Review by Brad Haas

The Poet as Spy: the Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting

Keith Alldritt
Aurum Press, London 1998
hardcover £19.95

    Bunting's name is not as recognizable as Eliot or Pound, though his poetry, especially Briggflatts, ranks with the best of the century. This general ignorance can be attributed to the lack of supplementary books by or about Bunting. At this date books pertaining to Basil Bunting can be counted on one hand: there are two full length critical studies,The Poetry of Basil Bunting by Victoria Ford (Bloodaxe, 1991) and the seminal Bunting: the Shaping of His Verse by Peter Makin (Oxford, 1993). There is also Basil Bunting: Man and Poet edited by Carroll Terrell (National Poetry Foundation, 1981), part of an excellent series that includes volumes on Bunting's equally obscure contemporaries: Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, and Lorine Niedecker. These books aside, most of the important information on Bunting is rather hard to find, residing in out-of-print books and literary journals, private collections, and libraries.1  At present, one does not have a convenient way to find and read the bulk of Bunting's many prose pieces, nor his letters, nor his interviews.

    It seems grim, but could soon get better. The veteran Bunting scholar Peter Quartermain is currently finishing his edition of the 'Collected Prose', a daunting task hopefully to be completed in 2000. Unfortunately, the Bunting estate has so far refused to let the letters be collected, much to the chagrin of the students of his poetry.2  Add to this that there has never been a full length biography of Bunting, even though he led a life, unlike many literary men, interesting if he had written nothing. There has been no biography, that is, until now.

    The Poet as Spy: the Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting was due out October 1997, but did not arrive until September 1998. One hoped (as one was waiting anxiously for a book sorely needed for a thesis chapter) that the extra time was spent adding information, anecdotes, beefing up the index for ease of use. One hoped that the classified information about Bunting's experience in WWII and as a spy in Persia finally had been made accessible. One hoped, but one was disappointed.

    Initial biographies can be either comprehensive or introductory. Alldritt chooses the latter, which is fine, as the general public knows nothing of Bunting. But it is all the more important that the book is accurate in its details, as it is to provide groundwork for further Bunting biography and criticism. Admittedly, my advance copy might have mistakes later corrected, but the book is plagued by vagaries, inaccuracies, omissions, typos, and poor editing. Most of these are minor, but taken together they constitute a valid breech of confidence in this book as a source.

    Examples are plentiful. Glaring to these eyes is the missing distinction between Brigflatts, the place, and Briggflatts, the poem - anyone familiar with Bunting knows that he deviated from the traditional spelling by adding the extra 'g'. Jean Rhys' famous novel has changed from Wide Sargasso Sea to the saucier Wild Sargasso Sea. Bunting's A Note on Briggflatts shows a Protean nature as Note On Briggflatts and A Note to Briggflatts. In the Bibliography we find that Bunting's first book, Redimiculum Matellarum (Milan, 1930), was actually published, according to this book, in 1920, and in the index that the spelling should be Redimiculum Matallanum.

    In another place Alldritt writes, "Pound, who had been at the centre of imagism and vorticism, now helped to promote objectivism" (p.72). A seemingly benign statement, except there was never a movement called 'objectivism'. Louis Zukofsky, Bunting's close friend and 'founder' of the Objectivist 'group', said,

"When I was a kid I started the Objectivist movement in poetry. There were a few poets who felt sympathetic towards each other and Harriet Monroe at the time insisted, we'd better have a title for it, call it something. I said, I don't want to. She insisted; so, I said, alright, if I can define it in an essay, and I used two words, sincerity and objectification, and I was sorry immediately. But it's gone down into the history books; they forgot the founder, thank heavens, and kept the terms, and, of course, I said objectivist, and they said objectivism and that makes all the difference. Well, that was pretty bad, so then I spent the next thirty years trying to make it simple."3 
The mistake of using 'objectivism' for 'objectivist' has been made in the past, even by poets associated with the group, but more commonly by commentators passingly, without any real knowledge or commitment to the modernists of the 1930s.4  But when one is writing a book on a major poet associated with the Objectivist group, it would seem appropriate to know something of the organization, or in this case, the lack there of. The point is: a book such as this is an opportunity to address and dispel many of these common errors, but Alldritt has merely adopted these misconceptions that will need to be corrected in future studies using this book as an authority.

    As a source, the book is also hampered by omissions. Alldritt tantalizes with, "wild times occurred when Basil was a journalist and a spy in Iran," but admits, "Of this period in his life it is difficult to write at present since a good deal of information is still concealed and protected by the Official Secrets Act." So much for spying, it would seem. "But such embargoes," Alldritt continues, "do not prevent us from observing how Basil's career as a poet was metaphorically as well as literally a matter of spying." This has an element of truth; at the beginning of section II of Briggflatts, the 'poet appointed' is described as 'secret, solitary, a spy'. So what does Mr. Alldritt propose to do with this notion? "The metaphor supplies an excellent way of approaching his art." Lacking in hard biographical material, Alldritt drifts into readings of Bunting's poems. In fact, the two longest sections of the book are readings of 'The Spoils' and Briggflatts. This is not a sin in literary biography, but what there is of the criticism is only satisfactory and in some cases misinformed 5  ; it adds nothing new to Bunting criticism, and leaves one wondering why Mr. Alldritt felt it efficacious writing these sections in light of Peter Makin's landmark study. Admittedly, the readings are the book's strongest points, but the current corpus of Bunting studies does not need criticism; it needs raw fact.

    The book is also padded by non-essential information: in trying to place Bunting in context, Alldritt enlists the biographies and experiences of other people. This seems fair. But he introduces where no introduction is necessary, and provides detail that mostly seems irrelevant to Bunting. For instance, when writing of Bunting in Paris in the 1920s, Alldritt abstracts Ezra Pound:

The only child of middle-class parents in Philadelphia, Pound had studied Romance literatures at Hamilton College and the University of Philadelphia. As a student he was already a practicing poet and had friends, Hilda Doolittle and William Carlos Williams, who had similar literary ambitions. In 1908, when he was twenty-two, Pound had gone to Venice, a city that always fascinated him, and there privately published his first collection of poems titled with a funereal phrase from Dante, A Lume Spento ('With tapers quenched') (p.32).

    This continues for two pages, as if anyone interested in the relatively obscure Basil Bunting would not know Ezra Pound, or that William Carlos Williams had literary ambitions. And how relevant are Pound's activities in Venice during 1908, when Bunting was eight years old? If Alldritt were discussing someone such as Charles Reznikoff, this type of information would be welcome; but biographical information on Pound is plentiful - we need more on Bunting himself.

    Not only does the book rely on readily accessible information, it also uses speculation to make connections between Bunting's biography and his art. When writing about Bunting and the Surrealists, for example, Alldritt writes,

Years later Basil recalled his acquaintance with the French surrealists, whose movement, both in poetry and in painting, was growing ever more dynamic and influential at this time. He remembered an afternoon spent with Tristan Tzara creating poems in various bizarre ways. The surrealists, he told an interviewer forty years later, sometimes wrote poems 'without words. Just any damn sound like Grrrrr! and Arrrrr! and Brrrrr! ... and managed to palm them off on highbrow papers as serious efforts.' Such occasions must have been among those in Basil's mind when in his 'Autobiography', Briggflatts, he observed that 'Poet appointed dare not decline/to walk among the bogus' (p.39).
Who knows exactly what Bunting was thinking when he wrote these lines? Bunting never made such overt connections between actual events from his life and the events in Briggflatts; in fact he spent a great deal of time attempting to stop critics from doing exactly what Alldritt has done.

    To say that Poet as Spy contains no useful or interesting information would be misleading. Yet even the gems in the book are frustrating, as Alldritt, while supplying notes, usually does not supply them for the information original to this volume. For example, Bunting's description of the bearded Allen Ginsberg, 'like an owl in a bunch of ivy', is amusing, I've never heard this before, but when I look for a reference there is none. Admittedly this is a minor example, but the mark of productive academic writing is utility. The information it provides should point to the original sources. Alldritt does little of this; we must take him at his word, but that is, by this point, somewhat in doubt.

    This book is timely. Bunting should receive more attention in the coming years. Briggflatts is not hindered by the length of other modernist masterpieces, such as The Cantos or Zukofsky's "A", and therefore could be anthologized in its entirety and taught more easily. Peter Quartermain's edition of the prose should help understand the depth and scope of Bunting's interests and poetics, and Makin's criticism has already proved classic. This material, and (with luck) a volume of letters, should provide many avenues for further investigation. It only makes one sorry that The Poet as Spy does not reach its potential. Yet being the most complete recounting of Bunting's life to date it is, perhaps by default, essential.


1.    It should be said that the Basil Bunting Poetry Center, located at Durham University, has produced a steady stream of small but important pamphlets, and an important special issue of the Durham University Journal devoted to Bunting, all of which are currently still available directly from the Poetry Center. Further, Keele University in Staffordshire has made available The Recordings of Basil Bunting, an eight cassette collection of archival readings and interviews. Unfortunately one is not likely to find any of these on the shelves of the local Barnes and Noble.

2.    Bunting hated the thought of keeping letters; he burned all those sent to him, and hoped those he sent met a similar end. Fortunately, two of his main correspondents had great reverence for letters: Pound and Louis Zukofsky. A great number of Bunting letters can be found in the Pound collection at Yale and the Zukofsky collection at the Harry Ransom Research Center in Austin, TX.

3.    Zukofsky, Louis. Prepositions, expanded edition. University of California Press, 1981, pp. 170-1. See also: Zukofsky, Louis. '[Sincerity and Objectification]'. In Louis Zukofsky: Man and Poet. Orono, ME: NPF, 1979. pp. 265-6.

4.   None of the Objectivist poets ever express any real affiliation between the various members. Carl Rakosi in various interviews has often corrected the 'ism', but Charles Reznikoff, while not introducing the term 'objectivism' in any conversation, at times does not correct his interviewer, and even adopts the term in the ensuing discussion (see Reznikoff, Charles. 'A Talk with L.S. Dembo' in Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. NPF, 1984). I think both types of reaction - strong denial and unconcern - show how unlike an organized movement the Objectivists were.

5.    An example of oversight: 'Stones trip Coquet burn', according to Alldritt, is a poem "in which the pursuing of the course of the upper reaches of the river is delicately metaphorized as the chase after a girl" (p.178). In fact, Bunting at a reading said, "Coquet is a little river in Northumberland. As you probably know, it struck me a long time ago that the Greeks thought all rivers had nymphs and so if you go near the fountains of the river, where it is very little, it must have Nymphettes. And [I] decided to write a poem which, without going into very much detail, would suggest that" (Recordings of Basil Bunting: Riverside Studios 1982). Reading the poem with a nymphette rather than a mortal girl certainly changes the poem; it has a depth that Alldritt's reading does not have. Two of the cassettes from the Recordings of Basil Bunting have similar statements about the poem's genesis. It seems Mr. Alldritt was unaware of these tapes, despite the fact they have been available since 1995.