New release: A strong song tows us by Richard Burton
How can it be that one of the greatest and (eventually) most successful British writers of the 20th century could die in unmanageable poverty and be unremembered just twenty-five years after his death? Basil Bunting (1900-1985) was Britain’s greatest modernist poet and yet A strong song tows us: The life of Basil Bunting is the first biography of the poet to take account of all the available evidence. It was, as Matthew Sperling says in his glowing review, a life that ‘seems almost implausibly replete’. Bunting’s work was admired by the finest writers of the twentieth century, including W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford and William Carlos Williams. Pound edited Bunting’s first published poem, ‘Villon’, as ruthlessly as he had T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and to the same stunning effect. His masterpiece, Briggflatts, catapulted Bunting to stardom and during the 1960s and 1970s he was the world’s most famous living poet, yet when he died he was practically penniless.
During his long life Bunting was an artists’ model, roadmender, sailor, balloon operator, diplomat, spy, journalist and lecturer. None of these was his true vocation – from an early age Bunting knew he was meant to be a poet. He lived in London, Paris, Rapallo, the US and Canada, and in Persia and Iraq, but his heart was always drawn to the north of England where he grew up and where he met the love of his life, Peggy Greenbank. Peggy remained in his mind throughout fifty years of separation until they were dramatically reunited after the publication of Briggflatts.
A strong song tows us shows why Bunting deserves to be recognised as a great modernist poet. Richard Burton explores Bunting’s fascinating life, takes a fresh look at some of his most important poems and unpicks the mystery of his disappearance from public consciousness. Click here to listen to a recent BBC Night Waves broadcast, in which Richard Burton discusses this topic with Anne McElvoy.
No twentieth century poet, not even Yeats, prickles the scalp quite as Bunting does. His voice is so assured, his lexical choices so deadly accurate, his timing so impeccable. You never find him reaching for effect, even when he delivers passages of the most precise, hard edged beauty:
Furthest, fairest things, stars, free of our humbug,
each his own, the longer known the more alone,
wrapt in emphatic fire roaring out to a black flue.
Each spark trills on a tone beyond chronological compass,
yet in a sextant’s bubble present and firm
places a surveyor’s stone or steadies a tiller.
Then is Now. The star you steer by is gone…
B. Bunting, Complete Poems, edited by R.Caddel (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2000)