Tuesday 12 February 2008

Letter 10

Click here to listen to So Here We Are on Miporadio.


I want to say a few words about the second part of Basil Bunting’s poem Briggflatts (1966), which begins:

Poet appointed dare not decline
to walk among the bogus, nothing to authenticate
the mission imposed, despised
by toadies, confidence men, kept boys,
shopped and jailed, cleaned out by whores,
touching acquaintance for food and tobacco.
Secret, solitary, a spy, he gauges
lines of a Flemish horse
hauling beer, the angle, obtuse,
a slut’s blouse draws on her chest,
counts beat against beat, bus conductor
against engine against wheels against
the pedal, Tottenham Court Road, decodes
thunder, scans
porridge bubbling, pipes clanking, feels
Buddha’s basalt cheek
but cannot name the ratio of its curves
to the half-pint
left breast of a girl who bared it in Kleinfeldt’s.
He lies with one to another for another,
sick, self-maimed, self-hating,
obstinate, mating
beauty with squalor to beget lines still-born.

According to his biographer, Keith Alldritt (The Poet As A Spy 1998), Bunting, a Quaker and conscientious objector from Scotswood-on-Tyne, near Newcastle, may have found refuge in this part of London having been imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs for 112 days, after refusing agricultural work on the grounds that it would send another man to kill in his place, and absconded from Winchester Civil Prison in June 1919.

Subtitled ‘An Autobiography’, Briggflatts employs a variant sonata form to evoke the shape of a life from childhood to maturity. At the risk of simplification, it has five parts with stated themes moving from innocence with nature and culture in harmony through crisis to resolution. Part one sees youthful love abandoned in the Northumbrian fells in search of a poetic style equal to the mason’s craft and wider experience. Part two, mirroring Bunting’s own life, sees Fitzrovia, travels to Italy and exile elsewhere. The central part is a Dantesque nightmare concerning Alexander the Great falling off a mountain top at the edge of the world and how peace may be achieved through contemplation and resistance. There is then a move to the Dales and final return to Northumbria with a reflection upon past love and a celebration of skilled labour and other aspects of Northumbrian cultural life. The arc then is from innocence to experience with the Quakerism of part one seen afresh at the end. The poem is imbued with symbolism, Pound’s insistence on pruning the inconsequential and a neo-Wordsworthian pastoral. It is also distinguished by a rare sound patterning that is based on the earliest Welsh poetry. The symbolism is not fixed over time. The bull of part one becomes the poet appointed of part two. The riverbed pebbles, slowworm, the beat, and the singing voices of the young lovers recur, slightly changed, throughout the poem and take on new meanings. The symbolism is rather like musical riffs altered by the frame in which it is placed. This use of symbolism is not entirely removed from that of Mary Butts or John Cowper Powys, where function is changed without alerting the reader. And like T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), a key source was Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920), with its study of the Holy Grail stories and argument that the ultimate object of ritual was initiation into the secret of life, both physical and spiritual.

What interests me in this passage is the gloss over significant experience that leads from a Quaker pacifism to the melting pot of Modernism in London and Paris to involvement in the Second World War and a return to home and the fact that we don’t know much about this man and his entry into and departure from Poundian Modernism.

Fitzrovia, bordered by Soho to the south and Bloomsbury to the east, comprises Rathbone Place, Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Street and the surrounding area north of Oxford Street and west of Tottenham Court Road, has come to denote a Bohemian enclave where cultural difference was tolerated between the 1910’s and 1950’s. The name derives from the fame of the Fitzroy Tavern as a meeting place for writers, artists, musicians, actors, music-hall artistes and outsiders in the 1920s. If you add on its borders you are within the area where the melting pot of Modernist thinking was born in London in the 1910’s.

From the nineteenth century Fitzrovia was associated with furniture making and selling; cheap accommodation and entertainment. Successive waves of French, German, Swiss and Italian immigrants, mostly radicals looking for a new beginning, settled there and contributed to the campaigns for the right to vote, to free education and for women’s rights. They also opened shops and restaurants, specialising in their own cuisine, adding to the large number of coffee houses and inns in the area. The proximity of art schools in Bloomsbury meant that this was an attractive place for artists, art students and artist’s models. The immigrant-led business community quickly realised that they could cultivate the bohemian avant-garde and that both would prosper.

