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Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse.

This is a book for Bunting aficionados. The most interesting section is that entitled |Development' which sensitively weaves together biographical information and commentary in a way that illuminates Bunting's early work. Bunting's |religion of clearsight' is here related to the pantheism that informs Quaker belief and the literary influence of Dante, Wordsworth, and Walt Whitman; the poet's eye for detail and pattern continues to inform Makin's discussion of Bunting's work. Ezra Pound, however, was the most important influence on Bunting's poetic progress; he had an immediate effect on Bunting's writing, taking a pen to Villon and cutting it into shape just as he had done with Eliot's The Waste Land. Makin documents this relationship well, following carefully the way in which the two men's paths and ideas on poetry and translation crossed and converged. It is particularly interesting to read of Bunting's quarrel with Pound over anti-semitism; a letter written in 1938 concludes with the anguished statement: | is hard to see how you are going to stop the rot of your mind and heart without a pretty thoroughgoing repudiation of what you have spent a lot of work on'.

It was with Briggflatts, published in 1965, that Bunting finally found his own voice in a way that united distinctively personal history and a deep love of Northumbria and its art with the modernist dicta of Pound. It is here, however, that Makin's book begins to disappoint. In the Preface Makin claims that his |main aim is to show shape in Bunting's poems' and throughout he stresses, quite rightly, the musicality of Bunting's verse. Part II, devoted to Briggflatts, gives us much fascinating background material on warriors and saints but it takes the reader on a detour round the poem instead of engaging with it. Similarly, Part III, |The Form of Poetry', examines the Lindisfarne Gospels and music as analogues for Briggflatts; the conclusion - that |the real form of Briggflatts is both and neither; it is pure form' - is woefully weak. By this time Makin is merely aping Bunting's tendency to use analogue rather than analysis when talking about poetry. Sometimes commentary becomes slackly impressionistic: |The passage has shape in the way that a dog's leg has shape....', |A poem is a machine made of words' and |the best poets select better' are some of the less rigorous remarks that sprinkle the book.

Makin's study is also warped by a bad-tempered Part IV which, in taking up arms on behalf of Bunting's emphasis on things and the relation of this to the |real' world (for Makin entirely unproblematic, it seems), launches into a rather prolix attack on contemporary theory. His contempt for what Makin earlier describes as the |naive arrogance' of theory here becomes a long grumble about the work of Stanley Fish and Hayden White, which is compared pejoratively with Bunting's claims for the |autonomy of the poem'. This part of the book is entirely dispensable. Makin does not sully his hands with the tools of deconstruction which contemporary theory has given us; had he chosen to do so, he might have come up with some interesting questions concerning the gendering of modernism - not least the way in which Bunting's emphasis on masculine action and virility results in a concern with linguistic terseness and the |plainest words'. As it is, Makin accepts the mythology of modernism, which Bunting embraced, on its own terms and the book reflects this: Buntin's contempt for the |bloody poetic language' of Keats finds an echo in Makin's admiring statement that Darwin |was a man who did things'. If theory is to be junked, it has to be junked more intelligently than this.
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Author:Horner, Avril
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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