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

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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.

“…language the source of itself…” #tompickard @mordentower50

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Fiends Fell by Tom Pickard

As I mentioned in my previous post on Morden Tower and its poets, when I was searching the local library catalogue for Tom Pickard’s works, “Fiends Fell” was the only book available. I knew nothing about it, but I took a punt and reserved it so I could perhaps get a feel for Pickard’s work. It was possibly not what I was expecting, but that didn’t stop it being a very marvellous read.

Pickard has been publishing since the 1960s, but I sense he’s always moved outside the mainstream. That may be because of his personality, inclination or the fact that he doesn’t fit into any convenient niche. “Fiends Fell” is a recent work from 2017, published by Flood Editions, Chicago; and it’s a bracing mixture of genres. Although published so recently, the introductory lines place the events it charts in the early 2000s, as Pickard refers to himself as being 56 and with an ended marriage. So the poet escapes, taking refuge in a high stretch of the North Pennine hills; and the book charts a year of the time he spent living there.

night blows up fast from the valley
dykes dissolve in thick fog
I follow my feet home

Lodging above a cafe, and sometimes helping out there, Pickard considers his past, his future, nature and the elements, and of course poetry. Prose sections are interspersed with short bursts of poetry, and the writer struggles to work in an attic which physically rocks and rattles when assailed by the elements. Often earthy, he wrestles with his lusts and also more prosaic matters of money. As I mentioned in my previous post, Basil Bunting suffered impoverishment in later life, and as Pickard deals with his bankruptcy as pragmatically as he can, it really does seem that it’s impossible to make a living as a poet nowadays (if it ever was…)

When I put my head out of the attic window all I saw was stars and the wind wrapped itself around my neck like a cold silk scarf.

The blurb likens the book to the Japanese Haibun, a mixture of prose and haiku, and it’s a format which is so effective here. The record of extreme weather, loneliness, the artistic urge and the need to make poetry is balanced with actual verse, slowing the reading down and allowing time for contemplation. It’s a wonderfully rich narrative and underpinning it all is the challenge and drama of living in extreme conditions, on what feels like the edge of a precipice when nature may sweep you away at any time. The wind is a constant presence, almost a tangible being from a fairytale; Pickard’s trips outside during the winter months remind you how precarious our existence can be and how extreme weather conditions can destroy us without pause.

In bed and a pack of winds are arriving at the windows. They pass by. They gather. They whine painfully, begging in.

If there is a pin-thin gap they will take it. If there is a wormhole they will snake it. If there are eaves they will heave.

Pickard uses the book also to explore autobiography, albeit in a fragmentary fashion. From what I’ve read, his early life was lively to say the least. He left school at the age of 14 and if the memoir elements here are to be believed came from a complex family background. Pickard’s grandson visits and bonds with the poet, offering a glimpse of a family life. But the poet is left alone again to wrestle with himself and the elements, as well as the state of the world. As befits a working class Geordie, he has a suitably scathing view of Britain and its class system…

We’ll never be a grown-up nation until we’re a republic – meanwhile we kowtow, fawn and flounce in search of favour.

Hovering over the book is the shade of Pickard’s dear friend, Basil Bunting; obviously a pivotal figure in the former’s life, at one point he reflects “I found a teacher of another kind, in Bunting”. He also calls him his mentor, and it’s worth remembering that Pickard was only 17 when he married Connie and they founded Morden Tower so it’s obvious to infer that he regarded Bunting as a father figure. Poetry is better off because of their association, which not only spawned “Briggflatts”, but also apparently informed Pickard’s work.

The Pennines, via Wikimedia Commons – einklich.net [CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0%5D

But I digress. Pickard survives the winter, and indeed the year documented in what he calls the “Fiends Fell Journal”. The book ends with a lyrical poetry sequence, “Lark and Merlin”, which convinces me I want to read more of Pickard’s verse. Because it has to be said that his writing is powerful and beautiful, and evokes vividly the intensity of living in such an extreme landscape. What happened to Pickard after the end of the Journal section of the book I don’t know; but there is a rumour online that the poet is working on “Fiends Fell 2” and if that’s so, I for one can’t wait! 😀

*****

As I mentioned in my previous post, I did borrow “Fiends Fell” from the local library. The best plans, etc, etc…. I loved it so much I ended up sending off for a copy of my own, so at one point there were two Pickards in the house:

The library one has now gone back, and I feel no guilt. This is a book I know I’ll return to, so I definitely needed my own copy! 😀

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

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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

 

 

Ellen Wilkinson – the Newcastle connection! @appliedcomics @historyNCL

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One of my happiest literary discoveries this year has been the two novels of Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson. A pioneering woman and a moving force in the Jarrow March, she also turned out a couple of wonderful reads and they’ll definitely be up there in my books of the year. However, a chance tweet by @appliedcomics earlier in the month reminded me of something I had on the shelves with a Wilkinson connection which is in a format I don’t often read…

Last year, Newcastle-upon-Tyne launched the Freedom City 2017 programme of events; the city was not only celebrating the fact that it was 50 years since the University had awarded Dr. Martin Luther King an honorary degree, but also its rich heritage of activism. That activism, of course, included the region’s Jarrow March, and the tweet I mentioned reminded me that not only was it the anniversary of that event, but also that I had the item they were featuring – the Freedom City 2017 comic!

The comic was produced under the aegis of the university, and issued free of charge last year; and a contact in Newcastle sent it on to me as he thought I would be interested (which I was!). I read the comic whilst watching footage of the unveiling of a statue of Dr. King in the university (fascinating event), but I had forgotten that one of the events featured in pictorial fashion was the Jarrow March and Wilkinson’s part in it.

You can still read some parts of the comic online at the university website, and the Ellen Wilkinson chapter is up here:

https://research.ncl.ac.uk/fccomics/chapters/therighttowork.html

The city is obviously still rightly proud of its heritage, and the university laudably provides educational materials supporting the comic – ideal for any younger people you may have around you in the form of friends and family (or indeed if you work in an educational establishment!) The whole comic is interesting (if you can get hold of a copy) and a timely reminded of the agitation and activism of the past, how our freedoms are hard-won, and how we still need to fight to hold onto them.

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