The Austrian chef, Rudolf Stulik, made the Restaurant de la Eiffel Tower fashionable by encouraging Wyndham Lewis, Nancy Cunard and their literary friends to become regulars. It was here in 1909 that T.E. Hulme’s Poet’s Club, including the subsequent founders of Imagism, F.S. Flint and Ezra Pound, met, and where Wyndham Lewis launched the Vorticist magazine, Blast, in 1914. In March 1919 the naturalised Polish-Jew, who had made greatcoats for the army, Judah Kleinfeld, converted the German Tavern, The Hundred Marks, into the Fitzroy Tavern and cultivated musicians and artists. These and other proprietors helped nurture and cultivate a climate of religious, political, class, and racial and sexual difference. Aristocratic bohemians intermingled with dancers from the Windmill Theatre and petty criminals on the streets of Fitzrovia. This social and cultural mix was particularly conducive to literary and artistic endeavour as a bolthole where they could be anonymous. The Wheatsheaf pub near the Fitzroy became the meeting-place for Surrealists in London in the 1930s. It is quite clear that Bunting is drawing attention to the role of this place in his life and in Modernist poetics.

The lines ‘Poet appointed dare not decline / to walk among the bogus, nothing to authenticate’ might indicate that a higher authority has assigned the narrator the post of poet within a group or society and that this appointment ‘to walk among the bogus’ is on a level playing field of authenticity, suggesting that all are equally inauthentic or as authentic as one another. For a Quaker authenticity is at the heart of holiness and so the ‘nothing to authenticate’ might indicate that the poet-narrator is no longer a believer, holy or equally unholy. Holiness for a Quaker involves humility, self-giving, and a movement towards self-knowledge. Thus, the ‘mission imposed’ is not merely the mission to find a suitable poetics, it is also one to achieve self-knowledge. The passage end indicates that the narrator uses sex to get from one person to another and is sickened by the self-maiming. All of this leads to a ‘still-born’ poetry.

Given that Fitzrovia would become a playground for displaced intellectuals and spies, such as Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and Donald Mcclean, and that Bunting worked in Intelligence in Iran, the reference to ‘Secret, solitary, a spy’ certainly implies the narrator as observer as well as active agent. Indeed Bunting would eventually receive patronage; become ‘a kept boy’ and go to jail in Paris, an experience that galvanised the writing of Villon (1925), and doubtless be ‘cleaned out by whores’. The description of these lines though, more generally, evokes the bohemian life of a struggling Twenties Fitzrovian poet. An inhabitant of a floating population of tricksters, con men, salesmen, would be artists and writers. I am reminded of the artist, Nina Hamnett, the former lover of Modigliani and Anthony Powell, after the Second World War, at the Fitzroy Tavern ‘touching up acquaintance for food and tobacco’. An object of pity adored by Dylan Thomas and ridiculed by Francis Bacon, she perhaps has become synonymous with Fitzrovia’s downside and mated ‘beauty with squalor’.

Re-reading the passage in comparison to others, it uses a rational language of measuring and calculation, ‘he gauges / lines’, ‘the angle, obtuse’, ‘counts beat against beat’, ‘the ratio of its curves / to the half-pint’ and so on that leads to a description of alienation, self-disgust and artistic sterility. Note the use of ‘lines’ as in poetic line and ‘counts beats’ as in musical time, a recurring theme within the poem. This may indicate that the passage concerns Modernism as a poetics of exile and urban rootlessness reflected by juxtaposition and alienation. The subsequent stanzas echo this concern with ‘calculation’ and ‘elucidation’ indicating that a measuring of the poetic line and poetic course is being questioned.

The ‘half-pint / left breast of a girl who bared it in Kleinfeldt’s’ is a reference to Nina Hamnett, who allegedly gave Bunting a copy of Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919). This poem impressed Bunting with its use and variety of rhythm more than its critique of empire. It was the movement away from Victorian sentimentality and rigid poetic line that caught Bunting’s senses. Whilst the passage is clearly pointing to Fitzrovia and to the narrator’s experiences, unlike Alldritt, who provides little supporting evidence, I have been unable to find compelling evidence to place Bunting at Kleinfeld’s before October 1925. Indeed one of the problems is that Kleinfeld’s does not really become a regular bohemian meeting-place until 1926 when Nina Hamnett and her circle decided that it would be a place to meet away from the tourists that were observing them at the Eiffel Tower restaurant, CafĂ© Royal and elsewhere.
Hamnett’s circle included composers Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock), Cecil Gray, writers, Mary Butts, Jack Lindsay, Wyndham Lewis, poets Tommy Earp, Roy Campbell, artists, Augustus John, Jacob Epstein, Christopher Nevinson and their various friends and lovers. Hamnett was also connected to the Socialist group that met in Charlotte Street, through artists, Jacob Kramer, William Roberts and the New Coterie magazine, edited by anarchist, Charles Lahr between November 1925 and 1927, that published D.H. Lawrence, T.F. Powys, Robert McAlmon, Hugh MacDiarmid, Liam O’Flaherty, H.E. Bates and Nancy Cunard. It was a circle that was imbued in Symbolism as much as Vorticism and clearly tolerant of a divergent Modernism.
From 1926 the composers, Constant Lambert, who lived in nearby Percy Street, and E.J. Moeran, Hamnett’s lover from spring 1927, used to play their compositions on Kleinfeld’s electric pianola. Philip Heseletine, founding editor of The Sackbut, music journal, who shared a love of bawdy limericks with Hamnett, was often to be found at a table with two or three young women. Cecil Gray, Michael Birkbeck, and other composers also went to Kleinfeld’s to enjoy the liberal atmosphere and make connections. Bunting’s extensive knowledge of early and contemporary music would certainly not be out of place within this environment. Kleinfeld allowed his customers to behave as they wished, tolerating unconventional dress and homosexuals of both sexes. Sketches by artists and short scores by composers that fill Kleinfeld’s daughter, Annie’s autograph book enable us to date their presence with some certainty. Bunting’s presence at this time coincides with his writing for The Outlook magazine in 1927 and his becoming music critic in October 1927. This is after the writing of Villon and gives rise to serious doubts about Alldritt’s and other accepted versions of the chronology of events, relations and influences.

