Thursday, March 13, 2008

The trajectory of Basil Bunting's work

The beginning of Basil Bunting's adult career as a poet is marked by the publication of "Villon" in the October 1930 issue of Poetry; his work appeared thereafter in a variety of literary magazines, but substantial book publication did not ensue for some time. The first published collection of his poems was the small 1930 pamphlet Redimiculum Matellarum, privately published in Milan and subsidized by Margaret de Silver, widow of a wealthy American businessman; the title is intended to mean "A Necklace of Chamberpots." This pamphlet received just one review, from Louis Zukofsky, again, in Poetry (though Ezra Pound mentioned it, getting the title as Redimiculum Metellorum, in the Cantos, LXXXIV). The number of copies printed is unknown, but very few exist. The Beinecke Library at Yale University owns the copy which belonged to William Carlos Williams, and another is held by the Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin; Bunting himself only had two copies in the end, one of which would be sold by Fulcrum Press publisher, Stuart Montgomery, to a collector in 1976 when Bunting needed money. This first and necessarily modest gathering contains the germ of an organizational scheme Bunting would use in all subsequent collections: "Villon" appears in its own section, followed by poems in a group named "Carmina" (in homage to Horace), followed in turn by a group headed "Etcetera." In the book's preface, Bunting wrote, "These poems are byproducts of an interrupted and harrassed apprenticeship. I thank Margaret De Silver for bailing me out of Fleet Street: after two years convalescence from an attack of journalism, I am beginning to recover my honesty."

Bunting's work fared better in anthologies during the early 1930's. "To a POET who Advised me to PRESERVE my Fragments and False Starts," "Crackt Records" numbers one and two, and "Reading X's 'Collected Works'" were included in Sherard Vines' Whips and Scorpions: Specimens of Modern Satiric Verse, published by Wishart in 1932. More significantly, that same year a collection of poems by the contributors to Louis Zukofsky's "Objectivists" issue of Poetry for February 1931 appeared: An "Objectivists" Anthology, edited by Zukofsky and published by To Publishers in France and New York; the volume contained Bunting's "Attis: Or, Something Missing."

During this period Bunting's friend, Ezra Pound, featured Bunting's work in two anthologies. Profile, published in 1932 in Milan, presented excerpts from "Villon," and Active Anthology, published by Faber and Faber in October, 1933, included a generous selection: excerpts from "Villon" as well as "Attis: Or, Something Missing," "How Duke Valentine Contrived," "They Say Etna," "Yes, it's slow, docked of amours," "Weeping oaks grieve, chestnuts raise," "Molten pool, incandescent spilth of," "The Passport Officer," "Fruits breaking the branches," "Chomei at Toyama," "The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer," and "Gin the Goodwife Stint." Unfortunately, Profile was limited to two hundred and fifty copies, and seven hundred and fifty of the fifteen hundred and sixteen sets of sheets for Active Anthology were lost in a bombing during World War II, making it, in the end, a rather rare book.

While in Tenerife in 1935, Bunting prepared a 120-page typescript collection titled Caveat Emptor; it features "Villon" along with "Aus Dem Zweiten Reich," "How Duke Valentine Contrived," "Jenghis," "Gin the Goodwife Stint," and "The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer" as separate poems, followed by a "First Book of Odes" which generally combines the sections previously titled "Etcetera" and "Carmina," rounded out with "Chomei at Toyama" and "Attis: or, Something Missing" as separate poems. In a five-part appendix, Bunting provides notes for the first time; they supplement his translations (of Machiavelli, Hafiz, and Kamo-no-Chomei) and the poems "Villon," "Jenghis," "Attis: Or, Something Missing," as well as three of the Odes. A mock "bibliography" is provided, consisting solely of an entry for Redimiculum Matellarum, and an annotation: "Out of print a month after publication. The contents have been absorbed into this volume, with the exception of a preface and two epigraphs." Moreover, there is a revealing list of acknowledgments to "T. Lucretius Carus, Muhammad Shamsuddin Shirazi Hafiz, Maslhuddin Shirazi Sadi, Q. Horatius Flaccus, Charles Baudelaire, François Villon, Niccolo Machiavelli, Kamo-no-Chomei, Jenghis Khan, G. Valerius Catullus, Clément Marot, Jesus Christ, Dante Alighieri and anonymous peasants for loans; as well as to Jonathan Swift, François de Malherbe, Ernest Fenellosa, Louis Zukofsky and Ezra Pound for advice and guidance; besides all the poets who ever were before me, particularly those I have read: but the editors who bought some of these poems at inadequate prices or printed others without paying anything I need not thank. On the contrary, they should thank me."

