Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bunting Re-Evaluated

The role of Basil Bunting as poet laureate of Northumbria is re-evaluated here by Tynesider Keith Armstrong. The essay was drawn to my attention by Alistair Noon. I think Armstrong makes some valid points: I'm all for questioning the power of the 'vast cultural umbrella' bequeathed by twelve years of New Labour, and the consequent 'hegemony ... of local authorities and the Arts Council and many other unaccountable quangos'. It's also fine by me to re-evaluate Bunting in general, and, as I said to Alistair, I certainly wouldn't hold Bunting up as a moral paragon - his attitude to women, and ridiculous views on 'southrons' aren't things I'd admire (though to call him 'fascist', as one contributor does is just plain wrong). However, the article seems incoherent, and lacking in a clear argument. Armstrong rails against the 'literary intelligentsia' as opposed to the 'grass roots' (in fine 1970s-style Old Labour language), but it's hard to see exactly why he objects so much to Basil Bunting. He quotes Peter Riley's objection to Lee Hall's recent radio programme, and the way it propagated a North v South mythology; but that's hardly Bunting's fault, and more to do with the fantasising of Barry MacSweeney. He trots out a series of poets who don't like Bunting's work, though as none of them substantiate their views with quotation or detailed comment, they are really just matters of opinion. A number of contributors question the authenticity of Bunting's accent; I agree that in the recordings I've heard it's over-exagerated, but I can detect authentic pronunciation of Northumberland (as opposed to Tyneside) speech under the put-on, and, in any case, Bunting's poetry wasn't a poetry modelled on everyday conversation. So, as I've said, it's hard to work out precisely what his objection to Bunting is. One clue might be his comments on Tom Pickard's and Barry MacSweeney's poetry:

" [their] collections make monotonous reading... Their work is virtually inaccessible to those unable to share the crude and simplistic emotions or tolerate the inarticulateness of the language which goes as near to using words without meaning as one can. "

Whether it's actually possible to use words 'without meaning' is a moot point, but, by contrast, talking about the poetry of working class poets like Joseph Skipsey, the coal-miner, and Tyneside shipyard worker Jack Davitt, Armstrong says "What these poems lack in literary technique they more than make up for in their refreshing openness and accessibility". The question here is: is there something fundamentally different about poetry when it's written by - or written for - 'working-class people'? It seems rather patronising to suggest that the working classes (however that's defined) can only cope with "openness and accessibliity". The mental processes and the perceptions of the world experienced by a coal-miner or truck driver aren't essentially different to those of a doctor or lawyer. W.S. Graham was a working-class poet; apprenticed as a shipyard engineer at fourteen, he remained until he'd served his time at twenty-one, and throughout his life worked at casual jobs, including work as a fisherman on a trawler. But his poetry addresses philosophical and perceptual questions, and can be as complex as any. And when does a working-class person cease to be working class once he / she becomes a poet, or gets an education? Is Keith Armstrong working class? Maybe, but he also has a PhD from Durham University. Growing up, as I did, in a working-class community, one thing I learned is that you can't pigeon-hole people. The shipyard workers and miners who were our neighbours were as complex and contradictory as any other human beings; any poetry written or read by such people would have needed to reflect that.


Kathz said...

This is something of an oblique comment because I haven't followed the link. However I'm an admirer of the poetry of both Basil Bunting and Joseph Skipsey and was disappointed, some years ago, to read Bunting's introduction to a selection of Skipsey's poems in which Bunting is very grudging in his praise of Skipsey. You can find the essay on-line at I'm not convinced by his criticism of Skipsey using the dialect of the south - the words he cites are present in Scots and may well have travelled south during Skipsey's life. I also suspect that Skipsey read Heine in the original rather than in translation since this would not have been unusual for a self-taught poet of his generation. The difficulty of reading Skipsey (and many self-taught poets of that time) is that they didn't have much access to contemporary writing or debate about poetry and found their models in the past and in poetry abroad.

Anyway, I don't see an opposition between my enjoyment of Bunting and my enjoyment of Skipsey - I am fortunate to have access to the work of both. But then, I don't see poetry as a competition.

Alan Baker said...

