Basil Bunting and the CIA

A recent poem of mine was published in the Melbourne «Age» a while ago, on 3 March 2012. No, not Melbourne in tropical Florida: the less sunny Melbourne, near the bottom of Australia. The Saturday «Age» boasts a cultural section, and the poetry editor there is Gig Ryan, who kindly agreed to publish my obscure poem on Basil Bunting. Here it is:

Poem Beginning With a Line by Bunting

Boasts time mocks cumber Rome.
Roasts thyme scents set on ledge.
Ghosts rhyme under Wren’s dome.
Stone gives axe sharper edge.
Anger, pride, youth are slowly spent.
Pound disposes, humans merely err.
Plain prose is spoken like a gent,
but verse stirs up Northern burr.

He spies for MI6 and Anglo Oil
stirring up trouble in Tehran.
Home at last. Brag, tenor bull.
Every brag attracts another fan.
      Bye, Basil Bunting, meet your God.
      Poet now rests beneath the sod.

It’s certainly not a “journalism poem”, the kind of light reading that makes its point and moves on, leaving the average newspaper reader slightly enlightened and pleasantly satisfied. No, like many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, on which it is modelled, it’s relentlessly obscure, and for that I apologise. Let me explain.

Basil Bunting beside the River Rawthey, Cumbria, 1980. Photograph copyright Jonathan Williams, 1994, 1998

The focus of the poem is British poet Basil Bunting, 1900-1985. He was born in Northumberland in Northern England, and developed non-conformist Quaker beliefs, a thick Northern brogue and a Northerner’s distrust of “southrons” (people from the south of the North.) He spent a traumatic year in prison in 1918 as a conscientious objector, and later travelled widely. Bunting’s poetry began to show the influence of Ezra Pound, whom he had befriended in the 1920s. He visited Pound in Rapallo, Italy, and later settled there with his family from 1931 to 1933.

During World War II, Bunting served in British Military Intelligence in Persia under cover of working as a journalist for «The Times», and after the war he continued to serve on the British Embassy staff in Tehran until he was expelled by Muhammad Mussadegh (or Mossadeq) in 1952. He was active in stirring up mob violence and demonstrations against Mossadeq, who had been elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1951 by the Majlis (Parliament of Iran) by a democratic vote of 79 to 12.

Bunting was part of the plot engineered by the CIA, MI6 and Anglo Oil to depose Mossadeq, whose administration, as Wikipedia says, “introduced a wide range of social reforms but is most notable for its nationalization of the Iranian oil industry, which had been under British control since 1913 through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC/AIOC) (later British Petroleum or BP).” They go on to say that he “was removed from power in a coup on 19 August 1953, organised and carried out by the United States CIA at the request of the British MI6.” Soon Shah Pahlevi and the CIA-trained SAVAK, his repressive secret police force, took power.

Wikipedia says “The coup is widely believed to have significantly contributed to anti-American sentiment in Iran and the Middle East. The 1979 Iranian Revolution deposed the Shah and replaced the pro-Western royal dictatorship with the largely anti-Western Islamic Republic of Iran.” That’s the Iran regime that, thirty years later, is now keen to build nuclear weapons and “wipe Israel from the map”.