Home

“Persian has destroyed what lingering respect I had for grammar…” #basilbunting @Alex_Niven @OxUniPress

18 Comments

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.

August ends and Autumn approaches!

36 Comments

August has been in some ways a busy month, but a productive one and I *have* managed to find in a reasonable amount of reading – and here are the books!

The first half of the month was mostly taken up with the Victor Serge novel, which was an outstanding read and over which I took my time. I’ve also read a marvellous range of titles, many very different from each other, which has been a great delight. No duds again, which is always a good result, although one particular title didn’t blow me away quite as much as I expected it to…  Not shown here are two more Nightjar Press chapbooks which I read digitally, and very unsettling they were too – my thoughts will follow!! Because of the commitment to the Serge, I didn’t manage to take part in the Eugene Onegin readalong, but I did enjoy some #WITMonth titles (though not necessarily the ones I had planned on reading…) as well as some Viragos (and they did overlap). So all in all, a great month!

September means back to work after the summer break, so there may well be a slowing down of reading (though I am still playing catch up with reviewing). I have very loose plans, as usual! First of all, I intend to read the second book in the Dark is Rising sequence – it’s the one that has that title and if I recall correctly the books do shift up a gear with this particular story!

I shall also be taking part in blog tours for a couple of titles from lovely Renard Press, namely these two, which look fascinating:

Currently, I’m making my way through the bumper selection of the Letters of Basil Bunting, which I’ll  be reviewing in a week or so; they give a marvellous window into the changing times of the 20th century as well as much exploration of poetry, and it’s a wonderful collection.

Apart from that, my plans are fluid… As I mentioned above, I’ve a lot of reviews to catch up on so quite a lot of my September postings will be on those books. I also want to start giving thought to the #1929Club – yes, I know it’s not until 24th October, but time goes so fast nowadays…

So those are my very loose plans for September – what do you intend to read, and are you going to be joining us for 1929 in October? It looks to be a fabulous year for books!! 😊

Flaming June – and onwards into July!!

39 Comments

When I say ‘flaming June’ I could of course be implying two different meanings! Flaming as in it was very hot, which it was; and flaming in the sense of the British English use to express annoyance! June for me was both of those things; too hot, because I’m not good with high temperatures, and busy again so I didn’t get to read as much as I wanted to. What I read I loved, though, and here they are:

No disappointments at all and quite a variety, from short stories (crime and modernist), novels new and old, non-fiction and translated lit. The re-read of “Gormenghast” was pure joy and kept me sane when things were very manic at work!

I have, of course, now completed the #Narniathon, which was great fun, even if I found “The Last Battle” a bit sad. Others will be going on to read an interesting sounding work about the Narnia books, but I am going to pass on that as I don’t have the book and I’m trying to avoid acquiring more; though I will follow their thoughts with interest!

As for what I *do* plan to read, well, I’m going to keep that as loose as possible. Annabel has an Italian Fortnight coming up at the end of the month, and so I shall try to join in with that. There is, I think, a Paris in July event knocking about somewhere online, but it will depend on my mood as to whether I take part. Also Stu usually hosts a Spanish/Portuguese Lit event so if that’s going ahead I may try to take part. What I *do* want to do is to make a dent in the mountainous TBR as on the imminent pile are some very interesting titles:

First up, an inviting pair of review books – Orwell and Golden Age Crime are two of my favourite things to read, so I hope to get to these soon.

Spark is also a huge favourite, and I’m intrigued by Lange – I love interesting women authors, so either of these would be a great choice for July.

Irina Mashinski’s book sounds quite marvellous, and I can’t wait to get to it – it’s definitely one title I’ll be prioritising in July!

I’m currently reading the Letters of Basil Bunting alongside whichever other book I have to hand and it’s a fascinating volume; so far much of the correspondence has been addressed to Ezra Pound, and this really is something of a treasure trove.

My current read, along with the Bunting is this:

Yes, I’m finally making an attempt to read Brookner properly! Only a little way in but so far I’m impressed – watch this space for progress reports!!!

Apart from that, I’ll just keep on picking up the books which take my fancy as that’s what works for me. I hadn’t *planned* to re-read “Gormenghast” in June, for example, but when the reading mojo calls, you just have to follow it! Do you have any plans for your July reading??

