Tuesday Poem: Briggflatts - Basil Bunting on Poetry

Basil Bunting: Bloodaxe Books
I've been reading Basil Bunting's long, autobiographical poem, Briggflatts, (pub. 1966) because of its influence on the work of Norman Nicholson.  But I've also been enjoying the rediscovery of a wonderful piece of literature, set partly in my own homeland - Cumbria - where Bunting spent time when he was young.   Brigflatts (spelled with one g) is a place, one of the earliest Quaker meeting houses in Britain, on the south-eastern edges of the county, near Sedbergh. A familiar landscape for me because it's not far from my home in Appleby.  But on re-reading, I've also discovered that Basil Bunting spent time with Ezra Pound in the same Italian mountains I'm currently living in. This, too, is a place for poetry -

It tastes good, garlic and salt in it,
with the half-sweet white wine of Orvieto
on scanty grass under great trees
where the ramparts cuddle Lucca.

It sounds right, spoken on the ridge
between marine olives and hillside
blue figs, under the breeze fresh
with pollen of Apennine sage ....

And he describes the mountains behind us and the workings of the marble industry that Neil and I are now so familiar with. 

White marble stained like a urinal
cleft in Apuan alps,
always trickling, apt to the saw.  Ice and wedge
split it or well-measured cordite shots,
while paraffin pistons rap, saws rip
and clamour is clad in stillness;
clouds echo marble middens, sugar-white,
that cumber the road stones travel
to list the names of the dead.
There is a lot of Italy in churchyards,
sea on the left, the Garfagnana
over the wall, la Cisa flaking
to hillside fiddlers above Parma . . .

The edition of Briggflatts I'm using contains a free cd of Bunting reading the poem as well as a dvd of a documentary on his life.   It also has a biographical essay and several pieces that Bunting himself wrote on poetry, which I found really illuminating.

'Poetry,' Bunting says, 'like music, is to be heard.  It deals in sound - long sounds and short sounds, heavy beats and light beats, the tone relations of vowels, the relations of consonants to one another which are like instrumental colour in music.  Poetry lies dead on the page, until some voice brings it to life ...  Reading in silence is the source of half the misconceptions that have caused the public to distrust poetry. . .   I believe the fundamental thing in poetry is the sound, so that, whatever the meaning may be, if you haven't got the sound  right, it isn't a poem.'

On Briggflatts he writes:  'I have set down words as a musician pricks his score, not to be read in silence, but to trace in the air a pattern of sound that may sometimes, I hope, be pleasing'.  He sometimes drew diagrams of a poem - its shape and pattern - even before he knew what was going to be in it.
Bunting's diagram of Briggflatts

His poetry is rich in 'word music' - the rhythms of Northumberland dialect and the Norse vocabulary the Vikings left behind them.  It's not easy poetry, but the poet is right - if you read it aloud it makes its own meaning.

Basil Bunting is buried in the graveyard behind the Quaker meeting house at Brigflatts.  If you'd like to hear him reading extracts from the poem, please click here for the YouTube film.

If you'd like to see what the other Tuesday Poets are posting, please head on over to the Tuesday Poem blog at http://tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com


  1. there is nothing better for understanding poetry than reading it aloud.
    Best is to hear an author read it.
    Thanks for the link.


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