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John Tranter: Prose

Basil Bunting: Helping the CIA

This piece was noted in my Internet Journal in July 2012.

A recent poem of mine was published in the Melbourne Age a while ago, on 3 March 2012. No, not Melbourne in tropical Florida: the less sunny Melbourne, near the bottom of Australia. The Saturday Age boasts a cultural section, and the poetry editor there is Gig Ryan, who kindly agreed to publish my obscure poem on Basil Bunting. Here it is:

Poem Beginning With a Line by Bunting

Boasts time mocks cumber Rome.
Roasts thyme scents set on ledge.
Ghosts rhyme under Wren’s dome.
Stone gives axe sharper edge.
Anger, pride, youth are slowly spent.
Pound disposes, humans merely err.
Plain prose is spoken like a gent,
but verse stirs up Northern burr.

He spies for MI6 and Anglo Oil
stirring up trouble in Tehran.
Home at last. Brag, tenor bull.
Every brag attracts another fan.
   Bye, Basil Bunting, meet your God.
   Poet now rests beneath the sod.

It’s certainly not a “journalism poem”, the kind of light reading that makes its point and moves on, leaving the average newspaper reader slightly enlightened and pleasantly satisfied. No, like many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, on which it is modelled, it’s relentlessly obscure, and for that I apologise. Let me explain.

Basil Bunting beside the River Rawthey, Cumbria, 1980. Photograph copyright Jonathan Williams, 1994, 1998

The focus of the poem is British poet Basil Bunting, 1900-1985. He was born in Northumberland in Northern England, and developed non-conformist Quaker beliefs, a thick Northern brogue and a Northerner’s distrust of “southrons” (people from the south of the North.) He spent a traumatic year in prison in 1918 as a conscientious objector, and later travelled widely. Bunting’s poetry began to show the influence of Ezra Pound, whom he had befriended in the 1920s. He visited Pound in Rapallo, Italy, and later settled there with his family from 1931 to 1933.

During World War II, Bunting served in British Military Intelligence in Persia under cover of working as a journalist for «The Times», and after the war he continued to serve on the British Embassy staff in Tehran until he was expelled by Muhammad Mussadegh (or Mossadeq) in 1952. He was active in stirring up mob violence and demonstrations against Mossadeq, who had been elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1951 by the Majlis (Parliament of Iran) by a democratic vote of 79 to 12.

Bunting was part of the plot engineered by the CIA, MI6 and Anglo Oil to depose Mossadeq, whose administration, as Wikipedia says, “introduced a wide range of social reforms but is most notable for its nationalization of the Iranian oil industry, which had been under British control since 1913 through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC/AIOC) (later British Petroleum or BP).” They go on to say that he “was removed from power in a coup on 19 August 1953, organised and carried out by the United States CIA at the request of the British MI6.” Soon Shah Pahlevi and the CIA-trained SAVAK, his repressive secret police force, took power.

Wikipedia says “The coup is widely believed to have significantly contributed to anti-American sentiment in Iran and the Middle East. The 1979 Iranian Revolution deposed the Shah and replaced the pro-Western royal dictatorship with the largely anti-Western Islamic Republic of Iran.” That’s the Iran regime that, thirty years later, is now keen to build nuclear weapons and “wipe Israel from the map”.

Back in Newcastle, Bunting worked as a journalist on a local paper until he was rediscovered a decade later by the young poet Tom Pickard, who encouraged him to continue writing. In 1965, he published his long poem “Briggflatts”, named for the Quaker meeting house in Cumbria where he is now buried. Unlike all his earlier work, which met a muted response, “Briggflats” enjoyed an immediate success among a new generation of writers and readers.

I go on at length about Bunting because, though he had a brief fame in the 1960s and 1970s, when young poets like Tom Pickard, Laurie Duggan and August Kleinzahler came under his influence, his floruit as an important writer was relatively brief, and he has now been dead for nearly thirty years. Beside his mentor Pound, whose huge fame cast its shadow over half a century, Bunting is a minor figure with not much to say, and there are many poets today who have not heard of him.

Where can you find out more about Bunting? «Jacket» magazine has a brief feature on his work, including Richard Caddel’s “Minor Poet, Not Conspicuously Dishonest: Basil Bunting at 100”, which is the text of his Introduction to Basil Bunting: «Complete Poems». Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe Books, 2000. 244pp ISBN 1 85224 527 1.

Also available is a link to a recording of Bunting reading a short poem, “At Briggflatts Meetinghouse” (1975). The poem begins:

Boasts time mocks cumber Rome. Wren
set up his own monument.
Others watch fells dwindle, think
the sun’s fires sink.

