'A thrush in the syringa sings...' - Regarding Poet Basil Bunting
November 9, 2002 2:22 AM   Subscribe

A thrush in the syringa sings.

`Hunger ruffles my wings, fear,
lust, familiar things.

Death thrusts hard. My sons
by hawk's beak, by stones, by cat and weasel, die.
From a shaken bush I
list familiar things,
fear, hunger, lust.'

O gay thrush!

Basil Bunting,
Basil Bunting,
Basil Bunting.

The Return of PoemFilter
posted by y2karl (27 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Basil Bunting--in his own epitaph, Minor Poet, Not Conspicuously Dishonest--whose poem Briggflatts has been hailed as the greatest long poem produced in Britain since Eliot's Four Quartets; friend of Ezra Pound, Louis Zukofsky, not to mention Yeats, Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, David Jones, MacDiarmid, Mina Loy, among other, and Royal Air Force spy in World War II, to boot.

At 25, wise beyond his years, he wrote Villon, imitation and translation, and later, Attis Or Something Missing, Gin The Goodwife Stint and The Complaint of The Morpethshire Farmer, and my own favorite, the invocation to Lucretius's De Rerum Natura or, in English, On The Nature of Things:

Darling Of Gods and Men, beneath the gliding stars
you fill rich earth and buoyant sea with your presence
for every living thing achieves its life through you,
rises and sees the sun. For you the sky is clear,
the tempests still. Deft earth scatters her gentle flowers,
the level ocean laughs, the softened heavens glow
with generous light for you. In the first days of spring
when the untrammeled allrenewing southwind blows
the birds exult in you and herald your coming.
Then the shy cattle leap and swim the brooks for love.
Everywhere, through all seas mountains and waterfalls,
love caresses all hearts and kindles all creatures
to overmastering lust and ordained renewals.
Therefore, since you alone control the sum of things
and nothing without you comes forth into the light
and nothing beautiful or glorious can be
without you, Alma Venus! Trim my poetry
with your grace; and give peace to write and read and think.

--which is what first hooked me.
posted by y2karl at 2:24 AM on November 9, 2002

Here is a review of a biography, The Poet As Spy, and here, another. Bunting wrote the poem for the flyleaf of Exra Pound's Cantos as Pound had quoted Bunting in Canto LXXXI. Here is another appreciation of Bunting by Tony Baker in Jacket. I don't know how I missed Jacket--it's an absolute treasure, in fact I don't know how MiguelCardoso missed Jacket--it's got beau coup new poets--satisfied rodz?--and bitchin' articles that ask things like Did You Ever have To Make Up Your Mind?--one of The Questions of PostModernism and the very definition of said term in a neat 7000 word nutshell. Jacket is from Oz, by the way, and funded in part by the federal government of Australia. *grumble* And the way the conservatives have gutted NEA, PBS and NPR here--when are they ever going to get a clue: It's Culture they're choking... Ah, well, You may lead a horticulture, but you can't make [him or] her think. *sigh* OK, start building that city....
posted by y2karl at 2:25 AM on November 9, 2002

I haven't had time to go through all of it yet because I'm too tired to read it properly, but I'd like to take a delirious moment to thank you for a rad post. Rad. I said it: rad. I look forward to going through this more thoroughly in the morning.

y2karl, you're rad. This is exactly the vision I had of how the perfect poetry thread should look.

posted by The God Complex at 2:52 AM on November 9, 2002

Truly, you are a god among men.

Also, those are the longest damn whaddyacallems I've ever seen. (You know, the boxes that come up when you hover a mouse over a link. Those things.) Not complaining, mind you--the preview is helpful with such a wonderful glut of links.
posted by hippugeek at 3:14 AM on November 9, 2002

that essay on postmodernism says that it comes from architecture. maybe it's being ironic, but surely(?) the obsession with self-reference comes from the protracted (most of the last century) debate in philosophy and mathematics about reference and meaning (gödel and all that).
posted by andrew cooke at 5:59 AM on November 9, 2002

Bunting on MetaFilter - so good it's almost a gerund!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:40 AM on November 9, 2002

If I was any good at photoshopping, I'd indulge in the pasting of blue and yellow flags around this thread, but I lack the knowing. That's all my gerunding for now.
posted by liam at 9:09 AM on November 9, 2002

FURIOSO. that should get one started.
posted by clavdivs at 9:46 AM on November 9, 2002

I hereby add my small meed of worship. (And hell, I'll throw in some mead too if you're thirsty.) You can never have too much Bunting.

