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Rebecca A Smith

Barry MacSweeney and the Bunting Influence:

‘A key figure in his literary universe’?

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Thirty years ago Basil Bunting published Briggflatts [...] and set the standard for subsequent English poetry. He exhibited a dazzling surface texture of language whilst telling a story [...] Amongst the English postmoderns only Barry MacSweeney has demonstrated a comparable influence.[1]


[MacSweeney’s] real position relates to a tradition of English poetry that goes back through Basil Bunting (a key figure in his literary universe, sharing MacSweeney’s region, the North East of England, as well as his poetic) to Gerard Manley Hopkins.[2]


In the preface to his first collection of poetry The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of His Mother (1968), nineteen year-old Barry MacSweeney alludes to a literary encounter which has since been regarded as one of the most influential of his career: ‘Began job as reporter on local evening paper. Met Basil Bunting, poet [...] Showed Bunting Walk poem, it came back sliced down to about 4 lines and a note: Start again from there. My first real lesson.’[3] Unable to predict the implications or longevity of the association he evoked, MacSweeney’s citation of the anecdote at this seminal literary-historical juncture nonetheless provides an intriguing insight into the genesis of a poetic legacy that was to prove enormously significant in the popular appraisal of his work.[4] Yet on closer examination, the intention of his reference is far from clear: its guarded nature and non-committal tones redolent of an ambiguity which not only provokes questions over what, if any, degree of influence he had hoped to imply, but which confirms the need for a revaluation of the private and poetic dynamic which existed between these two North East poets, ultimately leading us to enquire for how long, and in what capacity, Bunting was indeed ‘a key figure in his literary universe’?


If approached as an avowal of influence, MacSweeney’s preface can be seen to avoid obsequiousness and specific parallels whilst allusively sustaining the Bunting connection. References to ‘Newcastle’, ‘Morden Tower’ and lyrical ‘economy’ all evoke the elder’s image and are reinforced by the subtextual inference of their parallel temperaments. MacSweeney’s distaste for modern urban civilization, (‘commuters with a vengeance’); his sulky self-deprecation in the face of bureaucratic rejection (‘they didn’t like the cut of my face either’) and his innate sense of regional difference (‘the land was flat, that was a shock. An utter antithesis to Newcastle’) are all in evidence here. Echoing the vociferously professed convictions of a man who detested the ‘stifling deference so many people in this country still show to a Cambridge degree or a Kensington accent’ and complained that ‘its unfortunate for England, as well as for myself, that after sixty years of fairly good work without pay, I haven’t even a house of my own to die in’.[5]


That in 1968 Bunting was experiencing a resurgence of public recognition engendered by the publication of ‘one of the most enduring embodiments of his northerness’ in the extended poem Briggflatts, plus ‘a long overdue Collected Poems [...] which cemented his reputation’ must have been a consideration.[6] So that MacSweeney’s astute suggestion of coterie together with the apposite timing of The Boy could be seen as an attempt to exploit his own North East derivation and personal acquaintance with Bunting in order to establish a context for his own original publication. His preface designed to assert his legitimacy within the contemporary publishing scene on the basis of a similarly ‘regional’ and thus, in the context of the late 1960s ‘Poetry Revival’, de rigueur poetic.[7]


Yet the complexities involved in MacSweeney’s attitude to Bunting begin to become apparent when we realise that it is equally possible to read this statement as a rejection of his influence. Where, in the context of this despondent, petulantly ironic and emotionally candid address (in which MacSweeney describes poetry as ‘a cissy thing to do’, his period at Harlow as ‘bitter and solitary’ and concludes ‘Nobody returns in glory’) his comment may be interpreted either as veiled sarcasm as to the unhelpful brevity of the ‘lesson’ or as a juvenile refutation of ‘accepted’ literary influence.[8] For whilst Bunting and his guidance are certainly invoked it is with no especial note amidst several eclectic influences including ‘Rimbaud’s Illuminations and ‘The Drunken Boat’, ‘Baudelaire’, ‘Laforgue’, ‘Cros’, ‘Corbiere’ and his North East contemporaries Pickard and Silkin: a list which implies the poet’s intent to pursue international symbolism as much as Northumbrian poetic traditions.


Adopting a stance contrary to Bunting’s, MacSweeney emphasises his own urban roots, naming his birthplace as ‘Benwell, Newcastle On Tyne’ and affirming an intense connection to the city environment: ‘In Newcastle I was always too involved, always leaving pieces of myself against the walls’. Rejecting Bunting’s refusal to admit to direct associations between poetry and landscape, MacSweeney uses his preface to express just that, stating of Newcastle: ‘The city gave words a harshness, like the steel or coal’, and of Harlow: ‘Everything was so clean and clear-cut [...] It was impossible to get involved [...] events and actions got a natural response from me’: a clear acknowledgement of place affecting composition.


A short ‘autobiography’ written by a teenage poet at the outset of his career is of fairly specific usefulness in that it necessarily encapsulates both a narrow timescale and adolescent point of view. Yet the manner in which his synopsis appears to concurrently invite and reject the implications of the Bunting influence makes it unusually evocative of a concern which MacSweeney’s readers and critics have pondered since the publication of his first collection. Namely, whether it is ultimately constructive to view the poet’s ‘rural’ lyrics as embedded in a tradition of internationally conscious modernist landscape poetry in the mode of Briggflatts, or whether the customary tendency to correlate these two poets which initially helped to legitimise MacSweeney’s forays into publication has become a counterproductive prerequisite which encourages the acknowledgement of literary comparisons between them that may not always exist.[9]


An undeniably intricate conundrum, the affiliation between these two has been complicated by the disproportionate weight often attributed to MacSweeney’s remarks stating his regard for Bunting’s poetic, without proper regard for their chronological context (having been made before his knowledge of Olson prompted him to readjust his poetic lineage)[10] and by MacSweeney’s own varying opinions. For although at first genuinely enthused by Bunting’s methods (advising a fellow poet: ‘in all poems, let him heed Basil–cut out all non-essential words’)[11] MacSweeney was quick to satirise him in his later verse: could Bunting be the ‘fraud’ ‘from my town’ of the younger man’s The Last Bud?.[12]


Yet whilst some critics have suggested that a disproportionate focus on MacSweeney’s alcoholism has adversely affected the reception of his poetry,[13] it is rarely accepted that his equally well-documented association with Bunting may well have occasioned similar distortions, especially when the influence is taken to apply to thirty-five years of diverse work. To propose that all comparative evaluations of these two poets are misguided would be untrue, but there is certainly a need for some clarification of their affiliation in order to establish which aspects of the relationship did (and did not) affect the development of MacSweeney’s poetic, his understanding of his own regional identity and his realisation of northern rural landscapes in his work.


Many of the misconceptions relating to the pair’s affiliation have arisen from popular assumption, where connections taking their impetus from MacSweeney’s own founding of the relationship on biographical and professional rather than formal poetic grounds have been projected onto a myth of mentorship and literary influence:


Born in Newcastle upon Tyne [MacSweeney] worked as a professional journalist throughout most of his life. He met poet Basil Bunting when they were both working at the Newcastle Evening Chronicle in the mid-1960s.[14]


The brief historical conjunction of the two poets’ professional trajectories is for many critics one of the most compelling aspects of their acquaintanceship, where both the elusiveness, and the repetitive nature of recorded first-hand particulars allow scope for speculation and contribute to its critical appeal. The opportunities for literary myth-making engendered by this period of journalistic colleagueship have been duly noted in a variety of appraisals, most of which adhere in some form to the depiction of an instructional mentor-protégé relationship whilst inferring the benefits of such for the young poet’s literary career.


One retrospective summary of MacSweeney’s life affirms the elder man’s workplace seniority: ‘At the offices of the Chronicle he came into contact with Basil Bunting who was then working as sub-editor’[15] whilst another cites his concurrently exalted literary standing: ‘Basil Bunting was at the Chronicle, receiving overdue recognition as England’s major modernist poet’.[16] Many also underline the acute significance of the factors combined: [MacSweeney became] ‘a cub reporter on the Evening Chronicle [...] a move which, as luck would have it, brought him into direct contact with a grizzled greybeard who had counted Ford Madox Ford, W B Yeats and Ezra Pound among his friends’.[17] This last remark, reinforcing as it does the illustrious associative possibilities MacSweeney was able to confer upon himself by linking his persona to that of Bunting, demonstrates both what he had to gain from stating the professional (and by inference poetic) correlation, and also perhaps why the relationship, replete with its authentic literary heritage, became one of the most critically repeated particulars of his career.


