Monday, June 1, 2009

Complete Poems

by Basil Bunting

edited by Richard Caddel

Sound clarifies a limit. To parse sound is also to partition a boundary – that is, sound may be a continuous element, but to manage it, we must break it down to a series of units. The increment is an integral component of our comprehension of a sounding. A shape can only be gleamed through the appraisal of parts. Basil Bunting’s poetry seeks the dimensions of such a boundary through the patterning of sound. The density of Bunting’s “Complete Poems” can be navigated through this sound. The clarity of these poems is a sonic one. Editor Richard Caddel argues that by reading these poems according to ear, “Word patterns which may at first appear dense and complicated on the page become articulated and clarified, resonating across the poem’s structure.” Reading for Bunting does not stop at a comprehension or interpretation of a text, but at a poem’s vocal resonance – its physical reading. Bunting maintained “…you should hear the ‘meaning’ of the poetry purely in the sound.” What I would like to consider, as we look at the slim, 240 page volume comprising Bunting’s complete body of work, is how sound further reveals intrinsic boundaries within language and perception. The sounding becomes the meaning, instead of a functional agent of meaning.

To reach a better appreciation of Bunting’s work, one must first acknowledge the constructed context he desired to place his poems within. One has to understand that the actual parameters of his work are a different thing than Bunting’s crafted idea of such. Bunting’s “Complete Poems” are complete in the manner of Marianne Moore’s “Complete Poems” - what we have before us is not a scholar’s conception of completeness, but rather a bid for unity. Bunting had the tendency to not only mercilessly prune not only his poems, but also his entire body of poetry into a cohesive whole. Where Ezra Pound may have courting this unity through the heat and sprawl of his “Cantos,” Bunting revised and rewrote. Cutting becomes one of the central acts of composition. One need only look at “Briggflatts,” the central poem in Bunting’s body of work, for “…an object lesson in precision, it was cut to its present length from over 2000 lines…” Or, you can note the strict organization of the “Complete Poems;” Bunting preferred his work to be divided into long poems, short poems and overdrafts. This is a deliberate shaping, not just of individual poems, but also of an entire oeuvre.

Such an endeavor is ultimately doomed to frisson and contradiction. Life and circumstance can do that, as Pound’s “Cantos” attest. In the Appendices of the “Complete Poems,” we find early school poems, such as “Keep Troth,” which betrays a militarist conservatism both in its formal conventionality and the strict dictum to “Keep troth, speak true for England,/ Be straight, keep troth, speak true.” Of course, it is unfair to judge a man based on his juvenilia, especially when the mature work exhibits such an ecstatic break. To “speak true” is a far cry from ‘Briggflatt’s “Flexible, unrepetitive line/ to sing, not paint; sing, sing,/ laying the tune on the air,/ nimble and easy as a lizard,/ still and sudden as a gecko,/ to humiliate love, remember/ nothing.” The hard strictness of Bunting’s English schooling gives way in the latter passage to sonic delight, as well as Bunting’s constant acknowledgement of the fundamental ambiguities and instability of life, even within the apparent fullness of sound. “Speak Troth” is the larval manifestation of a great poet, and must be seen in such a light. So why do I mention it? Because an ideal shape is impossible – there are always asymmetries, ruptures and ripples.

Richard Caddel, editing Bunting’s “Complete Poems,” allows us to enjoy the poet’s proposal for unity, while anticipating the inevitable cracks which must form. Look at the Marianne Moore’s “Complete Poems.” In the Penguin edition, we can read the final edit of “Poetry,” as well as flip to the notes and read the radically different, much expanded earlier draft. As Moore herself famously said, “Omissions are not accidents,” but then, omissions are present absences – they do not go away, they do not cease to exist. A hole is a thing as much as it is also a lack of other things. Bunting makes a statement reminiscent of Moore’s in his “First Book of Odes. “To a Poet who advised me to preserve/ my fragments and false starts,” Bunting responds, “ …my numerous cancellations prefer/ slow limpness in the damp dustbins amongst the peel tobacco-ash and ends spittoon lickings litter of/ labels dry corks breakages and a great deal/ of miscellaneous garbage…” This is interesting. While Marianne Moore’s omissions remain simply that, and undifferentiated so, Bunting gives a shape to his debris. And while stating an omission is not an accident foregrounds the premeditation in any such pruning, what Moore’s remark also does is stress the positive element in such editing. The “omission,” both the act and the actual, are not accidents or mistakes, but decisions, while Bunting’s “cancellations” are not only “not right,” but are most definitely “wrong.”

