Basil Bunting: Bunting’s saqis

I was grateful for Matthew Sperling’s positive review of A Strong Song Tows Us in Literary Review and like him hope for a revival of interest in this great poet. I should clarify my position on one point that Sperling raises, not because it represents a mild criticism of my book but because it opens up a much wider and more important issue. Sperling suggests that I may, in my account of Bunting’s apparent predilection for adolescent girls, be a victim of ‘wilful blindness to a clear pattern in Bunting’s life’.

I thought longer and harder about this particular issue than any other, and I did so precisely in the light of the post-Jimmy Savile media hysteria to which Sperling fairly refers. The fact that I describe Bunting’s relationships with these young women should indicate that I am not blind to the pattern. Sperling may be correct about an element of ‘stunted, nostalgic sexual desire’, but in current circumstances that is enough to turn the man into a dangerous sexual predator.  The reason for not drawing that conclusion is that there is not a shred of evidence that he was. I asked a number of people who knew Bunting well if they thought he had ever done anything for which he might be questioned in today’s febrile climate and received not one positive response. I am not blind to the possibility that they may have been protecting him but most of them had no particular motivation to do that. I am not suggesting that Matthew Sperling is making this particular leap from ‘pattern of relationships’ to something more sinister, but others undoubtedly will.

One of Bunting’s saqis, Hugh Kenner’s daughter Lisa, wrote about her relationship with the poet. Her account of a reading at which she officiated is a touching account of friendship across generations: “I was inexplicably moved. All thoughts of the hard bench and the itches on my nose and my aching back left me. I was no longer mesmerized by his eyes; actually, I felt that I could not truly see them, because they were not registering on this plane. It was his voice – raspy, deep, purring, falling like water – that carried me away to a level of thinking which I can barely describe, truly remember or convincingly relate. All I know is that we were alone (he and I) in poetry. We were a self-sufficient unit which read poetry and poured wine … What else could I feel but love for this old man who linked arms with me at cocktail parties … After going upstairs and pulling out the book of poetry he autographed for me, I flip through the pages trying to impress on myself the genius of this man. All the same, it is not a celebrated English poet whom I miss; rather an old man who shared a week of his life with a lonely ten-year-old.

As Sperling says, it is a ‘delicate issue’ and I tried to handle it with care. Bunting’s saqis are around to tell their own stories if they choose to. I suspect that Lisa Kenner told us all we need to know.