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Oyster Boy Review 16

Winter 2002

Basil Bunting On Poetry

Reviewed by Jeffery Beam

Basil Bunting On Poetry.
Peter Makin, editor.
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
234 pages. $42.00 (hardcover).

This book collects two series of lectures Bunting delivered in 1968 and 1974 at Newcastle University and expressive of the same interests—Persian poetry, music, Elizabethan poetry and song, Wordsworth, Whitman, Pound, Eliot, Yeats, and Louis Zukofsky—that make his poetry so unique. Peter Makin observes in his introduction that "Bunting assumes that art is shape, not content. There is no excuse, of course, for decoration; it simply spoils shape. In this art, in the English language, rhythm is the most essential shapeable: and if the poet has the rhythm right, he probably needs nothing else to give main form to his poem." For Bunting the "ear" is more important than intelligence, sound more important than meaning. Nevertheless, proving Makin's statement, Bunting's work, some of the most aurally complicated and carefully honed in English poetry, is also some of the most dazzling and rich with meaning, while being accessible and instructive.

In these lectures Bunting laments the loss of music in poetry, leads the reader to poets who can instruct by example such as Sir Thomas Wyat, advocates simplicity of syntax, the use of the colloquial, and realism in speech and matter. There are many interesting essays here, and all conspire to make one of the most sustained poetic arguments for poetry as a form of music than any I know. This does not mean he solely advocates traditional forms. Bunting advocates what works when it works and that sound is what primarily makes it "make."

"Precursors" is a fascinating study of the forces and poets at work in Victorian poetry that led to Pound, Eliot, H.D., Yeats, and Zukofsky. Bunting argues in "Wyat" that this Tudor poet, not Chaucer, was "the effective founder of modern English poetry, and delineates Wyat's strengths while placing him in the context of his European contemporaries. In "The Codex," Bunting states: "Whether you listen to a piece of music, or a poem, or look at a picture or a jug, or a piece of sculpture, what matters about it is not what it has in common with others of its kind, but what is singularly its own." Bunting's wit combines an easy familiarity with literary esoterica making for absorbing reading. The many examples of poetry from Beowulf to Zukofsky provide a primer of extraordinary poetic practice over the centuries. Professor Makin and Johns Hopkins have done a valued service in bringing Bunting's readable and provocative prose writings to print.

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