“If death’s the merest accident, is life another?” (Peter Bennet) #mordentower @BloodaxeBooks #ReadIndies2

13 Comments

One of my hopes for #ReadIndies2 is to cover a range of writing and publishing; and poetry is definitely a form which often benefits from independent publishing. In fact, one of my favourite indies is Bloodaxe Books. Founded in 1978 in Newcastle upon Tyne, and now based in Hexham, they’re a renowned publisher of poetry and a quick look over the list of names they’ve published is a real eye-opener. Simon Armitage, R.S. Thomas, Anna Akmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Edith Sodergran, Paul Valery, Frieda Hughes, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah, Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov – well, I could go on, but you get the picture… Just check out their range and you’ll be impressed!

The Newcastle connection is relevant, for as I discussed in this post back in 2019, Bloodaxe publish not only Basil Bunting’s great work “Briggflatts” but also “High on the Walls: The Morden Tower Anthology”. The latter was issued in 1990 to celebrate 25 years of poetry at the Tower, and it rather alarms me to realise that that’s longer ago now than it was from the start of the readings when it was issued in 1990… Time really does fly! Anyway, I felt this would be a good way to explore some indie-published poetry, and I wasn’t wrong. “High…” turned out to be a great way to start the month!

The anthology is constructed to house contributions from many of the poets who’d read at the Tower since the first reading in 1964. Arranged alphabetically, there is a photo (in most cases), some words from the poet and a new work by them. And the list is impressive: Bunting features, of course, and Tom Pickard (who was instrumental in starting the readings, alongside wife Connie who continues to support the Tower up until today); there’s Allan Ginsberg, Anne Stevenson, Fleur Adcock, Carol Ann Duffy, Adrian Mitchell, Liz Lochhead, Hugh MacDiarmid, Seamus Heaney, Anne Waldman – well, that’s just a few of the names I know, and there are many, many more! Connie Pickard provides a piece about the start of the readings, Tom Pickard also offers his thoughts and the cumulative effect of reading these poems is just stunning!

Morden Tower, Newcastle Town Wall cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Andrew Curtis – geograph.org.uk/p/2183976

In truth, with an anthology like this it’s best not to gulp it down all in one go, and so I didn’t. Instead, I read two or three poets between other works and it was a lovely way to approach the book – and also one which allowed me to really enjoy the poems and ponder on them. There really is an impressive range of work on show here and athough I hate picking favourites, I will highlight a few which really stood out ! For example, Bob Cobbing’s “Square Poem” was exactly what it said and stated clearly what it was!! Alistair Elliot’s “Old Bewick” was rooted in the north, exploring the Debatable Land (which I wrote about here) and the wild country away from cities and towns. Ginsberg’s generous introduction to his own poem acknowledges the importance of his visit to Morden Tower and his meeting with Basil Bunting, as well as admitting that his reading at the Tower had caused him to alter his own poetic practice.

There’s a theory that emotion is imprinted on walls like music on vinyl. If this is so, the walls of the Morden Tower must bear one of the most beautiful symphonies of passion and life. (Henry Normal)

Carole Rumens’ “Jarrow” is short, moving and beautifully written. And Ken Smith’s “Running on Empty” contained lines which resonate…

My country is falling off the back of a lorry
but I bear you no malice, Alice.
What I’m in is chargrin. It’s late,
I’m out on the road, running on empty.

Really, I could fill this post with so many quotes as “High…” is an anthology full of riches. As well as paying tribute to a place which nurtured the poetic tradition in the North East, the book is a simply wonderful introduction to a wide range of fascinating poets. The poems are powerful, often moving, funny, sad, evocative – everything poetry should be. Many of the names featured are no longer with us, or have become better known since, but all are worth reading. If you fancy exploring a fabulous collection of poems, as well as finding out a little about Morden Tower’s history, I can highly recommend this anthology; unfortunately, I think it’s out of print, but it’s definitely worth searching out if you enjoy reading verse! And do take a look at Bloodaxe’s website – they have such a great range!

2019 in books – *why* do I find it hard to pick favourites?? :D

36 Comments

As we slide into a new decade, it’s time for a look back over 2019 and the books I read – and there really were some crackers in there! But I really struggle to pick favourites, because so many of my reads are outstanding for different reasons. I can’t possibly do a Top Ten, so instead I thought I’d post some thoughts about favourite books, publishers and genres – here goes!

Russians

Inevitably I have read more Russian authors this year, although there was a slight hiatus at one point so that I ended up thinking the blog was suffering from Russian Reading Deficiency! However, a quick dose of the Gogols soon sorted that out! Spring was the season of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, in a lovely new edition from Alma Classics, and it was an intense read which absorbed me for some time; it was a bit of a marathon in the end, but worth every minute spent reading it. A really epic book in many ways, full of the humour and drama you’d expect from Dosty – wonderful!

