Monday, September 24, 2007

"Dare not decline" - costs of going local

"Poet appointed dare not decline
to walk among the bogus"

So begins the second section of Basil Bunting's Briggflatts, and it sets an injunction the poet cannot keep precisely because "who appointed him?" is the next question. "Decline" - which by the poem's 1966 publication is a deeply troubled term for national devolution in post-War, post-imperial English national topology - can mean two things here: "don't refuse to walk among the bogus" or "don't descend down among the bogus". Either a self-harming injunction to wallow or a self-deceiving presumption of authenticity in a world dirtily without.

This strikes me as paradigmatic of the poet's choices who would attempt epic, even the modernist/Poundian "poem including history", when he (or she) is confronted with a national history that has both shrunk to rocky Saxon particularity and exploded to a global dialogue of plural histories. The rich and gorgeous language of the first section of Briggflatts uncovers a deep and local continuity that could be the epic poet's material (and has Pound's version of and use in the Cantos of "The Seafarer" as a predecessor): "By such rocks/ men killed Bloodaxe." It can be carved in stone and, as in section V's echo of Four Quartets, "Then is diffused in Now" (echo of the Quartets, but diminished -- not about presence and chronological fusion so much as "diffusion", dispersal, weakening).

The poem, called an "autobiography," includes in the second section a reference to Bunting's time as a spy for the British, who "decodes/ thunder, scans/ porridge bubbling, pipes clanking". Eliot, secretive but no spy, could once simply hear what the thunder said. Left the porridge alone. Bunting, in this role among the bogus, must detail the impoverished surround, laying "sick, self-maimed, self-hating,/ obstinate, mating/ beauty with squalor to beget lines still-born." The local, which is the ground of the poem and its primary linguistic audience, forms a substrate of filth rather than a solid ground in which to grow a regional epic. The poem begins to clog with fecal matter, which composts any number of rotting decapitated heads (as the poem's opening describes, "Decay thrusts the blade,/ wheat stands in excrement/ trembling"). As Bunting writes in section IV, "Today's posts are piles to drive into the quaggy past/ on which impermanent palaces balance."

The figure of the still-born, or as another possibility of this "mating", the monstrous is the abiding concern of the poem, itself then a half-product of a region (with the potential for epic) and of the deaths that register that region's deep history (with their potential for elegy). The tomb carved in section one is for the deceased child of the young couple who ride with the mason across Rawthey, and the poem gives gory details about the bestiality that brought us the Minotaur.

I'd like to explore the poem's conjoined topoi of monstrosity and hybridity in the formation of subjective declension. But I'll leave that for now and make a note about the "still-born" as a description of both poem and nation. Though the "sun rises on an acknowledged land" the poem ends with a coda that brings this diurnal recognition into the symbolic sweep of a completed elegiac movement, initiated in such an extended fashion as to make it hard to perceive until *blammo* he's playing off the end of "Lycidas". In the Coda,

A strong song tows
us, long earsick.
Blind, we follow
rain slant, spray flick
to fields we do not know.

Lycidas has its own coda -- its last eight lines zoom out to the third person to describe how "thus sang the uncouth swain" all that had come before. The gesture toward "fresh woods, and pastures new" complete the consolatory purpose of the elegy and declare closed the literary apprenticeship of the lyric speaker, who thereby promises and indeed begins to perform the consummation of his voice in writing the great work (the last 8 lines = one ottava rima stanza of italian epic). In Bunting, the coda works in the opposite direction, marshalling community in blind servile following of the song, and ends with a reworking of the "pastures new" from promise to disillusionment:

Where we are who knows
of kings who sup
while day fails? Who,
swinging his axe
to fell kings, guesses
where we go?

It's Lycidas rewritten with a proleptic view of the heads that would roll in the coming years, both the need for protestant revolution and an acknowledgment of its costs (esp. in post-industrial -- notice how these poems of local epic or thwarted epic have so much interest in work, in craft).

Oh, i'm getting tired of writing this. Something something. The political economy of the commonweal (see the etymology of "bogus" in the OED, as it emerges as a major point of reactionary possibility in English late-mod. epics in this period (see also Hill's Mercian Hymns, lots of Hughes's poems I think) and as a grounding moment in the portraits of community and region that are all over the place in America at this point (Paterson, Howl, Brooks's sketches of Bronzeville, Hughes's "Portrait of a Dream Deferred").

Sorry to cop out but I got other work to do. May come back and edit this eventually. Could continue in the comments, since i'm sure i haven't made myself very clear.