe and the Brythonic tribes to the north:
Clear Cymric voices carry well this Autumn night,
Aneurin and Taliesin, cruel owls
for whom it is never altogether dark, crying
before the rules made poetry a pedant’s game.
Some have felt that the world evoked here succumbs to that ‘pedant’s game’ in the mannered conclusion of the poem’s coda : ( “ … Who, /swinging his axe / to fell kings, guesses / where we go?”). But this is demanding criticism and does not detract from Bunting’s achievement.