Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The most expensive page of poetry

There it is! As my favorite book-news blog, Moby Lives, reports:

"Five-million dollars is the estimate put on a single illuminated page from the Shahnamah of Shah Tahmasp of Persia [which is up for auction]. The five-hundred-year-old “Book of Kings” is considered the finest illustrated manuscript in existence and the Southeby’s offering one of a handful left in private collections. The page is in pristine condition and depicts vividly the scene 'Faridun In the Guise Of A Dragon Tests His Sons.'"

If you're a Basil Bunting admirer like me, and don't have the five mill, stay tuned for my book, Basil Bunting's Persia, which will be published later this year by Flood Editions. Bunting, as many will know, spent many years translating and adapting parts of the Shahnamah as well as other Persian poems.

His interest in Persian poetry began when he found a French translation of Ferdowsi’s famous epic in a book stall on the harbor quays of Genoa in the early 1930s:

“I found a book—tattered, incomplete—with a newspaper cover on it marked Oriental Tales. I bought it, in French. It turned out to be part of the early 19th century prose translation of Ferdowsi, and it was absolutely fascinating. I got into the middle of the story of the education of Zal and the birth of Rustam—and the story came to an end! It was quite impossible to leave it there, I was desperate to know what happened next. I read it, as far as it went, to Pound and Dorothy Pound, and they were in the same condition. We were yearning to find out, but we could think of no way. The title page was even missing. There seemed nothing to do but learn Persian and read Firdausi, so, I undertook that. Pound bought me the three volumes of Vullers and somebody, I forget who, bought me Steingass’s dictionary, and I set to work. It didn’t take long. It’s an easy language if it’s only for reading that you want it.”

But Bunting wanted Persian for more than just the reading, and of his efforts he would write to Louis Zukofsky: "It is no boast to say that I am more widely read in Persian than most of the Orientalists in British and European universities.” Indeed, he’d applied for a Guggenheim in 1932 to translate the Shahnameh, which tells the history of the kings of Persia from mythical times down to about 628 A.D. in some sixty thousand couplets. Though he didn’t get the fellowship, his diligent fascination only grew—he even eventually named his children for legendary characters in the poem: Roudaba, Bourtai, and Rustam.

I tell the whole story in my intro to the book...

Needless to say, Persian poetry is of contemporary importance here in the West, for reasons I've blogged about previously.

Basil Bunting was surely among the most impoverished of modern poets, so the incredible price tag for this page of poetry leaves one rather heavyhearted. But maybe this news item will draw attention to the poem itself, as well as Bunting's work on it. All that money for one page; the epic itself, of course, has thousands.

Note: Bunting's versions are wonderful, but readers should also be aware of Dick Davis's recently published translation, about which more here.

1 comment:

Steven Waling said...

Speaking as a Quaker myself, I see nothing in Bunting's views that would not be reflected in Quaker values. Maybe in his day he was a lot less Christocentric than Quakers of his generation, so it probably wasn't an easy fit.

And if he only ever mentioned it once in an interview with Mottram, in what way is that 'promoting'? Quakers are often very reluctant to be seen as evangelising for their faith; but that doesn't mean we can't sometimes give it a passing mention.

If Quakers can accept my somewhat halting non-atheism, I'm darned sure they can accept Bunting's "pantheism."