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.