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A Note on Christian Wiman’s Reading of Basil Bunting

By Ange Mlinko

After more or less admitting that I think exhortations to political poetry are essentially religious, I finally get my hands on a copy of Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. There, in a brief on poetry and religion, Wiman writes, citing Tillich, “Art needs some ultimate concern.” At every turn, it seems, poetry is turned into a vehicle: for the avant-garde, for political engagement, for meaning against the Void. All these different appeals have one thing in common: they are teleological.
Teleology
Noun ( pl. -gies) Philosophy
The explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes.
Theology The doctrine of design and purpose in the material world.
ORIGIN mid 18th cent.(denoting the branch of philosophy that deals with ends or final causes): from modern Latin teleologia, from Greek telos ‘end’ + -logia (see -logy ).
The great thing about Ambition and Survival, though, is that Wiman can’t quite get with the program. He trusts his nonteleological ear too much.


Wiman is susceptible to “the absolute truth of technique” and to the unexpected passion, so he can be unpredictable even to himself:

The only antidote to contingency is an addiction to it. This is how I explain to myself my love for a poet like James Schuyler, who fulfills none of the formal expectations I have for poetry.

Wiman’s first sentence tries to save the appearances (we all do this, we who speak in prose about poems) but the second sentence owns up to the irrationality of it all: This is how I explain to myself my love … who fulfills none of the formal expectations I have.
You can see this conflict at work most dramatically in “Free of Our Humbug: Basil Bunting.” Wiman begins, “All through my twenties I read Basil Bunting with a kind of avid awe.” Years later he goes back to Bunting and realizes it’s a slog. What happened? One of the things that happened is that Wiman got tired of Modernist technique. “Art is about more than form in the end. It is also about life, about truth….” He thinks he can detect the places where Bunting’s feeling failed him and technique rushed in to fill the vacuum.
And yet!: “I don’t know of anyone who could more utterly fuse sight and sound …. Or carve language so closely to what Bunting called ‘the structure of event’ that to read the lines aloud is to feel the physical fact of what they describe…. Or make a music that so steadfastly refuses to rise above physical facs, refuses to be separate from things…. Or so often simply take your breath away with the beauty of individual passages….”
It seems that the ear has reasons of which the reason knows not. Wiman concludes by confessing:

Articulating my own objections to Bunting’s work mostly dissolved them. You can’t read poetry with some ideal conception of it in mind any more than you can live that way. I am not moved by the ostensible subjects of Bunting’s poetry and find myself frustrated if I attend too closely to the poetms at basic levels of narrative and psychology. The way to read Bunting, I think, is to trust him utterly at the level of music, and little at the level of subject matter.

Read this way, the poems can be quite moving …

Thus we have journeyed to the opposite pole from “Art needs some ultimate concern.” Hopkins coined the term inscape as shorthand for what Wiman describes as “carv[ing] language so closely … that to read the lines aloud is to feel the physical fact of what they describe….” It’s the very definition of poetic transcendence, and a perfectly material one.
It can’t be a coincidence that “Free of Our Humbug” is the penultimate essay in Ambition and Survival, coming before the (by now famous) confessional finale. It too confesses: What is is not what ought to be. Poetry of genius confounds our expectations. It’s not an easy paradox. I sympathize with it because I suspect my own version of Ambition and Survival would be a neat mirror image of Wiman’s: the poet who was not tired of Modernist technique, but who found herself sometimes wondering if material transcendence is wholly material.
Postscript It’s a pity that those who think Wiman is a kind of rhyme-and-meter fundamentalist are least likely to read the book, which makes it abundantly clear that he isn’t. I spent the better part of Sunday night reading the book for the pleasure of its prose (I had a copy of Kenneth Cox’s criticism too, but suffice to say it languished by my elbow). I’ve heard that poets can’t always write prose. I confess I’m prejudiced toward strong prose styles, and I don’t quite understand how one could write good poetry but not good sentences.

Comments (4)

  • On November 26, 2007 at 11:18 am Don Share wrote:

    About Bunting “at the level of music,” he was influenced by such things as Byrd’s music, heard when he was very young, and he actually wrote a music column in the 1920s; later on, in talking about composing poems he called “Sonatas” (e.g., “Briggflatts”) he said:
    “I had some knowledge of music and I had arrived via a somewhat strange route at the conclusion that poetry should try to take over some of the techniques that I only knew in music. So that when I discovered Eliot writing poems and calling them ‘Preludes’, even though the resemblance, to say, Chopin’s Preludes was slight and superficial, I was extremely interested.”
    Late in his life (1972) he wrote, in a letter to Victoria Forde:
    “Music has suggested certain forms and certain details to me, but I have not tried to be consistent about it. Rather, I’ve felt the spirit of a form, or of a procedure, without trying to reproduce it in any way that could be demonstrated on a blackboard. (There’s no one-one relationship between my movements and any of Scarlatti’s). You could say the same about the detail of sound. Eliot—and Kipling—show prodigious skill in fitting words to a prearranged pattern, very admirable: yet they don’t do it without losing some suppleness…. Critical notions are in control from the outside so that the poem is constrained to fit them, as though it had never been conceived in the form it wears… My matter is born of the form—-or the form of the matter, if you care to think that I just conceive things musically. There’s no fitting, at least consciously. Whatever you think I am saying is something I could not have said in any other way.”
    Introducing his collected poems, he summed it up this way: “With sleights learned from others and an ear open to melodic analogies I have set down words as a musician pricks his score, not to be read in silence, but to trace in the air a pattern of sound that may sometimes, I hope, be pleasing.”
    All that said, I think I trust Bunting at the level of subject matter, as well… but that’s another story!

  • On November 26, 2007 at 5:49 pm Ange wrote:

    I love these quotes. Temperamentally, at least, I feel close to them. Do you agree with Chris that the best book on Bunting is Peter Makin’s Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse? Are there others?
    Oh I read Bunting for sense as well as sound too! The extravagance of his regret in “Briggflatts” may seem like a contrivance to some, but where would poetry be without excesses?

  • On November 26, 2007 at 7:45 pm Steve wrote:

    Don, is your Bunting edition out yet?
    Another good book on Bunting is the biography by Keith Alldritt, The Poet as Spy. After reading it I can say that I trust Bunting on almost everything (except perhaps the age of consent). Victoria Forde’s own book is useful but not as good as the Makin study. There aren’t many others, or not yet. Lots of essays, though, many of which are collected in a National Poetry Foundation tome. Donald Davie wrote well and admiringly about Bunting several times, and Cyril Connolly, believe it or not, admired and understood Briggflatts and said so in print.
    The preface Don quotes above also includes the memorable sentence “A man who puts together his Collected Poems screws together the boards of his coffin.”
    There should be more Bunting everywhere.

  • On November 26, 2007 at 9:11 pm Don Share wrote:

    Steve says, “There should be more Bunting everywhere.” Well, there will be soon!!!
    Meanwhile, another book to look at if you can find it is The Star You Steer By: Basil Bunting and British Modernism, ed. by James McGonigal and Richard Price. The NPF tome is Basil Bunting, Man and Poet, a lovely book, indeed. A few bones have been picked over Alldritt’s book, but it’s a fun read. Peter Makin’s book is Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse, excellent and nicely detailed. Davie can be read on BB in the essay collection, Under Briggflatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain 1960-1988, a very interesting book — and classic Davies, too. And anything Peter Quartermain has written about Bunting is of great value.
    I’m hoping the forthcoming book will kickstart a BB revival, though really, he’s never been far away.


Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, November 25th, 2007 by Ange Mlinko.