Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Short notes on a longish poem

“No notes are needed. A few may spare diligent readers the pains of research.” – Basil Bunting’s notes to Briggflatts


Basil Bunting had written to Louis Zukofsky as early as 1953 that "I shall have to try again to write a QED sonata to earn the hatred of all the tasteful critics and a few centuries of misrepresentation but convince all candid listeners and so survive." In mid-December 1964, Bunting wrote to an old friend, the actor and poet Denis Goacher, about his interest in the form of the long poem, which was "much neglected". Working on a draft of one while riding the train to and from his job as a subeditor at the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, he claimed to have filled "two fat notebooks absolutely chocked full, front and back, both sides of the page". Roy Fisher recalled Bunting telling him in the spring of 1965 that "the music is complete; all I have to do is to make adjustments to the content" and Gael Turnbull recorded in a journal entry for 15 May receipt of a letter announcing the poem's completion. (Intriguingly, an early poem of Turnbull's published in 1956 was called, "An Irish Monk on Lindisfarne, about 650 AD" - Bunting owned several volumes by Turnbull.) In June, Bunting sent the finished poem to Poetry magazine in Chicago, and on 10 August 1965, Bunting wrote Henry Rago, the editor of Poetry:

"I know the difficulties of finding even a modest amount of space in a well-run magazine let alone about 750 lines; and you, no doubt, know the impatience of authors. There is a momentary spate of publicity about me in England at present and I would like to have taken advantage of it to get a good circulation for whoever presently makes a pamphlet of Briggflatts, particularly as several publishers seem determined to bring out my collected poems sometime next year, which will limit the time available for selling a pamphlet; but it is more important to me to appear in Poetry, which published my Villon 35 years ago and nearly everything considerable I have written since... I had also better say that I know there are inaccurate and incomplete mss copies floating around. It has been more copied by industrious penmen than any poem I ever heard of, Lord knows why, one copying down another's errors and so on. Over that I have no control. I suppose it is theoretically possible that some pirate might print one of these garbled copies without consulting me, but I don't believe it. I'd make one hell of a fuss if it happened. But the existence of this curious mss circulation is another reason for hastening the printing as much as possible."

The poem 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 in November 1966, Poetry announced that the poem had received the magazine's Levinson Prize.

In an interview, Bunting remarked that he worked from "one little notebook, two little notebooks, completely full both sides of each page, with the cuttings out and so forth. And I reckon roughly twenty-thousand words, twenty-thousand lines I mean, to get my seven hundred." The notebook material held by the Poetry/Rare Books Collection at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York, consists of one book as well a number of loose leaves that may or may not be from a second notebook. Bunting wrote first on recto pages, numbering them in the upper right-hand corner, then flipped the book over and wrote on verso pages, left unnumbered. He would try out a number of lines and expand these into sections of verse. Then he would rewrite the sections, incorporating revisions, and in some cases cancel the earlier sections. When a section had been finished, a new one was begun and worked on. At times, he drew scansion marks above or near certain lines. Some of the loose leaves can be interpolated successfully if either page numbers or repeated lines of verse make this possible; others seem orphaned, and may be from a second notebook of the same size. Bunting's handwriting in this material is not always easy to decipher, although in other autograph manuscript material, e.g. fair copies of poems, it is usually quite clear; this may support Bunting's claim that he worked on the notebooks while he was commuting to work. Many cancellations of entire sections consist of single diagonal strokes; horizontal lines are often drawn through individual words or phrases, but when Bunting has scratched out words or phrases they are difficult to reconstruct. The redundancy of material makes it fairly straightforward to correlate it with the published version of the poem. The notebook material also includes a number of drawings and some incidental text, e.g., a letter of recommendation on behalf of Tom Pickard, a mailing address, etc.

Bunting’s bibliographer Roger Guedalla claims that "the poem was written, so Bunting has wryly suggested, to show Tom Pickard how to write a long poem. It was originally 15,000 lines long and was reduced to its final 700 lines over a long period of time. The author prepared about twelve copies which he typed out and sent to various friends. This version is longer than the final published version." However, Caddel in his edition of the Collected Poems, noted that there is no evidence to support the claim of a longer version in typescript. The Olin Library at Washington University, St. Louis, holds the carbon copy of the poem in typescript (ca. 1965) Bunting sent to Robert Creeley; it is not substantially different from the printed version.

On the general composition of Briggflatts.