I’ve also been enjoying some more modern works from the wonderful publisher Glagoslav; they’ve put out some excellent titles from countries I haven’t always read from before. A really interesting imprint, and one to watch.

Golden Age Crime

There has been, I’m pleased to say, a lot of Golden Age Crime on the Ramblings this year. It’s a favourite reading genre of mine and much has come from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics imprint. There have been some excellent books released, lots of new authors and some really great anthologies. Plus plenty of Reggie Fortune, which makes me happy! I also revisited the Queen of Crime, who’s always a joy to read; next year, I must spend some time with Lord Peter Wimsey!

Poetry

There has also been much poetry on the Ramblings in 2019, which makes me very happy. I discovered the Morden Tower poets, Basil Bunting, Tom Pickard and the vastly entertaining (and very clever) Brian Bilston. I also went back to Philip Larkin, one of my favourite poets ever. I still don’t read enough of the wonderful verse volumes I have on my shelves so that’s another thing I need to rectify in 2020. Interesting how many of the poets I love are from the cold North (a place I’m often drawn back to) – and published by Bloodaxe Books!

Essays and Non-Fiction

I’m not sure why I’ve been drawn to non-fiction works so much this year, but I seem to have read quite a lot! There are of course all the lovely books put out by Notting Hill Editions, who make an art of issuing fascinating essay collections which are also beautiful to look at. If I can find my Shostakovich, I’ll share a picture of all my NHE books at some point…

Equally, Fitzcarraldo Editions release some really thought-provoking works and I rather crave adjoining book shelves with my Fitzcarraldo and Notting Hills next to each other. The Ian Penman collection was a particular treat this year from Fitzcarraldo; and other publishers have produced equally fascinating books, like the marvellous “Selfies”.  A lot of these books lie outside any strict definition of fiction or non-fiction, and I do find I like that kind of book nowadays.

Translated Literature

Mention of Fitzcarraldo brings me by necessity to Olga Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” which definitely *is* one of my books of the year. I was blown away by her “Flights” last year, and this title didn’t disappoint. I read a lot of translated works, and am eternally grateful to translators. NYRB and Pushkin Press have issued numerous wonderful books in translation that I’m so happy to have read, like “Isolde” and “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and “Portraits without Frames”…. I was also so happy to rediscover Mishima and find that I loved his work just as much as ever. Well, I could go on and on, but suffice to say that I am made a happy reader thanks to the efforts of all those fine people who translate books! 😀

John Berger

Berger deserves a special mention; I’ve read a number of his books this year (and there is a review pending of one I finished very recently) and each has been a wonderful, thought-provoking and unique experience. Several have been in beautiful editions from Notting Hill; and he’s proved to be a a very human (and humane) writer with so much to say. I really have no doubt that I’ll continue to read him in 2020.

Reading Clubs

I’ve been very happy to once more co-host two Reading Club weeks during 2019 with Simon from Stuck in a Book. This year, we focused on books from 1965 and 1930, and it was such fun! We plan to continue in 2020, with the 1920 Club happening in April, so do join in – we have the most wonderful discussions and it’s a great way to pick up ideas for books to read!

Documentaries and Interviews!

c. ClearStory/BBC

I took a slight tangent on what is, after all, a book blog in March when Professor Richard Clay’s “How to Go Viral” documentary aired on UK TV. I first became aware of his work back in 2014 via his documentary on French Revolutionary iconoclasm, followed by his fascinating look at the history of graffiti and then his epic series “Utopia”; and so I was delighted when Richard agreed to be interviewed for the blog. I do love a good documentary (and apart from a few notable exceptions, there’s been a bit of a dearth lately). Richard’s ideas are so very interesting, and you can read the interview here and here. He’s been filming a new documentary recently, so that’s something to look forward in 2020! 🙂

The Summer Big Book

The Notebooks

I can’t finish this rather rambly post without mention of a very special reading experience I had in the summer; if I was forced at gunpoint to pick a read of the year, I would probably have to mention Victor Serge’s Notebooks, published by NYRB. I’ve raved about Serge’s writing many times on the Ramblings, and was ridiculously excited about the release of this very chunky collection. At just under 600 pages, it’s no quick read, but a wonderfully rich and rewarding one; it accompanied me on my travels during the summer, giving me a glimpse into Serge’s life and mind, as well as all the notable people and places he encountered. A brilliant and immersive read, and one I won’t forget.

