Thursday, April 12, 2012

Bunting's Persia, edited by Don Share

Bunting's Persia: Translations by Basil Bunting, Edited by Don Share. Flood Editions 2012.

Despite the Blurb's claim that Bunting is widely regarded was one of the most Important British poets of the twentieth century, his reputation still seems a closely guarded secret. Despite the acclaim of critics like Hugh Kenner and Donald Davie, almost thirty years after the man's death there is still no scholarly Collected (the Forthcoming Faber edition is endlessly forthcoming), no decent biography [ 2013 update:  Burton's 'A Strong Song Tows Us' (2013) at least remedies the problem of a decent biography] This , no edited correspondence and full length critical works are few and far between. Bunting was a great poet, the blurb's adjective is unnecessary. I'll take his collected over Eliot's, but unless you have patience, a fair bit of disposable income and access to a good online second hand book search, you're not going to be reading a great deal about him and his work, even in your University library.

So those of us with Bunting Fixations owe people like Don Share and Richard Swigg a debt that should have some kind of adjective in front of it conveying its enormity. I can’t think of one that’s adequate so the noun goes naked. Without their work and enthusiasm there would be little to feed our own.

This book collects Bunting's translations from the Persian, and contains a much needed Glossary and Notes on the Poets. The introduction succinctly gathers what, to a small group of readers, might be the well known story of Bunting's Persia but to those who don't it provides the essential information distilled in one place, where it should be, introducing the poems.

While Bunting was dismissive of criticism and critics, I suspect he would have appreciated the effort that’s gone into making these poems available. Sharp study and long toil were Bunting virtues. The book contains poems that were not included in the Collected, though hints of their existence abound and Don Share deserves more than just the appropriate crate of wine for his efforts in tracking these down.

What I was hoping to find in this book is here: the translation of Ferdowsi’s “Shahnameh” which he began and then abandoned. The section published as an ‘uncollected overdraft” called ‘From Faridun’s Sons’ made me read the ‘Shahnameh’ in Dick Davis’ translation. (I am not Bunting, I did not decide I had to learn Persian.) The story of Buntings attempts to translate the whole poem is told by Makin in “The Shaping of Bunting’s verse”, as is Pound’s disparagement of the results and their ensuing argument about poetry. When time allows I want to compare Bunting’s verse with Davis’s prose translation; what gets lost , what is gained by telling the story in verse? And what does it say about that argument Bunting had with Pound about poetry in general.

The book raises two obvious questions: the first is the quality of the poems: first as poems in English and then as translations.
There are few people capable of assessing the latter. Most discussions of Bunting will sooner or later address his approach to translation. One gets the feeling that most English critics feel more at home discussing his treatment of Horace. Latin was, until recently, the common currency of the educated. However there are essays by Persian specialists in both "Man and Poet" and "The Star you Steer By" which are complimentary. In the first, five of Bunting’s translations are assessed almost line by line against their originals, in the second there is a detailed discussion of his translations of Hafiz. The conclusion, that anyone reading Bunting’s translations would go away thinking Hafiz was a poet but Hafiz might not recognise his own poems, needs to be read against Dick Davis’ article “On not translating Hafez[sic]”.

Bunting’s versions proffer one possible way of dealing with the problems that stopped Davis. The latter is quoted on the back of the book, praising the translations.

To answer the question about their standing as poems in English might require the context of that argument with Pound.

The other question, which I'm looking forward to this book illuminating, is what was "Bunting's [version of] Persia." but I suspect that has to be answered by putting these poems back into the context of the rest of his work. The Persian interest carries through from ‘The Spoils’ to “Briggflatts”, where in that most localised of British poems, a Persian story doesn’t seem out of place.

In case you’re intrigued:
Parvin Loloi and Glyn Pursglove 'The Worse for Drink Again': Basil Bunting’s Translations of Hafiz in “The Star you Steer By” and Basil Bunting’s Persian Overdrafts: A commentary in “Basil Bunting Man and Poet”

On Not Translating Hafez by Dick Davis New England Review (1990-)
Vol. 25, No. 1/2, Translation: Double Issue (Winter - Spring, 2004), pp. 310-318 Stable URL:

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