Yet whilst the actuality of their colleagueship is undisputed, an understanding of the effects this had on MacSweeney’s poetic education has been somewhat clouded by a trend which states the link either as a self-explanatory affirmation of influence, or simply as a matter of course. In his Bunting biography, Keith Alldritt ambiguously declares: ‘Someone who worked with him at the time was the young Newcastle poet Barry MacSweeney. They worked just ten yards apart in the office and talked much about poetry’, depicting an erudite scene which is immediately undermined by his citation of MacSweeney’s own rather more humdrum recollection: ‘“Basil used to have to tell me off every time I made the tidetables incorrect [...] he used to come up and scold me and say you’ve added this up all wrong”‘.[18]


Whilst Bunting may well have regaled his colleagues with tales of his Modernist escapades, it is not immediately apparent what effect such storytelling, or his advice on poetic composition had on the actual content of MacSweeney’s first publication, which is in many respects far more urban (many of the poems concern Newcastle, few its more rural environs), location-specific (‘Tynemouth priory stands / sepia walled [...] cliffs plait / light brown and black / into shapes’),[19] and circumlocutory (‘Love may be compared with a rainbow, but that is romance / and not what Love is’)[20] than anything that Bunting would have advocated. In addition, the influences that MacSweeney does admit through lyrical allusion (including ‘Rimbaud and Verlaine’, the former being the ‘Boy’ from the title,[21] and the Russian versifiers with whom he wishes to ‘drink vodka’) are far more characteristic of his juvenile-rebellious notions of self-representation than the Modernists conjured by the anecdotes of his elder.[22]


For many poets of MacSweeney’s generation who either deliberately chose to eschew, or were shunned by the English mainstream (that ‘narrow lineage of contemporary poets from Phillip Larkin to Craig Raine and Simon Armitage’ whose ‘typical poem is a closed, monolineal utterance, demanding little of the reader but passive consumption’) Bunting’s late-blooming career and liberating, anti-centralist philosophies provided an obvious ‘exemplar’.[23] Yet whilst the legacy for which Bunting stood was intensified in MacSweeney’s case by his first-hand connection–and thus a prime opportunity to claim continuity with the poets of a past generation–neither he, nor his contemporaries found much to relate to in their forms or ideals, being lured instead by a more modern strain of ‘American poetry and its tradition: “not that of Pound and Eliot but that of Pound and Williams”’.[24]


Mottram notes this distinction in his introduction to The New British Poetry, citing the importance for his generation of ‘senior figures [...] Hugh MacDiarmid, Basil Bunting and David Jones–all poets deeply aware of and affected by the poetics of modernism’, but maintaining the significant influence on the ‘Revival’ poets of the greater range of contemporary American writers who were being made available in Britain through small presses such as Migrant, Fulcrum and Goliard.[25] Rather than being invigorated by the proximity of Modernist legitimisation, it appears that the 1960s generation (and particularly MacSweeney due to his direct contact with Bunting) reacted against the reverence of their elders for these past masters, preferring to seek out specifically modern forms through which to differentiate themselves from an outmoded tradition.


Another perpetually (and inevitably) reiterated connection between these two poets is their common North East origin; their subsequent association with the Newcastle branch of the ‘British Poetry Revival’ and their respective roles in the emergence of the Morden Tower poetry readings. For in much the same way as MacSweeney’s ‘autobiography’ may be seen as constructing a literary-regional-historical framework for his early work, many introductions to these poets (both reasonably and beneficially) employ this geographical hook in order to provide a broad platform for their interpretation or study:


MacSweeney commenced writing early and, as a consequence of maturing in Newcastle during the 1960s was influenced by the vigour of the poetry scene at that time [...] Bunting’s poetry, and those of younger contemporaries, could be heard at the Morden Tower [...] MacSweeney was both contributor and participant at these readings[26]


Nicholas Johnson’s ‘Appreciation’ of MacSweeney states that the poet ‘became swept up by the vital transatlantic public poetry that travelled [...] through London, up to Newcastle and out to Wylam’: thus specifically invoking the Bunting connection,[27] whilst another obituary devotes three of its sparse lines to: ‘During the 1960s, MacSweeney’s native Newcastle was the scene of a regional efflorescence of poetry writing and reading, centred on Morden Tower. Basil Bunting, Tom Pickard and Jon Silkin [...] were active in the area’.[28] That the poets’ common regional origin is perhaps the single most repeated fact of their reciprocal association both highlights its respective individual import and subverts its usefulness as a mode for their comparison. For although helpful in establishing a context for MacSweeney’s early creative development, a critical overemphasis on this particular has often lead to it being appropriated as a basis from which to draw distorting, or simply unnecessarily repetitive literary analogies:


poets were also drawn by Basil Bunting [...] whose precision and rich textuality was equally relevant to Pickard and MacSweeney.[29]


he’s proud of the strength of his language [...] a Factor X which includes Northern-ness, stubborn-ness, and a Bunting-like need to keep singing the North into poetic existence[30]


Declaring himself a poet and refusing compromise, he has walked, in Bunting’s terms, among the bogus, with an absolute sense of appointment.[31]


Pickard and MacSweeney shared Bunting’s interest in reviving Northumbrian vowel patterns and verbal music in poetry’.[32]


That this concept of erudite tutelage founded on common regionality was more gloss than substance is no better illustrated than by contrasting MacSweeney’s muted and defensive recollections of Bunting, with the mutual flattery and endorsement which characterised the relationship between the latter and his saviour-protégé Tom Pickard. For where MacSweeney nonchalantly recalls his first Bunting encounter, Pickard’s memories tend rather towards eulogy: ‘He talked of Persia, America and Italy [...] When he asked if I wrote poetry myself, I confessed I did but had not taken any to show him, out of shyness. “Well, you must come again, and bring your poems along.”’.[33] And whilst Bunting was dismissive of the merits of modern British verse and rarely ever alluded to MacSweeney–except once to mention him providing MacDiarmid with a glass of water during a reading[34]– his preface to Pickard’s first collection abounds with praise for his: ‘fresh eyes’ and ‘fresh voice [...] skill to keep the line compact and musical’, and rather zealously continues: ‘I find here [...] a sound that suggests some of the earliest writers in the Greek Anthology’.[35]


That Bunting’s preference for Pickard formatively affected MacSweeney’s relationship with these men is evident in his anxious self-distancing from both; in comments he made regarding his ‘tetchy’ and ‘wary’ relationship with Pickard,[36] and perhaps most tellingly in Andrew Duncan’s recollection: ‘When I went to interview Barry MacSweeney in Newcastle, his mother remarked at one point that Pickard had made his whole career out of being a friend of Basil Bunting in the 1960s.’ [37] Although W. E. Parkinson berated what he saw as a ‘sympathetic circularity’ among the triumvirate, a notion he appears to have based on the concurrence between Bunting’s ‘What the Chairman Told Tom’ and MacSweeney’s ‘On The Apology Owed Tom Pickard’, it is clear from the marked disparity between MacSweeney’s ambiguous allusions to his fellow poets and their vociferous celebrations of each other that he undoubtedly–and most likely deliberately–occupied the position of marginalised ‘other’ in this equation.[38]


MacSweeney’s remarks apropos his attendance at the Morden Tower poetry readings are equally illuminating here. For although undoubtedly inspired by the activities which were taking place, he remained deliberately reticent about his own participation, stating in Poetry Information: ‘I was involved to some extent with the Tower, i.e. I used to go there, and I did help Tom out a little bit’, but also admitting: ‘Tom and Connie were very much in charge at the Morden [...] They knew all the contacts and that’s fine [...] I think we were all jealous of each other actually.’[39] Furthermore, the poet’s contribution to High on the Walls: A Morden Tower Anthology seems to emphasise that, contrary to popular belief, it was less the revered local ‘master’ and more the transatlantic visitors who motivated his visits: ‘Ginsberg [...] visited the Tower. It was a packed brilliant evening. After his visit [...] Corso, Ferlinghetti, Dorn, Creeley, Trocchi, Harwood, Raworth’, to which he adds ‘and, of course, Bunting’: an almost afterthought.[40]


Another reason for the traditional critical association of Bunting and MacSweeney is the existence of several coincidental biographical similarities which contributed in analogous ways to their developing perceptions of their own native identities. The socio-economically resonant location of their births: one in a pit village, the other in a working-class area of the city and both in the marginalized North East of England meant that they were situated from the outset in an adversarial position ‘on the edge of power, on the periphery of culture, on the edge of empire’, living ‘in the margins’.[41] Furthermore, neither poet’s father was indigenous to the North East: Bunting’s having migrated from Heanor in Derbyshire and MacSweeney’s hailing from ‘the Isle of Dogs’,[42] a commonality which provided both men with an ‘other’ locational identity which became subjugated by a stronger North Eastern sense in their work.