I have borrowed the poem’s first line for my poem. In Jacket you can read a translation of that first line into standard southern English, kindly provided by Richard Caddel, then a Director of the Basil Bunting Poetry Centre at Durham University:

 — “Boasts (noun, plural) [at which] time mocks [en]cumber Rome”; or,
 — “The boasts which Rome [metonymically, the culture of ancient Rome, or perhaps the Roman Catholic Church, or perhaps modern Rome] once made about its permanence now encumber it, and are mocked by the passage of time”. Of course this sentiment could also apply to Mussolini’s boasts about the enduring nature of Italian Fascism, which Bunting was well placed to observe, in their making and in their decline.

“Wren” is Sir Christopher Wren, 1632-1723, English architect and professor of astronomy at Oxford, who after the Great Fire of London in 1666 was commissioned to design fifty-one City churches in London including St Paul’s Cathedral, the largest (Protestant) church in Britain.

The second line of my poem (“Roasts thyme scents set on ledge”) echoes the first, though in a lighter key. A translation into plain English might run like this:

Roasts (legs of roast lamb, or roasted chickens, perhaps) which the herb thyme has scented, are usually placed on a window-ledge to cool and to let the meat “set”, or become firm.

The third line adverts to the ancient practice of singing rhyming hymns in St Paul’s Cathedral, hymns Bunting might well criticise as belonging to the official state religion of the “southrons”, the Church of England.

“Pound disposes” refers to the common motto “Man proposes, God disposes”, taken from a work in Latin («Of the Imitation of Christ») by Thomas a Kempis: “For man proposes, but God disposes; neither is the way of man in his own hands” which is a rewriting of the biblical claim that “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps” (Proverbs 16:9); Pound’s acolytes would have seen him as a master poet, and like a god of literature. As well the phrase “humans merely err” adverts to the motto from Pope “To Err is Human; to Forgive, Divine” (from Alexander Pope, “Essay on Criticism” l.525, 1711) though that is based on earlier English sources and indeed appears in Latin: humanum est errare, it is human to err.

Lines seven and eight note the fact that Bunting could speak smooth English as well as any “southron” when it was needed to secure a job in London on «The Times», but slipped back into his Northern brogue to orate his poetry. The question of “authenticity” rears its head here: Bunting’s prickly adherence to his separateness as a Northerner, an outsider, is strongly exemplified by the local dialect details of his poetry and his thick speaking burr, but his poetry’s rugged individuality, its eschewing of smooth English measures — how much of this is genuinely authentic, or only apparently authentic, the way certain contemporary Scottish hotels make a feature of “piping in the haggis”?

This is as much a matter of class as anything. I know people from the midlands and the north of England, and I have seen how uncomfortable they are at middle-class literary events in London. I worked in London in the 1960s, and saw how the society even then was riven with class hatreds. In the 1930s and 40s it must have been much worse, and a young Basil Bunting, still traumatised by his year in prison as a young man, no doubt felt that his accent and his origins in the working-class North typecast him as an outsider.

Then I think of the apparent ease with which Bunting slips into the role of servant of the English upper class as a spy for MI6 in Tehran, sipping cocktails at Embassy receptions and speaking with a fluent Southern English accent, eager to help destabilise an elected government at the behest of his masters, Anglo Oil, and I don't quite know how to judge him.

The only biography we have of Bunting is by Keith Aldritt. It poses some disturbing questions. At one point in Tehran, Bunting in his role of MI6 spy send an American woman to her death.

Basil had regular dealings in Isfahan with the American organization later known as the CIA and also with those working for the Soviets. When the Russians alerted him to the activities of a young American woman from Chicago he witnessed the silly, and in her case miserable, side of intelligence work. Formerly the mistress of a British official in South Africa from whom she passed information to the Japanese, she subsequently became the mistress of a British agent in southern Iran. An introduction to the British embassy in Teheran and an affair with one of its members brought her intelligence of possible interest to the Soviets. When she arrived in Isfahan, Basil, tipped off by the Russians, observed her and finally handed her over to the Americans. He thought that such a guileless, amateur spy would simply be told off and sent home to Chicago. He was horrified to learn, three days later, that the American Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, had shot her.

“Brag, tenor bull” is an adaptation of the opening of his famous long poem “Briggflats” (the Rawthey is a river):

Brag, sweet tenor bull,
descant on Rawthey’s madrigal,
each pebble its part
for the fells’ late spring.

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