Q & A: Tom Pickard
Can you tell us what Basil Bunting’s work has meant to you?
I served a kind of apprenticeship to Bunting, taking my poems to him when I was sixteen or seventeen. He made his library available and introduced me to the work of his contemporaries—Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, William Carlos Williams, and others associated with the Objectivists, as well as to the older poets whom he studied and delighted in. He also sought to put me in touch with younger poets that he’d met when in North America—August Kleinzahler and the young Andrew Wylie, in particular. He also urged me to study the work of Hugh MacDiarmid and David Jones. Sometimes I’d get a rendering of poems by pitmen poets from the region. And he didn’t stop with English-language poets either, often reading me Ferdowsi or Dante in the original even though I was ignorant of both Persian and Italian and was only barely paddling in the shallows of English. He believed that the music of the language would convey its own meaning. In a reverse experiment I believe he also tried out some of my early poems in Geordie dialect on the tender lugs of Kleinzahler and other of his students on North American campuses in the early seventies.
My tendency, after Bunting’s urging to cut down as soon and as often as possible, means that several baggy lines end up as a short phrase. My preference anyway is for a taut music. His critical voice is always in my ear. I mean, I don’t think I would publish a poem if I thought that Basil would have considered it crap. And if I’m tempted to be lazy and leave a line slack to more easily convey a “meaning,” I can hear his candid reproach—“It doesn’t matter what you meant to say.” Although he strove to help me find my own voice, it is inevitable that he still resonates very deeply, and I probably echo him unconsciously on occasion. While attempting to answer another of your questions just now, I came across just such an echo—referring to sphagnum and peat. It was quite a shock to me.
Bunting also introduced me to Northumbria, often taking me to Lindisfarne or to see the Bewcastle Cross with its Anglo-Saxon carving of the Tree of Life. When visitors, such as Creeley or Ginsberg, would come to do a reading at the Morden Tower, we would invariably drive out next day to show them the rolling hills of Northumberland or the Gothic glories of Durham Cathedral, as well as the dark welcoming pubs with their clear cool beers that oiled his repertoire of amusing and often bawdy anecdotes.
Is the “scalpel song” that opens the poem related in any way to Bunting’s admonition to “take a chisel to write”?
I wasn’t consciously thinking of Bunting’s chisel maxim, only of how sharp and incisive the song of the wren was and how to convey the sense of menace running through the rippling beauty of it. The creature’s song is so loud it always amazes me to hear it and to see the diminutive body that issues such volume flitting about the undergrowth.
Bunting’s work strikingly combines historical with personal motifs. This poem leans more toward the latter. Given that he was an important influence, how would you say your work might be distinct from his?
Although Bunting had a plan or diagram for Briggflatts, I would argue that it was as much a walk in the dark for him as for anyone beginning to compose an original work. I’m sure that when he set off on his journey he wasn’t fully aware of what he’d find and had to leave much to chance. I mean, I don’t think that he lay down the blueprint and joined up the dots. There were key figures and emotions in mind, but they were distant mountains, and there was a lot of unknown territory between him and them.
As he began the journey of Briggflatts, Bunting was able to discover new territory and chart the landscape as he hacked his way through it, heading for the mountains that peaked over the jungle. But he found that he was also able to place material already to hand. His “Coda,” the perfect end to Briggflatts, was written—on the back of a tax return envelope—long before he’d even thought about the poem. Naturally, he was always thinking about form and taking pleasure in the masters and mistresses of it, and spent a lifetime studying it—but he also gave me some advice that I very much took to heart. As a young man I asked him, “What about form, Basil?” He replied, “Invent your own.” That off-the-cuff response to my earnest query over a beer one night—invent your own—is tattooed, as it were, on my writing hand.
As for “Lark to Merlin,” after writing brief lines—responses to landscape, clouds, wind, a love affair—I began to assemble them and realized that I had been writing the same poem over a long period without knowing it. I can understand Bunting’s joy when he found that old tax return envelope. In fact I remember him in the mid-sixties, first taking a blue pencil (more like a bloody scythe) to my early poems and leaving only two lines standing. “Just hang on to it, you’ll find a use for it somewhere.” Bunting’s admonitions and strictures are never far from my mind, but I do occasionally trespass into uncharted territory for the hell of it. He encouraged experiment and suggested that we shouldn’t be afraid to fail. It’s almost an empirical approach to making poems.