It has been a very difficult time out there in Real Life recently, with a feeling (here, at least) that the world is slipping gradually into being a more harsh and intolerant place; reading and books and ideas have always been my coping mechanism, and will continue to be essential I suspect. Anyway – this post will have to do as a bit of a snapshot of my 2019 reading, although I can’t help feeling I’ve missed too many out. There are *so* many books I’ve read and loved this year that I feel mean not mentioning them; I’ll just suggest you go and read my posts to see what books have meant the most to me! 2019 has been a great reading year, and here’s hoping 2020 is as good!

*****

A lot of people have been doing their “Books of the Decade” this month, and I did consider this for a brief moment. However, the blog’s only been here since 2012, and frankly before that I couldn’t tell you what I was reading!! My end of year posts during the blog’s life would no doubt give you a flavour of how my reading tastes have evolved – and I’m sure they have – so check them out if you wish!

#1930Club – The Poetry Edition…

16 Comments

When I was digging around in the stacks for 1930 books, I started wondering whether I’d ever read any poetry for our Club Weeks – and I don’t think I have (I could check, but my computer is very slow so I’m relying on my rubbish memory). This set me checking to see what verse had been published during that year, and I discovered an important volume had come out in 1930 – “Ash Wednesday” by T.S. Eliot. I own several collections of his verse so I went searching and discovered that of course I do own this volume. However, an online search revealed another intriguing fact; Basil Bunting, who I’ve discovered recently and written about on the blog here, published his first collection in 1930, an obscure privately printed book entitled “Redimiculum Matellarum” which is pretty much impossible to get hold of. However, some research revealed that all the poems included were available in his “Complete Poems”. I had been contemplating getting a copy of this for a while, and I’m afraid this discovery tipped me over the edge. Damn you Bloodaxe Books and your wonderful poetry editions!!

So I’ve been spending some time with Eliot and Bunting and am left facing the actually very difficult task of writing about these works. Many and much greater writers than I have pondered these poets, and frankly I don’t know that I’m qualified to offer much. So I’ll just share a few thoughts here – forgive me if I talk rubbish!

First up, Eliot. “Ash Wednesday” was written in 1927, after the poet had converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism, and as you might gather from the title is a work concerning religion. Wikipedia describes it as “richly but ambiguously allusive and (it) deals with the move from spiritual barrenness to hope for human salvation”; I suspect it’s the religious references which cause me to struggle with it. Yes, I’ve read “Ash Wednesday” but I’d be lying if I said I understood it. It’s a dense, evocative text, laden with imagery; and though I don’t always get the sense of it, I often love the sound of the words. More about the latter later in this post…

In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying

On to Basil. Bunting was associated with the Modernist poets of the early 20th century, and was highly regarded by the likes of Ezra Pound. The poems in “Redimiculum Matellarum” (which apparently translates literally as ‘A necklace of chamberpots’ ) are scattered around the Collected volume and I made a list and read them in order. The first verse is “Villon”, included in a section entitled ‘Sonatas’, and the man of the title was a 15th century poet-villain. The poem reads as a prison ballad, with the modern poet merging at times with the historical one and aligning himself and his experiences with the life of the earlier man. The other verses vary in length and range over love and sex, the poetic muse and the beauty of the world. Bunting’s verse is intriguing, often contrasting beauty with harsh realities; and I ended up keen to read more of his work.

… drift on merciless reiteration of years;
descry no death; but spring
is everlasting
resurrection.

So – poetry. I like reading poetry very much; but with the more complex stuff I sometimes feel I’m struggling to understand it and I end up feeling cross with myself that I don’t get it. However, one part of Virginia Woolf’s essay, which I reviewed earlier this week, struck home and made me feel better about it. She talks about reading poetry when one is ill, stating:

In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond the surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that, and the other – a sound, a colour, here a stress, there a pause – which the poet, knowing words to be meagre in comparison with ideas, has strewn about his page to evoke, when collected, a state of mind which neither words can express nor the reason explain.

