I wanted for years to read Briggflatts as it seemed to be an epic poem partially about Northumberland. But I was mistaken as it is more about its author, who described it as an autobiography. I did not get any particular sense of a Northumbrian sensibility from it apart from the use of “spuggies” in the epigraph, a spuggy being a Northumbrian word for a sparrow. Bunting compares a mason chipping away at marble to the poet scratching away at his verse, “litters his yard with flawed fragments” (Bunting seems often to reflect on his limitations as a poet).
Bunting is a Modernist poet like Elliot and Pound. The Modernists use concrete images as the building blocks of their verse. So there is great trouble taken over the use of actual, quite specific locations and phrases from other languages as if the mere inclusion of a place name or phrase is sufficient to convey atmosphere. I may be mistaken but they seem to be reacting to the Romantic poets. Whereas the Romantics deal with sensibility and emotion and the higher things generally, the Modernists treat of cities and people and language and history. At its worst this results in Elliott’s footnotes on the Wasteland, feeling that he has to explain his own verse. Bunting resists this. It is possible to read his poems accompanied by Wikipedia to explain the references but he does not make it a condition. One does not need to know about the river Rawthey and Eric Bloodaxe in order to appreciate Briggflatts.
Of his other poems I enjoyed Chomei at Toyama which tells of disasters befalling a city in medieval Japan, The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer which reads like a traditional ballad, What the Chairman Told Tom which is nicely comical, and his Overdrafts which are supposedly translations of foreign poets but seem more like rewritings.
The artist whom Bunting most reminds me of is actually Captain Beefheart. Compositions such as Well or Orange Claw Hammer present a stream of images and statements, not all of them logical, which are designed to create an impression in the mind of the listener through sound and juxtaposition rather than through meaning. Another similarity is through their affinity with and deployment of music. Obviously in the case of Beefheart since he sings but Bunting in his introduction to his poems says “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”. He collects some of his poems under the title of Sonatas (interestingly he uses the term for a piece of music to be played rather than one to be sung (cantata) – he claims to be writing instrumentals). Beefheart’s imagery is drawn from the American South, working in the fields, nature, the American desert, childhood and the Blues. Bunting draws on his own experiences of living in Europe, old literature and Western classical music.
Bunting writes of Pound’s Cantos “These are the Alps. What else is to be said about them. They do not make sense.” Sense is not necessarily to be looked for in this verse but that is not to say that it lacks meaning. Briggflatts has a narrative going from early infatuation with a girl to wanderings through Europe and, fifty years later, to a return to home. “Then is diffused in Now”, despite his wanderings and experiences he still remembers the girl “she has been with me fifty years”. Isn’t that lovely.
Here is Bunting together with the girl in question more than fifty years on with Brigflatts in the background.