Looking back on the last couple of months, it does seem to have been a summer of epic reads! I was extremely involved in Serge’s “Last Times“, but I’ve also spent a good part of the last few weeks dipping into a marvellous collection of letters which you might have seen me mentioning on Twitter or Instagram!! The subject is a poet who’s made a number of appearances on the Ramblings, whether in passing as I explored Morden Tower and the Newcastle poets, or when I wrote about his actual work itself. I have only dipped my toe into what he’s written, but have been much impressed; and as he had such a eventful and interesting life, I was extremely keen to read the letters. These have been collected together by another author who’s appeared on the Ramblings, Alex Niven; a professor at Newcastle University, he’s also written a number of books, and I’ve explored his “Newcastle, Endless” and “New Model Island” in the past. So this volume brings together two writers whose work I’ve enjoyed in “Letters of Basil Bunting”, selected and edited by Alex Niven – and what an epic and involving read it was!

Basil Cheesman Bunting was born in Northumberland in 1900 and after an eventful life ended up back in his native area, where he died in 1985. He witnessed many of the changes which took place in the 20th century, which makes reading these letters a particularly immersive experience as you follow him through the decades. His life can be split broadly into three sections, which is the approach Niven adopts here, with the letters covering ‘Late Spring (1920-1938)’, ‘Midway (1939-1963)’ and ‘Revival (1964-1985). In the first period, after his early years as a conscientious objector (which brought a prison sentence), Bunting travelled Europe and he fell in with a Modernist circle which included Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky. poets who would end up as Bunting’s life-long friends. He married an american woman, Marian, and they lived a peripatetic life, much of it in the Canary Islands, where Bunting continued to write and explored/translated ancient Persian poetry. However, he struggled to publish and make ends meet; the marriage failed and Marian took their children back to America.

…travel broadens the mind. Travel to the U.S.A. also embitters it.

The middle years saw Bunting taking a different path; during WW2 he served with British Military Intelligence in Persia, and after the war eventually left Government service to become a correspondent for The Times. However, his second marriage, to an underage Kurdish girl, caused him to be fired by the British Embassy, and the family returned to the north, settling in Newcastle and making a pittance working for the Newcastle Chronicle. However, in the 1960s, thanks to the efforts of Tom Pickard, a Northern poet who sought out Bunting and brought his work to a wider, younger audience, Basil had a resurgence of writing and produced his epic masterpiece “Briggflatts”. He was much lauded, but perhaps not so much understood; and although his status became that of a revered, elder poet in some circles, he never really transitioned to becoming a public name, like Eliot or Pound. His star rose and fell over the years, and in many ways he still is a poet who’s not that well known.

Alex Niven has spent a decade in researching and preparing this marvellous collection of letters, drawn from a wide number of locations, and by necessity he’s had to be selective. As he makes clear in his lengthy and detailed introduction, his intention was to “create a comprehensive and readable first edition of Bunting’s letters” which he’s certainly done here, pulling just under 200 of the 800 existing letters into his book. The main correspondents gathered here, particularly in the early years, are Pound and Zukofsky; as well as their friendships, there is of course much discussion of poetic practice, opinions shared on the writings of others, and reflections on the poetry of the past. Ezra’s wife Dorothy is also a regular contact, and Bunting seems to have maintained a friendship with her too. Of course, this is one side of the picture as, according to Niven, it seems that Bunting destroyed most letters sent to him, so unless carbons are held elsewhere we can only read his side of things.

It is true that we are hampered by our miserable Cabinet. But I think if the Cabinet does not display an energy equivalent to that the people are showing, it will simply be overwhelmed & disappear before long. With decent leadership & such a spirit as they are showing now, the English would hardly, I think, be able to stop with merely checking Hitler: they would be bound to impose their hegemony on all Western Europe. (1940)

But what a life these letters reveal! Bunting was an unsettled man, drawn to the East, and would happily it seems have spent his time living on a boat and travelling the seas – he often seems like a man in search of a permanent home. His years spent in Persia (as it was then) seem amongst the happiest, and although he’s sometimes vague about what he was up to out there and during the war (there are hints of spying), it does seem a period when he had less in the way of money worries and a comfortable personal life. The early and latter years feature the recurring theme of money, as Bunting does seem to have struggled with income for much of his life, and of course had two families to provide for at varying times. And although the majority of the letters touch on matters poetic, there is much about the personal which creeps in. Bunting’s sadness about the early death of his first son, Rustam, whom he never actually met, is very moving; and there are touching later letters to the daughters of his first marriage, with whom he seems to have been out of contact for many years. Inevitably, the final pages of the book are tinged with melancholy, when you witness Bunting dealing with the effects of old age and isolation; things that come to us all eventually, alas…

