THE USE OF POETRY – A Lecture by Basil Bunting

Basil Bunting

drawing of Basil Bunting by Erin O’Brien

Back in 1985, I found this Lecture in Writing Magazine 12, published in Vancouver BC.  It made a big impression then and it still does – take on board his usage and turns of phrase, remembering that he gave this lecture in 1970.  A.H.


Basil Bunting was at the University of British Columbia from September to December 1970; he taught the first half of a full-year course called “Approaches to Poetry,” and a half-year course on “Seven Modern Poets” to a group of honours English students. We became (and remained) friends, and before he left Vancouver when I asked him if I might photocopy his teaching notes he grumbled at me “Good heavens, man! What on earth for?” but nevertheless passed them over.

I, like anyone else who had any sort of close contact with him, learned a remarkable amount, not least (but by no means exclusively) about poetry; I owe him a great deal. The bonds of affection strike deep indeed.

What follows is a transcript of a lecture he gave to those honours English students, late in 1970.

Basil Bunting died on 17 April 1985. It is an astonishingly sad loss.

(Peter Quartermain)

Possum and Pound used to maintain that poetry was a useful art, even a necessary one. The poet’s business was to purify the dialect of the tribe, or clarify it, or otherwise keep words clean and sharp, so that men, who mostly think in words, could have thoughts with sharp edges. You might draw all sorts of surprising conclusions about their metaphysics from this contention, but I think the only legitimate conclusion is that they were muddled. For one thing, fruitful thought seems to be very rarely precise. Precision goes rather with barren logic. It is a virtue for clerks and accountants, for the lawyer who draws up a contract or for the man who compiles a technical handbook. Nevertheless when I was young and puzzled I followed Pound and Possum if ever I was asked what poetry was for.

I was wrong, of course. Poetry is no use whatever. The whole notion of usefulness is irrelevant to what are called the fine arts, as it is to many other things, perhaps to most of the things that really matter. We who call ourselves “The West”, now that we’ve stopped calling ourselves Christians, are so imbued with the zeal for usefulness that was left us by Jeremy Bentham that we find it very difficult to escape from utilitarianism into a real world, and I don’t know whether I would ever have been very sure that Bentham and Mill were wrong, or even that Benjamin Franklin was a fool, if the chances of war hadn’t planted me out for a time in Moslem lands with an urgent duty to find out how people’s minds worked there so that our rulers might handle them more astutely and overreach the Germans and the Russians. Moslems don’t ask what is the use of this or that; and there are lots of things in their countries that are not for sale. You can’t buy respect in Baghdad.

Utilitarianism is the extreme case of humanism, for what they mean by “useful” is “what ministers to the material needs of man’ ’—that’s Franklin—or “of mankind in general”— that’s Bentham. If religion is what we are taught from our youth up, what is meant to influence all our behaviour and guide most of our thought, utili­tarianism is the religion of the West in this century as it was through most of last century: a religion that has put an abstraction called Man in the place that used to be occupied by a foggy idea called God. The fellow who makes two blades of grass grow where one grew before is the greatest benefactor (therefore it was right for the Italians to conquer Libya, and it is right for Jewish farmers and manufacturers to drive out nomad Arabs, and it was right for the settlers on this continent to starve or shoot the Indians). It is wrong to loaf and gawp about instead of working steadily at something useful, and of course it is wrong and foolish to write poetry unless it can be shown to purify the dialect of the tribe or keep the plebs in order or perform some other useful function. (Football keeps the plebs in order. It was chariot-racing in Byzantium, dice and cards in Imperial China.)

But when you look at what poets write, it is very hard to convince yourself that their art contributes anything to the process of thought. The things they say are sometimes silly, very often conventional, the commonplaces handed down from poet to poet; and even the few who do set out a system of thought worth considering, have usually taken it over wholesale from some prose writer: Dante from St. Thomas, Lucretius from Epicurus and Democritus. Moreover you may think a poet’s ideas tommyrot without in the least affecting your pleasure in his poetry —an atheist or a Calvinist can enjoy Dante just as well as a Roman Catholic. Many of the poems we all consider masterpieces seem to contain no thought at all. “Full fathom five” only says: “Your father is drowned”; and when Ariel says it he is telling a goddam lie anyway. “O fons Bandusiae” remarks that Horace will sacrifice a kid to the little stream tomorrow—or one of these days, if he remembers. “Heber alle Gipfeln ist Ruh” comes up with the bright discovery that we will all die one of these days. Other celebrated poems notice that spring weather cheers you up, or being in love makes you restless. If these poets were providing the tools of thought, why didn’t they make some use of those tools themselves?

Obviously, “O fons Bandusiae ” contains no moral uplift whatever. There isn’t a trace of profound thought to be found in it—no thought of any kind. It tells no story. To someone who is not a convinced and believing pagan, it is not very far from nonsense. It has no wit. It makes no statement that could reasonably evoke your emotions. Nevertheless it does evoke emotions almost impossible to define. How?

