Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Caveat Emptor: On Basil Bunting's Persia

When he was living in Tenerife in 1935, the British poet Basil Bunting (1900–1985) prepared a 120-page typescript collection entitled Caveat Emptor. It featured a mock “bibliography” consisting solely of an entry for Redimiculum Matellarum, his first and now impossible-to-find book, with this annotation: “Out of print a month after publication. The contents have been absorbed into this volume, with the exception of a preface and two epigraphs.” He also included a revealing list of acknowledgments, to “T. Lucretius Carus, Muhammad Shamsuddin Shirazi Hafiz, Maslhuddin Shirazi Sadi, Q. Horatius Flaccus, Charles Baudelaire, François Villon, Niccolo Machiavelli, Kamo-no-Chomei, Jenghis Khan, G. Valerius Catullus, Clément Marot, Jesus Christ, Dante Alighieri and anonymous peasants for loans; as well as to Jonathan Swift, François de Malherbe, Ernest Fenellosa, Louis Zukofsky and Ezra Pound for advice and guidance; besides all the poets who ever were before me, particularly those I have read: but the editors who bought some of these poems at inadequate prices or printed others without paying anything I need not thank. On the contrary, they should thank me.”
Although Caveat Emptor did not find a publisher, Bunting went on to become one of the best-loved modernist poets; his reputation now approaches those of his colleagues Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. By the time his Collected Poems first appeared in 1968, the list of acknowledgements had both expanded and contracted: “If I ever learned the trick of it, it was mostly from poets long dead whose names are obvious: Wordsworth and Dante, Horace, Wyatt and Malherbe, Manuchehri and Ferdowsi, Villon, Whitman, Edmund Spenser; but two living men also taught me much: Ezra Pound and in his sterner, stonier way, Louis Zukofsky.” What’s noticeable is the persistence of the Persian poets among the list of more familiar resources. Surely among the many things editors and readers alike must thank Bunting for are his versions of work by these poets, who caught his eye early and remained with him throughout his long life.
Bunting’s abiding interest in Sa‘di and Persian poetry began when he found a French translation of Ferdowsi’s epic, Shahnameh, 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.

... of his efforts Bunting would write to 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.”

Bunting’s interest in Persian poetry, though scholarly, was far from academic. As Peter Makin describes it, Bunting’s experience in Persia “ranged from life with the Bakhtiari tribesmen to familiarity with the circles of power. He therefore had news to bring to the literate Western world.” That news was communicated not only through his translations but in an ambitious three-part long poem of his own, The Spoils (1951), whose title and epigraph came from a passage in The Koran: “They ask you about the spoils. Say: ‘The spoils belong to God and the Apostle. Therefore have fear of God and end your disputes. Obey God and His apostle, if you are true believers.” Filled with Persian words and Middle Eastern characters, it’s as if, Bunting critic Victoria Forde says, “the techniques acquired from translating Persian poetry have been meshed with the basic techniques refined under Pound’s influence to become in The Spoils Bunting’s own unique method.” The poem is complex—Bunting himself was never quite satisfied with it—and aims to contrast the traditional worldview of Semitic peoples with that of the materialistic modern West, critiquing the latter, especially in its treatment of death as an enemy of life:

            Man’s life so little worth,
            do we fear to take or lose it?
            No ill companion on a journey, Death
            lays his purse on the table and opens the wine. 

Sadly, a year later, the theme would be evoked even more intimately in one of Bunting’s most poignant poems, “A Song for Rustam.” As Ian Brinton explains:

In October 1952 Bunting heard the devastating news from America that his fifteen-year-old son, Rustam, who had been born after Bunting and his first wife Marian had separated, had died. Bunting had never seen his son and this death, coming hours after polio had been diagnosed, left him grief-struck for what could never be mended.

Bunting’s poem, included in a letter to Zukofsky on this terrible occasion and unpublished in Bunting’s lifetime, begins:

            Tears are for what can be mended,
            not for a voyage ended
            the day the schooner put out.
            Short fear and sudden quiet
            too deep for a diving thief.
            Tears are for easy grief.

Bunting’s versions of Persian poems have retained their currency. Much has been written about Pound’s obsession with economics. Bunting was far subtler, to say the least. With no small wryness—given the depressed economy of the thirties, when he began to translate Persian poetry—he called some of his translations “overdrafts.” As Richard Price sees it,

By calling these works “Overdrafts” Bunting publicly affirms that he has come to an understanding of indebtedness with the poets who, as it were, underwrite him. On that basis, he can only supply what is provisional—a draft—and must also in some sense obscure, write “over,” the work of his poetic betters. But to take out an overdraft is usually to smoothen cash flow problems: in this case by translating these works, the poet keeps his own poetry moving, in currency, in credit.

Bunting was not only prescient, as it turns out, with regard to the global economic crisis we’re experiencing today, but also for understanding—many decades before the Anglo-American legislators of the world, acknowledged and unacknowledged, did—the vast importance of Middle Eastern culture to ours. As he wrote in the foreword to Omar Pound’s landmark anthology, Arabic and Persian Poems in English: “Sooner or later we must absorb Islam if our own culture is not to die of anemia.” Throughout Basil Bunting’s long life, Persian poetry had given him sustenance, and taught him the long view:

Many well-known people have been packed away in cemeteries,
there is no longer any evidence that they ever existed.
That old corpse they shovelled under the dirt,
his dust’s so devoured not a bone of him’s left.

Naushervan’s honourable name survives because he was open-handed,
though a lot has happened since Naushervan died.

— Better be open-handed, What’s-your-name, (write it off: Depreciation)
before the gossip goes: ‘What’s-his-name’s dead.’


-- Excerpts from my introduction to Bunting's Persia, now available from Flood Editions; photo by David Atkinson, from his blog, Hit the North


Diann Blakely said...

Excellent work! I'm reminded of how lucky I am in the teachers I had, most pertinent here Donald Davie, who introduced me to Bunting and assigned a paper--which I still have!--on conciseness in his poems.

Michael Gushue said...

At the Crirical Flame: