Aestheticism and Loyalty:|
Basil Bunting's Response to World War II
Part of the intrinsic interest of Bunting's First Book of Odes lies in its extended time of composition. Both in the world and in Bunting's personal life, much changed during those twenty-five years, and by the time the Odes appeared in the collection Poems: 1950-published by a small press in Galveston,Texas-Bunting's politics and his poetic values had undergone revision. Like his Objectivist contemporaries, Bunting had used his poetry of the 1920s and mid-1930s as a vehicle to protest specific social and economic injustices. But this political dimension of his work fell away in the late '30s and '40s, as he attempted to balance his patriotic response to World War II, his commitment to modernist poetic experimentation, and his complicated relationship with Pound, whose association with Italian Fascism placed Bunting "from strong personal commitment on the other side from his former mentor" (Alldritt 79). This uneasy balance of nationalism, modernist craft and loyalty to Pound plays out in the Odes of the late '30s and '40s as a rarified aestheticism and a heightened interest in the reception of art by later generations. For Bunting, then, the craft of poetry gradually becomes formalist, apolitical and monumental, and in this context personal and political loyalties seem a secondary concern; thus, the painful fact of Pound's fascism is mitigated in the Odes by the sheer aesthetic value of Pound's literary achievement.
The poems in the First Book of Odes vary in topic from meditations on time, nature, craft and love to direct, localized political protests. In 1930, Bunting wrote several of his most political poems: ode "14," titled "Gin the Goodwife Stint," and ode "18," "The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer." Written in the Northumbrian dialect, both poems directly confront social injustice in Northern England (Forde 130-131). In "Gin the Goodwife Stint," Bunting contrasts the greed of a landholding duke with the hard work of the rural poor. In "The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer"-which echoes several of Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads-a destitute farmer laments the loss of his sheep and the untended state of his land. As a result of his misfortunes, the farmer is forced to move his family to Canada, the naturally barren condition of which is contrasted with a Northumbrian barrenness produced by greed and economic injustice:
Canada's a bare landAccording to Forde's reading of odes "14" and "18," Bunting "blames a materialistic society for changing lives which need to be in touch with the soil at least to some degree in order to be in touch truthfully with life. However, although he expresses these values in his poetry, he never attempts primarily to reform society though his art" (131). Forde's distinction between Bunting's "values" and intentions is useful at the theoretical level, but it is not especially relevant in practice. To protest social injustice through the medium of poetry is intrinsically an act with political ramifications, albeit minor ramifications in Bunting's case due to his small readership in the 1930s. In odes "14" and "18," the political dimension of the poetry is clearly foregrounded and expresses concerns similar to those of American Objectivists like Zukofsky and George Oppen, both of whom identified as Marxists.
With the outbreak of World War II, a radical change occurred in Bunting's life. Raised as a Quaker, Bunting had been a conscientious objector to the First World War and had even been imprisoned for a time. But the forty-year-old poet had a far different response to the Second World War: he enlisted in the British Royal Air Force (RAF). Keith Alldritt has argued that Bunting's willingness to serve was predicated as much on his need for a job as it was on his anti-fascist sentiments (Spy 97). In any case, Bunting went rapidly from an underemployed sailor in Los Angeles to various positions with the RAF, including work on a reconnaissance balloon off the Scottish coast, several stints as a truck driver, a position as an interpreter in Iran, and a prestigious post as an intelligence officer in Italy (Alldritt, Spy 97-106). The extent to which this military service affected Bunting's thinking about aesthetics is apparent in a humorous yet unsettling letter he wrote to Louis Zukofsky during the war. "What do 'I feel with a machine-gun?'," Bunting wrote. "Well it depends on the gun" (qtd. in Alldritt, Spy 98):
I criticize a machine by nearly the same criteria as I do a work of art. A Lee-Enfield rifle, a Hotchkiss machine gun, have nothing superfluous nor fussy about them. They are utterly simple - having reached that simplicity via complication and sophistication galore. The kind of people who, if they had literary minds at all, would like euphemism or trickiness, prefer Lewis guns or Remington or Ross rifles. My machine-gun is a Hotchkiss and I feel toward it something similar in kind to what I feel for Egyptian sculpture . I think Holbein or Bach or Praxiteles, as well as Alexander, would have appreciated a Hotchkiss gun" (qtd. in Alldritt, Spy 98).Alldritt sees in this passage a unification of "the practical and the aesthetic" (Spy 98). But there is more than practicality involved with this assessment of modern weaponry. Bunting's joking praise for the Hotchkiss machine gun recalls Walter Benjamin's criticism of those who conflate aesthetics with nationalist politics: "All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.. Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today's technical resources while maintaining the property system" (241). To make aesthetic judgments on the "technical resources" of modern warfare normalizes the fact of war itself. Thus, Bunting's treatment of his gun involves a rather bitter irony.
A clear parallel exists between divorcing the craftsmanship of a machine gun from its function and divorcing the aesthetic merits of art from its cultural and political relevance. In the Odes of the late '30s and '40s, Bunting tends to accentuate the distinction between aesthetics and politics through his valorization of the transcendent formal possibilities of verse. Ode "34", which carries the dedication "To Violet, with prewar poems,"2 exemplifies Bunting's anxiety over the historical contingencies of literature and his desire for formal longevity:
These tracings from a world that's deadWritten in 1939, the poem begins with a sense of impending apocalypse undoubtedly fueled by the outbreak of war in Europe. In response to what is essentially described as the end of the world ("a world that's dead"), the poet goes about memorializing himself and his work. The references to a "pyramid," to "pavements," to a "foundation," to "weathered stones" and to a "memento" all work together to suggest the building of a lasting tomb, a monument to individuality, to "the only lasting part" of the poet himself. The concern for social justice and economic inequality of odes "14" and "18" has disappeared here. Such concerns are no longer relevant in the post-apocalyptic mental landscape of a poet eulogizing his own death. Instead, the poem emphasizes a heavy, architectural formality. The physical matter of poetry-ink and paper-has been converted to more lasting geological materials, while the meter of the poem plods forward in weighty, end-stopped couplets of iambic tetrameter. Thus, the insubstantial nature of an "unread memento" shapes itself into the remains of a stone structure-something literally foundational, even in its obscurity.
This same passion for permanence is visible in the last poem of the First Book of Odes, ode "37," "On the Fly-Leaf of Pound's Cantos" (1949), in which Bunting favorably compares Pound's modern epic to the Alps. One of Bunting's most compelling short poems, ode "37" only takes on its full significance in light of Pound's well known troubles in the 1940s. Having delivered pro-fascist radio addresses in Italy during the early 1940s, Pound had been indicted for treason in an American court in 1943, had been officially ruled insane in 1945, and had thereafter been incarcerated at St. Elizabeth's-a Washington, D.C., mental hospital. But Pound's ignominy was complicated by the fact that-after publishing his Pisan Cantos in 1948-he was awarded the first Bollingen Prize for literature, which was bestowed by the Fellows of the Library of Congress (a group that included W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, and Robert Penn Warren, among others). Not surprisingly, the award generated a noisy backlash against Pound. 3 In an issue of the Saturday Review of Literature from June 1949, the poet and critic Robert Hillyer summarized the anti-Pound sentiments: "His poems are the vehicle of contempt for America, Fascism, anti-Semitism, and in the prize-winning 'Pisan Cantos' themselves, ruthless mockery of our Christian war dead" (9). Furthermore, Hillyer argued, "It may be stated flatly that the 'Pisan Cantos' are so disordered as to make the award seem like a hoax.. In general, they are merely the landslide from the kitchen-midden of a heart long dead: broken memories, jagged bits of spite, splinters of a distorting glass wherein the world is seen as it is not, a hodge-podge of private symbols, weary epigrams, anecdotes, resentments, chuckles, and the polyglot malapropisms that pass for erudition among the elite" (Hillyer 11). In the context of the Saturday Review of Literature in the summer of 1949, Hillyer's invocation of "broken memories," "jagged bits" "splinters" and "hodge-podge"-metaphors for collage technique in poetry-was not intended as a compliment.
It is in this context, then, that one should read Bunting's "On the Fly-Leaf of Pound's Cantos":
There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?The hybridity and fragmentation of the Cantos that Hillyer describes in terms of waste and brokenness become in Bunting's poem the sublime unevenness of a mountain. "[B]roken memories" and "jagged bits" become "glaciers," "crags," and "boulder"-not the disintegrating waste of civilization but the austere process of nature. Yet Bunting's vision of the Alps also avoids any Romantic temptations to map human agency onto nature. These Alps-like the Cantos to the general reader-are not inviting, though their challenge cannot be ignored. Thus, "you will have to go a long way round / if you want to avoid them." Implicit in this statement is the construction of a modernist canon in which Pound's work plays a central role. To "avoid" the Cantos would necessitate the formation of a separate modernist canon, one antithetical to Bunting's Pound-centric version.
The most challenging aspect of Bunting's aesthetic argument comes in the last two lines of the poem: "There are the Alps, / fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!" 4 (130). Like the "unread memento" of ode "34," the Cantos are a work for the ages. Critics like Hillyer may wait for this fragmented modern epic to go away, but-so suggests Bunting-such critics will be long gone before it does so. For Bunting, what gives Pound's work this solidity, this permanence, is its aesthetic achievement. Whatever political or moral complaints critics raise against Pound are unimportant within Bunting's extended mountain-metaphor because such complaints are the concerns of contemporary politics rather than timeless natural form. In aesthetic terms, then, the poems are as indestructible as mountains, and by defending them in spite of Pound's politics, Bunting was able to maintain his support for an old friend. As John Seed has pointed out, "in public Bunting remained loyal to Pound as the master craftsman of modern verse, maintaining a discrete silence about their profound political differences" (131).
Bunting's turn toward formalism and aestheticism in the 1940s has important ramifications both for studies of his own work and for studies of modern poetry in general. Within the Bunting oeuvre, odes "34" and "37" represent an attempt to preserve and memorialize a particular brand of Poundian / Objectivist modernism. With Pound incarcerated and the first flowering of Objectivism at an end, Bunting equated the end of his First Book of Odes with the end of an era. In symbolically offering the critical reception of the modernist era to posterity, he discarded specific, local political concerns with Northumbrian farmers or with Pound's politics in favor of something he viewed as more monumental-aesthetic merit. The larger question for studies of modernist literature is whether or not this move from the political to the formal changes the interest and importance of the poetry. In light of the work of Cary Nelson and others, it has become increasingly apparent in recent years that so-called political poetry is far from being merely a disposable context for more central, "literary" works. In fact, to trace the history of Marxist political poetry in the 20th century involves the exploration of some of the most exciting avant-garde work in recent memory, including, of course, the experiments of Objectivism and the Language poets. In this context, Bunting's heightened concern in the late 1930s and 1940s for a kind of disinterested aesthetics may seem disappointing. But to blame Bunting for this formalist tendency-for this move toward the politics of no politics-is to discount the immense impact upon the women and men of his generation of two world wars within twenty years. If this was the price of politics, then what good was political poetry? However impossible transcendence of the political may seem in retrospect, it would have been a veritable necessity for a poet balancing a personal history of both political protest and patriotism, a friendship with a treasonous American fascist, an affiliation with a leftist / Marxist poetic movement, and a career as a British intelligence officer.
Formalism is a very specific kind of rejection, for it expresses faith in the aesthetic function of literature as much as a dismissal of politics. That Bunting came to favor this type of political abstention points to the difficulties he faced though his mixed loyalties to a nation, to a friend, and to a poetics. It is only in light of this divided loyalty that one can really appreciate the cultural, historical, biographical and aesthetic importance of the First Book of Odes. Fittingly, it is by exploring the historical and political contexts of this poetry that one understands Bunting's move away from history and politics.
1 "The Illusion of Materiality in Basil Bunting's First Book of Odes." Presented at the Comparative Literature Graduate Student Colloquium, University of Washington, 2003.
2 A young woman who typed some of Bunting's poems (Alldritt, Spy 99).
3 Lem Coley and Karen Leick have both offered important insights into the controversy over the Bollingen Prize, and Coley rightly points out that "[p]oetry awards rarely spark so much excitement…" (Coley).
4 Forde's comment on the last line of the poem is quite relevant here: "The date on the ode, '1949,' that is, during the time of Pound's commitment to St. Elizabeth's Hospital, makes the tribute all the more valuable and explains somewhat the exasperation of the last line" (134).
Works Cited or Consulted
---. The Poet as Spy: The Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting. London: Aurum, 1998.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York:
Bunting, Basil. Complete Poems. New York: New Directions, 2000.
Coley, Lem. "'A conspiracy of friendliness': T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Allen Tate, and the
Forde, Sister Victoria Marie. "the Odes." Basil Bunting: Man and Poet. Ed. Carroll F.
Hillyer, Robert. "Treason's Strange Fruit: The Case of Ezra Pound and the Bollingen
Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley: U of California P, 1971.
Leick, Karen. "Ezra Pound v. The Saturday Review of Literature." Journal of Modern
Seed, John. "Irrelevant Objects: Basil Bunting's Poetry of the 1930s." The Objectivist
David Huntsperger Paper Presentation NPF Conference: Poetry of the 1940s