Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: Bill Bennett

“I think Larkin was wrong …”: Bill on Phil

For five and a half years, until his too early death in May 2018, I exchanged continual emails with poet Bill Bennett, an old friend rediscovered. We began with the poetry of Veronica Forrest-Thomson and finished in mid-thread with Housman, but covered an awful lot of other ground along the way, not all of it poetic.

One persistently recurring theme was Bill’s need to take apart Philip Larkin, whose current popularity presented itself to him as a problem demanding to be solved. “Like worrying at an old dry bone,” he said. Or “a scab that needs picking”. Bill was constantly puzzled by the tolerance, even fondness, offered to Larkin and his work by many normally sensible and decent people. He felt keenly the duty to denounce and resist the false consciousness, the erosion of common humanity, that he saw in Larkin, and the life-denying forces surviving in his writings. And not just in the letters: “I always thought it was perfectly clear from the poetry what an unpleasant bastard he was in so many ways.”


I urged him to string together his thoughtlets into something more considered. He announced a start on “an expanded and semi-coherent piece on The Explosion”, but I’m not sure that it ever really took shape.

So here instead is my compilation of some of his thoughts on PL, snipped from our emails and roughly parcelled into clumsy sections, in a loose sequence. As it’s a bit of a collage, at times linking remarks originally months or years apart, it lacks some flow, and a good few of these points will no doubt have been chewed over extensively by the critical machine already – I wouldn’t pretend to know. But Bill makes some important observations and judgements, and he makes them with his habitual insight, wisdom and wit.

Towards the end, Larkin’s morbid obsession with individual mortality took on an added resonance when Bill was forced to confront his own health issues; the final snippet here (which made me laugh aloud) tells of an unnerving coincidence in a hospital waiting room.

To read on, click the first tab up top after “Home”, or just go here …

Memorial and no memorial

There’s a fair bit already on this site about waspish blond poet James Burns Singer, mostly via the “Transparent Prisoner” tabs above. Here’s a bit more.

From the late ‘fifties Burns Singer was based in Cambridge, where he married pioneering black psychologist, child psychotherapist and Fellow of Clare Hall, Marie Battle. In his intro to Singer’s 1970 Collected, W A S Keir notes that after the poet’s too early death in 1964 aged 36, his ashes were scattered at sea, but that “on 24th July 1966, a memorial stone was dedicated to his memory in Little St Mary’s Churchyard, Cambridge.” Anne Cluysenaar also mentions it in her intro to the 1977 Selected.

So where and what exactly is this memorial? On my first visit it avoided me, and I wondered if it had actually existed, or had been removed, though to be fair I was struggling to stay conscious in the teeth of a howling winter’s gale in March, which shortened my time shivering and poking about in the churchyard. When I asked afterwards, none of the kind people at St Mary’s (thank you, Christine Tipple) had any knowledge of it, but on my latest visit it finally revealed itself. In case anyone else wants to take a look, the memorial is on the left among the ranks of small stones set into the ground at the street end, which at first I’d assumed marked only burials of ashes. It’s worn and mottled, but it still reads:

TO THE MEMORY OF
JAMES BURNS SINGER
POET AND MARINE BIOLOGIST
1928 – 1964
AND HIS WIFE
MARIE BATTLE SINGER
PSYCHOANALYST
1910 – 1985

That’s a fine inscription. I’m not sure whether this is the original 1966 stone with an added bit, or a 1985 replacement, though I imagine the first. Who re-dedicated it to Marie Battle Singer, I wouldn’t know. My pics (click to enlarge) show the memorial and its location, and I’ll throw in an awkward selfie-with-stone for good measure. (Tricky angle.)

 

I should dedicate this post, not that it’s anywhere near worthy of him, to another Cambridge poet, my friend Bill Bennett, who died, very sadly, three weeks ago.  Though he had edited the earliest editions of Perfect Bound, the influential ‘seventies “Cambridge school” poetry magazine, he was himself published surprisingly rarely. Nevertheless, he saw as a poet, wrote as a poet, and lived as a poet – and as much more too. An entirely remarkable man. No stone for him, just woodland, as it should be.

Small update

Many thanks to Christine Tipple of Little St Mary’s, who emails to let me know of a 1990 leaflet stating that Singers’s ashes are buried in the garden of the church (which appears not to be the case), and that a bird bath in the garden, now sadly broken off its stand, was given by his wife as a memorial to him. I’d rather like to think that is the case, given that in late 2012 the late Bill Bennett (remembered above) emailed me this from Cambridge in response to my Singer posts:

“As graves go, I may even see if I can track down the Jimmy Singer memorial birdbath … For a time I was thinking I must have met his widow (never that many black women psychiatrists around Cambridge and I certainly met one ) but I really can’t recall an accent … so perhaps it’s one of those false memories …”

My emphasis, as they say. This is remarkably odd. I never mentioned birdbaths to Bill, and at the time I assumed he was just being flippantly inventive. Surely he can’t have known? One of those psychic things, perhaps. Or a false memory that turns out to be accurate? (Or perhaps, on further reflection, he just googled it?) Bit late to ask him now, though hopefully I’ll get an opportunity in the afterlife …

Also, a friend in the congregation tells Christine that she remembers Marie Battle Singer, and that her mother went to her funeral. There she met Marie’s sister from the States, who probably added her name to the stone.