Despite trying for two years, he was unable to find a publisher for Caveat Emptor. As a result, Bunting's first comprehensive book publication would not come until the Cleaners' Press edition of Poems: 1950. The book is particularly significant because, as Caddel observes, "Here we find for the first time the basic arrangement (Sonatas: Odes: Overdrafts), and to a great extent the sequence of poems which was to be worked on and added to over the next 35 years." The section of "Sonatas" consists of "Villon," "Attis: Or, Something Missing," "Aus Dem Zweiten Reich," and "The Well of Lycopolis." "Chomei at Toyama" follows in a separate section, after which follow the sections "Odes," "Overdrafts"—Bunting's term for his versions of translated poems; "How Duke Valentine Contrived," "The Orotava Road," and "They Say Etna" end the volume as separate poems. The book also includes a reconfigured section of Bunting's notes to the poems, which he retained with few alterations thereafter.

Poems: 1950 was compiled by Dallam Simpson, also known as Dallam Flynn, a disciple of Ezra Pound's who had begun publication of a magazine, Four Pages, in Galveston, Texas, for the purpose of spreading Pound's views; Simpson published Bunting's work on Pound's suggestion. The text of the poems in the book is unreliable because Bunting was in Persia while it was in preparation; almost completely uninvolved with the project, he could not see or correct proofs. Moreover, the book's preface consisted of Simpson/Flynn's peculiar attempt to sound off in Poundian style on the state of British poetry; for example, in answering John Berryman's negative assessment of young British poets, Simpson/Flynn wonders which poets are referred to: "Perhaps he means Mr. Eliot? But no, one recalls now and then, that Eliot was American, is British only now, by virtue of documents of citizenship, an affiliation with anglo-catholicism, and a rapport with an assortment of notables, persons of peerage, etcetera." Bunting later described the preface to Forde as "florid, effusive as John Barrymore," and said he saw the book only after someone else had corrected the proofs and cut out parts with a penknife. According to Roger Guedalla the book was printed in an edition of 1,000, not all of which were bound; there was a later issue, published by John Kaspar and David Horton, who acquired unbound copies from The Cleaners' Press and reissued them with their own paper covers pasted down on the end pages in their Square Dollar series. Since the back cover includes excerpts from reviews by Hugh Kenner and Thomas Cole which appeared in Poetry for September 1951, these copies were issued after that date. Kaspar and Horton were among those who befriended Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital. Guedalla also claims that Eliot considered a Faber and Faber edition of the book, but wanted the preface removed—however, Bunting "felt that, as Simpson had taken the trouble to compile and edit the book, the preface should remain." According to Garth Clucas, however, the rejection was because Eliot found Bunting's work "too Poundian." Whatever the case such publication never ensued, and fifteen years later in the preface to Loquitur, Bunting still wanted "to record my gratitude to Dallam Flynn for the edition he undertook in a more difficult time than this..."

That time was difficult because Bunting labored in obscurity and penury; the story is told in detail in accounts of Bunting's life by Victoria Forde and Keith Alldritt. But this unhappy period ended when in 1964 the young poet Tom Pickard—who ran the Morden Tower Bookroom at which Bunting had recently given a reading—published, at his own expense, Bunting's long poem, "The Spoils," which had first appeared in Poetry 79, no. 2 (November 1951); the book was printed in 1965 by the Newcastle University printing department under the supervision of the well-known pop artist Richard Hamilton. Migrant Press, formed in Worcestershire by the poets Gael Turnbull, Michael Shayer and Roy Fisher, agreed to distribute the book. The first shipment of printed books was apparently lost in the postal sorting room at Birmingham en route from Newcastle to the Midlands, so a second printing, number of copies unknown (perhaps one hundred), was hastily completed, and sent in its place. A limited edition may also have been produced, since a copy described in a bookdealer's catalog features a limitation statement in ink holograph on the inside rear cover: "This is the only signed/ limited edition/ 26 copies numbered A-Z/ Thomas Pickard."