For Bunting, whose relationship with his father was respectful but never close,[43] this lack of a male-legitimised ancestral connection to the region seemed to reinforce his need to construct a powerful notion of own his ‘Northumbrian’ identity in his verse and place a greater stress on his maternal kinship: ‘Basil boasted that his mother Annie Cheeseman Bunting, the daughter of Annie Foster and Isaac Taylor Cheeseman, a local mine manager, was related to most of the Border families, including the Charltons’.[44] For MacSweeney, whose situation was more volatile and thus a base for even stronger geographical distinctions, it led to the censure in his work of London and, to a lesser extent Ireland as denotative of the violent male parent,[45] and a determination to affiliate his identity with that of his maternal relations: ‘Our Calvert past is so tremendously noble’.[46] An aspiration which materialises in his exaltation of North East landscapes; in the depiction of Sparty Lea as his haven, and in the pointed emotional intensity which he instilled into the rural Northumbrian imagery in his work:


Allendale rosehip
whose fruit blood dries
lichen is armour
against these sores.[47]


That both poets were (albeit temporarily) displaced from their native North East at a comparatively early age and placed in an unfamiliar southern environment: Bunting at schools in Yorkshire and Berkshire, where he protested: ‘I think there must be some great underlying difference between North & South [...] people with Southern manners are, for me, utterly “impossible” & hateful’,[48] and MacSweeney at Harlow Technical College where his disquiet concerned the uniformity of the landscape and the rootless residents who embodied for him ‘An opposite life altogether’,[49] had similar affects on their developing philosophies. For whilst the validating historical detail which characterises each man’s work stemmed from a burgeoning consciousness of the geographical ‘otherness’ of the region into which they were born, this sense was certainly exacerbated (if it was not created), by such juvenile encounters with locational difference.


These formative conflicts, when magnified by the poets’ naturally antagonistic personalities, were to become central impetuses in their representations of their native territories and selves and major influences on their notions of belonging and alienation, manifesting in Bunting’s work in his construction of stanzas formed to mirror the cadences of North East speech to the self-professedly deliberate exclusion of a section of his readership, as he argued that ‘Southrons would maul the music of many lines in Briggflatts’.[50] For MacSweeney such locative schisms often reached beyond the linguistic (‘paranoid Marxist Cambridge prefects, / self-appointed guarantors of consonants and vowels’,[51] ‘I say: Fight the language which is nailed and then driven down!’)[52] to inform broader notions of cultural and emotional incompatibility, with ‘southern’ places used in his work as signifiers for corruption and superficiality: ‘too many Cambridges between you / and the love of your life / poetry’, ‘nowhere place, Devon for example’, ‘Lucifer [...] the Stevenage boy away for the game’.[53]


This ingrained geographical hostility, particularly towards institutions representative of ‘centralised’ and therefore southern rule, was also amplified in each poet’s work due to yet another biographical commonality: their tempestuous professional dealings with the literary establishment and subsequently perceived rejection. Bunting, who was aggrieved both by his initial lack of public recognition and later by what he saw as the refusal of the Arts Council of England to provide for him in old age, remained bitterly hostile towards the English capital and everything it represented, an antipathy which provided him with yet another platform on which to promote the moral as well as the artistic primacy of Northumberland and its culture, stating in a letter to Jonathan Williams: ‘I believe all that underlies the North is horrifying to our C. of E., Southron rulers and their academic sycophants’.[54]


MacSweeney, who also suffered early at the hands of the establishment after being humiliated in his nomination for the Oxford Chair of Poetry and then finding himself ‘Surplus to requirements; edged out, marginalized; exiled from the mainstream’,[55] adopted a similarly oppositional stance. One which caused him to secede his rural North East wherever possible from southern corruption (‘So fresh / we lean into the wind that rushes right past Parliament. Air / so northern away from the dulled and money-sodden crèche they call the south’)[56] and even commandeer Bunting’s phrase for its populace in a seeming nod to their analogous sentiments: ‘pansy southron students’.[57] Such remarkably equivalent experiences in the poets’ careers certainly strengthened the perspectives which informed their work, combining an intense love of their native landscape (alongside a recognition of its flaws) with an enmity towards outsiders, and emerging most powerfully when they chose to address issues of geography in their work.


The repetitive use of the associations outlined above has facilitated their survival as an integral part of the perception of MacSweeney’s poetics to the extent that they have also been translated (in remarkably similar form) into detailed critical analyses of the connection. In New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible, Mottram and Ellis summarise each man’s respective role in the ‘Poetry Revival’ and the administration of Poetry Review, with Mottram praising Bunting’s synthesis of ‘a prosody learned from English renaissance poetics’ with ‘local Northumberland historical, geological and linguistic culture’ and then identifying as its counterpart ‘the combination of the instance of Thomas Chatterton and the landscape of the North East in MacSweeney’s Brother Wolf’. A justifiable comparison, but one enhanced by biographical and regional detail.[58]


Similarly, in ‘Parts in the Weal of Kynde’, Bush focuses on the development of MacSweeney’s poetical voice whilst consolidating popular dogma by describing Bunting as the younger man’s ‘informal tutor’ (p. 21), ‘poet mentor’ (p. 306) ‘old master’ (p. 309) and as the initiator of an ‘injunction “to sing, not paint [...] laying the tune on the air”‘ which was used by MacSweeney as a ‘decisive orientation’ as early as Our Mutual Scarlet Boulevard.[59] Yet whilst these examples clearly demonstrate the extent to which such estimations are an accepted element of critical thinking, far more remarkable is the fact that despite MacSweeney’s evident awareness of this trend and its antiquated (if conventionally legitimising) implications for his work, he chose, instead of completely distancing himself from the connection, to self-consciously sustain it at several levels within his poetry.


From his initial autobiographical comment in The Boy to his posthumously published collection Horses, MacSweeney can be seen to persistently and evocatively inscribe Bunting, both explicitly and allusively, as an authority and character, and as a presence in his work. A trend which, although it may not be matched in volume by other more abundantly referenced leitmotifs (or indeed by the frequency with which the elder man is cited in MacSweeney’s critical appreciation), deserves attention due to its sheer pervasiveness.


In only the third poem from his debut, MacSweeney makes reference to Bunting with the rather oblique: ‘an article on basil torn from the Scotsman’ where only the provinciality of the newspaper and the analogous references to ‘byron’ and ‘lorca’ (with similarly omitted capitals) in adjacent lines, suggest that it is the poet and not the herb of which he speaks.[60] In the same collection, the use of ‘so much on your / fingers in my storm of / cock hair’[61] (which may be MacSweeney’s explicit take on one of the few commonly criticised lines in Bunting’s Briggflatts: ‘his fingers comb / thatch of his manhood’s home’),[62] and ‘the tidal bore’ (which although tenuous, links to comments he made concerning their journalistic relationship), extend the connection.[63]


In Fools Gold (1972) there exists another negative reference in ‘Worn / away with staring at Venus, / he licks his fat, the slumber / of basil’, a harsh and noticeably elided remark whose relevance to the poet is again only inferred from the previous exclusion of the capital from his Christian name.[64] In his later work allusions to Bunting are ever more overt, although their intent continues to waver provocatively between deference and ridicule, as in ‘Black Torch Sunrise’ where MacSweeney at once affirms the elder’s sagacious wisdom and estrangement from contemporary reality: ‘Barbiturate environment! / Marshmallow urbanity! [...] Bunting translates Catullus / in Wylam / old as the century’.[65]