Bunting said: "I use anything as subject. Mostly I've written a poem that is concrete before I've got a subject. I know what shape it's going to be. I sometimes know, even in considerable detail, what the rhythm will be before I've got any notion of what is going to be said in it. Briggflatts began as a diagram on a piece of paper. I added a Latin motto to remind me of the kind of mood I wanted. It developed in that sort of way. In fact, the first line of the poem is the last, apart from the coda—it is a matter of filling out the form. […] My forms are […] much larger, the architectonics are the poetry really… It's finding the actual building materials to suit the architect's design, not designing the building to suit the materials that happen to be lying around." Bunting reproduced this diagram during an interview, and explained: "You have a poem. You're going to have five parts because it's got to be an uneven number. So that the central one should be the one apex, there [pointing to diagram]. But what is new, the only new thing that I knew of in, in doing it, was that instead of having one climax in the other parts you have two. In the first two the climax is the less and another immediately comes out of it when you're not expecting it. So you have it for those two. In the others the first climax is the greater and it trails off. [...] If you add to that the Coda which came accidentally more or less, you've got the diagram of the whole poem."

"Once I had got the thing clear in my head as a diagram, I simply set to work and wrote it, writing when I could. Three lines in the train on the way to work, three lines on the way home from work. Saturday mornings when there was not much to do, because there's no stock exchange on Saturday morning [which would require Bunting to be at his newspaper job], I'd get perhaps ten or fifteen lines written—and always the cutting out and the buggering about and the buggering about and the rewriting and so on."

Bunting told Jonathan Williams and Tom Meyer: "There's several ways Briggflatts can be explained, but it's quite simple enough on the face of it, if you think that there are four seasons of the year, four times of life, grouped around another part making five principle parts—the other part being the journey of Alexander from the Medieval 'Legend of Alexander,' when he goes to the end of the world through the most awful, horrible things."

Late in his life, Bunting commented that a "very short narrative—nine stanzas—was needed to set the key for Briggflatts. For the rest, I'd learned from Spenser that there's no need to tell the reader what he can see for himself."


On the title.

Note the difference in spelling between Briggflatts, the Quaker meeting house invoked by the title, and Brigflatts, the name of the village in which it is located. As Barbara Lesch describes it, "the village consists of little more than four structures dating back to the early seventeenth century. The second oldest structure, built in 1675, is a Quaker meeting house. A somewhat more 'modern' house, dating from 1725, is where Bunting spent his school holidays as a child." At a reading (University of British Columbia, 20 November 1970), Bunting put it this way: the title "comes from the name of a small hamlet in the Pennine mountains in a very beautiful situation in what you call a valley but which we call a dale." Elsewhere, he said that the "name 'Briggflatts', that of a remote hamlet and a Quaker meeting house, ought to warn people not to look for philosophy." Also: "In silence, having swept dust and litter from our minds, we can detect the pulse of God's blood in our veins, more persuasive than words, more demonstrative than a diagram. That is what a Quaker meeting tries to be, and that is why my poem is called Briggflatts."

(George Fox came to Brigflatts in 1652; his vision of 'a great people in white raiment by the river's side' came to pass when, the day after his visit, groups of Seekers in the vicinity of the River Rawthey gathered. Fox's message to them the following Sunday is acknowledged to be the founding event of Quakerism. For more on this and much else, see Peter Makin’s landmark study, Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse.)


On “southrons.”

Bunting always read the poem aloud in what he said was a Northumbrian accent, though Denis Goacher disputed that this was actually the case:

"[The] Northumbrian accent was a manufactured one. He had, in fact, a very refined voice but had two things in mind when reading his poetry aloud. He was very careful to keep the flat A's and a bit likely to roll his R's, but he certainly did not, in normal speech, roll his R's to the prodigious extent that he did when reading his poems. I never heard any sort of Northumbrian sound like that! There was also a slight over-emphasis on wanting to bring back the valuable consonants and, in particular, to make up for the elision of the R in English Southern speech. I thought he had a point there—that we have lost something, as indeed modern French has done. But the self-conscious rolling of his R's, I thought, slowed up the actual course of the line ... He is really tracing back his past, recovering the accent he was born with, with a layer of nostalgia. But, I repeat, there is an over-emphasis on regionality, because he wished to make a point against Southern speech." ("Denis Goacher Talks about Basil Bunting," Sharp Study and Long Toil, 204)

In any case, Bunting made a distinction not only between Northern and Southern dialect, but prosody: "You realise that a great deal of what people goggle at in Briggflatts is merely an undisciplined and indiscriminate use of Cynghanedd… Cynghanedd is of course all the things that hold poetry together by way of sound; various kinds of rhyme, real ordinary rhyme we are used to, the peculiar rhyme the Welsh like, when you come to the rhyme word and it doesn't rhyme but the next word rhymes instead, or when a rhyme goes in the middle of the next line, or the end of the line rhymes with the middle of the line before. And they like rhymes that don't have the same vowel, only the same consonants each side of it, and funny things like that, and a tremendous variety of possibilities in the alliteration and so on."