It would be wrong to charge Bunting with being a severely closed and limiting poet. The strictness and haughty disregard which sometimes creeps into shorter poems like “All the cants they peddle” in ‘the Second Book of Odes,” rarely infiltrate the longer works. Instead, the Bunting of the long poems, such as “Villon” or “The Spoils,” strives for an furtherance of a Modernism as espoused by such poets as Pound and Moore, as well as Louis Zukofsky and HD. His openness and sonic progressivism can best be seen in the long, autobiographical poem, “Briggflatts,” a work encompassing both Bunting’s earthy Northumbrian roots and the vastness of an “…archipelago of galaxies,/ zero suspending the world.” Sound tethers this piece together, both within the span of the line, and across its myriad narrative and symbolic shifts. The sonic integrity of the poem is an organic one springing forth from nature itself. The poem is a crafted thing, but it is crafted in acquiescence of the natural world. A sonic rightness is one that is birthed from the earth and in accordance with its natural patterns.

Within Bunting’s poetry, work can be a celebration of living, and should reflect the pulse of nature, whether it be the act of writing or more menial, physical labor. Each has its rightness, each has its function. We see a mason hard at work, as he “…times his mallet/ to a lark’s twitter,/ listening while the marble rests,/ lays his rule/ at a letter’s edge,/ fingertips checking,/ till the stone spells a name/ naming none,/ a man abolished./ Painful lark, labouring to rise!/ The solemn mallet says:/ In the grave’s slot/ he lies, We rot.” The poet is compared to the stonemason in a very real way. Words are as physical a thing as a stone – they both share a physicality. And in this sense, a poet must cleave and sculpt words as a mason does stone – both craft functional objects. The poet should practice the same attention to the world as the mason. Both individuals provides the names of things, as “the mason stirs:/ Words!/ Pens are too light./ Take a chisel to write.” The physicality of words also belie Bunting’s belief in their seriousness – the very drama of existence is played out through language, as “Every birth a crime,/ every sentence life.” If writing is then not just a creative act, but an act of creation, a purely representational text can carry little credence, as the text is an object in and of itself. It is Bunting’s attendance to the word as an object that sets him beside distinguished peers such as Zukofsky and Pound. Bunting understands “Brief words are hard to find,/ shapes to carve and discard..” His “numerous cancellations,” as discussed earlier, are for Bunting necessary, even if they are mistakes. But it is important to remember that he does not believe that a mistake is a necessary ‘product,’ that is, something accessible to a reader, but that it should remain an integral component in a process. When looking at the product of the poem, Bunting sees a mistake as a verb, and not a noun.

The margins of a word must be parsed or perhaps more aptly, hewn. A way, or a road, must be cut. We travel “Down into dust and reeds/ at the patrolled bounds/ where captives thicken to gaze/ slither companions, wary, armed,/ whose torches straggle/ seeking charred hearths/ to define a road.” What does a road do, but define boundaries? Here we see a road being used by an imperial, conquering fleet – man’s attempt to force form upon what is formless once beyond our subjective perception of them. A road may even possibly be constructed of rocks, aided by a mason, or laid down with pebbles. Within the very first stanza of “Briggflatts,” we see “…each pebble its part/ for the fells’ late spring.” But even though a pebble may be used to construct a road, it will remain a transient thing – it may be worn down, or like “Stars disperse. We too,/ further from neighbors/ now the year ages.” The symbolic function of the pebble shifts throughout “Briggflatts,” as Bunting continues to move through a variety of perspectives and modes.

Despite the poem’s concern for boundaries, Bunting is always cognizant of instability, as “Today’s posts are piles to drive into the quaggy past/ on which impermanent palaces balance.” It is true “Wheel and water/ grind an edge,” but water continues to erode a boundary. A form may be fixed in space, but it fluctuates in time. The wonder of such instability, though, is that it occurs slowly, at a pace unnoticeable. In that light, we must exist in awareness of the vast nonlinear whole of time, while at the same time aware of our own perception, which often bestows a shape through subjectivity.

Consider, then, “On the Fly-Left of Pound’s Cantos,” the final poem in Bunting’s “First Book of Odes.” Bunting addresses the sheer influence and import of the Cantos, as he also humorously satirizes their impenetrability and difficulty – “There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?/ They don’t make sense.” He then asks, “Who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?/ There they are, you will have to go a long way round/ if you want to avoid them./ It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,/ fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!” The joke, though, is that the Alps actually ARE going to crumble at some point, aren’t they? But this erosion will take so long that it will proceed at a pace alien to our perception. The Alps, the Cantos, or even our own perception of position, must be accounted for and dealt with. In fact, it is this very erosion, this digging into the rocks by the ice, which defines the character of the mountain, and provides a shape, albeit one that is always shifting as it erodes.

So “Who cares to remember a name cut in ice/ or be remembered?/ Wind writes in foam on the sea…” But the ripples of the wind are beautiful, even as they fade and disappear. Disappearance follows appearance, and they are both things – things to marvel at, and enjoy as they fade and rot.


Don Share said...

Faber's new critical edition is in the works for November, though may be delayed.

Richard Taylor said...

This is good - there is a YouTube video of Bunting reading a part of Briggflats.

It is an invigorating reading.

Allen Mozek said...

I was unaware Faber was working on a new critical edition of Bunting's work. I will need to look into that. Thank you for the information!