As you say, my taste for variety has certainly been gratified in this war. I have been on almost every British front worth being on except Dunkirk, travelled through every rank from Aircraftsman First Class to Squadron-Leader (equals Major, to forestall your question), seen huge chunks of the world that I wouldn’t otherwise have visited, been sailor, balloon-man, drill instructor, interpreter, truck driver in the desert, intelligence officer of several kinds, operations officer to a busy fighter squadron, recorder of the doings of nomadic tribes, labour manager, and now consul in a more or less crucial post. How I got it I don’t know. (1945)

The correspondence with Pound is, unsurprisingly, particularly revelatory, with Bunting standing his ground whilst in a very difficult position. Both Zukofsky (who was Jewish) and Pound (whose anti-semitic views were becoming more and more pronounced) were close friends, and Bunting was somewhat caught in the middle of the two. He makes his feelings clear to Pound (and although the correspondence here is one-sided, Niven does give details of the kind of response Pound gave at points); this did lead to conflict and falling-out, and Bunting’s refusal to give in to racism and loyalty to Zukofsky is notable. His views changed with the times, too, and according to the circumstances in which he found himself. His early communist leanings became tempered with experiences of WW2, the recognition of Stalin’s real nature, and the general corruption in the world around him.

The focus of the letters definitely changes in the third section, where Bunting is experiencing renewed creativity, mingling with a wide range of fellow poets and literati, and teaching at a number of different universities around the world; certainly, his later years brought new and interesting opportunities, and it’s fascinating to see him reflecting on these. The 1960s found Bunting lauded by counter-culture poets such as Allan Ginsberg, friends with other regional poets like David Jones and Hugh MacDiarmid, and although he does play things down, he was obviously held in high repute in the 1960s and the 1970s. The 1980s, however, seem more difficult; separate from Sima, his second wife, and moving from cottage to cottage in search of somewhere to live, this was quite an unsettled existence for a man of his age. The money worries kept on coming, and after the creative urge behind ‘Briggflatts’, Bunting struggled to write more. His death at the age of 85 left him with a complex legacy, as much of his life is shrouded in mystery; as Niven points out early on in the collection, when Bunting makes an obscure three word aside about a personal event, this really “brings home how little we really know of the minutiae of BB’s early years”. Additionally, his poetic achievements came in fits and starts, which may well be why he’s still relatively unknown. Interestingly, Niven has opined elsewhere that it may well be the regional basis of Bunting’s work and the perception of him that’s the issue, and certainly the literary and poetic world in the UK is probably as London-centric as are so many other fields of the arts.

Hugh MacDiarmid stayed with me. I was warned that he ate nothing but whiskey, and he justified the warning. As near as I can calculate he drank 3½ bottles during his 36 hours on Tyneside, which he ballasted with two boiled eggs, a small spoonful of curry, and a piece of toast. Leaving for Manchester, he complained of stomach qualms, which he attributed to the curry – “rich oriental food I’m not used to.” Turnbull and I put him to bed at 3.30 a.m. the first night. The second he was capable and coherent at midnight. But I liked the old guy very well… (1965)

Any collection of letters needs slow and careful reading, and I’ve made sure not to rush this particular volume; but travelling through the century along with Bunting was a fascinating experience. Reading a collection of letters brings you close to someone in a way a biography often can’t, so it can really enhance what you know and feel about a writer (my reading of Virginia Woolf’s letters and diaries back in the days is comparable experience). As well as being an excellent editor, Niven is also an erudite and sensitive commentator on the contents of the letters, which can sometimes be a little abstruse; and the helpful glossary of names at the back of the book makes sure you can keep track of just who is who.

My modest collection of Bunting and related books.

“Letters of Basil Bunting” is an exemplary collection and a gold-standard example of how to put together a volume of letters; the amount of work which has gone into what is a major work of scholarship (as well as being incredibly readable) is, frankly, epic. Whether exploring his thoughts on poetry, arguing about economics or just moaning about lack of money and the stupidity of editors, Bunting is a fascinating correspondent and Niven is to be applauded for bringing these letters to a wider audience. There is so much more I could say about this collection, and what an achievement it is, but this post is long enough. However, I will close with the thought that Basil Bunting is still not well-enough known in this country, and hopefully the release of this marvellous collection of his letters will do much to improve that position!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

If you want to explore more about Basil Bunting, there’s a very interesting discussion of his work on YouTube, featuring Alex Niven, and you can find that here.