Whether as a result of wry self-mythologizing or a genuine aspiration to register the existence of a poetic influence, such allusions remain consistent and are manifest not simply in the insertion of Bunting’s name but in recognisable echoes of his poetry. At the end of ‘Colonel B’ MacSweeney inserts a ‘(coda)’ which begins: ‘Betelgeuse. My central star. / Justice as geography of the soul [...] The moon (Beulah) walks Up’,[66] evoking section V of Bunting’s Briggflatts (‘Betelgeuse, / calling behind him to Rigel’)[67] and adapting the other poet’s stellar terminology with the inclusion of a reference to Blake’s mythological world. Similarly, in a poem from Demons, MacSweeney again conjures Bunting’s major work, perhaps tellingly amidst an evocation of how ‘I hope heaven will be’: ‘miles away from traffic, / and the sonata of the clopping of beasts through clarts’,[68] which is then echoed in ‘Rages and Larks’ with: ‘Heifers clop through shite’.[69]


In Ranter, already reminiscent of Briggflatts in its structural relation to the modernist long poem, replete with thematic voyaging and the fusion of geographical locations, he writes ‘Broken stiles neglected ditches / clogged with clarts’, and then: ‘sheepwire stapling / her fells and fields / wild Northumberland / hemmed in’ in a form suggestive of Bunting’s verse bemoaning the mismanagement of the region by rich landowners.[70] In ‘Saffron Walden Blues he states ‘I imagine Villon / riding through this village / a posse of flics at his back, deliberately recalling Bunting’s ‘Villon’ (and thus the elder’s time in gaol).[71] In two unpublished sonnets MacSweeney makes reference to Bunting’s celebrated line from section II of Briggflatts concerning the nature of their common profession: ‘I walk, the most appointed / person in and beyond my time’ and ‘Then I bring / a poet’s true appointment to his calling’.[72] Elsewhere he at least twice versifies the advice conferred on him and others with: ‘Accuracy is all he said and also compression of language / Words are all we cannot live without’[73] and ‘again and again the line shortens / the repetitious words’, the latter of which lines especially cogently recalls Bunting’s ‘I Suggest’.[74]


What is manifest both in the shifting tone of MacSweeney’s allusions and his seeming inability to divest himself of them is his struggle with a legacy provoked by numerous early comparisons. His references are characterised by a desire to register a fondness for Bunting’s idiosyncrasies, his role as a Northumbrian icon and even his specialist knowledge (‘Basil knew what flowers were’),[75] but tempered by an equally powerful need to debunk his accepted antecedent status in terms of his own work, to assert his independent authenticity and to exorcise the portentous ghost. As with most dilemmas of influence there are several lofty precursors for this situation. Whether we see MacSweeney’s defensiveness as redolent of Bloom’s ‘anxieties’ and his tendency to parody Bunting as inscribing his repute whilst undermining it[76] or view his satirical disempowerment of his immediate forebear as a technique enabling him to ‘leap over the parental’ to a geographically or culturally distanced resource ‘remote enough to be more manageable in the quest for [his] own identity’.[77]


That MacSweeney frequently twinned his allusions to Bunting with specific notions of place (in Ranter: ‘Wylam to Prudhoe, Bunting and Bewick’,[78] and in ‘Map, etcetera’: ‘Wylam, / home of engineer, poet / and salmon kyping at the rush’)[79] is a similarly evocative device, respectful of Bunting’s synonymy with his region and yet alert to its restricting consequences. As with Ricks’ appraisal of Dryden’s relation to Milton, MacSweeney’s attitude to his antecedent ‘had many strains and strands’, and this is perchance what made Bunting’s presence in his work almost unique.[80] For in MacSweeney’s thoroughly allusive poetry, where friends, characters and precursors are either unequivocally loved (‘God [...] there is one, you know [...] is called Milton and Blake / and Litherland and Silkin’)[81] or denounced (‘waiting for Simon’s zooming [...] thought so much of him once, he led the team, / but he is like all of them really [...] Flash in the pan short span man’),[82] only Pickard–the other component in their relationship–is evoked with similar ambiguities or so wide a spectrum of emotion.


By the time of his writing Horses, MacSweeney appears to have, perhaps deliberately, completed his circle of reference, returning once again, although this time in lyrical form, to his much repeated anecdote from the pair’s journalistic encounter:


The tidal causeway at Lindisfarne can be as untrue as you
Just as Basil taught me all those years ago
And he said if you don’t publish correctly the tidal charts
Seamen from Valparaiso and Houston will end up on the Black Middens
Dead on the rocks.[83]


Yet even MacSweeney’s recitation of his two central Bunting stories: those concerning ‘tidal’ and ‘poetic’ advice which he initiated in his ‘autobiography’ and maintained in remarkably unvarying form until the end of his career, can be seen as another (affectionately?) satirical gibe at Bunting’s persona. For by re-telling the same inter-establishment story, MacSweeney unavoidably recalls Bunting’s notorious propensity for name-dropping (‘You know that my friends are dead, for the most part [...] Pound, Zukofsky, Carlos Williams, the other day, Hugh MacDiarmid’)[84] and his constant reiteration of a yarn concerning Yeats inviting him to dinner and reciting back to him Bunting’s own verse.[85]


In Bunting’s case this penchant for camarade allusion is widely regarded as a consequence of his need to reassert his own literary relevance through the reputations of his past acquaintances, or to fulfil a requisite for appeasing expectant audiences with names they wished to hear without the obligation to recall new material. For MacSweeney however, such requirements were not so imperative, and his references to Bunting perform the dual function of affirming a general connection between them, whilst undermining assumptions about their relationship by satirising the elder’s increasingly absurd mode of self-legitimisation. A trait to which he may also have been referring in the Toad Church lines: ‘The partitions in the café bend a lot when I drink / your pink / memories of a piggish evening with Yeats and Molly Bloom’.[86]


What should be perceptible from the connections summarised above is that Bunting’s presence in MacSweeney’s verse and its critical appreciation is both consistent and restricted to several precise themes. Many of which, including MacSweeney’s persistent recounting of Bunting’s ‘advice’, the habitual truisms of their association with the Morden Tower and their international renown as North East poets, are abiding and yet largely superficial facts: useful devices in the marketing of MacSweeney’s verse but often distracting in terms of its separate appreciation. Yet, at least one broad critical tenet is endorsed by its applicability to the literary comparison of their poetry, in that the strongest points of lyrical convergence between the two poets definitively pertain to their delineations of Northumbrian landscapes.


This connection is strongly upheld by the fact that MacSweeney’s lyrical allusions are repeatedly to Bunting’s Briggflatts: one of his few key works to deal specifically with that topic; by the thematic similarities in their renditions of the subject (including the use of socio-historical and natural motifs) and by their mutual critical association with Gerald Manley Hopkins, a poet whose conviction led him to pursue ‘a language of inspiration that would capture experience afresh’; who revived ‘archaisms’ and used ‘coinages of his own’, all practices adopted by these two successors.[87] Yet such similarities, in conjunction with William Wootten’s consideration of Bunting’s poetic not as ‘British’ but ‘Northumbrian Modernism’, are also redolent of a crucial and distorting discrepancy between the two poets’ literary resemblance and their wider public correlation.[88] For whilst the latter takes place on a superficial plateau and is assumed to apply to a broad spectrum of their work, the only substantial evidence of what Bloom terms poetic ‘misprision’ exists in the comparatively little of either poets’ verse to deal principally with the delineation of North East rural topographies.[89]


One critic to consider this legacy within the boundaries of the work to which it chiefly pertains is Harriet Tarlo in ‘Radical Landscapes: Contemporary British Poetry in the Bunting Tradition’. Initially Tarlo appears to be simply reiterating MacSweeney platitudes when she establishes her essay as particularly concerned with ‘poets whose work can be related to that of Basil Bunting [...] who all live in the North of England and [...] acknowledge Bunting as a significant ancestor’.[90] Yet the generalisations of her introduction are not borne out by the remainder of the article which, in its examination of the continuities between Briggflatts and in this case, specifically Pearl, constitutes one of the most detailed textual comparisons of the two poets’ pastoral verse in recent critical history.


