Bunting’s Persia

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Bunting’s Persia
by Basil Bunting
edited by Don Share
Flood Editions, 2012
Softcover, $15.95

Basil Bunting often goes unacknowledged as a major contributing innovator of Modern poetry in English. Rather unfortunately — as Bunting had no love of Academics — the lapse in knowledge of his work appears more prevalent among younger practicing poets than among scholars. His meticulously chiseled verse excels and pushes the Pound-Eliot line of Modernism beyond established confines. His work broadens our attention to the sounds of language in poetry through the concise palette of his rarefied workman’s ear.

Bunting went out of his way to meet Pound over a friendly game of chess in a Parisian coffee shop, and under Pound’s encouragement, taught himself to read the Persian language, Farsi, using a French translation of the poet Ferdowsi. Later, while living in Iran, Bunting’s knowledge of the language and culture grew along with his appreciation for the people there. His attraction to the literature and culture of Persia — roughly the borders of modern Iran, though historically covering a much broader swath of the Middle-East — played a central part in Bunting’s poetic life. He lived and worked as a journalist (and likely a British spy for some time) in Tehran, where he married a much younger Iranian woman.

Thus Bunting’s Persia, handsomely published this year by Flood Editions, is no ephemeral text. Here at long last is the gathering together of all the Persian texts that Bunting finalized in translation. It is at once an excellent point of departure for those unfamiliar with Bunting as well as an introduction to several essential texts of classical Persian literature. Combined with deft editorial remarks by Don Share, the volume offers Bunting’s signature stylistic traits along with an exposure to literature too often over looked in Occidental classroom settings.

Persian poetry is relatively unknown to English speakers, so some brief comments on the traditional forms in and problems with translating Persian poetry seem appropriate. Critics Parvin Loloi and Glyn Pursglove write, in “Basil Bunting’s Persian Overdrafts:”

The basic formal unit in Persian poetry is the bait. This term is often translated as “couplet,” but the correspondence is not exact. The bait is really a single unit of a fixed number of feet, made up of two symmetrical halves. The bait is normally printed or written in one line across the page. In a number of Persian forms the initial bait contains an internal rhyme, i.e., the two symmetrical halves (or hemistichs) rhyme. The succeeding baits then contain an end rhyme continuing this same rhyme, but the internal rhyme vanishes after the opening bait.

Loloi and Pursglove note that “in translating Persian poetry into English it has been traditional to attempt some sort of rhymed structure.” They cite Professor A.J. Arberry’s comments in his introduction to The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and Other Persian Poems (1954), “for nearly two centuries now metre, and usually rhyme, have been thought indispensable to any respectable version of Persian poetry. . . . So far no successful translation into modern unrhymed and rhythmic cadences has been published.” Loloi and Pursglove then wryly comment, “Evidently Professor Arberry had not read Bunting’s Poems 1950 [. . .] had he done so he would have found there translations enormously superior to the work of the scholar-translators on whom the English reader must normally rely.”

In the 1950 collection, Bunting included only a few of his translations, as he likewise did later when overseeing his Collected Poems. Bunting frequently tinkered with his poetry at times of publication, often removing and/or revising individual lines as well as entire poems. He never produced a definitive collection of his Persian translations, either by themselves or grouped with other of his work, however. For Bunting’s Persia, editor Don Share has gathered together an entirely new, authoritative collection. Share has done a wonderful service to dedicated readers of Bunting and would-be translators of Persian poetry. Here at last, in an adroitly annotated edition, are among the finest examples of what is possible in translating Farsi into a readable and utterly urbane English.

Silk-soft has poetry made many a heart
stone before and heavy as anvil.

These lines from the poet Rudaki demonstrate the balance that Bunting’s ear achieves, with a line-break moving from the easy pleasure of “poetry” as “silk-soft” upon “many a heart” to its turning back to “stone” and then “anvil” with a decisive thud. The play of sound and sense moving against each other is reads smoothly, unfolding its complexity at leisure.

Loloi and Pursglove are not without criticism of Bunting’s renditions. He does shave off lines of original text from a translation at times. In the case of the poet Sa‘di’s poem “This I write, mix ink with tears” they find such omissions to be detrimental to the translation: “The original of this poem is a very conventional and conceitful piece of work. The conventions, indeed, are the poem, and the poem has only slight substance apart from these conventions. In stripping the poem of its conventions Bunting produced perhaps the least successful of this group of overdrafts.”

