Monday, April 25, 2011

I do not see why people should want to "understand" everything in a poem.

A couple of years ago I gave a talk on Bunting at Oxford - as it happens, I was coming down with what my doctor later called "walking" pneumonia, which is funny because I was hardly able to walk at all, let alone speak, and later could barely sit upright on the plane ride home. Anyhow, I bumbled through a talk during which I also played some recordings of Bunting's incredible and legendary poetry readings - which you can sample via the Bloodaxe deluxe edition of Briggflatts, which includes a book, CD, and DVD (and a tiny essay of mine on the history of the poem's composition, aka "other background information"). I recently found the first page or two of the notes I made for the talk and am blogging them here for whatever they're worth; I haven't tried to polish them up or provide bibliographical details of the many sources I relied upon. Corrections welcome as always, and details supplied on request.

Anyway, I first posted this about two years ago; but in light of the recent debate over David Orr's book about how to read poetry, I thought it worth reprising. For bits of that debate, see here... here... here... and especially here.


It’s an odd thing to be giving a lecture about Basil Bunting, who is known to have been somehow anti-academic. Moreover, it is being given by somebody who did a doctoral dissertation on him and has edited the poems with the accompaniment of annotations and a critical apparatus. I suppose Bunting would have hated the whole thing. This makes it sound as if he were against the study of poetry, but of course, this is not true: it can’t be said of a disciple of the studious likes of Yeats and Pound that he didn’t study poetry! Tellingly, however, Peter Lewis, who wrote the foreword to the landmark special issue of the Durham University Journal devoted to Bunting called Sharp Study and Long Toil (a title in the poet’s own words)… recalls that as a young assistant to the studious poet, Geoffrey Hill, at Leeds in 1964, he stumbled upon Bunting’s work in complete surprise. Lewis was working with Hill to build up the Poetry Library there, along with Peter Orr, and says that Leeds was “awash with poetry” at the time. There were plenty of visiting poets giving readings and making recordings, “Peter Redgrove was Gregory Fellow, Hill and Randolph Stow were lecturers, Jon Silkin and Tony Harrison had stayed on after graduating to do research, and Brendan Kennelly” was there working on a Ph.D. On discovering the Morden Tower Poetry Bookroom, opened by the young poet, Tom Pickard with his wife, Connie, Lewis got an earful about Bunting, and thought Pickard was just raving about some local poet he had “unearthed,” that Pickard might have been “full of Geordie hot air.” After all, “how could this unknown Bunting have slipped through the critical net so completely and still be the important figure Tom believed him to be?” The Bookroom itself had hosted the likes of Adrian Mitchell and Hugh MacDiarmid, as well as Americans like Bly, Creeley, Ginsberg and Duncan – and in a place most people had to sit on the floor the most comfortable chair was given over to none other than Bunting. That Bunting was unknown, or at best, forgotten, would change by 1965 with the publication of Briggflatts (which first appeared in Poetry). After spending some time in the States, Bunting returned to the North East in 1968 to legions of new admirers, all young people who even at the relatively calm Durham University flirted with radicalism and were listening to the then-anti-establishment Rolling Stones. Around this time Bunting would give lectures for the English departments of both Durham and Newcastle Universities. As a fellow at Newcastle, Bunting was not obliged to give so much as a single lecture, yet he delivered a series of them on the subject of the craft of poetry. Despite having even then a reputation for defying the academic study of literature, what emerged, Lewis reports, is that Bunting had a “strong scholarly streak.” “What he wanted to protect poetry from was a type of analytical criticism that promised to offer up its ‘meaning’ or ‘message’ or ‘significance.’” Instead, and in deliberate contrast to the Leavisites and New Critics, what Bunting stressed was the sound and music of poetry. We hear much today about the “poet’s voice,” about poetry as spoken word and performance – but you have to remember that at the time, critics and students were more concerned with ‘right readings’ and ‘definitive interpretations.’

