A 2022 book that’s been on the way to us for a century: Letters of Basil Bunting (OUP), finally selected and edited, by Alex Niven, is a delight for Bunting fans and will be sure to help make new ones. If Bunting is new to you, of course do go to his poetry first, especially Briggflatts, but given Bunting’s varied life, don’t miss the letters. How could they fail to be lively and surprising when we are talking about someone who was a conscientious objector in World War I (and then had a nasty year in prison for his efforts) and yet by World War II was hoping to join the Navy but, having been rejected as unfit for service, realises that if he’s to be involved in the war he might need to get into service via his knowledge of Persian (and indeed does, becoming a spy).

For a flavour of the letters, here’s Basil Bunting writing to Louis Zukofsky in July 1964 with high praise for Pickard’s talent and asking for poems for a planned magazine: ‘He has no education to speak of, needless to say no money, and yet a wife and a baby. On this capital he has set up a poetry bookshop in a mediaeval tower […] He is engaged in trying to find the minimum for which he can get a printer to start on the job of producing his magazine. It can hardly be done, directly, for I don’t suppose he sells three books a day.’ Then he tells about the first reading’s audience: ‘About fifty, half academics, half teenagers, with a sprinkling of thugs, turned up to listen.’ And then on his reading in the Tower: ‘It was a curious experience, reading to these youngsters. They were not hindered by the difficulties that annoy their elders. They took poetry as poetry – a nice noise – without questions about its “meaning.” They laughed at the comic bits, they were rapt at passages of intricate metric that nobody ever took any notice of before – not that they understood what was attracting them, but it certainly did attract – and the piece about the sick child made at least one girl cry. I found it all very encouraging.’ It certainly seems to have been. Two years later Briggflatts was published.

Stefan Tobler

December 2022

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