There seemed to be only one possible answer to that question. The emotion was aroused by the sound of the words. It had next to nothing to do with their meaning.

That makes sense. It is plain enough that Chopin arouses emotions difficult to define, and he had no means of doing it except by sound. Why should not Horace do the same? When you come to think of it there is nothing else but sound that all kinds of poetry have in common. They all manipulate sound.

Of course if you begin with some a priori definition of poetry, something you have hauled up from the abysses of introspection, you can arrive at all manner of silly conclusions, like the philosopher who evolved an elephant out of his inner consciousness, but unfor­tunately it didn’t match the one in the circus. Even very good poets have said things about poetry which are untrue, or true of only some poetry. You get further if you look at the whole of poetry, everything that has been called poetry pretty widely and for a tolerably long time; and look particularly at its history. You can trace its history back to Homer, or, if you like, to whoever wrote Gilgamesh. Beyond that, like other kinds of historian, you can reach, with growing uncertainty, but still with a high degree of probability, by the help of the ethnologists and archaeologists and the Sherlock Holmeses of prehistoric philology.

The further back you go, the closer poetry and music seem to one another. Even 350 years ago, Malherbe, whose poetry seems to me among the very best of its kind, lamented to his friend Racan that he had worked all his life under a heavy handicap. His parents had never taught him to finger the lute. He had had to compose his poems without the help other poets got from playing and singing their songs simultaneously. That anecdote makes explicit what anyone with an ear could infer from the movement of sixteenth century verse. Imagine Wyatt without his lute. You can’t.

We are told that every troubadour song had its own tune, born with it, and inseparable from it. In Persia an oral tradition has preserved the tunes of the fourteenth century poet Hafez, and you can hear concerts of his poetry today. The radio day begins in Persia with a canto of the national epic chanted in the traditional way, and I don’t doubt that when Firdosi wrote it, in the ten hundreds, he chanted it as he went along. I have seen a later miniaturist’s idea of the way the epic was presented.

The ravi, the singer, the equivalent of the Provencal troubadour’s jongleur, is standing at a reading desk with the book before him. In the corner is an orchestra of five or six instruments, including drums. The dancers are miming the action in the middle of the floor, while the king and his nobles look on, and opposite the reader sits the poet himself, conducting. That’s the way a poetry reading should be done, but you can’t do it for $50 and your bus fare. Yet something like it must have survived into the miniaturist’s time, the fifteenth century, at least.

It is obvious from the fragments of Sappho that she wrote to be sung. Her barbitos, whatever kind of instrument it was, was intimately connected with the effect, and took perhaps as big a part in the poem as the words themselves.

History will not take us much further back than that, so we turn to its auxiliaries.

About 25 years ago I was coming down the Zagros mountains from Persia into Iraq when I met one of the nomadic Kurdish tribes in the midst of its migration up the mountains. They were a pic­turesque lot of barbarians, the men in their embroidered baggy trousers and shaggy turbans and the women in red smocks, held by a brooch at the neck but otherwise open to below their navels. I cut the engine and let the car coast down slowly on the brakes, when I heard an ominous flip flap sound, such as a retread tyre makes when the new tread has become loose and is about to fall off. I stopped, to look at the tyres, but the flip flap sound went on. There were a number of women approaching, bent under their loads, and I found that the noise was made by their long, lean, dugs smacking their bellies at every step.

Our bodies make their own music whenever we move, though seldom as loud as that. Yet the lightest tread is still an audible rhythmical sound. Then I thought of the coloured ladies I had seen in Zululand, dancing—and I have seen many since on television — making just the same sort of noise as the Kurdish women. They don’t need castanets and tambourines: their bodies mark the time for them.

That is how music is born. The first step is to use a drum to reinforce the sound of the feet stamping, the arms and the breasts flapping. Or perhaps the first is the more or less inarticulate grunts and skellocks that the vigour of the dance forces from your lungs: which must be the first murmurings of poetry. So poetry and music are twins, born of the primitive dance, and so twinnishly alike that they can never be entirely separated.

The dance has no purpose and no meaning. It is hard for a utilitarian age like ours to believe that. Some missionary goes along and pesters the poor savage with questions: “Why do you dance?” And the savage, seeing he won’t get any peace till he satisfies the questioner, says: “O, it makes the rain fall,” or “It makes the corn grow.” Perhaps he does persuade himself to believe something of the sort when the questioning begins, even his own questioning. But at first he dances because it is nice to dance. He enjoys it. Some of you perhaps know Ezra Pound’s story of the desert Arab. I don’t know what explorer he got it from. The earnest visitor says to the Arab: “Let us talk about God.” The Arab says: “I must milk my camels.” When the camels are milked, the visitor says: “Let us discuss God.” The Arab replies: “I must drink my milk.” At last the milk is gone and the visitor says: “Sir, have you time at last to talk about God?” The Arab says: “I must dance.”