Tarlo first notes that Pearl represents ‘a sequence of poems with self-conscious connections to Briggflatts’[91] and proceeds to list those parallels between the two which include references to regional history (p. 154); the use of compound words or ‘kenning’ (p. 155); a ‘refusal to ignore the unseemly elements of nature’ (p. 161); an awareness ‘of the human presence in the land, both past and present’; a ‘sense of the inhabitants of the environment, be they animal or human’ (p. 162); of ‘industrial and agricultural labour and poverty’ (p. 164) and ‘land “rights” and politics’ (p. 165). She also remarks that: ‘We can see the influence of Bunting [...] incorporating, not just the observed detail of the eye, but also the learned historical and geological fact (p. 170). Yet what is evident from Tarlo’s analysis, and what may be gleaned from her use of terms such as ‘sense’ and ‘awareness’, is that the majority of acknowledged parallels between these two sequences centre on elements pertaining to each poet’s regional-historical perspective.


The similarities between Pearl and Briggflatts are particularly visible for several reasons: they occupy analogous positions in each poet’s career; evoke their author’s passionate regard for his individually distinct landscape; utilise memories of formative sexual experience as central motifs and represent maturely developed and personalised assessments of particular place.[92] Yet whether such links are evocative of a direct progression of stylistic influence from one poet to another of his acquaintance or more to do with the existence of a broader sense of independently evolved identity which resulted from each man’s experience of being a socio-politically aware individual developing as a marginalized North Easterner in twentieth-century Britain is more difficult to ascertain. Are the qualities in MacSweeney’s work which are commonly identified as indicative of Bunting’s influence: the resonant invocations of the Northumbrian Saints; a concern with the sound patterns of local dialects, and allusions to the conflicts and climate which shaped the region’s landscape (Briggflatts ‘Bloodaxe, king of York’;[93] Ranter’s ‘Halfden’s longboats’ and ‘Hadrian’s leather boot’),[94] derived primarily from the poetic innovations of the elder, or from a powerful and momentous field of local reference which he accessed as a result of his inherent native consciousness?


That the two poets may only be plausibly compared in terms of their Northumbrian based poetry evidences their use of a common resource, yet instead of supporting their poetic similitude, this traditional realm of their association is actually more indicative of both their personal and generational distinctiveness. A circumstance which was perhaps inevitable when, as William Wootten observes of Bunting, each poet is constructing a ‘Northumbria that reflects his own literary tastes’, and when the sequences Briggflatts and Pearl are chiefly autobiographies in which ‘Northumbrian and northern material is configured around the poet’s life and concerns, supplying a personal mythology and a subjective, rather than objective, correlative to them.’ [95]


In their use of analogous local motifs a striking contrast exists between Bunting’s own majestic validation of Northumbria by way of its saints: ‘Columba, Columbanus, as the soil shifts its vest, / Aidan and Cuthbert put on daylight’[96] and MacSweeney’s subsequent sense of their desertion: ‘Picking up Bede and Cuthbert / on the ham radio [...] wondering why they don’t answer back’,[97] ‘Farne - / fuming. surf, in / mighty / region / of kippers / and Bede. / He is / gone’.[98] Where Briggflatts asserts the proud agricultural names of those ‘fell-born men of precise instep [...] Wilson or Telfer’,[99] their counterparts in Pearl represent not local dignity but industrial disintegration: ‘Hard hats abandoned in heather [...] Tags / in the rims: Ridley, Marshall, / McKinnon, Smith’.[100] Whilst Briggflatts ‘ranges the world and time’[101] glorying in the rich cultural diversity of its poet’s experiences, referencing the ‘Apuan Alps’, ‘fiddlers above Parma’, ‘sweltering Crete’ and ‘desired Macedonia’,[102] Pearl symbolically rejects it.


For in MacSweeney’s sequence the valued ‘world’ contains only that which lies within his fundamental sphere ‘up here on the rim of the planet’,[103] and external geographies remain sparsely acknowledged, contextually negative (‘I lost my mind in Sarajevo [...] the filthy bombshell bombhell’)[104] and culturally stereotyped (‘In the Orient I would be a good servant’):[105] violent and distrusted distractions from the authentic rural territory: ‘They have smelled the city perfume from the passing coach’.[106] MacSweeney’s imagery in the sequence also supports this premise, countering Bunting’s classical references with an intense focus on the rudiments of life within the specific environment, and swapping Asian birdlife (‘vultures riding on a spiral’)[107] for an accent on domestic items with integral relation to his scene: ‘curtains’[108], Pearl’s ‘Woolworth butterfly blue plastic clip’[109], ‘spam on Sundays’[110], ‘Co-op coat’[111], ‘red mittens’[112], ‘sheep bones’ and ‘crisps’.[113] For whilst MacSweeney’s rural North East could be both expansive and fantastical, it was also less ornately rendered and formally self-conscious than Bunting’s: an ingenuousness which contributed to its authenticity.


In many respects, Bunting’s North East was his own archaic and immovable concept, for he was, as Colls and Lancaster describe in Geordies: Roots of Regionalism, one of ‘Those “real” Northumbrians [who] see themselves as the inheritors of eleventh century Boernican kingdoms, are not likely to be much fussed by yet another level of identity overlaying all the other levels which have gone since 1018’ (xi). Like Auden, whom Sid Chaplin observed had ‘“Obviously little or no feeling for folk–I doubt if he’d ever made friends with a Weardale or Alston Lead Miner”‘,[114] Bunting preferred to populate his landscape with those consigned to history: with mythical warriors and kings or with symbolic rural characters rather than address its living populace, all of which went against MacSweeney’s social ethics.


In Bunting’s early verse the bucolic issues are enforced emigration and the usurping of the land (‘Must ye bide, my good stone house / to keep a townsman dry’),[115] but they are matters in relation to which his middle-class status makes him little more than an empathetic observer. In MacSweeney’s time an essentially converse, but still comparable situation had been greatly intensified by the modern increase in urban–rural migration, provoking issues which his social indignation and love for the unadulterated landscape caused him to bitterly internalise: ‘bijou conversion’,[116] ‘from the edge of the roaring bypass’[117], ‘wire, wire, wire’.[118]


The closest theoretical position to this relation is perhaps Bloom’s revisionary ratio ‘Tessera’, where ‘A poet antithetically “completes” his precursor, by so reading the parent-poem as to retain its terms but to mean them in another sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough’.[119] Yet even this does not explain the link, for although the differences between Bunting and MacSweeney’s rural poetry are exacerbated both by the former’s purposefully archaic stance and the latter’s defiantly anarchic one, the variance in their respective attitudes demands that MacSweeney’s pastoral lyrics be regarded partly as an updates version of a previous form, but more so as his very personal reaction to a drastically changed landscape.


Today we are used to classic writers from the North East, such as Basil Bunting and Barry MacSweeney; but this is a new phenomenon; whether the reason is the difficulty north-easterners experienced in manipulating southern English (or indeed in having cultural faith in their own speech) or something more intricate[120]


MacSweeney’s personalised revision of Bunting’s notions and the distinctions which underlie assumed commonalities between the two can also be located in each poet’s specific use and understanding of dialects. For whilst these poets have been habitually equated for their stringent beliefs in, and omnipresent concern with, the significance of their native oral culture–key for MacSweeney because Northern language ‘is longer lasting, it’s durable, it’s harder, it’s springier, it’s more elemental, it comes out of all sorts of historical, geographical and social conflicts’[121]–it was also a subject on which they held distinctly differing views.


While MacSweeney, as inferred from his ‘autobiography’, was usually defiantly ‘Geordie’ in his literary self-representation, Bunting was equally defiantly not so, and in accordance with his cultivated ‘Northumbrian’ identity strongly distinguished between these two idioms. In an interview with Peter Bell he termed Geordie ‘a bastard language [...] a mixture mainly of South-Northumbrian with the Irish that was brought in by the labourers who came first to dig canals, then to build railways, and finally settle down largely in the coal mines’: an analysis which as neatly encompasses MacSweeney’s reasons for embracing his dialect (it being tied to his blue-collar Irish heritage and Allendale upbringing) as it does Bunting’s own reasons for rejecting it.[122]


The rather pedantic nature of this vernacular segregation is characteristic of Bunting’s deliberately antagonistic persona; that it touches on issues of class is symptomatic of his tendency towards snobbery, yet the distinction is also redolent of a generational schism between the two poets which influenced their perceptions of their own regional identities. For while the elder refused to connect himself lyrically, or even ancestrally with the seething mass of the contemporary city (‘When I was born Scotswood wasn’t Geordie. Geordie stopped with Newcastle’), founding his ‘regionality’ on an ancient, incorporeal kingdom, the younger poet inverted this position.[123] Taking as his early focus the province’s modern ‘capital’ Newcastle, MacSweeney addressed all aspects of his realm and saw, in the multifaceted textures of the existing North East region, an analogy for the divergent elements of his composite identity.