The essay on postmodernism has all sorts of interesting nuggets, but it seems somewhat incoherent to me. (Of course, I guess that's just part of the postmodernism.) Like andrew cooke, I'm dubious about the architecture connection; I also doubt that it has anything to do with comic books (Maus is not a postmodernist work, whatever else you want to call it, and I seriously doubt Pirandello -- surely the ultimate postmodernist -- was influenced by comics).

Here's more Bunting:
Let them remember Samangan, the bridge and tower
and rutted cobbles and the coppersmith's hammer,
where we looked out from the walls to the marble mountains,
ate and lay and were happy an hour and a night;

so that the heart never rests from love of the city
without lies or riches, whose old women
straight as girls at the well are beautiful,
its old men and its wineshops gay.

Let them remember Samangan against usurers,
cheats and cheapjacks, amongst boasters,
hideous children of cautious marriages,
those who drink in contempt of joy.

Let them remember Samangan, remember
they wept to remember the hour and go.
posted by languagehat at 12:15 PM on November 9, 2002

that essay on postmodernism says that it comes from architecture.

correct. (suitably dorky link) as jameson says:the culture of late capitalism

maybe it's being ironic, but surely(?) the obsession with self-reference comes from the protracted (most of the last century) debate in philosophy and mathematics about reference and meaning (gödel and all that).

no, that'd be the linguistic turn which is on the explaining side of things; postmodernism is on the storytelling side of things. thus it came about later. of course in the 80s it became a culture wars epithet which, like "liberal", was ironically lacking in meaning (as it should be for such a concept).

in jacket somewhere - 4 i guess - is a more serious article about postmodernism that mentions its arch beginnings. elsewhere - moved to issue 17 apparently - is a great article about ern o'malley.
posted by mitchel at 1:39 PM on November 9, 2002

Actually I first heard the term in the early 70s from an English major, so I'm thinking that it comes from literary criticism. For instance, the poetry of Bunting and Pound's generation is usually referred to as modernist--Hey, this is a poetry thread, after all--and at some point the writings that came after differed enough from modernism that a term had to be coined to describe them. Hence--voila!--postmodernism. Which then became embarnacled with additional meanings as time wore on. Blah blah woof woof etc.
posted by y2karl at 1:57 PM on November 9, 2002

But, feh, what do I know...
posted by y2karl at 2:02 PM on November 9, 2002

Y2karl, I just lost my entire afternoon reading about Bunting, Niedecker, et al. No work done, but I bow in your general direction,
and thank you (I think).
posted by jokeefe at 3:04 PM on November 9, 2002

I really enjoyed Bunting's poetry; incredible precision, great rhythm, some kind of internal mythology that I don't get but is really interesting. Mad props to y2karl.

The essay on postmodernism, however, stank. Sort of like an attempt to scientifically explain a joke (see Tad Friend's article about that in this week's New Yorker). PoMo writers and academics just don't get it. Actually, most artists don't get it. There is nothing less interesting than self-conscious, ironic detachment. Yes, it can be funny. Yes, I love Seinfeld and the Simpsons, I'm entertained by David Foster Wallace . . . but it's always a hollow joke. When are we going to realize that we aren't past the past--that we aren't living in some soul-exempt future??? I'm tired of sarcasm, I want some Truth. Or some noble attempts at it, anyway.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 3:50 PM on November 9, 2002

I also whipped out me Bunting. my fav. ode. (2nd book)

"Poetry? It's a hobby.
I run model trains
Mr. Shaw there breeds pigeons.

It's not work. You dont sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
You could advertise soap...."

-Bunting, from 'What The Chairman Told Tom'.
posted by clavdivs at 5:25 PM on November 9, 2002

"Centrifugal tutus! Sarabands!"

Great post y2karl. And a new find - his name sounds like a character in an Oscar Wilde play.

I can see that Jacket is going to demand some serious attention. Sigh. Something is going to have to give - the center cannot hold! Mefi surfing & poetry on the one hand, toting-that-barge-lifting-that-bale-on-the-other.

I like this wonderful advice Bunting gives to would-be-poets in Briggflatts.

