Friday, 31 July 2009

Briggflatts by Basil Bunting: a new edition by Bloodaxe with DVD and CD

If you don't have this magnificent book, buy it. For £12, you get Basil Bunting's masterpiece, Briggflatts, a collection of short readable pieces about Bunting's colourful life and the poem, a DVD of a film made for Channel 4 in 1982 about Bunting (which simply wouldn't be made by that channel these days, proof positive of dumbing down big style) and a CD of the poet reading the poem in his gruff Northumberland accent (the 'r's are rolled at the top of the throat).

Annoyed by critical speculation about the 'meaning' of the poem, Bunting composed an entertaining note to set the record straight. Like the poetry, it is simultaneously authoritative and slyly elusive. he explains the scheme of the poem and then asserts: All old wives' chatter, cottage wisdom. No poem is profound

Given Bunting's irritation at the thought of critical dissection, I hesitate to put forward my thoughts about the poem except as a brief record of my experience of reading it to date, assisted by the film and Bunting's own reading.

For me, the poem reflects a sense of mortal transience set against the flinty longevity of Northumbrian English, the often harsh but sometimes lovely landscape of the far North of England and the power and wildness of the sea. It also encapsulates criticial moments from Bunting's own life in Northumberland, London, Italy and the Middle East. You will also find nuggets of history there, most memorably, the story of Eric Bloodaxe. Underlying this rich compost is a 50 year old love affair which the narrator in the poem (presumbaly Bunting) failed to pursue. It is therefore also a poem of regret and acceptance.

Somehow the poet manages to recreate in modern English, the sense of Old English (i.e. Anglo-Saxon and perhaps Norse) verse. Some of it is reminscent of the poem, so wonderfully translated by Bunting's friend, Ezra Pound, The Seafarer and of course Anglo-Saxon verse in particular was concerned with crisis, transience, loss and failure. But it's the sound of the lines which revive the dynamics of Old English verse, like these:

Furthest, fairest things, stars, free of our humbug,
each his own, the longer known the more alone,
wrapt in emphatic fire roaring out to a black flue.

However, the fluidity of the subject matter gives the poem a Modernist (and Post Modernist)feel.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Collected Poems by Michael Donaghy with an introduction by Sean O'Brien (O'Wow) published by Picador

This substantial but portable hardback is a bargain at £12.99. The first thing that you may notice about it (assuming that you don't have a visual impairment) is the dust cover, from which the author peers, with an intense, if slightly psychotic stare, enhanced by the fact that the top of his head and chin have been cropped off the image.

Given Eva Saltzman's revelations in the lastest edition of Poetry London about the author's love of raves, garage and house music, I can't help feeling that the possessed stare might have some sort of chemical basis. If his regrettably early death in 2005 from cancer was hastened by drugs, then that adds to a long list of people whose lives were irreparably damaged by the desperate hedonism and DIY communitarianism of the 90's rave scene.

The intensity of the cover is mirrored by the contents of the book, which has a useful introduction by Sean O'Brien, which manages to be, by turns, authoritative, tub thumping, subtle, perceptive and opaque ( a polite civil service term for 'being up your own arse', as we say in Yorkshire). This is followed by Donaghy's 4 published collections and some uncollected poems right at the end. Unfortunately, there is no first line index or index of titles.

O'Brien points out that the best poems are influenced by John Donne or Browning (or Eliot in Portrait of a Lady). The poetry is unusual in having both intellectual scope and a tendency to rhyme. I think O'Brien is wrong to say that it completely avoids the dull autobiography of so much modern verse. From time to time Donaghy dabbles around in his Irish-American identity so he can write poems about his Mum.

He often writes about failed seductions or tries the odd seduction poem out and does a pretty good job of it. Not an easy task for someone to complete successfully in the late 20th century, but he has a much more limited emotional range than Donne - or even Robert Graves for that matter, whose love poems are just as clever whilst demonstrating a little more maturity. Sadly, maturity was beginning to display itself in his last collection, Safest, which he wrote when he knew he was gravely sick and dying, though not a maturity which destroys his playfulness and zest:

Don't worry. I gave the dancing monkey your suicide note.
Was it something important? How was I to know?
He's probably torn it to pieces now or eaten it
or substituted every word for one adacent in the dictionary

What I love his poetry for is its polish, its fertile imagistic invention and his ability to start with a great first line, or from an odd perspective. Apparently, he had some difficulties getting poetry magazine editors to publish his work - possibly because he never mastered the Zen art of taking everything you might be interested to read in a poem out of it. However, neither is he didactic nor does he use his poems as a vehicle to dump trite thoughts or emotions on the reader.

Enough of my interpretation ... if you want comment, buy the book and read O'Brien's chewy (but largely digestible) introduction. Then get stuck into the poems, which form one of the best dessert selections you're ever likely to come across. Here's some great lines to whet your appetite:

We shared a dream beneath
a dream-beneath-a-dream.
Our tears became a storm
that washed away our names
and our voices blended with the rain's.

I touch the cold flesh of a God in the V and A,
the guard asleep in his chair, and I'm shocked
to find it's plaster. These are the reproduction rooms,
where the David stands side by side with the Moses
and Trajan's column (in two halves).
It reminds me of the inventory sequence in Citizen Kane.
It reminds me of an evening twenty years ago.

Me, I heard a throaty click at the end of 'wedlock'.
And Niagara on the long distance line.

And if you're still not convinced, try The Raindial on page 108 or Music and Sex and Drinking on page 14, for the re-introduction of the Renaissance 'conceit' into English(ish) poetry