Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Burns Singer

Cedra Osborne, the Roberts and Burns Singer

Jimmy Burns Singer puts on a poetic stare for the publisher's mugshot for 'Living Silver', 1958.

Jimmy Burns Singer puts on a poetic stare for the publisher’s mugshot for ‘Living Silver’, 1958.

A source on the Two Roberts, painters Colquhoun and MacBryde, apparently not used by Roger Bristow in his 2010 biography of the dynamic duo, is the reminiscence by Cedra Osborne (later Cedra Castellain) published in the April/May 1993 London Magazine. (Though Bristow does cite personal conversations with her.) Selected excerpts (along with bits about them by Anthony Cronin and Julian Maclaren-Ross) will appear on the Colquhoun and MacBryde page here in due course, but meanwhile here is a moment when poet Jimmy Burns Singer (who has two pages on this site) comes very close to planting one on MacBryde:

Sometimes during 1955 [the Roberts] lived in a room above my own [in Chalk Farm], where Colquhoun did some drawings. They brought people with bottles back from Soho, and there were parties in my room, which had the piano. James ‘Burns’ Singer, a poet, brought his agreeable black wife to one of them. She was a child-analyst who, at a previous party, had offered to analyze Colquhoun, saying she was sure she could straighten him out. He was very polite about it. MacBryde used to play the piano for us. His limited repertoire unfortunately included ‘Way Down upon the Swanee River’. When he reached it, Jimmy leapt to his feet, crying: ‘I’d have you know my wife is black!’ He made for the piano, but was overcome by weight of numbers. MacBryde retired into the large cupboard (once a larder) off my room, and was heard sobbing. ‘Robert!’ shouted Colquhoun, ‘stop snivelling and come out of there.’ ‘Och, Robert’ came reproachfully from behind the door, ‘you know I like a good cry.’

Singer knew the Roberts well and counted them as friends, so his outrage must have been heartfelt. His later contributions to the TLS show that he became a forceful advocate for black literature and the civil rights movement. Marie Singer’s analysis of Colquhoun would have been worth a listen-in, had he taken up the offer. I assume that “straighten” is not used here in any homophobic sense.

osborne and roberts

Cedra Osborne and the Roberts with Barker children at Tilty Mill

Cedra Osborne, who died in 2006, is an interesting figure in her own right; she also appears in the photo here of the Roberts, George Barker and W S Graham at Tilty Mill – on the right, next to Paul Potts. She took a step up from bohemia in 1955 on becoming secretary to posh portrait painter Pietro Annigoni, but for a while was a bit of a poet herself, judging by the following piece by her from Nimbus 2, Spring 1952 – an early issue of this slim review with contributions by others of the Barker circle, including Cashenden (Betty) Cass.

Ace of Spades

Esther saw me lying dead
In a bitter cold and windy place,
With greasy cobbles underhead
And a knife stuck in my face.

I know the place, a fishing town
Once prosperous but now decayed,
With a small river bringing down
The sewage near the esplanade.

The breakwater courageously
Still stands against the battering shock
Of monstrous seas, and tenderly
Cradles the wrecks with arms of rock.

And there on the deserted quay
At dead of night I deadly lie,
My hair spread out in disarray
And a short knife in my right eye.

What dreadful passions here ran rife!
Who snared me in this fearful skein?
Oh whose the hand that drove the knife?
Oh Esther, read the cards again.

nimbusI like this.  It’s not the deepest poetry ever written, but it has a macabre, balladey smack to it that reminds me of Charles Causley’s “Dying Gunner”: “Oh mother my mouth is full of stars / As cartridges in the tray …”  True, the first verse is the strongest, but even so the poem seems well worth rescuing here. I haven’t come across any other published poems by Cedra Osborne.

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“Poets without Appointments”: at home with Christopher Logue and Burns Singer

A new unscrolling page above – The Transparent Prisoner 2 – has yet another glimpse of bad boy poet Burns Singer, this time from the Daily Express of 1961, no less, and in equally bad company with Christopher Logue. (Many thanks to Roger Allen for helping track this down, in response to my previous post, now deleted, where I wondered if the “Christopher” of the article was Christopher Fry. But not so.) For good measure, I’ve also copied onto this page the earlier post about Singer and Colin Wilson.

“Poets without Appointments” is a rollicking read, and is kind to Singer: “He may never set the world on fire, or earn much money. But Jimmy has looked deeper into the river than most of us.” Amen to that.

Burn as the singer burns his song

A little more on the death of Burns Singer. (To be transferred to the unscrolling pages above after a while.)

Singer died in September 1964. In the Times Literary Supplement of December 17 appeared a poem, “In memoriam: Burns Singer”, by W S Graham. But this was not submitted by Graham, who later wrote to regret its publication. (Was it sent in by Marie, Singer’s widow?) Graham’s letter was printed in the January 21 1965 edition. His objection that this rhymed sonnet was not representative of his work seems fair, but at this distance he sounds too dismissive, maybe, of this piece of “fun”. The last three lines of the second stanza are as good as anything he wrote.

The letter has been reprinted in The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W S Graham (Carcanet 1999), but I can’t see the poem anywhere else, so here it is, along with the letter.

Nor can I see in Burns’ Collected the corresponding piece for Graham. And did Graham ever write an “adequate” piece in memory of Singer, as he hoped to? Nothing in his New Collected seems to fit …


In memoriam: Burns Singer

Burn as the singer burns his song, and sing
Your signs around you and yourself toward
The best, I say. One singer burnt his tongue
And gave to tears what his grief could ill afford.

Always and always night enamours me more
Than ever. So here we are, you and I,
Thought up out of silence for an instant here
Under the ancient hardware of the sky.

O engineer, evangelist, jailed among
The bastards of the lions of your pride.
The dead are beckoning bright and clear
Yet undiminished by the surrounding tear.

Burn as the singer burns in the half of grief.
You scald the face of silence when you laugh.

                                        W. S. GRAHAM.

 

“IN MEMORIAM – BURNS SINGER”

 Sir, – I have just returned from Greece to find in the TLS a poem – “In Memoriam – Burns Singer”, by W. S. Graham. I wish to state that this was not submitted by me.

These words were written for fun ten years ago in an Aberdeen pub. Jimmy (Singer) wrote one for me too and we both decided they were impossible. I saw Burns Singer about three months before his death and he suggested it was worth publishing. I disagreed completely.

The thing is that this poem is not representative of any work I have done or do now, and, as such, will give a wrong idea of the kind of poet I am.

I hope sometime to write a poem for Burns Singer which will be adequate.

                         W. S. GRAHAM.
Woodfield, Gulval, Penzance, Cornwall.

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.

“He turned my head a bit”: W S Graham and John Knight

A bit of lit crit on the connections between the very marvellous indeed W S Graham (left) and his friend and fellow Cornish poet, now largely forgotten, John Knight, with some thoughts on Knight’s writing and its shared concerns with Graham’s. Somebody might already have tackled this, but if they have, I don’t know of it. Anyway, it’s on a new page (tab above) called Clusters concerning W S Graham, with the idea of adding further clusterettes in the future. (Graham’s protegé Burns Singer might be a good subject at some point in time.)

Can you hear me?