It has been shown that the main points of convergence in the work of MacSweeney and Bunting and the closest instances of poetic phraseology in their verse occur in relation to their depictions of the rural North East: a circumstance which suggests that they should only reasonably be compared for their renditions of a common regional consciousness. Yet there may be more reason to refute the traditional assessment of their relationship than even this. For what is not often fully considered by the advocates of the Bunting as ‘mentor’ theory, is that as a result of his 1960s renaissance, the elder poet may almost be regarded as much as MacSweeney’s contemporary as he was his precursor–their both having been energised by the activism of the ‘Revival’ and concurrently propelled towards literary renown.


Just as Bunting was completing his major work, MacSweeney was starting one of his own (The Boy was hugely well received) and for a decade or more they were simultaneously writing verse. It is interesting with this in mind to evaluate some of the poets’ work from this particular era and to examine not just the concurrence between their satirical defences of Tom Pickard: the elder’s: ‘I want to wash when I meet a poet. / They’re Reds, addicts, / all delinquents. / What you write is rot’ with the other’s apparently contemporaneous ‘I too want to call Tom Pickard “a long-haired / Scruffy, parasitic bastard” / I want to call John Silkin a “bearded egotist”‘, but to look at some of their pastoral lyrics as well.[124]


To place Bunting’s ‘Look how clouds dance / under the wind’s wing, and leaves / delight in transience’[125] against MacSweeney’s ‘trees dance by themselves / and don’t recognise time’;[126] the elder’s ‘some steep pool / to plodge or dip / and silent taste / with all my skin’[127] with his junior’s ‘We plodge in eddies / of Love’;[128] and view Basil’s ‘Light pelts hard now my sun’s low, / it carves my stone as hail mud’,[129] alongside Barry’s ‘quilts of rain lashing into / peat, a light-handed wind picking / drops’.[130] All comparable, landscape based images, which are not the closest examples of textual resemblance to be found within these two poets work, but which are all instances in which MacSweeney’s line predates that of his ‘poet mentor’.


Peter Manson has observed that ‘MacSweeney is one of those writers whose work becomes [...] more coherent the more of it you read’ because it contains elements that ‘recur in poems written years apart, with a cumulative effect’: a statement which is absolutely justifiable with the possible exception of his references and allusions to Basil Bunting. For whilst these are certainly consistent, they are barely more elucidatory as to the poet’s own estimation of this influence following their comprehensive scrutiny than they were from his initial autobiography.[131]


Where one seeks evidence of Bunting’s tutorship in MacSweeney’s verse, there is often only an echo or impression (sometimes affectionately sardonic) of the man himself, and on occasion, scarcely even that: ‘attend your fresh horizon / servants of such final need / old as this century is’.[132] The only statements MacSweeney ever made regarding this poetic inheritance–if we discount the sweeping ambiguity of remarks like ‘He taught me a lot of things’ and ‘he was a great bloke’–concern Bunting’s teachings on condensing the poetic line: ‘he meant real economy, not just writing the poem and then going through seeing which words are unnecessary–but from the beginning, the whole thing, is drawn tightly together.[133] Yet his actual verse is less suggestive of this practice than of a deeper, and yet far more intangible emotional consequence, when in the midst of a poem which could hardly be less economical, he declares: ‘I want to run before / the moon, I want to swing on my starres by Bunting, garlanded with squat’: leaving the capital intact and the allusion clearly visible.[134]


The answer to this conundrum of influence, as inferred by the poet’s ‘autobiography’ which at once invites and rejects it, is clearly complex, but perhaps–as evidenced in his use of both Bunting and Pickard as locative rather than literary signifiers in his work (‘Newcastle poets’)–it lies in the fact that this was more a regional than a poetic stimulus. For whilst the poet’s developing style and his responses to the rural North East drew far more heavily on a range of other, diverse literary precursors, Bunting’s ghost never quite disappears from his work.

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1978. She grew up in Derbyshire, England and returned to the North East in 1996 to begin her academic career specialising in contemporary North East poetry. In 1999 she was awarded the Brooks Johnson Prize for her undergraduate work, in 2000–2001 she worked with Bloodaxe Books and the Basil Bunting Poetry Centre on a multimedia research project. In 2002 she gained a Masters Degree on the poetry of Tony Harrison and Basil Bunting and she has recently completed a PhD on the work of Barry MacSweeney. Her article “Basil Bunting: A Regional Perspective” was published by in 2007. She lives and works in Newcastle upon Tyne.



[1] Douglas Clark, ‘A Lifetime of Poetry’, [Has been removed from the Internet.]

[2] John Sears, ‘Out of Control’,

[3] ‘The autobiography of Barry MacSweeney’, The Boy. Although Bunting’s advice on condensing the line was occasionally adopted by MacSweeney (he cites Brother Wolf as a key verse example in Poetry Information, No. 18, p. 36), he often attributed his use of it to professional experience: ‘He [Basil] taught me a lot of things, and I was under the impression in fact that journalism taught me to be brief’ (Poetry Information, p. 22).

[4] Even if MacSweeney did intend to present himself in the instance of his celebrated predecessor, it is unlikely that he could have anticipated the regularity with which the connection would be regurgitated in their critical appreciation.

[5] Keele Recordings, cassette 3B.

[6] Caddel, Richard & Anthony Flowers, Basil Bunting: A Northern Life (Newcastle upon Tyne: Newcastle Libraries and Information Service, 1997), p. 47. Bunting was also awarded the ‘Northern Arts Literary Fellowship at the Universities of Durham and Newcastle’ in 1968 (Caddel/Flowers, p. 48).

[7] A similar incident transpired between the aspiring working-class poet William Heaton and ‘England’s poet laureate’ William Wordsworth when the latter responded to a poetic dedication by the former with a missive he gave Heaton permission to publish, and which, despite containing ‘no comment about Heaton’s verse’ acted ‘as a kind of imprimatur at the front of his Flowers of Calderdale, calling attention to the respectability and ability of the poet. Perhaps it also helped sales’ (Martha Vicinus, The Industrial Muse, p. 169).

[8] This ‘first real lesson’ thus becomes a dismissive and almost personal rebuke, when in fact it was simply Bunting’s stock response on receiving verse from friends, colleagues and protégés alike. In his advice to poets he advised them to ‘Jettison ornament gaily’ and ‘Cut out every word you dare [...] Do it again a week later, and again’ (‘I Suggest’, Caddel/Flowers, p. 49) whilst he gave similar instruction to both Pickard and Ginsberg, the latter of whom cheerily accepted the guidance: ‘happy circumstances for a poet, and happier to hear Bunting’s concern – “Too many words, condense still more”’ (High on the Walls: A Morden Tower Anthology, p. 59). MacSweeney’s own response is perhaps an early indication of his proclivity for enhancing the underdog nature of his every situation.

[9] It is almost exclusively MacSweeney’s work relating to the delineation of Northern rural landscapes that is critically linked with Bunting.

[10] ‘It wasn’t until then that suddenly a massive vista opened up, projective verse, and I studied it for a long time and read all the Olson I could get hold of, and read about Black Mountain. “The figure of the outward” is a phrase, but for me it means like taking a language outside of the ego, the self, one’s own personal relationships, and suddenly realising that all that land is out there’ (Poetry Information, p. 30).

[11] Archive: BM: 1/2. Letter to Lillian MacSweeney. MacSweeney also advises that Bob Proud should read the ‘Collected Bunting’.

[12] ‘Once I had a friend / from my town. Now he is a fraud. Once / he was my golden calf, but now warped by / that gilt-necked stream, he twists about / the stone, and chokes the living good’ (The Last Bud [1]). MacSweeney being notoriously opposed to anything ‘establishment’, presumably including the increasingly mainstream popularity achieved by Bunting in the later 1960s.