Although I can’t always put into words what I get from poetry, I think it’s exactly what Woolf is hinting at above. The music of the words speaks to me in a way I can’t define and puts me in a particular state of mind. So I shall stop worrying about it, and if I take nothing more from poetry than a love of the sound of the words and a deep emotional feeling, I’ll be happy. 1930 certainly produced some interesting poetry, Modernist or not – and I’ll definitely be dipping into Bunting again as the years go on! 😀

On My Book Table… 2 – The Chunksters…

40 Comments

I’m pleased to report that the Reading Chair and the Book Table have proved to be a great success chez Ramblings (well done, Mr. Kaggsy!) I have spent many a happy hour sitting comfortably with a book and a beverage; though alas, I don’t think I’ve tackled a single volume featured in my previous post about the table… That’s fairly typical of me, and I do have the excuse of the forthcoming 1930 Club which has necessitated some focus on the year in question. However, I thought I would share some images of what’s weighing down the table at the moment as possible reads – and they *are* quite chunky books!!

That’s a fairly imposing and daunting pile of books, isn’t it? Shall we take a look in more detail??

These two titles are on the book table for a good reason, i.e. the forthcoming #1930Club. I’ve mention John Dos Passos before, but not the Bunting (although of course I *have* wittered on about Basil on the Ramblings). All will become clear next week, hopefully…. 😉

Now – these three have been sitting around on the TBR for a while. “Imaginary Cities” (from Influx Press!!) was a Christmas gift from my brother some years back; “Night Walking” came into the house when Verso were having one of their oh-so-tempting sales; and the John Muir was a purchase on a whim because I wanted it (so there!) Having just watched a repeat of a documentary on Muir (which I somehow missed first time round) I’m keen to pick it up soon. We shall see…

These two lovelies are a little slimmer, but still very appealing. The Binet was on my book table last time, and has been on the TBR for as long as the Muir, as they arrived at the same time. The Colette is a beautiful edition of an anthology of extracts from her work, called “Earthly Paradise”. Apparently it’s now out of print and not at all cheap to get hold of – who knew? Makes me even more certain I must be careful about which books I prune when I pass some on to charity shops.

A mixed bag here. Two are newly arrived at the Ramblings – “Seashaken Houses” is all about lighthouses (I love lighthouses) and I resisted it for ages in Waterstones and then gave in. The Cunard book sounded fascinating (I can’t remember where I heard about it) and as the local library didn’t have it, I was left with no choice… I’ve had the Shklovsky for ages and keep meaning to start it and don’t – story of my life, really…

More new arrivals, this time from the very lovely Notting Hill Editions. I reviewed John Berger’s book “What Time Is It” recently; it’s the final book of three published by NHE which he did with Selcuk Demirel. I was knocked out by “Time…” and so was delighted to receive the two earlier books “Cataract” and “Smoke” – such treats in store… The third book in the picture is a selection of Montaigne’s essays; I’d often thought of reading him and then Marina Sofia’s post pushed me over the edge. Thanks so much, NHE! :DD

Another three chunksters lurk on the table, again books that I’ve had around for a while. “Liberty” is about French Revolutionary women; “Romantic Outlaws” is about Mary Wollstonecroft and Mary Shelley; and “The Wives” is about spouses of Russian authors. I long to sink myself into all three at once, which is really not practical…

And finally, a couple of slim volumes which weren’t on the pile in the first image, but have managed to sneak into the house despite Mr. Kaggsy’s best efforts (ha! not really – I think he’s given up worrying about the books, realisiing he was fighting a losing battle…) “Nagasaki” is thanks to a post on the BookerTalk blog – I loved the sound of it and couldn’t resist. “Doe Lea” is VERY VERY exciting! It’s a limited edition chapbook short story by M. John Harrison (who is a big favourite here on the Ramblings as you might have noticed..); and it’s a signed copy, one of only 200. Goodness, I went into overdrive when I found out it was available. Most pleased that it arrived safely and can’t wait to read it, yet don’t want to because I want to savour it!

Well, there you are. The Book Table is groaning a little under the weight of all these mighty tomes, and of course “The Anatomy of Melancholy” seems to be in permanent residence there helping to add to the tonnage. With my fickle mind I may not actually end up reading *any* of these next; but it’s lovely to get my books out, have them on the table, flick through them and just *enjoy* having them around! The pleasures of being a bookaholic… ;D

The Wild North East – Morden Tower, Newcastle and its poetry #basilbunting #tompickard @bloodaxebooks @mordentower50

