by Chris Miller
from PN Review, September-October 2016
We have a 'Bunting Revival': there is a biography, Burton's A Strong Song Tows Us (Infinite Ideas, 2013), and a selected letters is under construction. In this context, Richard Caddell's Complete Poems (Bloodaxe, 2000) is—in compliance with Bunting's wishes—a rather bare text: four and a half pages of introduction and nothing but Bunting's notes by way of commentary. Don Share's The Poems of Basil Bunting is therefore long-awaited on two separate counts: not only because a scholarly, critical, variorum edition of this major modernist poet has long been required, but also because this edition has for many years been imminent, a ghostly vessel forever breasting the horizon. Now it has come alongside and the introduction sets out Share's purposes with commendable clarity. Bunting reproved annotation and rejected additions to his official corpus along with any attempt at biography; he nevertheless annotated his poems, explained them in autobiographical terms, and carefully provided uncollected material to scholars, so his scruples, scrupulously recorded, are justifiably overridden here. Indeed, it is hard to imagine an editor more scrupulous and thorough. Matters of punctuation that might seem merely issues of house or national style are meticulously recorded. In addition to the school poems and limericks (one newly discovered) justifiably relegated to an appendix in Caddel's edition, there are the two new 'uncollected overdrafts' (Bunting's term for his variant of translation) printed in Share's Bunting's Persia; a section of 'Fragments and False Starts' (some of which contain material from other poems and some of which are utterly nugatory) including a variant of 'The Well of Lycopolis' sent to Zukofsky, and, best of all, printed in facsimile in an appendix, an early version of what became 'The Spoils'. These preliminary versions are fascinating; Bunting covered his tracks assiduously; in a poet who pared to the essential and beyond, the materials can be revelatory not only of creative process but of thematic 'argument'.
The annotation is magisterially organised. Bunting's notes for editions of Complete Poems are given as an appendix but also included among the annotations for each poem. Each facing page of the poems has a page range for the corresponding annotations and textual variations and the symmetrical courtesy is extended in the pages of annotation, a splendidly efficient device. Best of all, and what will make this edition indispensable to the general Bunting reader, is the presence in the notes of 'quotations of Bunting on his own work (from essays, letters, interviews and impromptu commentary taken from recordings of his poetry readings)'. This too can be revelatory. Thus in 'The Spoils', in the transition between the description of Asshur's pecuniary activity and that of a soldier in the desert—'As I sat at my counting frame to assess the people, / from a farmer a tithe, a merchant a fifth of his gain, / [...] one stood in the door / scorning our occupation, / silent: so in his greaves I saw / [ ... ] a man like me reckoning pence / never having tasted bread / where there is ice in his flask'—the two final participles seem to belong to both men. From Bunting's letter to Makin, it becomes clear that 'in his greaves' is a version of 'in his shoes': 'Asshur [...] sees himself as the other man sees him and [...] as [he] realises what he is missing, the vision transforms itself into the reality without requiring the aid of a sentence to say so. Or so I hope [...].' If you have not seen this in Makin's wonderful Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse—and Makin will cost you a great deal more than this volume—it comes at very least as confirmation of authorial intention. And when Bunting writes 'Kettles flash, bread is eaten, / scarabs are scurrying rolling dung', it may not have occurred to you (since this is what scarabs are known to do), that, when the 'Camels raise their necks from the ground' (line 24), 'There's no dung yet for the scarabs. That comes as the men saunter off after breakfast for a crap, pursued by scarabs, who cut the dung almost as it falls and shape into balls and then roll it away, often before the man has finished' (letter to Zukofsky, 13 March 1965). Modernist montage is notorious for its elisions, supplied by the red-pen fabbro. But I had not realised quite what was elided here. Bunting would clearly have had more to say about bodily parts than he felt able to in his poems and evidence for this too appears in the notes. 'Warmth of absent thighs' in 'The Spoils' is thus shown to be euphemistic and connected to the new entrant in the 'Fragments and False Starts' section: 'DIALOGUE. Non-Platonic'. This shows a Napoleonic attitude to sexual odour, considerable mastery of light verse, and has a punch-line rhyming 'stunt' with 'cunt'. His tone is more light-hearted than Mallarme's line about fruit bursting with 'odorous human flesh', and the word 'reification' springs to mind. The process of whittling down the poem is aptly illustrated in the second section of the 'The Spoils', which begins with architecture; the facsimile typescript shows that Bunting excised the remark, 'Without this / knowledge you cannot explain the Gothic / and stand in some danger / of sentimentalising the Middle Ages'; characteristic of the man's bluff expression of his erudition, it sounds like an amateur lecturing on the Home Service. Well pared. The third movement of this facsimile 'Fifth Sonata' is, it seems to me, clearer in its argument than the ending 'The Spoils' eventually received, though not on that account superior.
