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From spy to journalist to celebrated poet: the curious life of Basil Bunting

The letters of the Northumbrian modernist reveal an idiosyncratic career and an exacting critical mind.

By Robert Colls

One cold Wednesday night in December 1965, Basil Bunting read his new poem “Briggflatts” to a crowd of teenagers and other modernists in the Morden Tower, a 13th-century turret built into Newcastle’s old fortifications, rented now from the city council for ten bob a week. He read, and they in their enthusiasm – high on the walls, squat on the floor – turned a recital into a slam. After years not writing and never reading, the life of a sub-editor on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle was about to be fulfilled.

He was 65. Tom Pickard, the lad who called him out, was 19. Bunting hadn’t published in years. Pickard had hardly published at all; he and his wife, Connie, were too serious about poetry to worry about that, and in this austere old poet who thought the same, they believed they had found their man. That he was a Tynesider, like them, mattered. That he had rubbed shoulders with the true greats of the 1920s and 1930s mattered. That he had had some contact with the American Beats mattered too. Allen Ginsberg would say that the Morden readings (which included Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Stevie Smith, Hugh MacDiarmid, Robert Creeley and others) “articulated the unconscious of the entire city slumbering in the mechanic illusions of the century”. Well, maybe. Either way, one of the most celebrated myths of 20th-century British poetry was in the making, and Basil Cheesman Bunting was at its elusive heart.

[See also: The mysterious life of Inez Holden]

Given the times, and given that at that very moment the Newcastle blues band the Animals were growling that it was their life and they could do what they want, it’s as if this damp and dirty old tower was the Cavern Club and Basil was some old bluesman brought back to life by a young rock bassist called Tom. The writer Gordon Burn, a stroppy sixth-former at the time, remembered coming out of the readings and walking head on into the football masses coming the other way – a direction of travel he was only too happy to take.

When Bunting’s Collected Poems were finally published in 1968, he dedicated them to “the unabashed boys and girls”. “This book is theirs,” he said. To make the musical opening lines of “Briggflatts” your own, all you need to know is that the Rawthey is a river:

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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…

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Bunting was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1900, the son of a doctor. He went to Quaker boarding schools before a brutal spell at his majesty’s pleasure as a conscientious objector in 1918. After that, and a stint at the London School of Economics, he hit the road as scholar and poet. He was never really interested in doing anything other than thinking, or in thinking about anything other than poetry. In the 1930s, he lived and breathed it in Rapallo, Italy, along with Ezra Pound and WB Yeats. After a good start – with his poem “Villon” (written in 1925) – his poetry spluttered out along with his marriage while he lived by turns in Tenerife, London, New York and Los Angeles, and travelling back and forth solo across the Atlantic on his yacht. (A little yacht. Don’t ask.) He spent 1940 to 1946 in the RAF, rising (not literally) from barrage-balloon operator in England to squadron leader in Iran and the Middle East, where details of his work were censored under the Official Secrets Act. After a short break in Newcastle, he became attached to British intelligence in Tehran, leaving upon marriage in 1948 to a local girl of Armenian-Kurdish origin. After a few months as a Times correspondent, Bunting returned home to Tyneside, where we find him in 1950 with his ageing mother, Annie, his 16-year-old wife, Sima, and baby Bunting, Maria. On station again in 1951, he was expelled from Iran the following year, and back in Throckley, a Newcastle suburb where his grandfather had been the colliery manager, the four of them living on his mother’s kindness and welfare benefits.

From 1954 to 1966 Bunting worked at the Chronicle offices in the city. On the face of it he should have been able to enjoy their comfortable headmaster-ish sort of house in Wylam (a “good place”), with the two kids in “good” (that is, private) schools, and happy enough to settle and sustain his poetry again after a long break. Yet he wasn’t happy. Overworked and underpaid was an old Basil war cry, but the real reason he wasn’t happy was that he wasn’t writing – and the reason he wasn’t writing was that he wasn’t happy.

Or so he says. Boisterous and scholarly, confident and tentative, private and self-searching, with a remarkable range of literary and philosophical allusion and comment, Bunting was an extraordinary letter writer. Forty-nine of the 190 letters gathered here by Alex Niven are written to two friends from the early days, Pound and the American poet Louis Zukofsky. But there are plenty other correspondents too, with a couple of letters each to TS Eliot and Ted Hughes, and dozens more to real friends like Dorothy Pound, Denis Goacher, Gael Turnbull and Tom Pickard. 

