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10 - The Idea of North: Basil Bunting and Regional Modernism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 December 2017

Neal Alexander
Affiliation:
University of Nottingham, UK
Neal Alexander
Affiliation:
University of Nottingham, UK
James Moran
Affiliation:
University of Nottingham, UK
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Summary

There is no doubting the importance of ideas of place in Basil Bunting's poetry, particularly in his major work, Briggflatts (1966), where Northumbria emerges as a luminous and multi-faceted affective terrain. Bunting's representations of place are also complex and multi-layered, issuing from a geographical imagination that thrives on contradictions. His regional modernism is characterised both by the imaginative centrality of northern landscapes and cultural paradigms to his writing, and by the refraction of such local and regional attachments through a self-consciously international modernist poetics. Briggflatts explores its themes of dislocation and homecoming through an intense imaginative engagement with the landscapes, history, and linguistic textures of the north-east of England. However, Bunting's poem is also a deliberately eccentric poetic autobiography that both essays and suspends the expression of a securely ‘northern’ regional identity through its formal disjunctions and dense collage of incommensurable spaces and times. If the poem can be regarded as celebrating locality and belonging in a cherished regional landscape, it also attests to experiences of displacement and encounters with otherness, foregrounding vagrancy as a characteristically modern mode of being-in-the-world. This essay will examine the advantages and limitations of considering Bunting's poetry in terms of its distinctively regional characteristics and sensibility. In doing so, it will seek to demonstrate the extent to which regional, national, and international horizons are articulated together in his poetics of place, with particular reference to Briggflatts as a paradigmatic example of regional modernism.

Modernism has had an uneven career in British poetry, in part because of the persistence of anti-modernist attitudes in both critical discourse and ‘mainstream’ poetic practice during the twentieth century. Nonetheless, as Peter Howarth observes, it is clear that ‘British poetry has been irrevocably changed by modernism’ and this is true both for the contemporary avant-garde and also for the line of poets that descends from Thomas Hardy through Philip Larkin to Andrew Motion and beyond. But how, if at all, did British poets change modernism? One distinctive feature of the British modernism of Bunting, David Jones, Hugh MacDiarmid, and others is its emphasis upon the particularities of place, apparently grounding the transcultural or exilic aesthetic of high modernism in specific and intimately described landscapes.

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Regional Modernisms , pp. 200 - 221
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2013

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