1. Compose aloud; poetry is a sound.
2. Vary rhythm enough to stir the emotion you want but not so as to lose impetus.
3. Use spoken words and syntax.
4. Fear adjective; they bleed nouns. Hate the passive.
5. Jettison ornament gaily but keep shape

Put your poem away till you forget it, then:
6. Cut out every word you dare.
7. Do it again a week later, and again.

Never explain - your reader is as smart as you.

posted by madamjujujive at 5:51 PM on November 9, 2002

clav, that reminds me of the end of a poem in Poetry magazine, an issue I bought in college (before I realized Poetry hadn't been a big deal since Pound stopped being its foreign editor a half-century before); it was about a woman trying to get some kind of approval from an academic committee and undergoing a humiliating interrogation. The chairman has asked her what she's been doing and she says "Poetry." It continues:
has nothing to do with scholarship. Your sentence:
a year of failure and a crown of silence."
I've remembered those lines for 30 years and more.
posted by languagehat at 5:57 PM on November 9, 2002

Isn't Basil Bunting's On the Fly-Leaf of Pound's Cantos the supreme tribute of the "anxi[ous] of influence", to modify Harold Bloom's famous title, to the "influence"?

There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?
They don't make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb,
jumbled boulder and weed, pasture and boulder, scree,
et l'on entend, maybe, le refrain joyeux et leger.
Who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?

There they are, you will have to go a long way round
if you want to avoid them.
It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 6:13 PM on November 9, 2002 [1 favorite]

I see the correlation LH. needless to evoke Audens "nothing" phrase I venture. Karl is a master of the poetry post. I enjoy his efforts and work. I have gleaned my poetic philosophy from ode #6- That poetry is a hobby. See, Bunting , to me, is derivative of his colleagues and peers. Little in his stuff seems overtly original, IMO. But it is good derivative. As far as this stuff about him being a spy, well, this has been posited for years. His stuff does seem interesting in a historical context. 'Aus Dem Zweiten Reich' (1931) for example seems like a snapshot of German society/culture with juxtaposed images: "Shadows on sweaty glass,/hum, drum on the table/ to the negerbands faint jazz./ Humdrum at the table".

one can almost feel like Basil is trying to tell us something.
most felt in "who talked about poetry,/and said nothing at all;/plays,/and he said nothing at all;/politics,/and he stirred as if a flea/ bit him.

Basil seems to have had a eye for details.

since i love a good "second story" story, "Chomei At Toyama" has been a sneaky fav of mine. He talks of Kyoto:
"..wealthy, without antiquities!
Housebreakers clamber about,
builders raising floor upon floor."

but do housebreakers "clamber about"
perhaps bad ones.

Who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?

I think of 'Rock-Drill' section:
"LOVE, gone as lightning,/ enduring 5000 years./ Shall the comet cease moving/ or the great stars tied in one place?

-Canto XCV.
posted by clavdivs at 6:44 PM on November 9, 2002

Thanks y2karl!
posted by walrus at 5:30 AM on November 10, 2002

I like "Chomei" too. Shortly after the lines you quote:
On the twentyseventh May eleven hundred
and seventyseven, eight p.m., fire broke out
at the corner of Tomi and Higuchi streets.
In a night
palace, ministries, university, parliament
were destroyed. As the wind veered
flames spread out in the shape of an open fan.
Tongues torn by gusts stretched and leapt.
In the sky clouds of cinders lit red with the blaze.
Some choked, some burned, some barely escaped.
Sixteen great officials lost houses and
very many poor. A third of the city burned;
several thousand died; and of beasts,
limitless numbers.

Men are fools to invest in real estate.
Also, a nice tribute to Bunting in Canto LXXIV:
hast killed the urochs and the bison sd/ Bunting
doing six months after that war was over
as pacifist tempted with chicken but declined to approve
of war
posted by languagehat at 7:44 AM on November 10, 2002

Well, as long as we're going to add Bunting here, again:

Ille mi par esse deo videtur

O, it is godlike to sit selfpossessed
when her chin rises and she turns to smile;
but my tongue thickens, my ears ring,
what I see is hazy.

I tremble. Walls sink in night, voices
unmeaning as wind. She only
a clear note, dazzle of light, fills
furlongs and hours

so that my limbs stir without will, lame,
I a ghost, powerless,
treading air, drowning, sucked
back into dark

unless, rafted on light or music,
drawn into her radiance, I dissolve
when her chin rises and she turns to smile.
O, it is godlike!

