Ezra Pound in Basil Bunting’s Letters

A Conversation with Alex Niven


Interview by Roxana Preda


I met Alex Niven at the EPIC in Philadelphia in June. His paper delineated a fascinating project – an edition of Basil Bunting’s letters. Listening to his presentation, I was struck by the realization that the stray letters I had been reading at Beinecke and Lilly were not yet published in a volume. I could not believe it at first.

RP – So Alex, tell me, how come that Bunting’s letters are still unpublished? What is their state at the moment, and what are the parameters of your project? How many letters are there and have they been published at least in part?

AN – I think fundamentally there is an issue of belated recognition when it comes to Bunting, outside of quite specialised Poundian and modernist poetry circles. It’s only really over the last three or four years, with the appearance of Don Share’s definitive edition of the poems, and Richard Burton’s substantial biography, that he’s approaching full-on canonical status and acquiring a wide readership. So there’s an appetite for a book like this that perhaps wasn’t there a decade ago. More and more younger scholars are writing on Bunting. Don Share is working on an edition of the prose. Up to now a tiny number of the letters have been published more or less complete (for example, much of the correspondence with Jonathan Williams) and a much larger number have been quoted from in the available literature (for example, path-breaking studies by Share, Burton, Keith Alldritt, Victoria Forde and Peter Makin). However, the vast majority of the correspondence is unpublished and currently accessible only in archives in Durham University, the Beinecke, the Lilly, and a few others in Britain and the States. My edition is a first attempt to present the flow of Bunting’s correspondence in something like its complete form, though in discussion with the publisher (OUP) it was decided that a selected edition would be wise in the first instance.

RP – An edition of selected letters! That is disappointing! Can there conceivably be a good side to selection?

AN – Well, the correspondence is of a relatively small size, partly due to a number of lacunae in Bunting’s life and work, most obviously the fact that he was not really a functioning poet for many of his 85 years. The final edition will probably contain a little under 250 of around 500 letters. Filtering out repetitions, duplications, short notes, family digressions and so on, that will hopefully be a pretty comprehensive collation of the available material, and with the added bonus of being slightly more readable than an edition that includes absolutely everything Bunting ever wrote.

RP – Can a selection of letters then give an idea of Bunting’s life? by example and snapshot if you like?

AN – I hope so! I like the phrase ‘snapshot’—collage is another good analogy. There have been a number of editorial motivations while working on the manuscript. I think foremost is the desire to present something like a lost Bunting autobiography, a narrative consisting exclusively of his prose voice that’s mostly free of interpretation outside of minimal annotation (though I claim the editor’s privilege of outlining a few interpretative thoughts in the introduction). There are countless statements by Bunting pouring scorn on the whole notion of publishing letters—I’m tempted to collate them on the epigraph page! But I also think that, given the inevitability of the letters appearing at some point, and the fact that they are anyway accessible in archives, trying to present an empirical account of Bunting’s life based solely on his testimony is the fairest way to do it.

RP – Well, he might have disapproved, but it’s not up to him any more. For instance, I have come across his first letter to Pound, at Beinecke, if I’m not mistaken. Is it true that EP got Bunting out of jail? That is stuff for a novel!

AN – Yes, Bunting’s letter to Pound from jail in Paris in 1923—one of the earliest in the correspondence—is absolutely priceless. Bunting had been locked up after a drunken escapade, and Pound did indeed stump up the cash to get him released. Bunting’s thank you note to Pound is both very sweet and very funny, and it kick-started an incredible prose dialogue that lasted, on and off, until 1970. This for me is the heart of the correspondence, along with the exchanges with Louis Zukofsky, although unfortunately very few of the letters written to Bunting have survived (Bunting blamed the geographical upheavals of World War II, but as mentioned, he was also not a huge fan of stockpiling letters for the sake of posterity). There is a large number of incredibly rich, lengthy letters to Pound and Zukofsky which give a fantastic sense of what was happening to Anglophone poetry in the mid-twentieth century. The sheer refinement of the writing in these exchanges can be breath-taking—this group clearly saw the letter as a medium for talking about literature, art and politics with a huge amount of subtlety and sophistication.

RP – Yes, I did come across a few letters and Bunting’s tone seemed to me very strong, very authoritative. He was young, but treated Pound as an equal, not a disciple or a protégé. Did you have this impression that Bunting has loads of confidence and is inventive and, well, dramatic, in what he writes to others?

