Friday, March 18, 2011

Basil Bunting is slipping away from us

A letter published in the TLS:

Sir, – I understand why Frances Wilson refers to Basil Bunting as a “Quaker poet” in a review of Geoffrey Durham’s The Spirit of the Quakers (March 11). Bunting carefully cultivated his Quaker image but there isn’t a line or theme in his poetry that could be read as “Quaker”. Not only was he not a “Quaker poet”, he wasn’t even a Quaker. Neither of his parents was a Quaker, although Bunting was sent to Quaker schools for six years. One of his uncles on the Cheesman side was a Quaker but there’s no evidence of his having had any influence on Bunting. He was never a member of the Society of Friends and only ever joined meetings at the Quaker house at Brigflatts in Cumbria as an attender.

This might seem a quibble but it is very important. Bunting was Britain’s greatest Modernist poet (by some way, although admittedly the field isn’t large) and yet he is slipping away from us. One of the main reasons for this is that he deliberately promoted himself as a poet of the North and therefore, by implication, of nowhere else. This has ghettoized Bunting as the most important poet from the North-east of England since Caedmon. It isn’t that this is faint praise. In itself it is a significant achievement to be the best anything anywhere for 1,300 years, but it doesn’t do justice to Bunting’s importance and influence as a giant of literary Modernism. And it gets worse. Bunting didn’t just promote himself as a “poet of the north” but as a Quaker poet of the North. Is it any wonder that hardly anyone cares?

I am writing a Life of Basil Bunting, a project that Bunting himself would have derided. It will be published later this year and I would gratefully welcome any contributions, memories or information, even from Northumbria or, indeed, Quakers. Please send to me c/o 36 St Giles, Oxford OX1 3LD.

36 St Giles, Oxford.


Tom Pickard wrote to me with the following comment:

He might have some of his ‘facts’ correct (there are others he seems unaware of) re BB’s Quakerism but her certainly doesn’t get it right about how BB saw his Quakerism. His decision to become a conshy in the first world war must have given him lifelong honorary status. That decision was taken after talking to a Quaker headmistress, as I recall him saying, when others tried to persuade him otherwise. Also I know that he went to a meeting of the head guys (in the 70’s?), in London I think, and was given a ‘Godly’ oral examination. He told me that they weren’t too uncomfortable with his notions. To those old codgers he must have appeared a raging scallywag, albeit a 70 year old one. (I remember him in the sixties chastising me for using God in a poem because it was too vague a word to serve any purpose.) Of course to tag him a Quaker poet is silly as is any tag that limits. His notion of ‘Quakerism’ ran its roots back to the wild men and women of the English Revolution, Ebenezer Coppe et al. He wasn’t much of a joiner of anything—which poet has the time to be, without their creative system collapsing about their ears?—but he sincerely identified a chunk of his ‘spiritual system’ with that of Quakers, and of course his formative years which nourished and kicked off his poem Briggflatts, were spent amongst and describes rural Quakers. The girl and boy and her father who is driving the cart. Whether BB could be called a card-carrying Quaker or not doesn’t bother me, but he did take from it some nourishment and found in their quiet contemplation a way to know himself.

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