An imitation of Ad Lesbiam by Catallus in imitation of Sappho.

One complaint: on the page in the book, The Collected Poems Of Basil Bunting, the last O, it is godlike is indented right until the O is beneath the s o f rises in the line just above--which is impossible to reproduce correctly with the enforced totalitarianism of the right margin here. This, of course, guarantees any poem--the work of e. e. cummings comes first to mind--or text which plays freely with the position of words and letters on a page cannot be quoted fairly in these pages. This is a flaw which should be rectified immediately.

That said, another note of interest--Julian Jaynes in The Origins of Consciousness in The Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral Mind, among others, cites the original poem by Sappho as perhaps the first piece of Greek literature (Ecclesiastes is the first such in the Bible) written in the "I" subjective first person and therefore, a landmark in the history of consciousness.

At any rate, no matter how what clavLeonardPinthGarnelldivs thinks of Bunting, or however else you cut it, it rocks--by Bunting, Catulus or Sappho .
posted by y2karl at 9:58 AM on November 10, 2002 [1 favorite]

This is a flaw which should be rectified immediately.

Amen! I ran into this frustration with my Pound quote --"hast" should be indented and "doing" double-indented; any Cantos quote is going to be butchered by the posting mechanism. (Any HTML mavens know a way to get things indented here?)

Around the same time as Sappho is my man Archilochus, who if you ask me reeks with subjective first person.
posted by languagehat at 11:26 AM on November 10, 2002

(Any HTML mavens know a way to get things indented here?)

A few non-breaking spaces should do the job. &nbsp; For particularly challenging poems you may want to try <pre>.
posted by kindall at 3:44 PM on November 10, 2002

Around the same time as Sappho is my man Archilochus, who if you ask me reeks with subjective first person.

True, True--and Jaynes mentioned this as well but I was too lazy to mention it. Another I can think of is Praxilla of Sikyon:

Most beautiful of the things I leave is sunlight;.
then come glazing stars and the moon's face;.
then ripe cucumbers and apples and pears.

and glory be to Google and The Perseus Project , I found her mentioned in the middle of this passage of Pausanias, who is another super otw favorite of mine:

The cult of Apollo Carneus has been established among all the Dorians ever since Carnus, an Acarnanian by birth, who was a seer of Apollo. When he was killed by Hippotes the son of Phylas, the wrath of Apollo fell upon the camp of the Dorians Hippotes went into banishment because of the bloodguilt, and from this time the custom was established among the Dorians of propitiating the Acarnanian seer. But this Carnus is not the Lacedaemonian Carneus of the House, who was worshipped in the house of Crius the seer while the Achaeans were still in possession of Sparta. [5] The poetess Praxilla represents Carneus as the son of Europa, Apollo and Leto being his nurses. There is also another account of the name; in Trojan Ida there grew in a grove of Apollo cornel-trees, which the Greeks cut down to make the Wooden Horse. Learning that the god was wroth with them they propitiated him with sacrifices and named Apollo Carneus from the cornel-tree (craneia ), a custom prevalent in the olden time making them transpose the r and the a.

I just love that sort of stuff.

Upon review--D'oh! I used to know that. God, shows how forgetful and pig ignorant I am. Thanks, Kindall.

posted by y2karl at 3:54 PM on November 10, 2002

That last is from Pausanias' Description of Greece, which is available in these two volumes from Fordham's Ancient History Sourcebook, should anyone be interested. He went all over Greece in Roman times and wrote about what he saw in in Roman times when there was still much to be seen. He saw things from Phidia's monumental chryselephantine cult statues of Athena Parthenos in the Parthenon in Athens and Olympian Zeus in his cognomen temple in Olympia, naturally enough, to the paintings in places like Delphi. Which are all gone. Which is enough to make you cry.

posted by y2karl at 4:32 PM on November 10, 2002

Thanks for Praxilla, y2karl -- that quote is marvelous, and I'll have to investigate her. Isn't Pausanias a blast? I've got the two battered volumes of the Penguin edition somewhere around the house. Imagine touring Greece with him as your guide -- he knew all the stories...

kindall: I add my thanks; I never knew that, so I'm just plain pig-ignorant.
posted by languagehat at 8:12 AM on November 11, 2002

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