[13] One website ‘appreciation’ of MacSweeney bemoans the critical over-insistence on his addiction (before proceeding to immediately evoke the professional connection between the poets discussed here) stating: ‘most biographies concentrate on MacSweeney’s drinking. Most criticism dramatises his writing in terms of this aspect of his life’ (Mathew John Williams, whilst Jeff Nuttall objects in more vociferous manner: ‘His gastronomic life was of no real importance. His work was unique’ (Guardian, Letters to the editor, 7 June 2000).


[15] Helen Arkwright,

[16] Andrew Crozier, ‘Barry MacSweeney’, Guardian, 18 May 2000, p. 24.

[17] Gordon Burn, ‘Message in a Bottle’, Guardian, 1 June 2000.

[18] The Poet As Spy: The Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting, Aurum Press, 1998, p. 144.

[19] ‘Walk’, The Boy, p. 9.

[20] ‘For A Pale Time, No Matter’, Ibid, p. 19.

[21] ‘The Track, Fervour, Ibid, p. 26.

[22] ‘For Andrei Voznesensky, for her’, Ibid, p. 15.

[23] Caddel/Quartermain: ‘A Fair Field Full of Folk’.

[24] Andrew Crozier cited by Hampson/Barry, ‘Introduction’, The Scope of the Possible, p. 6.

[25] Mottram, Eric., Introduction to ‘A Treacherous Assault on British Poetry’, The New British Poetry (London: Paladin, 1988), pp. 131—132. Hampson/Barry also use Mottram’s comments to make the same point in their ‘Introduction’ to The Scope of the Possible, p. 6.


[27] Johnson, Nicholas., ‘Barry MacSweeney: An Appreciation’, Independent, 13 May 2000. Wylam being Bunting’s main place of residence in his later years, and where Pickard visited in order to invite him to read at the Tower.

[28] ‘Barry MacSweeney/Obituaries. Lives in Brief’, The Times, p. 21, 22 May 2000.

[29] Nicholas Johnson: ‘Barry MacSweeney: An Appreciation’, The Independent, 13 May 2000.

[30] Ian McMillan: ‘More Hyphens, Please!’ Poetry Review, Vol 87, No 4, Winter 1997/98 although I don’t have a page number). McMillan does admit that he is struggling to describe the poet’s lyrics, saying: ‘You can see by the way I’m shovelling out hyphens that MacSweeney is difficult to classify’.

[31] Clive Bush, ‘Parts in the Weal’, p. 416.

[32] My justification for the use of this somewhat maligned source is to show the broad level at which this belief is repeated and held.

[33] Tom Pickard, ‘Serving My Time to a Trade’, High on The Wallsy, p. 14. Pickard’s account is written entirely in this awestruck vein: ‘It is difficult to explain the emotion felt at hearing for the first time a great and accomplished work read by its author...The experience was moving and revealing’.

[34] ‘Some Jazz from the Baz: The Bunting-Williams Letters’; The Star You Steer By; p. 262.

[35] Pickard, Tom., High on the Walls, Fulcrum Press, 1967. The cover of Pickard’s publication states in large bold letters across the bottom: ‘Preface by Basil Bunting’, perhaps a less subtle approach to self-legitimisation than was attempted a year later (if it was at all) by MacSweeney.

[36] Poetry Information; Number 18, p. 26.

[37] ‘Fluent Lads’, [Auathor’s note: this one works fine on my computer but may be filtered by others.]

[38] ‘Poetry in the North East’; British Poetry Since 1960: A Critical Survey; p. 112. Parkinson writes: ‘Another objectionable strain in [Bunting’s] work, and in that of Pickard and MacSweeney, is the sympathetic circularity set up through poems like “What the Chairman Told Tom”, and introductions in which each genuflects towards the other. This looking for comfort and approbation is symptomatic of “the man of sensitivity” living in a hostile society that hates “Art”’.

[39] Poetry Information 18, pp. 23—26.

[40] Barry MacSweeney, High on the Walls, A Morden Tower Anthology, Bloodaxe, 1990, p. 86. The late addition of Bunting’s may have been at the behest of the publication’s instigators who wished to confirm the interrelation of the Tower’s own history and success with that of Bunting’s.

[41] Quartermain, Basil Bunting: Poet of the North, Basil Bunting Poetry Archive, Durham, 1990, p. 5.

[42] Poetry Information, 18, p. 21.

[43] Caddel/Flowers note that Bunting termed his father ‘ a rather remarkable doctor’ (p. 11) but that it was his mother and her Northumbrian family of whom he was most vociferously proud.

[44] Victoria Forde, The Poetry of Basil Bunting, p. 15. Despite living over half of his life away from the region and rarely representing it in his poetry, Basil Bunting’s ‘Northumbrianess’ – largely as a result of Briggflatts’ –

remains one of the most infamously repeated and critically discussed facts of his existence.

[45] ‘set for the Donnybrook Road / prison conditions and ships into port / the violence of the warders universal’ (Pearl [‘Draft B’], Archive: BM: 1/18/2).

[46] ‘Sam Arrives To Take Grandad for the Dawn Tickling’, Horses, p. 36.

[47] ‘Blackbird’. MacSweeney’s ‘elegy’ for his maternal grandfather William Calvert directly associates the poet’s maternal family with the landscape which was vital to his recollection of such experiences.

[48] Caddel/Flowers, Basil Bunting: A Northern Life, p. 17. Bunting also reputedly informed his headmaster: ‘I think it is your duty to give me my fare to Newcastle’.

[49] ‘The autobiography of Barry MacSweeney’, The Boy.

[50] ‘Note to Briggflatts’, Complete Poems, p. 226.

[51] ‘Sweet Jesus: Pearl’s Prayer’, Demons, p. 12.

[52] ‘Victory Over Darkness and The Sunne’, Horses, p. 28.

[53] ‘I Am Lucifer’, Postcards.

[54] ‘Some Jazz from the Bazz’, p. 282.

[55] Gordon Burn, ‘Message in a Bottle’.

[56] ‘Mary Bell Sonnets’ [73 (#2) ‘Despite Everything its There’], Archive: BM 2/9/1.

[57] ‘Good Times Gone Truly Bad’, Archive: BM: 1/19/2.

[58] Eric Mottram, ‘The British Poetry Revival’ and R.J. Ellis, ‘Mapping the UK Little Magazine Field’, New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible.

[59] Clive Bush, ‘Parts in the Weal’.

[60] ‘The Two Questions, The Two Places’, The Boy, p. 5. In addition to this ambiguous play on the word ‘basil’, MacSweeney elsewhere exploits the poet’s other moniker in the ‘snow bunting’ which appear in Kielder Forest in two of the poems from Horses: ‘Troubled Are These Times (p. 11) and ‘Cold Mountain Ode’ (p. 34).

[61] ‘Such a Lot’, The Boy, p. 16.

[62] Basil Bunting, Complete Poems, p. 63.

[63] ‘The Decision, Finally (for Jeremy Prynne) 4am, March 24 Sparty Lea’, The Boy, p. 45. A suggestion reinforced by a later line from Memos which echoes this allusion whilst adding another clue as to its subject: ‘Like Wylam salmon male and female we whipped the / Pennine bore’. This reference could feasibly constitute a double barb in pertaining also to W.H. Auden, a mainstream and – some might say – poetic appropriator of the Alston/Allendale landscape whom MacSweeney would certainly have had reason to dislike (‘So quiet tonight I can barely hear the brushing’, Memos, p. 16).

[64] Fools Gold, p. 4.

[65] Wolf Tongue, p. 76.

[66] Tempers, p. 212.

[67] Basil Bunting, Complete Poems, p. 79.

[68] ‘Your Love Is A Swarm And An Unbeguiled Swanne’, Demons, p. 84. Other possible allusions to Briggflatts occur in MacSweeney’s early poem, ‘The Last Bud’ where he writes: ‘And her who is Israfel takes me to / pity through pain’ (The Last Bud), for Bunting’s: ‘and the limbs of Israfel [...] whose sign is cirrus’ (Basil Bunting, Complete Poems, p. 73), and in ‘Saffron Waldon Blues, at the Pond House’ where he notes: ‘I belong and am exiled [...] I come from the Chillingham Bull. / I have no latch, not even ivy / to choke the mason’s work’, pointedly referencing the opening section of Bunting’s work (Boulevard, p. 41).

