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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Basil Bunting's Burly Cants

A few weeks ago now, the Next Objectivists ended our exploration of the poets directly associated with the first Objectivist Poetry moment by reading the work of British author Basil Bunting. Luke Franklin, Minister of International Research, provides a summary & further rumination:

We read two poems by Bunting, one undated, the other written in 1928 when the poet was living hand to mouth in London, scavenging piecework assignments from the metropolitan newspapers. Before we met, a third poem was circulated: Bunting’s ninth Ode [1969] on “stipendiary” language:

All the cants they peddle,
bellow entangled
teeth for knots and
each other’s ankles
to become stipendiary
in any wallow;
crow or weasel
each to his fellow.
“Crow or weasel”, effigies of those who peddle “cants”, infuse language with the clashing disharmonies of a cutthroat market. Against this racket, Bunting upholds fine-tuned cantos, underworld language [canting] and popular song. If they would only learn to listen…

Yet even these,
even these might
listen as crags
listen to light
and pause, uncertain
of the next beat,
each dancer alone
with his foolhardy feet
We did not take up the question of “music” in Bunting’s poetry until the very end of the session. First, we read an extremely interesting poem he left unpublished at the time of his death:

The flat land lies under water
hedge-chequer-grill above concealing
(not long) heliotrope monotony

Cold water shin-embracing clacks
Desolately, no overtones. Lukewarm
Moist socks trickle sea-boot squeezed
Black gutters muttering between the toes.
Moreover it rains, drizzles.

Utter-horizon-penetrating glances
spoil only paupers towing derelict home
the flat land hedge-grilled heliotrope under water. [n.d.]
The weather was what we noticed first: “the most British poem I’ve ever read”. We agreed that “the flat land” was farm-land: a chequered expanse of fields set side-by-side, partitioned by ditches or hedgerows. We floundered for some time, trying to discern what scene, what actions, what drama was being described here. One comment was decisive: Bunting is not depicting land from the viewpoint of a watcher, a removed observer surveying a prospect. Instead, he describes what it feels like to sink into that landscape, boots filling with water, drizzle inundating clothes. Disdaining the overview of the landowner, Bunting records the eye-view of the laborer, the “paupers” [gleaners?] knee deep in the flooded fields.

An agricultural argument lies in the background: landed sportsmen, eager to shoot grouse, let the ditches between fields grow over as a nesting place for game. Blocked ditches won’t drain the fields; land floods, causing sheep to perish from lungworm and cows to come down with footrot:

Sheep and cattle are poor men’s food,
grouse is sport for the rich;
heather grows where the sweet grass might grow
for the cost of cleaning the ditch.
The pink-purple heather flowers stain the fields a single colour: “heliotrope”. In Bunting’s poem the sickly off-mauve shade, “heliotrope” is the colour of class conflict.

Next, we read an untitled Ode on the city of London. Bunting, Northern regionalist and ardent partisan of the coal-town unions behind the 1926 General Strike, scorns the Southern seat of government:

The day being Whitsun we had pigeon for dinner;
but Richmond in the pitted river saw
mudmirrored mackintosh, a wet southwest
wiped and smeared dampness over Twickenham.

Pools on the bustop’s buttoned tarpaulin.
Wimbledon, Wandsworth, Clapham, the Oval. ‘Lo,
Westminster Palace where the asses jaw!’

Endless disappointed buckshee-hunt!
Suburb and city giftless garden and street,
And the sky alight of an evening stubborn
And mute by day and never rei novae
Inter rudes atrium homines.
Never a spark of sedition
amongst the uneducated workingmen. [1928]

What scene is Bunting describing here? We heard a conductor barking out stops along an omnibus line: “Wimbledon, Wandsworth, Clapham, the Oval”; a drunk commuter bursting out with curses: “Lo! Westminster Palace where the asses jaw!” One shrewd reader picked out the allusion to Samson: “in politics, as in the story of Samson & Delilah, the jawbone of an ass is a deadly weapon…” Bunting’s Latin, a minor sticking point—is he speaking the patrician language of the ruling class, scourging the plebeians? Someone saw the poem as a pre-emptive strike on Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings. We dwelled on Bunting’s disgust at the spectacle of defused sedition: working class districts “mute by day” as laborers are marched out to work; yet “alight of an evening”, without a spark of unrest...

At the end of the session we reworked the collectively-authored poetry produced two weeks earlier. Our objective was to refashion this inchoate verbiage into something resembling the rhythms of Bunting’s musical verse. Some of us tried arranging the word-material according to syllable-patterns in Bunting’s poetry. More fruitful were efforts to craft entirely new poems from the prewritten worksheets:

I'll ask my unlucky atlas
and in the end
fixed types of tolerance tighten.

Titans Retelling : tough scopes,
exuberance, Alps, parts, Ridges
fixed on us.

if i cold

chill dry.

white former ease, Imagine.
ending the and.

All this type. Us gritty at last.


The “music” of this poem resides less in harmonics and sound-patterns than in the cognitive dissonance caused by new concepts: the “unlucky atlas”[reference book of ill omen—luckless titan]; social constrictions as “fixed types of tolerance”; the imagined “end” of the “and” in a triumphant collectivity, “us gritty at last”. To discuss the acoustic effects in “skipping / stones / echo”, it might be useful to read one last Bunting poem:

At Briggflatts meetinghouse

Boasts time mocks cumber Rome. Wren
Set up his own monument.
Others watch fells dwindle, think
The sun’s fires sink.

Stones indeed sift to sand, oak
blends with saints’ bones.
Yet for a little longer here
stone and oak shelter

silence while we ask nothing
but silence. Look how clouds dance
under the wind’s wing, and leaves
delight in transience.
Poised as the zenith and climax of the poem, “delight in transience” also marks the accomplishment of a technical “tour-de-force”. Bunting has moved from the low-end of the syllabic register, the o-vowels in “boasts time mocks cumber Rome” to the lightest, high-pitched pinnacle of “delight in transience”. I found that, once noticed, this “masterful maneuver” diminishes the interest of the poem. Arguably, the unsublimated, unmusick’d integrity of “boasts time mocks cumber Rome” is more compelling than the technical machinery that crescendos with “delight in transience”. Musical virtuosity as an ultimate value in poetry has unpredictable effects.

We should note another outcome of Bunting’s overriding concern with music. Namely, his literary self-presentation as the poet of “wine, women, and song”:

All you Spanish ladies
Carmencita’s tawny paps

glow through a threadbare frock;

stance bold, and her look.

Filth guards her chastity…


On highest summits dawn comes soonest.
(but that is not time to give over loving)

Poet appointed dare not decline
to walk among the bogus
the mission imposed, despised by toadies, confidence men, kept boys
shopped and jailed, cleaned out by whores…

Briggflatts [1965]
These poems are not explicitly about music-making, but the rake’s progress of the raffish troubadour-poet is the centre of interest in all three. In Bunting, deliberately “musical” poetry is marked in advance as the prerogative of the roving, womanizing bard, a seriously tiresome figure. How to get clear of the “cants” and also avoid the trappings of the meistersinger? Is it possible to single out a “crude” language in Bunting—refractory sonic effects, words not re-mastered by the virtuoso-troubadour? More discussion seems called for.

Under sand clay. Dig, wait
Billy half full, none for the car.
Quartz, salt in well wall,
ice refract first ray

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