The ‘left breast of a girl that bared it in Kleinfeld’s’ is close to the description given by Hamnett when Dylan Thomas introduced Ruthven Todd to her in 1935, ‘You know me, m’dear – I’m in the V & A with me left tit knocked off!’ A reference to Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s statue Torso of Nina, the French Vorticist sculptor, Hamnett’s former lover and subject of a biography (Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir 1916) by Ezra Pound, who was killed in the First World War. Bunting is thus making several references in one line. Reading Hamnett’s two memoirs, Laughing Torso (1932) and Is She A Lady (1955) reveal a fondness for name-dropping aristocratic bohemians and parties as well as not revealing identities and of obscuring events by hiding people. A Fitzrovian tradition continued by John Arlott, Daniel Farson and others in their memoirs. There is no mention of Bunting. Indeed Bunting is absent from all of the Fitzrovian memoirs and biographies that I have read. Hamnett though reveals a bohemia that veers from erotic encounters to anonymous identities wanting to live outside the law. Bohemianism is a state of mind that is outside of the usual time, work and discipline ethos. Idleness, pleasure seeking, creativity and living precariously without conventional employment are the norm. Neither Bunting nor Hamnett had the independent wealth of a Nancy Cunard, Mary Butts or Philip Heseltine and there’s the rub. Hamnett failed to find new outlets for her art and eventually spent more time drinking and talking about her Parisian past than creating. Hamnett’s gradual fall into alcoholism began at Kleinfeld’s when she resorted to drawing visitors for money and eventually drinks. In the end, she would do anything for money.

The fact that Bunting’s early life in London and Paris is essentially still unknown and that we still do not have an edition of his Letters hinders our understanding of his subsequent life and his poetry. Hamnett or Mary Butts may have introduced him to the world of the erotic during the post-War revelries. Briggflatts is an eroticised poem, infused with desire, through the pebbles and slowworm and use of verbs that echo that play. It is also suspicious of the sublime or transcendental, of the kind of occult concerns that fascinated Heseltine and Butts when Bunting probably met them at Kleinfeld’s. However, it is close to Butts in its ‘magic of naming’. Butts, the great-granddaughter, of William Blake’s patron, Thomas Butts, had attended Pound’s Soho gatherings that replaced the ones originally started by T.E. Hulme, was married for a short time to the poet and publisher, John Rodker, and was featured in Louis Zukofsky’s An Objectivists Anthology (1932) with Bunting. Rodker, also a conscience objector who had been imprisoned during the War, published Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1919), The Fourth Canto (1919), Eliot and the Vorticists, replaced Pound as foreign editor of The Little Review and worked with James Joyce in Paris. He was someone that Bunting might have met in the early twenties in London and through him met Pound. Moreover, his poetry, like Briggflatts, employs no masks, no self-censor or ironic distancing. Butts’ novels, Ashe of Rings (1925) and Armed With Madness (1928) combine stream of consciousness with a complex symbolism. She had similar magical and mythological preoccupations to that of Yeats and John Cowper Powys and was championed by Pound long after her death in 1937. Butts and Rodker offer a different methodology to Pound and a challenge to the kind of Modernism that he represented and to which Brigglatts is knowingly moving away from. Butts left Rodker for a succession of affairs, a short-lived obsession with Aleister Crowley and the occult, and developed a neo-pagan spirituality. Butts was also part of Ford Madox Ford’s circle in Paris, a close friend of Stella Bowen, and visited Pound in Rapallo in 1923. There are plenty of unknown relationships and untouched correspondences to give rise to the thought that this passage holds more than on the first few readings. How, for example, do we respond to ‘Buddha’s basalt cheek’ and who ‘shopped’ the narrator? Bunting is certainly drawing attention to this place and these people and his role as a poet in that bohemian environment. The key concept to me is authenticity, involving for a Quaker the movement towards self-knowledge, and that in Briggflatts is to be found in the Northumbrian localism and its vocabulary that the poem espouses.