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This article is taken from PN Review 269, Volume 49 Number 3, January - February 2023.

Basil Who?
Letters of Basil Bunting, selected and edited by Alex Niven (Oxford University Press) £35
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Memorably having inscribed the lines ‘Pens are too light, / Take a chisel to write’ in his landmark poem, Briggflatts, Basil Bunting was being prescriptive – but also self-descriptive. His incisiveness reflected a stern view not just of poetry in general (Ezra Pound attributed the phrase ‘DICHTEN=CONDENSARE’ to him in ABC of Reading), but of his own work. A severe self-critic, he edited down his life’s work into an austere edition of his collected poems that hardly collected all, or even most, of his poetry. Another aspect of this ethos is that during his lifetime not much was known by readers of Bunting’s sharp study and long toil as a poet, nor was there what Auden would have called a ‘shilling life’ with ‘all the facts’. Consequently, when I began to edit a comprehensive critical edition of his poems a decade and a half after his death, I remember mostly getting the response: ‘Basil who?’ He was thought to be a poet’s poet, which can be both a compliment and a curse. Yet today we have the almost 600 pages of my Poems of Basil Bunting, an equally lengthy biography in Richard Burton’s A Strong Song Tows Us, as well as a shelf of other ancillary books that may not ever equal the expanse of writing about, say, Pound or Eliot, but is at least up there with the likes of W.C. Williams, Marianne Moore, Louis Zukofsky and Lorine Niedecker – with more, one hopes, to come. We can now be grateful for the addition of Alex Niven’s long-awaited Letters of Basil Bunting, a judicious, and judiciously trim, selection. The irony is ...


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