Bunting in Isla Vista
" ... guages
lines of a Flemish horse
Briggflatts, part 2
I was a grad student in 1967 when Basil Bunting, then 67, came to teach at our school. It was Hugh Kenner, the author of The Pound Era, who had invited the poet to Santa Barbara. At the time Bunting suffered from bad eyesight, his thick lenses evidence of complications from cataracts or glaucoma, for which he underwent several operations.
Bunting taught a graduate class called "Yeats Pound Eliot." His preferred method of teaching was to read aloud from the Cantos, from Eliot’s Four Quartets, and from anything by Yeats. Bunting was absolutely convinced that good poetry didn’t need criticism; good poetry needed sounding. Aloud was the way the music of the poetry lived, in the breath and pulse of the reader’s voice.
Day one he read Pound’s first five Cantos, relishing their vowels, rhythms, and sonority with a voice we could only think of as bardic, hearing for the first time Bunting’s great rolling Northumberland R. He said it was unnecessary to track down all the references, unless inclined to. A serious reader, or someone grooming himself to be a scholar, would naturally do a little digging. To test us, we didn’t write critical essays, we just had to be able to identify isolated individual lines from various poems, by author. Was this line by Yeats, Pound or Eliot? Indicate by putting a Y, a P, or an E next to the line.
If you’d read the poems and weren’t indifferent to particular vocabularies and syntactic idiosyncrasies, it was fairly easy to choose the right poet, even if you hadn’t read that exact line before.
Once at the college art gallery I saw Bunting standing a mere two inches in front of the surface of an old drawing, moving his eyes slowly over its lines and volumes. Now I realize it wasn’t just a function of his limited eyesight that drew him to the surface, too close to see the actual image as a whole, but that he wanted to see it as intimately as possible in the hand of the artist, the hand whose line was crucial and whose composition was the result of innumerable decisions in the movement of the line. Was that line efficient, nervous, frivolous, essential? Did it serve the subject matter, or merely delight in its own virtuosity?
Often we’d see Maria, his sixteen-year-old daughter, on campus. Bunting told us it gave him untold pleasure to hear her break out laughing as she was reading Ulysses.
One day we dropped in on him in his modest little apartment in Isla Vista, an apartment no different than a thousand other cheap little beachtown student apartments, with a formica table in the kitchen, and a few crummy chairs. He seemed to be alone. He had just awakened from an afternoon nap, had brewed a pot of coffee, and with knife in hand, was about to spread honey on a few pieces of toast.
We sat down and watched the knife in Bunting’s hand as carefully he put honey on the bread, one bite at a time. We watched him chew and we watched him swallow. We watched him sip from the cup of black coffee. Then, with a paper napkin in hand, we watched him wipe a glistening teardrop of honey from the bristles of his moustache, the author of "Briggflatts," "Villon," and "Chomei at Toyama," as we talked about who knows what in this little surfboard town, thirty-two years ago.
Geoffrey Young's most recent book of poetry is Lights Out.
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