By November 1965, Fulcrum Press, operated by Stuart Montgomery, a young Rhodesian, together with his wife, Deirdre, published a collection of Bunting's short poems, First Book of Odes. A limitation statement on the verso of the book's penultimate leaf states that the edition was "limited to 175 numbered copies and 26 copies lettered A-Z and signed by the author." But according to Guedalla, "the colophon is misleading. It implied one hundred and seventy-five copies of the ordinary edition whereas these copies are divided between 125 in the ordinary edition and 50 in the special edition." In addition, twenty-six special lettered, signed copies were produced. This selection of Bunting's "Odes" is the same as that which appears in Poems: 1950, except for the addition of "On highest summits dawn comes soonest..." and "On the Fly-Leaf of Pound's Cantos." There are no notes to the poems. Fulcrum ended the year with a Christmas keepsake, which printed "Three Michaelmas daisies" (which would become the second poem in the "Second Book of Odes"—not a separate book, but a section Bunting added to collections of his poems from 1968 on).

In December 1965 Fulcrum published Loquitur, a comprehensive collection of Bunting's poems which presented Bunting's selection from his earlier work including the contents of First Book of Odes. As Bunting pointed out in the preface, "The edition of my poems which Dallam Flynn printed in Texas in 1950 is all sold, and Stuart Montgomery thinks there are still people curious to read them who cannot find a copy." In addition to recording his appreciation for his earlier publisher, he acknowledged his "continual debt to the two greatest poets of our age, Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky." According to the book's colophon, "None of these poems have previously appeared in a book by the author" in Great Britain. This edition was limited to 1,000 copies, 200 bound in cloth and 26 specially bound, lettered A-Z, signed by Bunting. The design of the book and of the cover was by Richard Hamilton." Actually, two hundred and twenty-four ordinary copies, two hundred special copies in black cloth boards, and twenty-six special signed copies in black leather boards were produced.

Loquitur retained the structure initiated in 1950 and, as Caddel remarks, "extended the range and tinkered the sequence" of Bunting's poems "towards its final form." Bunting explained in the preface: "I have taken my chance to add two or three and take one away; to read the proofs more carefully than I could when I was in Teheran and my publisher in Texas; to insert a couplet in the Odes and promote The Orotava Road from limbo to its chronological place amongst them, which has obliged me to renumber many; and to give the book a title to replace the off-hand label by which it has been known or unknown for fifteen years."

In 1965 Bunting composed a long poem, "Briggflatts;" in June, Bunting sent the poem to Poetry, where it was accepted for publication. It was read before the public for the first time at Tom and Connie Pickard's Morden Tower Bookroom in Newcastle in December 1965, and appeared in the January 1966 issue of Poetry. The poem was published in book form in February 1966 by Fulcrum Press, correcting a few errors in the Poetry version. The book, designed by Stuart Montgomery and handset and printed at the Goliard Press in London, featured two illustrations, printed in red dots, in a design crudely resembling illuminations in the Lindisfarne codex. Two hundred and twenty-four ordinary copies, one hundred special copies in black cloth boards, and twenty-six in red leather boards, lettered A through Z, and signed by Bunting were produced. Three thousand copies of a second edition in paperback, featuring a photograph of Bunting by Richard Hamilton on the front cover and a commendatory comment by Sir Herbert Read on the back, were produced in December 1966, and a second impression hardback in five hundred copies followed in November 1967, along with a second impression paperback edition. The poem appeared in all subsequent editions of Bunting's collected poems.

