Bunting Nodding

Lawrence, Thomas, 1769-1830; Homer Reciting his Poems

(Homer Reciting His Poems: Thomas Lawrence, Tate)

Francis Wyndham once observed that what he’d always wanted to do in his fiction was ‘to write about the hours and hours and hours, the enormous proportion of life which is spent in a kind of limbo, even in people’s active years. It seems to me that it isn’t sufficiently celebrated.’[1]

He meant it, I think, in a secular sense: an uncertain period of waiting, for decisions or resolutions, rather than the borderlands of Hell, unbaptised infants and the rest; nor, presumably, a Caribbean dance. My Chambers dictionary adds the helpful ‘unsatisfactory state of consignment or oblivion’.

Ah, oblivion. Yes, I’d apply that to many people passed in the street, plugged in to various devices, oblivious at least to the world through which they’re walking. Oblivious too are some of the passing motorists, a few of whom are busily and hazardously engaged with their mobile phones or make-up or breakfast, all the while keeping their speed up to 50 m.p.h. to avoid bits of themselves dropping off.

‘Dropping off’ recalls me to a deeper state than limbo: actually nodding off. Having nodded off, actually or almost, at staff meetings and conferences, in cinemas and theatres, readings, lectures and presentations, I think of Homer nodding. (A lot of links assume that ‘Homer’ means ‘Simpson’ rather than ‘dead, blind Greek epic poet’ but the latter is meant here.) The phrase, ‘even Homer nods’, deriving originally from Horace, is now pressed into service often and in wildly divergent contexts. There was, naturally, a band called ‘Even Homer Nods’ — though the soporific qualities of such a lengthy name presumably prompted them to the snappier version which succeeded it: ‘The Nods’. There is also a racehorse, I gather, an Irish chestnut gelding (with the full-length moniker).


My worst instance of dropping off—certainly the occasion when I least wanted to—was at a reading by Basil Bunting (to whom birthday wishes are due: born 1 March 1900) a few years before he died. Not having taken the precaution of writing down detailed directions to the venue, I wandered around unfamiliar parts of the city for a couple of hours. Early on, I established the habit of popping into a pub for advice every so often and downing a quick drink. The various bar staff that I consulted had conflicting views on where the small theatre was, so I arrived late and the worse for wear. The attendance was appalling but would not have surprised Bunting, I suspect. He read a number of translations from the Persian and some early poems, certainly his ‘Villon’, but I may have slumbered through at least a third of the incomparable ‘Briggflatts’. I have two recordings of the poem (both by Bunting) but that live performance must have been one of his last—one of the true last chances.

As the player’s breath warms the fipple the tone clears.
It is time to consider how Domenico Scarlatti
condensed so much music into so few bars
with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence,
never a boast or a see-here; and stars and lakes
echo him and the copse drums out his measure,
snow peaks are lifted up in moonlight and twilight
and the sun rises on an acknowledged land.[2]

Later, though, I read an account of how Bunting had attended a lecture by Robert Duncan, slept through the greater part of it, snoring audibly, then woken at the end to exclaim how much he’d enjoyed it: ‘I like talks like that.’[3] So yes, even Bunting nodded.


[1] Quoted in the text of Rachel Cooke’s interview with Wyndham (The Observer, August 2008):  http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/aug/17/francis.wyndham.interview

[2] Briggflatts, IV: The Poems of Basil Bunting, edited by Don Share(London: Faber and Faber, 2016), 56.

[3] J. M. Edelstein, in Madeira & Toasts for Basil Bunting’s 75th Birthday, edited by Jonathan Williams (Highlands, North Carolina: Jargon Society, 1977), unpaginated, but see also Richard Burton, A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting ((Oxford: Infinite Ideas, 2013), 419.