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 Peter 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."

(For more on BB, Wordsworth, and Northern accents, see Kenneth Cox, "Basil Bunting Reading Wordsworth," Jacket no. 28)


On the poem as “autobiography.”

As for the poem's being an "autobiography," Bunting, in an introduction to a reading of the poem, said that Briggflatts follows the "phases of a lifetime in line with the phases of a year without any attempt to bring in historical facts." (20 April 1976 at Allentown Community Center, Buffalo, NY) The poem is dedicated: For Peggy. This was Peggy Greenbank, Bunting's first love - sister of Bunting schoolmate, John, at Ackworth School, Yorkshire. Bunting met Peggy in 1912 when he spent holidays at the Greenbank home in Brigflatts. (There has been confusion distinguishing between Peggy Greenbank and Peggy Mullett, to whom "I am agog with foam" was dedicated years before.) In a letter to Zukofsky describing factors to be incorporated in the poem, Bunting includes "Peggy Greenbank, and her whole ambience, the Rawthey valley, the fells of Lunedale, the viking inheritance all spent save the faint smell of it, the ancient Quaker life accepted without thought and without suspicion that it might seem eccentric: and what happens when one deliberately thrusts love aside, as I then did—it has its revenge. That must be a longish poem."

Citations available on request. Corrections solicited and welcomed!

See my earlier post on the trajectory of Bunting's work (click here).


Here’s a partial list of source material consulted for the above; I am indebted to all who made these works possible:

Interviews with Bunting

Craven, Peter, and Heyward, Michael. "An Interview with Basil Bunting." Scripsi, 1, nos. 3-4 (1982), 27-31.

Mottram, Eric. "Conversation with Basil Bunting on the Occasion of his 75th Birthday " Poetry Information 19 (Autumn 1978), 3-10.

Quartermain, Peter, and Tallman, Warren. "Basil Bunting Talks about Briggflatts." Agenda 16, no.1 (Spring 1978), 3-19. [Slightly amended version of the interview which first appeared in Georgia Straight (Writing Supplement), no. 6 (Vancouver, B.C.), November 18-25, 1970, n. pag.]

Reagan, Dale. "An Interview with Basil Bunting," Montemora 3 (Spring 1977), 67-80.

Williams, Jonathan. Descant on Rawthey's Madrigal: Conversations with Basil Bunting. Lexington, Ken.: gnomon press, 1968.

———, and Meyer, Tom. "A Conversation with Basil Bunting." Poetry Information 19 (1978), 37-47.

Works on Bunting

Alldritt, Keith. The Poet as Spy: The Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting. London: Aurum Press, 1998.

Caddel, Richard, ed. "Sharp Study and Long Toil: Basil Bunting Special Issue." Durham University Journal (Special supplement, 1995)

Caddel, Richard, and Flowers, Anthony. Basil Bunting, a Northern Life. Newcastle: Newcastle Libraries and Information Service, in association with the Basil Bunting Poetry Centre, 1997.

Forde, Victoria. The Poetry of Basil Bunting. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1991.

Guedalla, Roger. Basil Bunting: A Bibliography of Works and Criticism. Norwood, Penn.: Norwood Editions, 1973.

Lesch, Barbara E. "Basil Bunting: A Major British Modernist." Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1979.

Makin, Peter. Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

McGonigal, James, and Price, Richard, eds. The Star You Steer By: Basil Bunting and British Modernism. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.

Quartermain, Peter. Basil Bunting, Poet of the North. Durham: Basil Bunting Poetry Centre, 1990.

Suter, Anthony. "Musical Structure in the Poetry of Basil Bunting." Agenda 16, no.1 (1978), 46-54.

———. "Time and the Literary Past in the Poetry of Basil Bunting." Contemporary Literature, 12, no. 4 (Autumn 1971), 510-526.

Swann, Brian. "Basil Bunting of Northumberland," St. Andrew's Review 4, no. 2 (Spring-Summer 1977), 33-41.

Terrell, Carroll F. Basil Bunting, Man and Poet. Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, 1981.


The Recordings of Basil Bunting. Ed. Richard Swigg. Keele: Keele University, n.d.

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