“A triumph…Richard Burton’s thorough and companionable life of Basil Bunting gives us, at long last, the biography Bunting’s work merits and his readers deserve.”
Don Share, Editor, Poetry (Chicago)
”This is an extraordinary life, the tale of the century as it goes, and Richard Burton’s excellent detective work tells it vividly.”
Basil Bunting, one of the world’s greatest modernist poets, had an extraordinary life. As Matthew Sperling says in his glowing review of A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting in Literary Review it was a life that ‘seems almost implausibly replete’. Born in the mining village of Scotswood in Tyneside in 1900, after a largely Quaker education, during which at the age of 13 he met the love of his life, he left school in 1918 and went straight to prison as a conscientious objector. In Paris in the early 1920s after working as an artist’s model and road mender he was rescued from another spell in prison by Ezra Pound and Ford Madox Ford and became Ford’s assistant on the pioneering modernist magazine, the Transatlantic Review.
Excluded from France he found himself with Pound and W. B. Yeats in Rapallo on the Italian Riviera where he worked on sand boats and wrote the poems that formed the backbone of Pound’s influential Active Anthology. Bunting spent the first part of the 1930s in the Canary Islands but fled to London with his young family at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. After his newly pregnant wife left him and took their two children to the US he lived on a boat on the south coast of England, trained as a seaman and captained yachts in America.
During the Second World War his knowledge of classical Persian earned him a job as a translator in Iraq, after which he served as a spy in the region culminating in his promotion to Vice Consul in Isfahan. Compelled to leave the embassy because of his remarriage to a local woman, he became Middle East correspondent for he Times until he was thrown out of Iran by Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953.
Bunting’s work was admired by the finest writers of the twentieth century, including W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford and William Carlos Williams. Pound edited Bunting’s first published poem, ‘Villon’, as ruthlessly as he had T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and to the same stunning effect. His masterpiece, Briggflatts, catapulted Bunting to stardom and during the 1960s and 1970s he was the world’s most famous living poet.
Fame brought Bunting no relief from grinding poverty and he died at the age of 85, impoverished but with a lasting poetic legacy. How can it be that one of the greatest and (eventually) successful British writers of the 20th century could die in unmanageable poverty and be unremembered just twenty-five years after his death? Basil Bunting (1900-1985) was Britain’s greatest modernist poet and yet A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting is the first biography of the poet to take account of all the available evidence.
No twentieth century poet, not even Yeats, prickles the scalp quite as Bunting does. His voice is so assured, his lexical choices so deadly accurate, his timing so impeccable. You never find him reaching for effect, even when he delivers passages of the most precise, hard edged beauty:
Furthest, fairest things, stars, free of our humbug,
each his own, the longer known the more alone,
wrapt in emphatic fire roaring out to a black flue.
Each spark trills on a tone beyond chronological compass,
yet in a sextant’s bubble present and firm
places a surveyor’s stone or steadies a tiller.
Then is Now. The star you steer by is gone…