Thanks for that Kath - it's very refreshing to hear your "I don't see poetry as a competition" (didn't Dylan Thomas say something similar?). It's easy to forget, when you're involved in the "scene" that to the general public, these squabbles are incomprehensible. Armstrong's essay, and my response, could be seen as a bit of poetic in-fighting.

I've read Bunting's essay on Skipsey, and I take your point. I think, though, you have to see Bunting's comments in the context of his general attitude, which was High Modernist and which focussed on the details of the craft of poetry in reaction to what he, and other modernists, saw as a reaction to late Victorian and Geogian sloppiness. There's also, of course, an element of paternalsim, and - dare I say it? - elitism.

I don't know enough of the dialect background to comment on Skipsey's use of southern diction, however, he was a Tynesider, but, as his dialect had no written form, he was obliged to write down his poems in standard English.

I think Skipsey was a wonderful poet. His self-education, given the circumstances of his childhood (working in the mine from the age of seven) is astonishing. Do you really think Skipsey read Heine in the original? That puts the likes of me to shame, for sure.

Ed Baker said...

competition and comparison


this ain't no football game!

I grew up (yes I did) in a moma-popa grocery store 7 block from the US Capitol Building

when I was 6-ish my favorite daywas Friday
when, after school my job was to clean/dress/eviscerate the fresh/dead fishes

I tell you

it (the work made me the famous fish-poet that I am today


I read BB's work aloud (when I do) and take great

P L E A S U R E in hi/mine own voices..

it s like a trio singing


enough about y'all
let's talk/write about me...

John B-R said...

One could say about Bunting what Bunting said about Pound's Cantos, but of course that would just be rhetoric, in the bad but fun sense. I don't think - neither do you, apparently - that we are obliged to read anyone uncritically, and by that I mean with our whole humanity turned off.

My favorite bit of this post is "... Their work is virtually inaccessible to those unable to share the crude and simplistic emotions or tolerate the inarticulateness of the language which goes as near to using words without meaning as one can."

I feel sorry for people who have no crude or simplistic emotions (can you imagine a life without love, or lust, or anger, or the other of the 7 deadly?).

I doubt there are any other kinds of emotions, actually. They all seem pretty reptilian-brain to me ...

Aidan Semmens said...

Not seeing poetry as a competition seems to me very wise, but also strangely unusual (among poets).
I was pointed towards Armstrong's piece by Ric Caddel's daughter Lucy, who took understandable exception to its tone - her dad, though not mentioned in the piece, was curator of the Bunting archive and therefore inevitably partial.
Actually, I thought there were a number of valid, or at least interesting, points made by Armstrong, but his predominant tone was simply one of snobbery. Also not unusual in this game, I fear.
I've not read Skipsey, but this conversation makes me more inclined to seek him out than Armstrong's advocacy did.

Alan Baker said...

I think you're right Aidan; snobbery - inverted, that is - was the dominant tone. It's also rather contradictory: Neil Astley was berated because he was born in the south (though to my knowledge, he's lived in the area for at least 20 years); so much for criticising Bunting's attitude to 'southrons'; and also because he was middle-class, though looking thorugh Armstrong's extensive CV at the end, his livelihood seems to have been gained in much the same way as Astley's; as an arts administrator and general impresario. However, I think, somewhere under the strangled argument, there might be some truth. The 'Basil Bunting Prize', for example - Astley's latest money-spinning venture - does seem like a travesty, trading on Bunting's name big-time.

Kathz said...

I don't know whether Skipsey read Heine in the original but I'd think it likely. For a sense of the ambition of C19th self-taught poets, see the chapter of Thomas Cooper's Autobiography which sets out his early plan for study - and which also shows the difficult arguments about dialect and accent versus "speaking with propriety". The difficulty for working-class writers can be the insistance of some members of the literary and academic establishments to insist that there's a right way to be a working-class writer, thus restricting the options available. I think this is the problem I have with Bunting's introduction to Skipsey - while I see Bunting's perspective I'm worried that what he imposes are read, in the context of workin-class poetry, as a set of further prohibitions.

Alan Baker said...

Thanks for the link to the Thomas Cooper page Kath. Fascinating stuff.