[69] Archive: BM: 1/20/1.

[70] Ranter p. 28. Both ‘Gin the Goodwife Stint’ and ‘The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer’ are poems written in Northumbrian dialect and deal with such issues, the latter stating: ‘Sheep and cattle are poor men’s food, / grouse is sport for the rich; / heather grows where the sweet grass might grow / for the cost of cleaning the ditch’. (Complete Poems, p. 115).

[71] Boulevard, p. 39.

[72] ‘Mary Bell Sonnets’, ‘The Gift Which Arrived Today’ [70] and [102], Archive: BM: 2/9/1.

[73] ‘Victory Over Darkness & The Sunne’, Horses, p. 29.

[74] ‘Our Mutual Scarlet Boulevard’, Boulevard, p. 74. This line appears in the poem’s ‘Coda’.

[75] Archive: BM: 1/19/2. ‘15 Per Cent of Every Life Lived’. Such remarks reveal what appears to be a genuine respect on MacSweeney’s part for certain aspects of Bunting’s expertise.

[76] Harold Bloom: The Anxiety of Influence; Oxford University Press; 1997.Perhaps the most useful of Bloom’s representative examples is that which he draws between Shakespeare and Marlowe, stating: ‘Marlowe haunted Shakespeare, who defensively parodied his forerunner whilst resolving that the author of The Jew of Malta would become for him primarily the way not to go [...] After Henry VI, an ironic inflection almost invariably conditions the Marlovian recalls, and yet many of these are less allusive than they are something else, repetitions perhaps, usually in a finer tone. The fascination with Marlowe remained; one could almost term it a seduction by Marlowe.’ (xxii-xxxv).

[77] W.J. Bate: The Burden of the Past and the English Poet, p. 22. Although Bate discusses the poet’s ‘leapfrogging’ of the immediate precursor in his attempt to discover texts chronologically distanced from him, there seems little reason why in MacSweeney’s case a need to escape the adjacent influence did not manifest in him choosing inspirations that were instead topographically distinct.

[78] Ranter, p. 26.

[79] Boulevard, p. 24.

[80] Christopher Ricks, Allusion to the Poets. Ricks writes of Dryden: ‘His feelings about Milton sound as though they have many strains and strands: he could write with a sheerly unenvying generosity about Milton’s heroic achievement, but he could also manifest a resistance to Milton which was less than disinterested but was also forgivable in a poet fighting for survival, for breathing-space [...] It was not that he was grudging towards Milton, but he needed room for himself’ (pp. 33—4).

[81] ‘My Former Darling Country Wrong or Wrong’, Postcards.

[82] ‘No Attention Please’, Archive: BM: 2/3.

[83] ‘Victory Over Darkness & The Sunne’, Horses, pp. 28—9.

[84] Basil Bunting, ‘Keele University Recordings’, Cassette 3B.

[85] ‘he read all the twenty-odd lines of this poem, he spouted them off by heart, and much later again he referred to it, obviously Yeats liked it, so though its early stuff, and not the stuff I’ve devoted myself to trying to make, it has his sanction [...] And as I read it I can still hear Yeats reciting the last lines there: “we again subside into our catalepsy, dreaming foam, while the dry shore awaits another tide”’, ‘Keele University Recordings’, Cassette 3B.

[86] Toad Church [20] (1972), Archive: BM: 2/1.

[87] The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, ed. Ian Ousby (London: Guild Publishing, 1989), p. 477.

[88] ‘Basil Bunting: British Modernism and the Time of the Nation’, The Star You Steer By, p. 17.

[89] In MacSweeney’s oeuvre several ‘major’, and various smaller poems depict rural Northumbrian landscapes including the trilogy of ‘Map’ poems from Boulevard, ‘Blackbird’, Ranter, Pearl, ‘Pearl Against The Barbed Wire’, some of the Demons, ‘My Former Darling Country Wrong or Wrong’ from Postcards and several of the Horses lyrics such as ‘The Illegal 2CV’, yet this is still a relatively meagre percentage. In Bunting’s poetry the amount is even smaller (although it may be argued that he was less prolific) and may be seen to include Briggflatts, ‘At Briggflatts Meeting House’, the early works ‘Gin the Goodwife Stint’ and ‘The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer’, some of Attis: Or Something Missing and the late ‘Such syllables flicker out of grass’ and ‘Dentdale conversation’.

[90] Harriet Tarlo, ‘Radical Landscapes: Contemporary Poetry in the Bunting Tradition’, p. 149.

[91] Ibid, p. 153.

[92] Although published after only sixty-six years of Basil Bunting’s eighty-five year life, Briggflatts is generally held to represent the apex of his literary career and to contain evidence of both the maturation of his poetic philosophies and the discovery of his ‘true poetic voice’. Pearl, along with The Book of Demons (published only 3 years before MacSweeney’s death) has similarly been regarded as the embodiment of the poet’s developed technique and of his acute observational ability to portray both his own personal experience and the beauty and corruption of the world around him.

[93] Briggflatts, Complete Poems, p. 64.

[94] Ranter, p. 7.

[95] ‘Basil Bunting and the Time of the Nation’, pp. 21—27.

[96] Briggflatts, Complete Poems, p. 75.

[97] Ranter, p. 6.

[98] ‘Tides / clip’ (Untitled poem), Archive: BM: 1/17/1.

[99] Complete Poems, p. 79.

[100] ‘Pearl Suddenly Awake’, Demons, p. 18.

[101] Harriet Tarlo, ‘Radical landscapes’, p. 152.

[102] Briggflatts, Complete Poems, pp. 61—81.

[103] ‘Pearl in the Snow’, Archive: BM: 2/3.

[104] ‘Cavalry at Calvary’, Demons, p. 23.

[105] ‘Pearl Alone’, Demons, p. 22.

[106] ‘Rake Them From Their Bunks’, Archive: BM: 1/17/1.

[107] Briggflatts, Complete Poems, p. 69.

[108] ‘Mony Ryal Ray’, p. 16.

[109] ‘Fever’, p. 19.

[110] ‘Pearl Alone’, p. 22.

[111] ‘Pearl and Barry Pick Rosehips For The Good Of The Country’, p. 26.

[112] ‘Those Sandmartin Tails’, p. 27.

[113] ‘Pearl’s Poem Of Joy And Treasure’, p. 31.

[114] Myers, Alan and Robert Forsythe, W.H. Auden: Pennine Poet (Nenthead: North Pennines Heritage Trust, 1999), p. 23. The authors note that Auden was unaware of Chaplin, and when introduced to him ‘responded: ‘Oh, I see, a regional author’ (p. 23).

[115] ‘The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer’, Complete Poems, p. 114.

[116] ‘Cushy Number’, Wolf Tongue, p. 320.

[117] ‘No Such Thing’, Demons, p 15.

[118] ‘Pearl Against The Barbed Wire’, Demons, p. 69.

[119] Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, p. 14.

[120] Andrew Duncan, ‘faberanth’,

[121] Poetry Information, No.18, p. 33.

[122] ‘Keele University Recordings’, Cassette 7A.

[123] It is useful to note that Bunting never mentioned the region’s modern ‘capital’, Newcastle in his verse.

[124] ‘What the Chairman Told Tom’, Complete Poems, p. 40 and ‘On the Apology Owed Tom Pickard’, Boulevard, p. 11.

[125] ‘At Briggflatts Meeting House’, Complete Poems, p. 145 (circa 1975).

[126] Brother Wolf [12] (circa 1972).

[127] ‘Stones Trip Coquet Burn’, Complete Poems, p. 144 (circa 1970).

[128] ‘We’, The Boy, p. 21 (circa pre 1968)

[129] ‘Such syllables flicker out of grass’, Complete Poems, p. 199 (circa 1972).

[130] ‘& The Biggest Bridge is Forty Feet Long’, The Boy, p. 31 (circa pre 1968).

[131] ‘Barry MacSweeney, Hellhound Memos’,

[132] ‘Blackbird’.

[133] Poetry Information, 18, pp. 22—36.

[134] ‘John Bunyan to Johnny Rotten’, Demons, p. 105.

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