Sunday, March 9, 2008

Basil Bunting and the tension between North and South

A fine piece by David Caddy on Briggflatts reminds me that at some point my critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems will see the light of day, thanks to Faber and Faber. And it occurs to me to start talking about the very idea of a critical edition of Bunting's work - which he would have hated. In fact, Bunting foresaw the kind of research I undertook, and he tried to hedge against it in interviews and elsewhere, e.g., writing to decline an invitation to write an introduction to a volume of Pound's early poems:

"No doubt it is fitting that maggots consume us in the end, or at least the rubbish we scatter as we go; but I’d rather leave the lid on my dustbin and the earth on my friend’s graves. ---Piety takes curious forms: the toenail clippings of Saint What’s His Name are revered. I don’t think religion is much advanced by that. It would be more profitable, more to his glory, to throw away some of the poems Pound printed than to print those he threw away himself.---I apologise for my lack of sympathy for the industrious compilers."

The significance of this is not just that Bunting thought that book learning would interfere with transmission of the poem's sound-meaning. Bunting considered himself above all a Northumbrian, and believed that "Northumbrian is only a spoken language." In his view, for instance, the reading of Northern poets in a "southron" voice had led to misapprehensions such as regarding Wordsworth "as a Romantic poet rather than an eighteenth-century poet ... the music of the poetry has been lost simply because his southern readers can't hear it." "Nobody had thought of standard English in Wordsworth's time. He spoke as a Northerner, in spite of the years spent in Cambridge, London and Somerset. In such a Northern way that Keats and Hazlitt found it hard to follow his conversation, and though he did not compose in dialect, he composed in his own voice aloud. His music is lost if his poems are read in Southern English, and no doubt that is why so many critics imagine he had none." But, as Quartermain observes, "there are problems. Bunting is both outside and inside the culture / the koiné at the same time, using what he subverts, subverting what he uses. But it is not an ironic relationship, and his linguistic, syntactic and formal stance is not finally satiric. It is compositional." In order to illuminate this relationship, it is justifiable to explore the Northern roots of Bunting's poetic vocabulary. And while Bunting professed to eschew the language of books, preferring "any dialect of English or any other spoken language to the six-six-sixth generation of bastard Latin," he was extremely well- and widely-read, as both his work and the contents of his personal library reveal. In fact, an additional purpose for consulting such reference works as the OED and EDD is that their citations often coincide with works Bunting knew very well; these citations constantly elucidate his relationship with Northern literature: the Lindisfarne Gospels, Ælfred, the sermons and homilies of Ælfric (said by S.A.J. Bradley to "manifest a ... poetic structure" ), Bede, Mandeville, Burns, Scott, and others recur. So do the names of such great "southrons" as Spenser, Milton, Dryden, and Tennyson. The tension—and symbiosis—between north and south figures throughout Bunting's work, and so it does, as you'll sse, in my annotations.

This kind of research aside, the fact remains that for much of his writing life, Bunting never had the luxury of seeing galleys of his own work, which means that the texts of many of his poems (printed by dedicated small press publishers of every kind) needed to be corrected. The late and wonderful Ric Caddel, with whom I worked (and whose blessing I was fortunate enough to have had) went a long way in his editions for Oxford and Bloodaxe - but he knew that work remained to be done, and that's where I came in...

For more on this subject, click here.

More about that soon, but for now let me end by drawing attention to Uncertain Time, The Collected Ric Caddel - finally back in print; would that there'd be a full, up-to-date collected (see Sam's comment). I think about Ric and his work every day.


Sam said...

Interesting. I'm very much looking forward to your edition of Bunting. Incidentally, the forthcoming Uncertain Time is a reprint of Ric's 1990 collection of that name not a Collected Poems; though hopefully it might pave the way for such a book.

matt said...

Glad to see this is finally coming out. My friend Richard Owens and I have been eagerly awaiting its publication (mainly as we are both focusing on Bunting in our disserations.

Is there any way that you know of to obtain a review copy?

-Matt Chambers

Don Share said...

Hi, Matt (and Richard, too)!

I'll post right here when review copies are available - that's a way off, at the moment...

Meanwhile, though, I'd be glad - even eager - to be in touch with you both about your work, if there's any way I can help out.

Best, and gratefully,


equivocal said...

Just going back to read this. Quite an amazing post!

Alistair Noon said...

Dear Don

Thanks for this, and sorry if you keep getting this kind of request: any idea when your Bunting edition will come out?

Best wishes from Berlin

Don Share said...

Pub date is November 2009, but this seems very unlikely to me.