A further feature of the notes is that, 'Whenever possible, material in the annotations is correlated with specific volumes from Bunting's personal library, now held in the Basil Bunting Collection of the library at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York.' Thus, in 'The Well of Lycopolis', 'Fy for shame' produces references to Chaucer and Skelton ('fy') and Thackeray ('fie'). The 'Nun's Priest's Tale' reference takes us to Chauntecleer being rebuked for 'grone[ing]' by the faire Pertelote, while Skelton rebukes the servants of the murdered Erle of Northumberlande; Becky in Vanity Fair thinks her relatives will not betray her; none of this is obviously to the purpose. 'Descant' in line 2 of 'Briggflatts' is given some thirty lines, citing three elements of the OED definition of the verb, one of the noun, and eight authors. It is researchers' manna and certainly 'places' the words thus glossed; I nevertheless wonder if it was the right use of the space available. And omission is surely inevitable: 'thrice blest' in the overdraft 'Please stop gushing' is furnished with Tennyson but surely Portia's 'twice' also comes to mind. (The subheading to that overdraft should be 'Cum tu' not 'Cum to Lydia Telephi'.) On 'Gertie Gitana's hymn to waltzing', Share quotes Ezra Pound using the world gitana, apparently unaware that Pound is quoting Gautier. Though the volume has over six hundred pages, in a poet as difficult as Bunting, more interpretative notes citing the critics might also have been of assistance, along the lines of Jonathan Galassi in his translation of the three central Montale volumes. Galassi samples the large body of Montale criticism to excellent effect, illuminating the shadows of the hermetic; Share has chosen to give mainly factual material—definitions, history, geography, mythology and Bunting on Bunting or critics' records thereof. Amid such profusion of material to annotate, some annotations inevitably go astray. A note to the variant 'Well of Lycopolis' traces the Latin tag a poetico sermone plane abhorret to a German philologist's comments on Aeschylus (p. 469), but translates it as 'one clearly shudders at poetic language' when its grammatical subject is surely the preceding 'what we have seen and been and undergone' (shades of Eliot's Tiresias) described by it as 'plainly repugnant to poetic language'. 'Erebus', in Villon II.30, is given a mythological explanation but seems more likely to refer to Mt Erebus, the Antarctic volcano whose rim was (sez Wickedpedia) first reached by Shackleton's expedition in 1907-09; this fits better with the lines 'They have melted the snows from Erebus, weighed the clouds, / hunted down the white bear [ ... ]'. In Cybele's oracular rant at the end of 'Attis', I cannot believe that the roses are either symbols of purity or martyrdom. I have, then, some quibbles—but remarkably few. Don Share's edition is a veritable larder for the Bunting scholar; the book is simply stuffed with information and invariably lucid and well organised. There is no index (you can see, on grounds of cost, why not, but it is a pity). If you are that unabashed boy or girl that Bunting's preface mentions, you are likely to be abashed soon enough by Bunting's vocabulary and references: here are your answers. If you want to know what Bunting had to say about his poems, here it is. If you're a Bunting aficionado, you've known for years that you wanted this book. Well, pay up; you won't be disappointed. The hardback is a very handsome volume on nice paper. Well done, Faber. Well done, Don Share.
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General Editor: Michael Schmidt
Deputy Editor: Luke Allan