Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Category Archives: William Empson

Burns Singer, forgotten bad boy of British poetry

I’ve been meaning to do something on Burns Singer, aka Jimmy Singer, blond boy wonder / bad boy of the ‘fifties poetry scene, ever since the late Gordon Wharton confessed to me that he’d hit Singer with a bottle of wine at a literary party in 1955. Singer’s attack in Encounter on the poetry of William Empson is now on my Empson page, and I had thought of putting Singer on the W S Graham page, given that he was very much an acolyte of Graham’s. But Singer seems significant and interesting enough to deserve a page of his own, so here it is (or use the final tab above). So far, I’ve focused on his life, death and larger-than-life persona. For someone so universally and fiercely unpopular, he seems to have inspired an equally fierce affection in some. A look at the poetry will come later – it’s well worth looking at.

Remarkable that Singer links so many personalities peppered across this blog: Empson, Graham, Wharton, Dylan Thomas, the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde, Benjamin Creme, and George Barker … Though I guess the ‘fifties bohemian scene was something of a small world.

This is the world’s starvation centre.
I sit with Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde
Listening to letters Sydney Graham once sent or
Barker shook down when words stuck in his side.


“Creatures of a sort of sterile headachy pseudo-intellectual heat”

Two more bits of ‘fifties poetic comment added to the William Empson page: another piece of Empson-bashing from the CIA’s Encounter magazine, in which poet Hilary Corke has a go at Empson’s followers; and G S Fraser’s sober view of the Empsonians and “The Movement”, in which the Empsonians appear to be the real movement, and “The Movement” a mere puff of smoke.

Click where it says above, or on the tab above the header, and scroll down all the way.

Another stab at Empson

William Empson

Last June I put up a page on the poetry of William Empson, which contained a number of unworthy ad hominem comments. Trying to be clever, I succeeded only in upsetting someone who had known and respected the Empsons, and who rightly found my comments irrelevant and facetious. So the page came down. After a prolonged re-think, here (or via the Empson tab up top) is another stab at it. Or the beginnings of a stab, at least.

I have kept my personal memory of Empson’s bizarrely derelict and deserted Sheffield basement, if only because it speaks to me imaginatively of something in the                                           man and his work.

Jimmy Burns Singer

In place of my own comments on Empson’s poetry, which struck me at first as infuriatingly obscure, I’ve substituted a review of his 1955 Collected Poems by the poet and blond wunderkind Burns Singer (born James Hyman, or Jimmy, Singer).

This makes some similar points, but more cleverly, and far more interestingly, given that Singer was writing for the review Encounter, at that time a covert CIA mouthpiece with a very definite interest in discrediting Empson, who had criticised the magazine’s pro-American stance and had questioned the origins of its funding, infuriating its UK editor, Stephen Spender. A cold war hatchet job, in fact, but written by a neglected British poet whose career and work are of real interest in themselves.

I expect more scraps on Empson will follow. And Singer, come to that.