Yet for being “the least successful” of Buntings translations, it plays nonetheless extraordinarily well to the ears of English-speaking readers:

This I write, mix ink with tears,
and have written of grief before, but never so grievously,
to tell of Azra Vamiq’s pain,
to tell Laila Majnun’s plight,
to tell you my own
unfinished story.
Take it. Seek no excuse.
How sweetly you will sing what I so sadly write.

Bunting may have tossed aside a considerable portion of lines, stripping the poem down in the manner of his own principled practice of condensare: the elimination of all unnecessary words, a principle Bunting received and expanded upon from Pound’s own practice. At any rate, it’s undeniable that Bunting’s version conveys more than adequately the heartache, the dull throb of lost love.

A glossary compiled by Share in the back of Bunting’s Persia practices its own condensation of terms: “Azra and Vamiq. Legendary Lovers.” It leaves the ancient story of these lovers in generalities. Only slightly more information is offered for the next reference: “Laila and Majnun. A tragic Persian love story, along the lines of Romeo and Juliet.” Share is rightfully deferential to Bunting’s own beliefs and practice, in which less is almost always more. While classical Persian poetry is full of allusions back and forth between stories, Bunting is satisfied that a successful translation need not carry over these cultural specifics. His translations restrain themselves to universal motifs, broadly recognizable across historical periods and national boundaries. Bunting’s concern is with best representing Persian poetry more than it is Persian cultural history.

As can be seen by Lurloi and Pursglove’s criticism, this is a tricky line to walk. At the risk of moving against strong traditional values inherent to Persian art and culture, Bunting’s renditions are nonetheless compelling, at least to native English-speaking readers. There is admittedly much sentimental nostalgia, and a strong hint of the exotic, as in these lines from the poet Manuchehri:

Amru’l Qais and Labῑd and Akhtal and blind A’sha and Qais
who keened over the bones of dead encampments and fallen tents,
as we mourn for the ruins of poetry and broken rhymes —
Bu Nuvās and Bu Haddād and Bu Malik bin al Bashar,
Bu Duvaid and Bu Duraid and Ibn Ahmad. Do you hear
him who sang “She has warned us,” who sang “The honest sword,”
who sang “Love has exhausted” — ?

To Western ears this heralding of foreign names, richly allusive to unknown poetry and deeds, is a gift and encouraging invitation to read further on our own. Manuchehri was writing in 1040 CE and is himself one of the greatest of Persian poets — this celebratory listing of poets concludes with a boasting challenge:

Where are the wise Afghans, Shudaid and Rudaki,
and Bu Shakūr of Balkh and Bu’l Fath of Bust likewise.
Bid them come and see our noble century
and read our poetry and despair —

Dropping the names of his well-known precursors, and calling them out, marks Manuchehri’s place in the poetic lineage. It is a practice similar to that of rappers and hip-hop artists today (though rather different in form and content). Poems and songs both act as a means of connecting generations and passing on codes of behavior and expectation. A citizen of Iran will be familiar with much of the lore preserved within Persian poetry — a knowledge which is not literary, but simply a reality of everyday life. The poetry of these traditional poets is ingrained during childhood and remains a touchstone throughout adulthood. Bunting’s trimming down of these poems removes that aspect of cultural reinforcement and makes them more accessible to English-language readers.

The range of forms of writing and poets found in Bunting’s Persia testifies to Bunting’s eclecticism, along with his comfort and interest in the vast range of Persia’s literary heritage. There are several short lyrics by a number of poets such as the Sa‘di and Manuchehri quoted above, as well as significant longer passages from narrative mythic/historical works, such as portions of stories from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, and the collection closes with Obaid-e Zakani’s “The Pious Cat” a mirthful romp of a cat and mouse tale well suited for children and adults alike.

As Share states in introduction, “throughout Bunting’s long life, Persian poetry had given him sustenance,” and Bunting’s goal with his translations as he himself saw it was to “make a respectable contribution to civilization as I understand it.” This last quote is from Bunting’s unsuccessful Guggenheim bid for a projected complete translation of Shahnameh, an epic work written in some sixty thousand couplets. An ultimate cosmopolitan gentleman of letters, Bunting enjoyed Persian literature as much as he did Iranian society, where poetry is inextricably wedded into the fabric of daily life. He was well aware of the invaluable contribution of this body of poetry, and didn’t wish to see them lost to outside conquest or domination — and neither should we.

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About Patrick Dunagan

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works in Gleeson library at USF. His latest book is There Are People Who Think That Painter's Shouldn't Talk: A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo, 2011). Other writings appear (or expected) in 1913, A Journal of Forms, Amerarcana, Greetings, House Organ, Lightning'd Press House Mag, and elsewhere.