A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting

Michael Hofmann writes:

Just as some faces are a gift to the photographer (Artaud, Patti Smith), so certain lives are a gift to the biographer. These are, broadly, of two types: the hard and gemlike, abbreviated, compressed, intense; and the lengthy, implausible, exfoliated, whiskery, picaresque. Vehement or even violent emotion is good, overt drama, prominent contacts or associations, sudden changes of orientation, movement through different societies and settings. Physical distance is helpful (the father of letter-writing), marriages (more than one), a hint of scandal or controversy, achievement and neglect, both in moderation (poverty is a great preservative, celebrity or laurels a terrible corrosive, too obvious or excessive greatness is dreary). A late flowering is ideal, but not essential. For the former, one might nominate Trakl, Laforgue, Keats and Shelley (I don’t think I breathed while I was reading Richard Holmes’s Shelley: The Pursuit all those years ago); for a rare, artful blending of long and short, one can’t do better than Rimbaud and Hölderlin; and for the latter, Hamsun, Yeats, Shaw – and Bunting. Incidentally, or maybe not, Bunting also shows beautifully on film and still photographs, from the waggingly imperialled steely young man (‘one of Ezra’s more savage disciples’, Yeats called him) posing in Rapallo in 1930 or 1931 on the cover of A Strong Song Tows Us and the New Directions Complete Poems, to the waggingly eyebrowed, scruff-bearded, snaggle-toothed, twinkling-eyed dome he presented as an old man in his eighties.

(LRB 9 January 2014)

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