AN – Denis Goacher once said that Bunting was vain about his writing to the point that every letter he wrote had to be a small masterpiece. I’m not quite sure about that, but it’s true that his style is very bold, and confident in the sense that he tells it like it is and doesn’t mince words. Even on a superficial level, there are remarkably few typos and grammatical slip-ups in the manuscripts. His approach to letter writing—and for that matter writing in general—might be described as ‘no messing’, as we say in the UK. But it’s also true that he liked a good yarn, and there are plenty of grouchy and bitchy comments about fellow poets, especially in later years.

RP – Coming back to Bunting’s relationship with Pound… can you outline for me a coherent picture of their friendship from start to finish? Most Poundians find Bunting at the Ezuversity in the 1930s and see this more like an isolated episode, a period of longer mentoring. But what happened to Bunting in the 1920s, before he came to Italy? Were the two poets in contact?

AN – Aside from the letter from jail in 1923, and a handful of others, there are very few letters either to Pound or indeed anyone else that survive from the 1920s, which is a shame. However, it’s also true that Bunting’s career as a poet only really got off the ground after 1930, most emphatically during his long, final spell at the “Ezuversity” in Rapallo (1931-33), when he wrote the lion’s share of his early oeuvre. The few extant letters to Pound from the twenties are quite jejune, but he very quickly reaches a tone of intellectual parity with Pound, of a kind that perhaps only Eliot also achieved. By the 1930s Bunting was providing Pound with long commentaries—I suppose you might call them reader reports—on the big prose works of the period, the ABCs and Guide to Kulchur. I could be wrong, but as far as I’m aware, I don’t think anyone else, bar Zukofsky, kept faith with Pound to quite the same degree during this period. This was a very deep, intellectually involved relationship, which is borne out by Pound’s dedicating Guide to Kulchur to Bunting and Zukofsky—his fellow “strugglers in the desert.” But then there was a famous falling out at the end of 1938, documented in an astonishingly forceful letter in which Bunting takes Pound to task for anti-Semitism.

RP – So the Italian period until 1933 is not so well represented in letters?

AN – This is certainly the least well-documented period of Bunting’s adult life, although he also wrote very infrequently in the late-1950s, when he felt his career as a poet was definitely over. There is quite a lot of material from 1931, however, when Bunting visited New York and integrated with the Objectivist circle.

RP – Did Bunting take part in Pound’s projects, for instance was he informed about the writing of The Cantos or about Pound’s concert organising?

AN – Bunting was directly involved in both. He wrote reviews of the Rapallo concerts in Il Mare, which have survived, and The Cantos recur time and time again throughout the correspondence. For instance, there’s a recurrent dialogue about the “Ecbatan” motif—Bunting provided bits of information about it as a kind of Middle East expert. There’s quite a funny moment in the fifties when Bunting finally visits Ecbatana during his Persian phase, and writes to Pound to say, actually, it’s quite an ordinary, even boring place. That’s the Pound-Bunting relationship in a nutshell!

RP  So how did their communication and relationship change after 1933?

AN – 1933 is a key date because Bunting left Rapallo for Tenerife at the end of that year, and you can see him attempting to carry over the spirit and energy of the Rapallo scene in letter form after that point. Bunting had very little to do in Tenerife, and was undergoing a kind of personal crisis; he put an incredible amount of time and effort into his letters to Pound in these years, partly as a result. 1933-36 is really the high watermark of their dialogue.

RP – How did Bunting’s aesthetics acquire their identity – was it by opposition to The Cantos, by seeing a job done and going into another direction?

AN – Pound was certainly a point of antithesis to some extent, in spite of his great influence on Bunting and their personal friendship. We might see the whole of Bunting’s career as an attempt to move beyond Pound, and perhaps this is one reason why it took him so long to make the big leap forward that was Briggflatts, self-consciously a break from first-generation modernism, as well as a kind of précis of it. There’s a very interesting letter from 1935 in which Bunting talks about the demise of “this indirect business,” by which he means the psychologism and inwardness of literary modernism. Bunting says that, even in The Cantos, Pound is concerned with the human mind, whereas he was far more interested in human actions and the external world. This was part of a creative journey that began with his translation of the Persian epic Shahnameh in the thirties and climaxed with Briggflatts, which is very much a “tale of the tribe,” to invoke another side of Pound, in spite of its autobiographical frame. Bunting quibbled with the term “Objectivist” but his big contribution to modern poetry was this emphasis on realism, his sense that the poem is an objective artefact embedded in society, as opposed to a merely subjective utterance.

