Monday, April 4, 2011

Poetry and religious beliefs: Bunting and Quakerism, continued

I recently blogged on the question raised a few weeks ago in the Times Literary Supplement about Basil Bunting's religious beliefs, and included Tom Pickard's view of the matter. Here is a follow-up letter to the on the subject.

Sir, –

There seems to be an element of adverse judgement in Richard Burton’s assertion (Letters, March 18), that Basil Bunting “promote\[d\] himself . . . as a Quaker poet of the North”. Is there any evidence of such self-promotion beyond his quiet answer “yes” in response to Eric Mottram’s words “You told me quite recently that you consider yourself a Quaker poet . . .” (in an interview broadcast in part by BBC Radio 3 on May 3, 1975, and transcribed in full in Poetry Information number 19, autumn 1978)? He went on to speak briefly but movingly about his reasons for valuing his experience of Quaker worship, but neither then nor, so far as I know, anywhere else did he suggest that he was anything other than a poet who happened to consider himself to be – and was considered by many Friends to be – a Quaker (the difference between a Member and an Attender is, as Burton must know, not one that tells us anything reliable about a Friend’s inward experience). Whether letting it be known that he was both a Northerner and a Quaker was sufficient to condemn him to obscurity must remain a matter of opinion.

It is quite true to say that there is little identifiably Quaker – or indeed “religious” – in much of Bunting’s poetry, but then, as Frances Wilson’s review of Geoffrey Durham’s book (March 11) makes very clear, being a Quaker is unlikely to yield readily identifiable clues in a poet’s work: it is about the inward silence where his words come from. This point was well discussed in a letter to the TLS (August 1, 1986) by Peter Makin, who, after referring to Bunting’s doubts as to whether his Quakerism would be accepted by the Friends, “for his view was, he said, ‘an extremely pantheistic one’”, and a judicious examination of the poet’s elaboration of that statement, went on to say “the real question is not ‘What were the religious beliefs of the author of Briggflatts?’ but ‘What religious sense, or feeling, or awareness, is contained within the poem?’ If we can’t find any, we are not likely to remedy the defect by looking elsewhere”.

Nevertheless, for this Quaker at least, Bunting’s short “Ode at Briggflatts Meetinghouse” (1975) is the finest expression of any in verse of the experience of Meeting for Worship, coming from a deep understanding of and genuine participation in that experience.

2 Scott’s Mill, Ann Street, Gatehouse of Fleet, Castle Douglas.

What's really interesting is the question of how to relate Bunting's Quaker "spiritual system" (Pickard's phrase for it) to his enduring connection to Persian poetry and the spiritualism it embodies... I'll hope to speculate on this further; watch this space.

Meanwhile, an addendum:

Sir, – Entertaining though it has been to watch the “was-he”/“wasn’t- he” ding-dong about Basil Bunting’s Quakerism in your Letters pages (most recently, March 25), perhaps the last word could be left to Bunting himself? He famously described himself to our mutual friend Jonathan Williams as a “Quaker atheist”. (Williams later used the phrase in the title of a splendid poem about Bunting and his milieu.)

86 Orbel Street, London SW11.

Pictured: Brigflatts Meeting House, from this source


Michael Schiavo said...

Stransd of Quakerism, the influence of Persian poetry . . . hmm . . . maybe reading Bunting's beliefs thru the lens of Transcendentalism might help.

Misera e stupenda città said...

'The day's incidents hide our ignorance from us; yet we know it, beneath our routine. 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'. (A Note on Briggflatts, 1989)