Nothing, by Basil Bunting

I spent this weekend catching up with some old friends in London, and making the most of the opportunity to behave as a tourist. Most of my visits to the Capital are on business so it was nice to have the chance to wander around aimlessly. Anyway, when I got to Charing Cross I suddenly remembered I had a half-spent book token in my wallet, so popped into Foyles and bought this hefty tome, which had been on my list since I read about it when it was reviewed in TLS.

Basil Bunting was born in 1900 in the Scotswood area of Newcastle upon Tyne (i.e. not in the Midlands). His life story is fascinating. Imprisoned as a conscientious objector during World War 1, Bunting worked for the intelligence services in Persia during World War 2, after which he remained as the Times Correspondent in Iran. Eventually, after much travelling, he returned to England, winding up as a journalist working for the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. Largely through a very long poem called Briggflats Bunting established a reputation as a very important modernist poet who some felt was a worthy successor to T.S. Eliot, though Eliot did not rate his work particularly highly and Bunting’s main poetic influence was clearly Ezra Pound.

One thing I particularly like about the poems of Basil Bunting is that they sound so great when read out loud. `Compose aloud. Poetry is a sound.’ is a famous quotation of his. Unlike many poets he was utterly compelling when reading his own work ; see here for an excerpt of him reading Briggflats. He has a wonderful voice, and there’s music in the way he speaks.

Briggflats  is too long to reproduce here, so here’s a shorter one called Nothing:

substance utters or time
stills and restrains
joins design and

supple measure deftly
as thought’s intricate polyphonic
score dovetails with the tread
sensuous things
keep in our consciousness.

Celebrate man’s craft
and the word spoken in shapeless night, the
sharp tool paring away
waste and the forms
cut out of mystery!

When taut string’s note
passes ears’ reach or red rays or violet
fade, strong over unseen
forces the word
ranks and enumerates…

mimes clouds condensed
and hewn hills and bristling forests,
steadfast corn in its season
and the seasons
in their due array,

life of man’s own body
and death…
The sound thins into melody,
discourse narrowing, craft
failing, design
petering out.

Ears heavy to breeze of speech and
thud of the ictus.


by Basil Bunting (1900-85).

One Response to “Nothing, by Basil Bunting”

  1. “Bunting believed that the essential element of poetry is the sound,…”
    I am more of a poetry-theorist (about how to write poems) than a poet (actually writing poems).
    After reading the “Briggflatts (wikipedia)”, I would like politely to disagree with Bunting’s view. ‘Sound’ is of course one of the important element of poetry but is not ‘THE’ essential one.
    There are many different types of writing. I would like to talk about TWO of them here, the essay and the poetry.
    The key difference between the two is about {who is the author? and who is the reader?}
    An essay (a novel, a report of any kind, etc.) is written for reader to read while the author tells the story or gives instruction or explanation.
    A poem must not be an essay; that is, the reader of a poem must be the author himself. What does this mean? It means that readers of a poem must BECOME the authors of the poem. A poem must not be read but be written by the readers in their hearts. If a poem cannot come out from reader’s heart, it is not a poem but a poem-like essay.

    The essential difference between poem and essay is that:
    Essay tells a story or gives explanation.
    Poetry creates a STATE, a feeling, an emotion, a FIELD for readers to roam in and to create their own spirit-voice (not just physical sounds).

    Thus, essay is most likely written in {Subject + predicate} style, while poetry should avoid the SUBJECT (especially the ‘I’) entirely. Poetry should just spread out some CONCEPTUAL, emotional and spiritual anchors.

    The key essential for essay is about its ‘truth/false’ value, even in novels. The key essential for poetry is about its power of emotion, that is, the TENSION.

    A poem without strong tension is not a poetry. Creating tension is by using words with their far-out reach, almost erroneous while still recognizable.

    A good poem must have at least two level: the wording level (the meaning of the words) and the spirit level (the emotion and the spirit of the poem). Thus, a good poem must have a ‘TURN’, turning from the words to spirit.

    The following is my poem to match Bunting’s.

    Cannot be seen
    Cannot be measured

    Glorifying the puny
    Giving the existential meaning for everything

    The fate of every life
    The embryo of every new life

    Having nothing, puny and poor
    Having accomplish nothing,
    Just counting days and day

    Any meaning for this counting?
    Begins from nothing.
    Will definitely end with nothing.

    Yet, in between these nothings
    There are you, my parents
    You, my sons and daughters
    You, my lover and friends

    In nothing, love you all eternally
    In nothing, fills happiness and joy
    In nothing, lives glorify the NOTHING.

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