Sunday, 8 March 2009
I first read Basil Bunting when I was about twenty back in Melbourne in 1969. Two of my friends studying English at Monash University, Colin McDowell and Peter Craven, were both Poundians and readers of Poundian critics like Hugh Kenner. Around that time, miraculously it seems now, a bookshop in the city had copies of many of the Fulcrum titles and I bought the first Bunting Collected Poems from them (it was Margarita Webbers’ if I remember it right). At the same shop I’d also found Barry MacSweeney’s early Hutchinson volume, The Boy from the Green Cabaret tells of his Mother. I’d bought this book entirely of my own volition, partly for the Bunting reference in its preface, partly because MacSweeney was only a year older than I was at a time when it seemed like most of the poets were middle-aged. MacSweeney mentioned showing a piece to Bunting who cut it back to four lines and said ‘start again from here’. This seemed pretty rigorous advice and I started applying it to my own work. I had begun to write poems three years earlier at high school and had plodded away, counting syllables, marking stresses etcetera as soon as I stopped wanting to write poems like DH Lawrence. Compression was a further step though, ultimately, it was a wrong one. Over 1970 and 1971 I wrote a number of poems that were really false starts and even published a couple of these in magazines. They were dead on the page, really: unholy mixtures of myth and undue compression. I moved away from this kind of writing and none of it appears in my first book, East. Still, it was another couple of years before I hit on influences that really did show me how I wanted to write. Philip Whalen was the most lasting of these but I took note too of Olson’s injunction to leave the roots dangling with a bit of the soil the poem came from. I came back to ‘music’ from another direction, figuring it was the music of the whole of the poem I was interested in rather than an atomistic attention to individual lines or syllables. I’ve since written things that some of my Poundian friends want to cut right back (to four lines maybe), though the poems have often enough won them over once they see what I’m up to. Once Williams’ original takes of ‘Spring & All’ and ‘The Descent of Winter’ became available again I had further examples of what I generally wanted to do: to write things that could be ‘loose’ but that could also tighten at intervals, and that these intervals would be inseparable from their matrix. I know that Williams himself excerpted these poems in later collections though I suspect he wouldn’t have done this had the 40s and 50s been more hospitable to his work.