The wren in the poem sings in the scalping winds; but you also hear different sounds: the hail spraying glass and a waitress’s laugh in a cafe without customers. Can you tell us more about this cafe?
The Hartside Top Cafe (pronounced kaff, or kaffy, locally) has been in Alston, Cumbria since 1902, when weary horses pulling wagons would stop for a rest and their drivers for refreshments having reached the summit. And later, when motor vehicles tended to more easily overheat, they would cool off after the steep incline and fill the boiling radiator with spring water before continuing their journey downhill. At just under two thousand feet above sea level, it is the highest cafe in England. Perhaps that makes me the highest poet in the uk?
The cafe is on an escarpment at the summit of Hartside Pass, in a place unfit for human habitation, really, as it faces directly west and is exposed to the prevailing Atlantic winds—which are often ferocious. In June 2002, though, when my marriage broke down and when the fells were bright and busy with wildlife, I rented the accommodation attached to the cafe. The new owners did not intend to occupy the small living quarters, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to lick my wounds in a solitary place so spectacularly situated.
The cafe is seasonal mostly and shuts up shop for the worst months of winter. As those months approach and the mountain weather closes in, customers become scarcer. On just such a day I have sat on my side of the partition, working or gazing out of the window at a thick cloud snaking over the hill and down into the valley, reducing the view to a few yards, while the girls in the cafe, having a break and chatting cheerfully, suddenly go silent. It is beautifully eerie, and I have witnessed it many times, with otherwise garrulous customers, too. Another sight I’ve been lucky enough to see when out walking as the hill fog bellies up the fells like a rapid tide and everything falls silent before it—a short-eared owl sometimes “surfs” ahead of the fog, silently hunting.
Would you say that the form of this poem is influenced by the landscape in which you live?
Yes, since coming to live in this wilderness I’ve noticed that the poems increasingly reflect the sparseness of this apparently featureless landscape. Or at least a landscape without many vertical features. It’s a truism to say that in an “empty” landscape the eye and mind assume a different sense of measure. The savage relentless beauty of it, hills just roll on ahead of you, and the sky laid out above. There’s a form to that: “I accrete—lichen to limestone/sphagnum to peat.”
Although in the North Pennines it is not difficult to get lost and die of exposure somewhere, the well-prepared hiker can walk for days and then find civilization, so it is nothing to compare with the vast, empty spaces of continental countries. But it remains, and has been described as, the last wilderness in England. It provides an opportunity to experience solitude and the raw elements, even to get lost or caught in a whiteout and perish. It is possible to encounter danger and a frequently changing and extreme beauty at the same time. The Romantic experience, perhaps—and Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog occasionally suggests itself. The almost constant winds so intrigue me that I’ve taken the Romantic experience even further by persuading a friend, the writer and musician Rebecca Sharp, to bring her Celtic harp out onto the fells with me to let the winds play the instrument while I recorded it.
In your part of the world, do the lark and merlin actually communicate with each other? Are they somehow symbiotic?
They are only symbiotic in the sense of predator and prey. Each spring I rejoice when the skylarks return because I can enjoy their liquid song and at the same time know that their presence will also bring back the merlin. It is grimly elating to witness a falcon chasing its prey, twisting and turning after each maneuver the smaller bird makes in its flight for life—sometimes singing as it goes. Something foolhardy and heroic in that. I have made several recordings of skylarks singing in fierce gales—nothing seems to keep them quiet.
But no, they don’t communicate with each other.
Why do you say that the pleasure of water is “unwritten?”
Nothing profound—it’s something of a black joke, as I’m toying with my mortality. If I didn’t die before writing the unwritten I’d live forever—like those images of Escher’s hands. A kind of jokey Hell. However, the laugh is a hollow one, and after a pause or space I “take up the task eternal” because I would like to be able to write a poem that expresses, to my satisfaction, the joy to be derived from water and a contemplation of what it is. A vain ambition.