RP – We know that all through the period of their friendship Pound was engaged in musical studies, composition, and even concert management. How much was Bunting’s musically inclined and did music play a role in his finding a way for his own poetry? Did the two poets argue on music as well?

AN – Bunting was certainly very musically inclined, though he was never quite as savvy as Pound when it came to implementing actual musical projects. Bunting’s music journalism of the late 1920s shows the influence of Pound quite heavily, and no doubt they talked and argued quite a lot about music in Rapallo in person. But I think it’s fair to say that Bunting’s most assertive statements advocating poetry-as-music and reading aloud date from the mid 1960s, when he’d dropped out of contact with Pound. Their exchanges of the thirties are more concerned with literary and political subjects. But again, I think Bunting’s understanding of the relationship between music and poetry embodied a kind of shift away from Pound. Even up to the end of his life, Bunting echoed Pound’s late-Romantic sense that music is a touchstone for the ineffable in poetry. But he was also able to move beyond Pound in the 1960s by realising that poetry could be enlivened by being placed in a context of live reading and performance, which is something Pound never quite got around to, at least not to the same extent.

RP – Being together with Pound in Italy during the early 1930s must have been permeated by the political atmosphere. Did they quarrel a lot on political matters? And was Bunting as politically engaged as Pound?

AN – Bunting can be both heroic and irritating when it comes to politics in the exchanges of the 1930s. Heroic because he was one of the few people brave enough to stand up to Pound’s fascism and anti-Semitism: he really was very assertive and consistent in this. Irritating because Bunting often plays the sceptical middleman between Pound’s fascism and Zukofsky’s communism, deconstructing both sides without ever really advocating an alternative. He was very intellectually engaged in political subjects but not really inclined toward political activism. In spite of the distaste he showed for English bourgeois culture, he was a typical English Liberal in this sense, although his politics did vary quite considerably over time.

RP – Did politics, Fascism, anti-Semitism, destroy their friendship? Pound lost a lot of good friends and contacts because of his economic and political views.

AN – It was mainly the anti-Semitism that provoked their falling out of 1938, and even in the fifties, this was still a bone of contention, to put it mildly. Bunting was more tolerant of Pound’s fascism and attempted to engage with it discursively, even if he wasn’t sympathetic.

RP – Bunting was in contact with other intellectuals and poets of Pound’s circle. Who were they, whom did he know and what did he think of them?

AN – Zukofsky of course was a great friend, and a more durable correspondent even than Pound. Bunting was also very fond of William Carlos Williams, though more distantly than Zukofsky. The relationship with Eliot was famously complicated: Bunting attacked Eliot in print on a couple of occasions, and Eliot returned the compliment by refusing to publish Bunting at Faber and Faber. Bunting always spoke highly of Yeats after they met in Rapallo in the late twenties. He speaks very unfavourably of James Laughlin, on the other hand, whom he describes as ‘not a serious character, only a bank balance’!

RP – Ouch! That is certainly not the way we see Laughlin today. How did Bunting react to Pound’s indictment and incarceration? Did he ever visit? Was he moved by compassion, or did he think that Pound had to be punished and put away as dangerous to himself and others?

AN – This is a complicated matter, and it’s not 100% clear from the correspondence exactly what Bunting felt about Pound’s imprisonment at St. Elizabeths. Olga Rudge—and apparently Pound himself—felt that Bunting had been slightly disloyal in failing to drum up support for Pound’s release. Bunting explained this by arguing that Pound was better off in jail for his own self-preservation: i.e. he would have been attacked and vilified if released into the parlous climate of the immediate post-war years, that the better strategy was to keep quiet and wait patiently for the political mood to change. Bunting was on much better terms with Dorothy Pound who he corresponded with at length in the post-war years, so it’s possible that in this matter he found himself in the middle of Pound’s complicated tangle of personal relationships.

RP – Did the two poets correspond in the 1950s and later? What was the epilogue of their relationship?

AN – After the split of 1938 there was a long silence (partly, of course, because of the war). But they resumed correspondence quite quickly after hostilities ended, and there were a couple of very worthwhile exchanges in the 1950s, even if the old intimacy never really returned. Bunting was continually trying to meet with Pound in the sixties, but couldn’t quite manage it. Aside from the personal aspect, this is a great shame, because it would be fantastic to know what Pound made of Briggflatts.

RP – Alex, thank you so much for this conversation. We are certainly looking forward to this volume of letters!