After Briggflatts, Bunting mostly wrote short poems, many of which would figure in what Bunting came to call the "Second Book of Odes." In 1967, a hand-sewn pamphlet, Two Poems, was published in an edition of two-hundred and fifty copies, of which thirty were numbered and signed by the poet on the occasion of his poetry reading on 27 May 1967 at the Unicorn Book Shop in Santa Barbara, California; it was printed by Jeffrey Sorenson and Alan Brilliant at Unicorn Press, and featured "Birthday Greeting" and "All you Spanish ladies" ("Carmencita's tawny paps"). The same year, another pamphlet, containing "What the Chairman Told Tom," was published by William Ferguson for the Pym-Randall Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in an edition of two hundred numbered and twenty-six lettered copies. According to Guedalla, the signed, lettered copies indicate that six were printed for James Randall, five for William Ferguson, and fourteen for Bunting himself.

In 1968, Bunting compiled recent work in a new section "Second Book of Odes," which was combined with the contents of Loquitur, The Spoils, and Briggflatts for the Fulcrum Press Collected Poems, published with a dustjacket designed by the well-known painter, Barnett Newman. In the book's preface, Bunting remarked, "A man who collects his poems screws together the boards of his coffin. Those outside will have all the fun, but he is entitled to his last confession. These verses were written here and there now and then over forty years and four continents. Heaped together they make a book..." He again acknowledged a range of poets, saying of his poetry: "If I ever learned the trick of it, it was mostly from poets long dead whose names are obvious: Wordsworth and Dante, Horace, Wyat and Malherbe, Manuchehri and Ferdosi, Villon, Whitman, Edmund Spenser; but two living men also taught me much: Ezra Pound and in his sterner, stonier way, Louis Zukofsky. It would not be fitting to collect my poems without mentioning them. With sleights learned from others and an ear open to melodic analogies I have set down words as a musician pricks his score, not to be read in silence, but to trace in the air a pattern of sound that may sometimes, I hope, be pleasing. Unabashed boys and girls may enjoy them. This book is theirs." He also specifically thanked the editors of Poetry, "whose editors have been kind to me one after another." The book was published in two editions of one thousand copies, along with one hundred and fifty signed copies which featured a silk-screen print of the Newman cover design tipped in; a second edition of two thousand followed in 1970 which included an errata slip, along with a paperback printing of two thousand copies. An unknown number of copies was eventually distributed in the U.S. by Horizon Press.

The increasing interest in Bunting's work at this time is evidenced by the publishing history of the 1969 poem, "Version of Horace," a translation of Horace, Odes, II.14. It was published in Make 9 (n.d., ?1969); and in the Sunday Times (14 December 1969), which reproduced it from an autograph manuscript under the heading, "A new poem by Basil Bunting;" and appeared once again in Agenda (Autumn-Winter, 1970), now under the title, "Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume." The poem was published as a pamphlet ("limited to three hundred numbered copies of which two hundred and fifty are for sale") in November 1972 by "Guido Londinensis, former Master of The Latin Press, at the dynastic Officina Mauritiana at present established in Holborn, London." This was actually Guido Morris, who ran the Latin Press in St. Ives between 1946 and 1953. The poem was printed as a broadside in an edition of one hundred signed copies by Mark Bernhardt at the Sterling Memorial Library's Bibliographical Press in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1976.

In 1978, the Fulcrum Press Collected Poems served as the basis for a corrected and expanded Collected Poems published by Oxford University Press. Bunting augmented the preface with a succinct new comment, dated 1977, that "A new edition of this book has given me a chance to put right a few words and stops the compositor got wrong, and to add four short new poems. A fifth seemed better lost." Either Bunting or O.U.P destroyed any marked up sheets; while O.U.P. does not preserve proof material, their archive does hold an editorial file on the book (file reference OP1420/10603) which reveals much about Bunting's approach to preparing new editions of his work. In a letter of 8 October 1976, he noted that he had doctored a Fulcrum edition to prepare "a correct copy of my collected poems" into which he "gummed 4 new ones at the proper place (one of them had to be folded in because there was no convenient place to gum it)." As Bunting described in the preface, textual changes were minimal; "'Literals' etc. occur on pages 21, 26, 31, 44, 61, 71, 83, 96, 110, 140 and in the table of contents." He added that "a total of 11 lines needing resetting is not, I think, much, if you decide to use offset, plus the 4 new poems, all short, which will, of course, entail changes in the table of contents and the supplementary preface, and consider whether the new poems require new notes: probably not." According to O.U.P archivist Dr. Martin Maw, beyond ensuring that the poems appeared in the proper order Bunting apparently did not give additional instructions for the book. One thousand seven-hundred and fifty ordinary paperback copies were produced, along with two thousand two-hundred and fifty hardback copies. The book was reprinted several times, including an American issue.

