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Basil Bunting’s poem “Briggflatts” has been hailed as the successor to Ezra Pound’s “Cantos” and T. If Basil Bunting were not remembered for “Briggflatts”—his longest and best poem, first published fifty years ago—he might still be remembered as the protagonist of a preposterously eventful twentieth-century life. Bold rising star, Victoria Schwab, makes her whimsical, inspiring, and clever middle-grade debut.At a first glance, Aria seems like your average twelve-year-old girl.
By the age of fifty, he had been a music critic, a sailor, a balloon operator, a wing commander, a military interpreter, a foreign correspondent, and a spy. He had married twice, had four children, lived on three continents (and one boat), survived multiple assassination attempts, and been incarcerated throughout Europe.
He had also apprenticed at Ezra Pound’s poetic “Ezuversity” in Rapallo, played an “indifferent” game of chess with General Francisco Franco in the Canary Islands, and communicated with Bakhtiari tribesmen in classical Persian. She can dream things into existence, use her own shadow like a door, and change the world in small, important ways. Educated in Quaker schools, he was imprisoned for refusing to serve in the First World War—and released after a brief hunger strike—only to high-mindedly rush into the Second, during which he served in the Royal Air Force and MI6. Eventually, as he boasted to Pound’s wife, Dorothy, he became “chief of all our Political Intelligence in Persia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc.” As a London Times correspondent in Tehran, in 1952, he watched as a hired mob congregated outside his hotel and chanted, “DEATH TO MR. But to do that, she'll have to help three different girls.Aria's first mission is Gabby Torres. Soon after, he and his family fled the country, driving from Iran to Bunting’s mother’s house in England—a one-month trip—in a company car.
Marvel cup (slightly smaller than a shot glass) out of the quarter machine at the Winn Dixie grocery store down the street from my house.  Ms.
By the nineteen-sixties, though, Bunting’s life was at an uncharacteristic lull: he had spent the previous decade in his home of Northumberland, working at local newspapers, where he ended up subediting the business page and stock tables. He confessed in a letter to the publisher Jonathan Williams that his life had been “one of struggling to keep my belly filled and my children’s bellies filled, and no time whatever for literary pre-occupations.” His time as a chameleonic world-traveller, and as a poet, seemed to be behind him. From 1930 to 1951, the never-prolific Bunting had published several multi-movement “Sonatas,” a few dozen shorter “Odes,” and translations from Persian and Latin, which he modestly called “Overdrafts” (drafts, that is, penned over poetic predecessors—overdrafts taken on the literary treasury). Enchanted early by Pound—Yeats’s first impression of Bunting was of “one of Ezra’s more savage disciples”—Bunting obeyed Pound’s modernist commandment to “Make It New,” resuscitating and recombining past traditions. But he had published nothing since his apocalyptic war poem “The Spoils,” and he had never secured a British publisher, not even a small press of the sort that disseminated his work in the U.S.