[See also: Elif Batuman and the art of a real life]

Bunting often wrote for effect and doesn’t always mean what he says, but to receive five pages on the lapidary principles of poetry (possibly your poetry) from Basil might have seemed like a letter from hell. He had a mind so sharp he could cut his tongue on it, and sometimes he did, saving his most severe criticism for those he loved best. The rest (Philip Larkin, WH Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis etc) feel the smart smack of the ruler, when mentioned in letters to other people at any rate. Bunting broke with Pound over the latter’s friends (“They spell Finance with three letters, J E W, and that’s all you’ll get out of them,” Bunting wrote after hearing of Pound’s associations with the British Union of Fascists), but never over his poetry.

In the 1930s Bunting was immured in a translation of the Persian poet Ferdowsi (circa 940-1020), which was to remain unfinished. Then the long break; then “Briggflatts”, which was immediately important; then a decade of English and North American visiting professorships and whatnot, until we find him all but done in his late seventies with no Tom to liven him up and no home and no Sima (they divorced in 1977).

Some of the letters have been used before – not least in Richard Burton’s fine 2013 biography of Bunting, A Strong Song Tows Us. As for Niven’s new selection, out of an original 800 or so letters deposited in 11 archives in the UK and in the US, there are too many gaps in Bunting’s life and correspondence to lay down any obvious principles of curation, and we must trust the editor. Niven has gathered an important collection nevertheless. Nothing is wasted and he is always careful, although referring to Larkin as an author of “light verse” might rattle some cages. The selection bears witness not only to modern poetry’s principal issues from the point of view of a very acute and opinionated observer, but also takes us away from the arts bureaucrats and into that heroic world of small publishers and hard-pressed editors without which there would be no poetry in the first place.

What is “Briggflatts”? It’s five sections and a coda named after a hamlet with a historic Quaker meeting house in Westmorland. A poem is a poem like a hat is a hat, said Bunting. If it fits, wear it. Enjoy it even, but don’t philosophise. The old bluesman did not see why anyone should ask for more. He didn’t believe in abstraction. He didn’t believe that a poet’s life told you anything you needed to know. He didn’t even believe his own letters, and told you not to either. He said poetry only had meaning in the sounds it makes. The trouble is: words have meaning whether we like it or not. A narrative would have helped frame the sounds, but “Briggflatts” has no narrative.

It’s true that Bunting loved the idea of Northumbria as an ancient kingdom, and Quakerism for its true grit – and few spoke more urgently than he of Tyneside shipbuilders hammering their shields for war in 1940. But his politics were too ambivalent and his poetry too exacting to link them, or make them manifest or, God forbid, popular. As a modernist, Bunting had trouble belonging. As a born-again Northumbrian, he could not forget where he was from. “Briggflatts” is what it is, visceral and apart, and we could begin by seeing it as much about Northumbria as William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” is about an ecclesiastical building.

That poem is, in fact, the clue to a poem that says it has no clue. Just as Wordsworth draws on autobiographical episodes dragged from memory of a place and a girl (his sister, Dorothy) who became his muse, so does Bunting. Wordsworth called it “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Bunting was more to the point: the place is earth, and rock, and water; the girl we find “Under sacks on the stone” where “two children lie… Stocking to stocking, jersey to jersey,/head to a hard arm,/they kiss under the rain… Her pulse their pace”. As he explained in a letter to Zukofsky, the poem was inspired by his adolescent love for Peggy Greenbank “and her whole ambience, the Rawthey Valley, the fells of Lunedale, the Viking inheritance… the ancient Quaker life… and what happens when one deliberately thrusts love aside”. Fifty years later, having written his emotions in marble (“Pens are too light./Take a chisel to write”) he went to see Peggy and told his daughter Roudaba that he had found love again.

In 1985, we find him old again, a month before his death, living in a cottage next to a pub near Hexham, still writing letters: “Snow and cold winds still imprison me. I survive with whisky’s help.”

Robert Colls’s books include “Northumbria: History and Identity 547-2000” (The History Press)

Letters of Basil Bunting
Edited by Alex Niven
Oxford University Press, 496pp, £35

[See also: Burning the bastards out]

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This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars