Basil Bunting and Lorine Niedecker

In his Spectator review of my life of Basil Bunting, A Strong Song Tows Us, Wynn Wheldon asks if we ‘really need to read correspondence from someone who “nearly met Bunting”’, offering this as evidence that the book was ‘not terrifically well edited’. In my view A Strong Song Tows Us was expertly edited and it would be a shame if readers were discouraged from engaging with the life and work of Britain’s finest modernist poet by the suggestion that it wasn’t. The ‘someone’ in question here is the American poet Lorine Niedecker and it was only on the occasion of writing this particular letter that they ‘nearly met’. As is made abundantly clear in the book they did meet and formed a close poetic association. Bunting regarded Niedecker as ‘easily America’s finest female poet’ and her ‘Ballad of Basil’ captures his poetic independence with the surest of touches. As the only woman to be associated with the Objectivist movement in American poetry and as a formidable poetic talent in her own right it seems reasonable to record her opinion of Bunting, especially as the particular letter to which Wheldon objects is the only evidence we have that Bunting nearly went into business as a commercial fisherman.

She clearly loved his gravelly Northumbrian voice: ‘It was so pretty as we drove into our yard the evening we came home,’ she wrote to Cid Corman in October 1968. ‘So pr-r-r-r-it-ty as Basil said.’ She confided to Jonathan Williams that Bunting’s visit was a high point in her later life and by the end of 1967 she had completed ‘Wintergreen Ridge’:

Nobody, nothing
ever gave me
greater thing
than time
unless light
and silence
which if intense
makes sound
Unaffected
by man
thin to nothing lichens
grind with their acid
granite to sand
These may survive
the grand blow-up
the bomb
When visited
by the poet
From Newcastle on Tyne
I neglected to ask
what wild plants
have you there
how dark
how inconsiderate
of me

Niedecker and Bunting had the highest regard for each other. Her ‘The
Ballad of Basil’, in mentioning Bunting’s influences, quickly identifies him
as completely his own poet:

They sank the sea
All land
Enemy
He saw his boats stand
and he
off the floor
of that cold jail
(would not fight
their war)
sailed anyway
Villon went along
Chomei
Dante
and the Persian
Firdusi –
rigging
for his own
singing

Bunting said of Niedecker that ‘No one is so subtle with so few words’, and when she died in 1970 his daughter remembered her father’s anger that the event didn’t get the media attention he felt it deserved. A few years later he paid her a significant posthumous compliment: “There are some very fine female poets. One of the finest American poets at all, besides being easily the finest female American poet … – Lorine Niedecker never fails; whatever she writes is excellent.’ When Jonathan Williams was considering an edition of Niedecker’s poems in the 1960s Bunting was delighted. ‘Nobody else’, he complained, ‘has been buried quite so deep.’ He considered her a ‘much better’ poet than Emily Dickinson.