Ian Pople reviews
Bunting’s Persia: translations by Basil Bunting ed Don Share;
Six Vowels & Twenty-three Consonants: An Anthology of Persian Poetry from Rudaki to Langroodi ed. and trans. by Ali Alizadeh and John Kinsella
Basil Bunting fell in love with Persian poetry when he was staying in Italy. He found a French translation of Firdusi’s national epic Shah-na-Meh (King of Kings) at a bookshop on the quays at Genoa. He took the book back to Rapallo, where he was staying near the Pounds. According to Bunting’s biographer, Keith Alldritt, ‘All three of them were immediately fascinated.’ For Pound, that fascination waned. And Bunting put that loss of interest down to Pound’s interest in character in The Cantos, and his, Bunting’s, own interest in action. That interest wouldn’t be an accurate description of what goes on in Briggflatts; though ‘action’ does underlie a number of the passages that Bunting chose to translate from the Persian, and which are contained in this lovely, beautifully produced edition of those translations.
Bunting saw an analogy between Firdusi and Homer, and it has to be said, partly in Bunting’s defence, that the kind of attention to detail and character paid in The Iliad also has a place here; ‘Faridun grew old, dust drifted over the garden,/ a changed conversation, strength turned weakness by age,/ and the nobles huffed when any business was muffed./ Salm’s heart slid away, his ways and ambitions altered,/ greed swamped his mind, he brooded in public, chafed/ at the settlement giving the youngest the Golden Throne.’ There is something very typically Bunting-esque about this translation; the avoidance of the Latinate and the polysyllabic, the consonantal grit of the writing that Bunting had absorbed from his, and Pound’s, absorption of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. Bunting’s interest, as it is in Briggflatts, is with the solid, the visual. That is not to say that Bunting has no interest in the philosophical, but, I would suggest, Bunting’s writing is dedicated to the world as he found it rather than the world as he wished it. And certainly Bunting’s own life story was never that far away from the difficult.
Alizadeh and Kinsella’s selections are, of necessity, somewhat skimpier than Bunting’s; though, interestingly, Alizadeh and Kinsella miss out Manuchehri altogether, a poet Bunting rated as one of the very greatest. Their translations are also of also a selection of modern and contemporary Persian poets, including Mimi Khalvati, whose work will be well known to many readers. Their translations are, if anything, slightly more mellifluous than Bunting’s, although their selections from the classical poets do not overlap with Bunting’s, which means that, reading the two books together, you get a really strong introduction to Persian poetry.
Ali Alizadeh makes the point that Persian poetry in the twentieth century swiftly broke away from the classical ghazal form and into a much freer writing, influenced by the modernism of the west. This latter, perhaps slightly ironic, given Bunting’s position as one of the high priests of modernism. With the move from the classical forms to free verse, there is, on the evidence of this volume, an analogous move from the epic to the political. The editors trace this move to Nima Yushij, the first poet in the second half of their collection. Yushij, they maintain was influenced by the French Symbolists. Eagleton suggests that, ‘In some mysterious fashion [the Romantic symbol] combines the individual and the universal, setting up a direct circuit between the two which bypasses language, history, culture and rationality.’ Here, I would suggest, Persian poetry finds a way actually to discuss ‘history, culture’ and thence the political, with Yushij’s parable ‘The Phoenix’ addressing how culture might re-emerge through all the pain of surrounding conflagration. A later poet, Forough Farrokhzad, also uses the image of the bird to show women’s position in Iran, ‘The bird, airbourne over/the warning lights/ was naively soaring higher/ and ecstatically knowing/ the blue moments// The bird, alas, was just a bird.’
And, yes, the political surges through the selection of contemporary poets in Alizadeh and Kinsella’s book. But what also surges through so strongly is an immense verve and absorption of what Bunting teaches us, a need to address the world as is in all its depth and richness.
Ian Pople's Saving Spaces is published by Arc.