Then, in the summer of 1964, Bunting received a phone call from the Newcastle poet Tom Pickard, who turned up at his house an hour later. There, in the turret room, sitting on the floor, Bunting found an audience he never anticipated: precocious students, proto-hippies, poetry-curious delinquents—the “unabashed boys and girls” to whom he would dedicate later collections. The idealism of this supportive subculture, with the Pickards’ young marriage at its core, seems to have sparked both Bunting’s return to writing and an unprecedented drive to “make new” his own adolescent experience. He started accumulating lines—a few on the commuter rail to work, a few more on the ride home—for an autobiographical poem, centered on a place of historical and personal significance: Brigflatts Meeting House, a couple of miles from the founding site of Quakerism and in the village where Bunting met his first love, Peggy Greenbank, in 1913, when he was twelve and she was eight. That overflowing of verse produced twenty thousand lines of raw material, Bunting would later claim.
In the January, 1966, issue of Poetry magazine, it sprawled across the first twenty-five pages. And it was a sensation: a spectacular second act to a long-neglected career, the assimilation of the American modernist long poem by an English writer.
Like other cultural touchstones of nineteen-sixties Britain—like the Beatles, like Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange”—the poem takes youthful exuberance and ingenuity with the utmost seriousness. And yet “Briggflatts” was the work of an unsentimental sixty-five-year-old, who was looking back on a life of incidents and accidents, wondering whether he could piece them all together.
Eliot—but it is grounded less in literary history than in the history of a single place: Northumberland, Bunting’s first and final home.
The poem’s first movement, set at Brigflatts, memorializes Bunting’s first love by cataloguing the remembered sounds of the landscape. And few love poems have ever been so alert to the facets of adolescent sexuality—the giddiness, the cluelessness, the sacrament—which Bunting dignifies with the same patient description he bestows on the natural world: He has untied the tape of her striped flannel drawers before the range.
Rainwater from the butt she fetches and flannel to wash him inch by inch, kissing the pebbles.
The poem embodies a concise equation that Bunting stumbled on in a German-Italian dictionary, and passed along to Pound, who quoted it in his “ABC of Reading”: DICHTEN = CONDENSARE, to write poetry = to condense. English, in “Briggflatts,” is compacted into mouthfuls crunchy with alliteration and internal rhyme. The star you steer by is gone, its tremulous thread spun in the hurricane spider floss on my cheek. Though some reviewers were exasperated by its difficulty, “Briggflatts” was received by most as a masterpiece, hailed as the successor to Pound’s “Cantos” and Eliot’s “Four Quartets” by such critics as Thom Gunn and Cyril Connolly.

Bunting went from obscurity to worldwide recognition, earning new admirers among the Beats (and the Beatles), invitations to read and record, critical celebrations, and the occasional attentions of documentary crews.
For years, Bunting’s poems bounced from publisher to publisher, occasionally going out of print. Bunting’s North American audience in particular dwindled—without Bunting there, on the stage or in the lecture hall, to give “Briggflatts” voice and embody its local origins, the poem’s vivid immediacy faded. This summer, Faber & Faber published “The Poems of Basil Bunting,” a long-awaited critical edition. Bunting’s arrival at Faber comes with a certain poetic justice: after enduring a stinging rejection by Eliot, the former Faber editor, in his lifetime, he has now been published alongside scholarly editions of Eliot’s work, and he looks every bit the major British poet. Over the phone, Share suggested that Bunting “is more important to us, and even more legible to us, now than he has been, because he was right about so many things early on.” Specifically, Share brought up Bunting’s reliance on performance (“He was kind of a proto-performance poet”), his gratitude to small presses, and his grounding of global concerns in a local community. These traits make Bunting sound less like a savage disciple in Pound’s posse than any number of twentysomething poets working today.
And Share’s judicious annotations help bridge any distance between Bunting’s local references and contemporary readers. Share’s notes, on the other hand, run to thirty-nine pages, and illuminate the poem’s embroidery of references—to sonata structure, Welsh prosody, Northumbrian history, sailing terms.
They reveal, too, how much Bunting freely divulged about his work, in chatty correspondence or editorialized recitals, to whomever would listen. Share also includes previously unpublished poems, translations, and false starts, reinstating material that Bunting pared down “too stringently,” in Share’s opinion.
Bunting does not give a poetry reading so much as a poetry bellowing, a poetry gargling, a falling-and-swelling, consonant-spitting, Northern English beat-boxing. He insisted that his poetry was scored for the “Northumbrian tongue,” and listening to his retuned vowels and tactically rolled “R”s, one hears an impeccable instrument performing a precise arrangement, with no misplaced emphases or unconsidered intonations—never a crabbed turn or congested cadence, never a boast or a see-here. Bunting’s larger-than-life biography might be the first thing to catch one’s attention, but his voice, which only gets better with age, is what will endure.

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