Bunting's own view of such information was tersely articulated in a letter to Alan Neame, 1951: "I do not see why people should want to 'understand' everything in a poem." It is impossible to understand everything in a poem, but it is also impossible for a reader not to want to know things about a poem. And Bunting - despite famously annotating Briggflatts by saying that notes "are a confession of failure, not a palliation of it" - did, after all, provide some notes to his poems (not as a "reproach to the reader," but because they "may allay some small irritations"); Caveat Emptor (an early unpublished collection of his poems), even contains, in an appendix, "Further Notes," introduced by the sentence, "Having devolved so much useless knowledge upon my reader, if any, I may as well go on unloading." And he unloaded quite often, having given dozens of substantial interviews. In a written statement he sent to Dale Reagan to accompany the 1975 interview published in Montemora, Bunting commented:

"I am not much delighted with the recent habit of printing verbatim interviews; impromptu colloquial speech is too full of ambiguities, near misses and sheer confusions; answers too little considered and not hedged against easy misconceptions seem to wave the reader on in the wrong direction. It is as though the interviewer were scared of editing. He prefers a false 'authenticity' to the genuine authenticity his intelligence and sympathetic interpretation ought to provide (sympathetic to the reader as well as the person interviewed). So a new and wonderfully fertile crop of misunderstandings soon grows rank enough to hide whatever sense was meant."

One takes his point, yet sampling the wonderfully fertile crop of explanatory comments found in Bunting's interviews and letters, if taken with appropriate caution, e.g., regard for dating and context, does not interfere with "whatever sense was meant" in the poems themselves, which in the beginning and end stand on their own.

In his “open letter” to Louis Zukofsky from 1932, Bunting explains further that “criticism, esp. my own, is painful to me. Presumably the poet knows what he meant to do. The detection of fraud and adulteration is necessary police work, but must keep within the rules of evidence: fact, not hearsay; history not speculation; all the exhibits there alongside their expert analysis.” He goes on: “Criticism is to poetry what anatomy, histology, physiology are to the living body […]. Criticism is concerned with what is written, not with the mind of the writer, or anatomy with man’s body, not with the unguessable intentions of an unlikely Creator.” (Nice finessing of the Intentional Fallacy there: that authors have intentions, but that they are unguessable!)

To Poetry magazine's Harriet Monroe around the same time (1931), he writes of his poem “Attis: Or Something Missing,” which is a sort of knock on Eliot: “I think that it’s fairly plain… if the reader doesn’t spend time and energy looking for a nice logical syllogistic development which isn’t there.” (It’s tempting to over-read this letter as meaning to make a nice distinction between looking for a n.l.s.d. – and looking for one which “isn’t there.”)

Bunting did not seek fame or mass acceptance or understanding of his work, and probably would have disdained such things – but his suffering in impoverished obscurity was real and unnecessary; and in the end what he fought against his entire life was obfuscation. The difficulties that continually arose in the publication of his poems over the course of many decades are fascinating and poignant in their own right, and really constitute a paradigmatic history of Anglo-American poetry publishing in the 20th and even 21st centuries. [...]

About that history, let me end with what Carl Sandburg wrote about Ezra Pound in Poetry magazine back in 1916:

In a world with so high a proportion of fools, it is neither disgrace nor honor when people say of a finished work, "I can't understand it."


equivocal said...

Lovely piece. Would like to read more.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have a counter quote by Bunting - "Never explain - your reader is as smart as you." No, I'm not. I know little of Bunting's poetry. I was in my early twenties when I first had a crack at it and I never got anywhere. The bottom line was I didn't understand any of it. I had the same problem with Pound about the same time. The thing was I so wanted to understand and that's my problem when I approach any poem, I look for meaning first and foremost and it's not always there, not in the kind of blatant way I'm looking for it anyway.

mgushuedc said...

Haven't finished reading the post yet, great cover! Gorgeous. I'm looking forward to this.

Bunting is one of those "let the poem wash over you" poets for me. Beautiful sound, intimations, so a cd of his reading will be a treat (I hope).

Curtis Faville said...

I did a thesis for Roy McGregor-Hastie (sp.?) in the early 1970's, at Iowa, comparing Bunting's Briggflatts with Hopkins's Wreck of the Deutschland (god forbid anybody ask me WHY I undertook such a toil!), and came to the conclusion that BB's poem was not nearly so burdened with "sense" that it would benefit from much lavish scholarly attention.

Sound, sensual in character? Surely.

That it returned to a quality of verbal richness lost to British verse for 500 years.

Bunting has, unpredictably, faded from sight once again, as the academic versifiers fill an unaccustomed void. Maybe the Irish have the answer. Lower England certainly doesn't.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...
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Gary B. Fitzgerald said...
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