In 1985, the last year of Bunting's life, a so-called "first American edition" of the Collected Poems was prepared for publication by Moyer Bell Limited of Mt. Kisco, New York; one thousand copies were printed. The verso of the title page states that it was published "by arrangement with O.U.P. and Basil Bunting." The book reproduced the wording of Bunting's prefaces to the 1968 and 1978 editions, and added one more brief comment: "There is one solitary short poem that I have added to the collected volume." That poem, "Perche no spero," was now poem 12 in the "Second Book of Odes." An introduction supplied by Bunting's friend, Jonathan Williams, explained that "Jennifer Moyer and Britt Bell, the publishers, spent an afternoon with BB at Whitley Chapel only ten days before his death, and they have heeded his wishes: just the one extra poem." Bunting's editorial involvement with the printing was necessarily minimal. An uncorrected proof copy has surfaced for sale; and scrutiny of the text reveals some printed variants from earlier editions which are almost certainly errors, not revisions.

Bunting had excluded from his collections a poem called "The Pious Cat," credited by him to "Obaid-e Zakani (and Basil Bunting)." According to Caddel, Bunting "intended this fable to be published as an illustrated book for children." Work on the poem began in 1937—the year his wife Marian left him, taking with her their two children. The poem was not published, however, until the year after Bunting's death, by Bertram Rota in London. The edition consisted of two hundred numbered copies and ten presentation copies, each accompanied by a copy of the original Persian poem in a pocket. The book presents two versions: one set from Bunting's typescript, which includes a note dating the poem "1939-77"—the earlier date is a transcription error—and a facsimile autograph manuscript version which includes a note dating the poem "1937-77." (Another, slightly variant, manuscript is held in the Mountjoy Collection of the Basil Bunting Poetry Archive, Durham University Library.)

From Loquitur through the 1985 Collected Poems, Bunting also consistently excluded a number of poems and translations he had published in periodicals. In 1991 Caddel collected this work, along with two poems which are juvenilia, and two limericks, in the Oxford University Press volume, Uncollected Poems. The Collected Poems and Uncollected Poems were combined in the 1994 Oxford University Press Complete Poems with the intent of bringing all of Bunting's poetry together in a single volume. The book was reset for publication in 2000 by Bloodaxe Books, and was accompanied by a two-cassette selection of Bunting's readings of his work. New Directions recently reprinted this selection in the U.S. My critical edition of the poems will eventually be published by Faber and Faber.

See also my post on Briggflatts (click here).

Listen to Basil Bunting (click here and here).

Corrections and queries welcome!


Rolli said...

Bunting has always been a favourite of mine. I'm looking forward to the critical edition!

Anonymous said...

Interesting; actually Guido Morris ran The Latin Press in St Ives from 1946 until 1952 when he went bankrupt -- and Verson of Horace is a four page pamphlet, not a broadside....

Don Share said...

I'm grateful for the correction, anonymous - if you were less anonymous, I could acknowledge you in print!

For those interested, see Guido Morris and the Latin Press in Saint Ives 1946-1953, by Michael Bridge.

colin@yewtree said...

David Wilkinson's Guido Morris, A Fine Printer, the Final Cahpter? (Book Gallery St Ives) contains an interesting account of Guido's dealings with Basil Buntings and see my forthcoming
Guido Morris and the Little Latin (Yew Tree Books 2008)

Don Share said...

Colin, I've searched high and low, but cannot find a copy of "Guido Morris, A Fine Printer..."

Philip Metres said...

Don, I'm new to Bunting, and was surprised to read that he was a CO during WWI; I thought I'd catalogued all the major poets who'd had CO status. Can you tell me more about his political stand then, and how he went on to serve in WWII (since CO status usually is based on a religious belief in nonviolence in all wars), and whether or how these decisions filtered through his poetry?