Oyster Boy Review 13  
  Summer 2001
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Keith Aldritt's The Poet as Spy: The Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting

Jeffery Beam

The life of Basil Bunting, whose poem "Briggflatts" has been hailed as the greatest long poem produced in Britain since Eliot's "Four Quartets," reads like the best nineteenth-century adventure story. Born in 1900, as a young man he found himself associating with Virginia Woolf and other Bloomsburyites ("snobbish" he called them), and in France with writers such as Hemingway (whom he viewed as a "bully" and a "vulgarian"), Tristan Tzara, Ford Madox Ford, and Ezra Pound.

A close friendship with Pound led to his early poetry. By World War II, after time in North Africa, Italy, and Normandy, he had become a Royal Air Force spy, an experience that enriched and heightened his exotic yet earthy poetic mind, maturing and clarifying his personality and intelligence. Uncelebrated as a poet during most of his life, he maintained, however, through Pound's friendship, connections with poets such as Yeats, Eliot, and Louis Zukofsky, and editors such as Harriet Monroe of Poetry. By the age of 65, he was a nobody, retiring from an obscure, unfulfilling job as a journalist in Newcastle. At the rediscovery of his work in the 60s, after a 15-year period of no writing, Bunting took up writing again and soon produced his masterpiece, "Briggflatts." He died in 1985 having become one of the pre-eminent poets of our time, showered with numerous accolades and honors.

Bunting's social activism and peregrinations reveal a man who understood the rhythms and conflicts of the century and was able to translate his wisdom into a verbal music so prodigious and unique as to transform the English and American poetic landscape—an influence yet to be felt completely. Aldritt's biography does considerable justice to his life and work.

This excerpt from an early poem, "Villon," ably describes Bunting's ultimate achievement:

Precision clarifying vagueness;
boundary to a wilderness
of detail; chisel voice
smoothing the flanks of noise;
catalytic making whisper and whisper
run together like two drops of quicksilver