Birds sing even when they are not courting, or warning each other. They sing because birds do sing—it is a pleasure to use their throats (as any child knows, singing to itself). Men dance because it is in their nature (as any child skips, hops, dances along to school, doing the opposite of something useful, since it takes more energy to dance than to walk). The offspring of the dance (ultimately, I believe, all the arts, though it would be harder to demonstrate the connexion of the graphic arts with dancing)—the offspring of the dance are quite useless. They serve no end. They are themselves the end.

Another age, with a different diction, might have put this differ­ently. It would have said that we dance and sing, write poetry and play music, to the glory of God: and every time we allow some other purpose to intrude into the work, we are robbing God of His glory. A drunken soldier singing “Bollicky Bill” is serving God, while a minister preaching temperance and thrift is serving only man. This I believe (if you grant the necessary, though difficult, adjustment of terms to something more fashionable than God). I am a Quaker. I am horrified by Benjamin Franklin.

Poetry, then, comes spontaneously to men, just as music does, and at the same time. I won’t try to trace the steps that turn a dancer’s grunts into verses. That has been done by Boas, by Sir Maurice Bowra, by a dozen other people working on the beginnings of language or of literature, and my account of it could add nothing to what you can find in the library (or in some library) as perfectly orthodox anthropology. But I will say that whenever poetry forgets its origins, whenever it loses sight of music, it languishes, stiffens, and threatens to die, until someone brings it back to music again.

My own contribution, such as it is, has been to see what poetry can borrow from the devices and form music has developed since the two arts seem to separate towards the end of the seventeenth century. Other people were doing the same before me, but I didn’t hear of them till my own notions were at least half-formed. At one time I thought of “preludes”; but that is such a free form that it is not much help. Mr. Eliot must have had the same idea, maybe ten years before me, but he did not follow it far, perhaps for the same reason.

Then I thought about sonatas, and tried to write something using the violent contrasts Beethoven used; but it wouldn’t answer. The poetry sounded pretentious and bombastic. So I thought of the first sonata writers, the Italians of the first part of the eighteenth century, and particularly Domenico Scarlatti, whose music I have loved as long as can remember. I went through John Christian Bach as well, looking for shapes I could purloin.

It was at that stage, when I was 19, that Nina Hamnett first showed me Eliot’s early work and Pound’s “Propertius”. You can imagine my excitement. Eliot at first seemed to be consciously on the track of music, and Ezra was using a rhythmical ease and freedom which put much within reach that had seemed out of reach before. Later I found that Pound had some rather indefinite idea (at that time) of using in poetry the characteristics of fugue. And then “The Waste Land” was published, with a form obviously approaching that of the sonata. We know now that that form was the almost accidental result of the cuts Pound made in Eliot’s poem, but it didn’t seem accidental to me then.

Well —I stole all I conveniently could from my elders, as every respectable poet must, and that is really the whole story. It took me a long time to write anything I considered printable, and I never expected anybody to want to print my work, so naturally, nobody took any notice of me, with only four exceptions. However, those four were Yeats and Pound and Eliot and Zukofsky, and if any man wants more encouragement than that he must be greedy.

There is, of course, more than one corollary to the proposition that poetry is to be heard, to be read aloud or sung.

One is that we lose very little by not knowing what the words mean, so long as we can pronounce them. I’ve tested that by reading to class. I’ve read them German, Italian, Persian and Welsh, and so far as I could judge, they got as much from it as they did from many English poems. Zukofsky has tried to translate the sound of Catullus, and of part of the Hebrew book of Job, without paying much attention to the meaning. The Job sounds beautiful. Herbert Read had a go at arranging words for their sound without any attention at all to meaning. It fails, but only because our notation is imperfect. The reader does not know how to stress the words. It seems as though it would be quite unnecessary to translate poetry if we had a universal phonetic alphabet, showing stress and intonation.

Another conclusion is that we lose a great deal of Greek and Latin poetry because we do not quite know how those languages were pronounced: and indeed we can get only a very fragmentary idea of Old English or Old Norse. We lose something that was there even in Chaucer and the Elizabethans.

Again, now that we have all been driven to use some approxima­tion to standard English, a koiné, nobody’s native tongue, how much do we lose of those poets who wrote in their native speech before standard English was invented in the Public Schools in the middle of last century?

We know Wordsworth spoke with such a persistent northerliness that Keats and Hazlitt found it very difficult to follow his conver­sation; and that he composed aloud, as most good poets do, in good Lake District accents, where water is watter, and rhymes with chatter, and the ‘oo’ sounds last forever, and a stone is a stwoen and a coal cwol.  And Keats himself was a cockney, speaking not the cockney of today, which is largely an Essex dialect, but the cockney Sam Weller spoke, which is mainly Kentish.  His v’s and w’s must have sounded much alike, and his vowels would have been the thin stuff you can still hear in Kensington.  And how many of Hardy’s s’s ought to be read as z’s?


About anthonyhowelljournal

Poet, essayist, dancer, performance artist....
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