12 Comments

Once again, I have to blame that Andy Miller for his influence; bookish Twitter can play havoc with your reading plans and inclinations, and a random Tweet where Andy mentioned he was listening to “Briggflatts” by Basil Bunting sent me off exploring. I had never heard of Bunting and frankly I wanted to know why. Unfortunately, this curiosity opened a whole can of worms, as a quick look online revealed a fascinating history of an author, and also a strong connection with Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Morden Tower and its poetry scene. This was another oddity, as Allan Ginsberg famously read there in the 1960s, and I hadn’t heard of that either. I’ve been down the wormhole ever since, really…

Basil Cheesman Bunting (what a fabulous name) was really a one-off; a link to the modernist past of poetry. Born in Northumberland in 1900, he spent much of his early life living abroad. During the First World War he was imprisoned for being a conscientious objector; later he lived in Paris and worked with Ford Madox Ford and for Ezra Pound, who admired his work. Always peripatetic, he spent the interwar years moving between Italy, the USA and the Canary Isles with his first wife and family. During WW2, he enlisted in the RAF and ended up in what was then Persia as a translator, remaining there until 1952. After a divorce from his first wife, he remarried and moved back to Northumberland, somehow ending up working at the Newcastle Chronicle newpaper. It was back in Newcastle that he fell in with Tom Pickard, and things changed…

Morden Tower was a crumbling old building on part of the surviving old 13th century wall of Newcastle, apparently built to keep out the Scottish invaders (sorry chaps….) Connie and Tom Pickard initiated poetry readings in the Tower, starting on 16th June 1964 (Bloomsday!) Bunting was supportive of their venture, and the venue grew in popularity. In 1965 it hosted the first reading of “Briggflatts”, widely regarded as Bunting’s masterpiece. The venue never looked back, and it’s still there now (although I’m not sure how active) which is a bit marvellous! If you look at the list of poets who’ve read there – Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Stevie Smith, Robert Creeley, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti plus more recently Linton Kwesi Johnson and Carol Ann Duffy – well, it’s fairly mind-blowing!

Alas, Bunting’s story proves that you can’t make a living out of poetry, as he spent much of his later life in povery despite being hailed as one of Britain’s great late modernist poets. And Tom Pickard seems to have gone through some of the same struggles (as will be seen when I get on to considering his “Fiends Fell” in a later post). Connie Pickard apparently continued to organise events at the Tower for 50 years, long after parting from Tom, and eventually received an award for it – go, Connie!

Well – let’s get onto some bookish stuff… When I first read about all of this fascinating poetic history, I of course had to go off and checkout what books were availalble. “Briggflatts” was the obvious first point of call, and it was stocked by my local library. I borrowed it, and then decided I would never read it in time to get it back before accruing massive fines, so I bought my own copy. It’s an excellent, beautifully produced and reasonably priced edition from the wonderful Bloodaxe Books which also contains a CD of Bunting reading the poem and a DVD with a documentary on Bunting – bargain, basically!

I was also intrigued to find that Morden Tower had published one of Bunting’s poems themselves. I imagined it might cost a bomb but it didn’t so a rather old and fragile edition now resides chez Ramblings…

A bit more rooting about online revealed that Bloodaxe had also put out in 1990 an anthology celebrating 25 years of readings at the Tower, called “High on the Walls”. I haven’t been able to find a 50th anniversary collection, but the 25th anniversary one has arrived on my shelves, and it contains a remarkable array of contributions.

And finally, Tom Pickard. The local library only had one book of his in the catalogue (see how good I’m trying to be about buying books), and that is a more recent title, “Fiends Fell”. I borrowed it and I’ve read it and I loved it – so much so that I’m afraid I’ve actually bought my own copy… *sigh*. I’ll be reviewing this on the Ramblings soon, and maybe will tackle “Briggflatts” and the anthology over the summer.

So the Morden Tower/Newcastle poetry wormhole is proving to be fascinating. There’s quite a bit of stuff online and I shall put a few links at the end of this post for anyone who’s interested in exploring a little further. Meantime, I really must resist the temptation to jump on the next train to Newcastle to have a look at Morden Tower in the flesh!! 😀

*****

For further reading on Bunting, there’s a great post at the Chronicle Live website here:

https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/whats-on/whats-on-news/basil-buntings-poem-briggflatts-50-10636468

There’s also a piece on the 50th anniversary of the publishing of “Briggflatts”:

https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/50th-anniversary-buntings-briggflatts-marked-11412530

The Morden Tower site:

http://www.mordentower.org/

You can read the original published text of Briggflatts as it appeared in Poetry Magazine, on the Poetry Foundation website:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/30206/briggflatts

 

 

%d bloggers like this: