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)

The Transparent Prisoner 2: more of Jimmy Burns Singer

Page contents:
“Poets without Appointments”: at home with Christopher Logue and Burns Singer
Dreaming to a questionable purpose: Colin Wilson’s hazy day with Burns Singer
(Click here for William Empson, Burns Singer, Encounter and the CIA” on my Empson page)

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

The piece that follows appeared in the Daily Express for January 28 1961, and was penned by columnist and travel writer Peter Chambers, who died in 2006. It may remind us that at one time even popular papers employed people who (a) were curious about the world and (b) could actually write. His Guardian obituary fondly celebrated Chambers as a journalist

“from the days when popular newspapers had room for the basic delight of stumbling on interesting places and new experiences – rather than having to list the best beaches, fashionable bars and required attire in St Celeb-sur-Mer …”

while the Press Gazette admired his “deft and quizzical look at odd people and odder places”. One odd place he stumbled on was the Notting Hill flat of poet Christopher Logue, resulting in this purplish but entertaining account of a drinking session with Logue and Burns Singer, with a separate appearance, late in his life, by Theodore Roethke slightly awkwardly tacked on.

Logue also turned up from time to time in the William Hickey gossip column in the Express, on which Chambers worked, and seems to have become the Express readers’ idea of a wild poet. They may also have recalled his pugnacious demeanour from the paper’s hilarious 1958 front page account of a punch-up in the pub next to the Royal Court Theatre (“Angry Young Men Fight it out in Bar”), prompted by Logue’s heckling at the first night of a long forgotten play by Stuart Holroyd.

Logue’s crowded and amusing reminiscences, Prince Charming: A Memoir (1999), include his version of this fracas, but make no mention of Burns Singer. They don’t make much mention of poetry generally, but this seems particularly odd, since Logue had come to Singer’s defence in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in 1958, backing his remarks, in a TLS review, on T S Eliot’s anti-semitism. In his memoirs Logue tells the story but does not identify the reviewer. And yet here is Singer (a very different kind of poet to Logue), knocking back the whiskies in Logue’s flat two years later.

Chambers is good on Logue – “Christopher Logue writes fierce, noisy poems about war, love, and Logue” – but Singer also comes out rather well: “He has the air of a spiritualised Viking whom the bigger men left at home …” We learn that Singer had a gold crown on a front tooth, smoked roll-ups and sported a “flossy gold beard” (in the manner of Ezra Pound?) at the time.

“Who could punch Burns Singer?” asks Chambers rhetorically. Quite a few, probably. But anyway …

 

Poets without Appointments

 by Peter Chambers

 At the top of 14 uncarpeted stairs in a Notting Hill mews lives Christopher Logue, poet. “Come up and have a drink,” he yelled out of the window. I went up and lay down.

This was obligatory, because Logue owns one typewriter, 500 books, and almost no furniture. I lay on the bed. Logue lay on the floor. The only chair in the room was occupied by Burns Singer, a Scottish poet who chain-smoked cigarettes made out of loose tobacco, and remarked from time to time: “Do ye not find the whisky in London terrible?”

Nobody seems to care about any modern poet nowadays except John Betjeman, who writes agreeably in praise of buttered toast and railway stations, and became a best seller almost By Appointment after Princess Margaret said she liked his verse.

But what are the other fellows up to? How do they live? I got some interesting answers from Logue and Singer, and later from an American, Theodore Roethke, who has actually made poetry pay.

Money

Christopher Logue is a dark, narrow, energetic man of 34. If he were an actor, I would type-cast him as Shakespeare’s Iago.

He has published half a dozen books of poetry and achieved a wider reputation when he wrote the lyrics for the Royal Court Theatre musical “The Lily-White Boys.”

“I actually made quite good money then,” said Logue. “For the eight weeks the show ran I earned £85 a week. But that represented six months’ work, don’t forget. Average it out and you see I was really getting less than a waiter.’

Noisy

A current book of poetry, “Songs,” has earned Logue £100. He was paid exactly that for one article In the American teenage magazine Mademoiselle.

Christopher Logue writes fierce, noisy poems about war, love, and Logue. Son of a Southampton civil servant, he was brought up by Jesuits.

“I now believe in the total abolition of private property,’ he said.

He got up off the floor, rattled some coal into the stove, and lay down again. A gleam of gold shone in the front teeth of Burns Singer as he lit his fifth home-made cigarette. He said: “Of course, Christopher believes that propaganda and politics are part of poetry.

“For me, it’s different. It’s almost like psychoanalysis. I’ll do no work for weeks and then write solidly for 12 hours. I think what I’m really seeking all the time is the source of Original Sin in myself.”

Logue leaped to his feet at this heresy and shouted: “Original Sin! What are you talking about?

Logue looks like a man who would punch anybody on the nose. But then who could punch Burns Singer? A mass of gold hair frames his face, he has the air of a spiritualised Viking whom the bigger men left at home when they set out in their long-prowed ships to raid England.

 Flames

“Jimmy” to his friends, Burns Singer is actually the son of a Glaswegian mother and a Jewish salesman from Manchester. I count him the most inflammable poet on the English scene, because the way he showers burning tobacco strands on his flossy gold beard he is bound to go up in flames one day.

In love, he wrote:—

I cannot see
Smiles in another,
And every tear
I brush aside
I find you hidden within it
like a bride.

He wrote that for Marie, the woman he made his bride five years ago. She is a New York-born Negress with a Harley-street practice in psychotherapy. Dreamers only part of the time, poets show an acute interest in money, mainly because of the difficulty they have in laying their hands on it.

Most magazines pay £10 10s. for a short poem, and the rates at the B.B.C. go down to 10d. a line for longer broadcast works. Poets write reviews and do journalism to make a living.

“I’m never sloppy about money.” said Christopher Logue in a raging voice. “I want a car. I want to eat out in restaurants. You know who I’d like to be? I’d like to be president of U.S. Steel!”

Burns Singer, once a fish-chasing zoologist at Aberdeen Marine Laboratory, said: ” I’d like to be Spyros K. Skouras. I just fancy the glamour of working in films.”

Professor

The world does not owe poets a living, but it pays more than a modest competence to Theodore Roethke (pronounced ret-key), a great shambling American poet big as a house and earning enough money to live in one in smart Belgravia during his London visit.

Dwarfing a glass of sherry with his big hand, 52-year-old Roethke told me: “My great year was 1958, when I picked up £10,000 in various prizes, including an award from the Ford Foundation.

“As a working Professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle, I teach poetry for £4,500 a year.”

But the amount he gets by actually writing poetry and getting it published is only about £1,000 a year.

Journey

Roethke’s best man when he married was W. H. Auden, who sang his songs for more than sixpence as the best-known British poet of the 1930s. “But even Auden can’t make a living just writing poetry,” said Roethke: “I doubt if anybody does, except maybe Robert Frost.”

Let’s face it, poems will never be as popular as football coupons, and what America offers is just bigger subsidies.

As characters, poets range from rhyming layabouts to saintly travellers who have embarked on the greatest journey of all: the journey into the mind and spirit of man.

Gold

Christopher Logue, who is a compulsive newspaper-reader, said: “I see myself as a failed journalist.”  Jimmy Singer licked a new cigarette together and said: “Och, no, man.”

Jimmy failed to set his beard alight. He may never set the world on fire, or earn much money.

But Jimmy has looked deeper into the river than most of us.

He is panning like a prospector, and those gleaming traces he washes out from the daily silt of words, words, words, are his own kind of gold.

Dreaming to a questionable purpose: Colin Wilson’s hazy day with Burns Singer

As an impressionable teenager I was quite impressed by Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Since those distant days, of course, Wilson has slid from existentialism to murder mysteries to the mystical-wystical; in support of his busy publishing schedule he hasn’t, it seems, allowed either a degree of repetition or the uncertainties of memory to hinder a good story.

The Outsider had a mixed reception at the time. One prominent review, in the Times Literary Supplement, was written by the poet Burns Singer. Singer was clearly troubled by impostor syndrome all his life, and would have had a ready interest in anything claiming to deal with outsidership. The TLS had published only a few poems by him, and this was his first chance as its reviewer, courtesy of G S Fraser. Shortly before The Outsider appeared, Wilson happened to run into Singer; his brief report of this encounter appeared in 1997 in issue 4 of Rain Taxi review:

“I was at a party and met a young Scotsman who said he’d read The Outsider and thought it was a wonderful book; I said, how did you manage to read it, and he said he’d got hold of a proof. His name was James Burns Singer and he was a poet, and he invited me the next day to go with him when he went down to the magazine Encounter to pick up a check, which he then cashed, and he went out on a binge taking me with him. It was the first time I’d seen the Scots’ capacity for consuming alcohol. He was a brilliant poet but died a few years later.”

The stereotyping of “the Scots” is bit casual, but the final sentence is generous enough: Singer is “a brilliant poet”, and his early death is presented as a regrettable fact. (No mention of the review, oddly.) But when this anecdote is re-run (shortly after?) in issue 13 of Abraxas (the Wilson mouthpiece magazine), not only has the “wonderful” Outsider become “a masterpiece” in Burns’ eyes, but, more worryingly, Wilson conflates Singer’s early death with the payday binge to come up with the creative assertion that the poet “was to die of alcoholism”.

By the time we reach “A day with Burns Singer” in chapter 8 of Wilson’s 2004 autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose, the story is well fleshed out:

“Two weeks before publication day, I went to another party … and there met a young, good-looking Scot named James Burns Singer, whose fine blond hair and delicate features gave him a girlish appearance. To my surprise, he had read The Outsider in proof, and told me had had reviewed it for The Times Literary Supplement. He mentioned that he had written an article about the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and intended to collect his fee from the Encounter office the next day. He invited me to join him and have a drink afterwards.

I met him at eleven, and we went to the office of Encounter in Panton Street, where he got an open cheque for £40, then went to a bank around the corner and cashed it. And as it was nearly midday, he dragged me into the nearest pub, and there proceeded to drink the money. This carried on through most of the afternoon, although I took care to drink less than he did, and to eat sandwiches to soak up the whisky.

Although a poet, Burns Singer claimed he was able to make a great deal of money from his work. The secret, he said, was simply to write enough. He explained he had just sold a sequence of a hundred sonnets to a literary magazine called Bottega Oscura [sic], edited by an Italian millionairess, and after his fourth whisky, he proceed to recite some of them. (I was to note in the coming years that this is a habit that seems to be common to Scottish poets.)

That evening I had been invited to the flat of Maurice Cowling … John Wain … was to be there. And since Burns Singer wanted to meet Wain, he came too. But by that time he could scarcely speak, and before Wain arrived, he had fallen asleep on the settee, and only grunted when our host tried to wake him.

… I left Burns Singer asleep on the settee – he was quite unwakable … (In due course, Burns Singer would drink himself to death – he was found dead in bed in September 1964.)”

Shelley lookalike Burns Singer

Wilson carefully tells us that he meets Singer not at ten thirty or ten forty-five, but at eleven. (I’m disappointed he doesn’t tell us what was in the sandwiches with which he soaked up the alcohol.) This level of clarity might encourage us to trust his statement that Singer “drank himself to death”. Clearly, anyone who (a) drinks and (b) dies in bed should be suspect in that regard.

Singer’s “Sonnets for a Dying Man” contained fifty poems, not a hundred. Was Marguerite Caetani a millionairess? Didn’t the magazine fold partly for financial reasons? Singer had an income from reviewing, but “a great deal of money” from poetry? The Scots (poets specifically this time) are generalised again. The phrase “girlish appearance” strikes a bizarre note too; is Wilson implying that Singer was gay? (He wasn’t.)

But the pub crawl continues. Staggering on to The Angry Years: A Literary Chronicle of 2007, we find our host settled back in the full confidence of rehearsal, and get the whole story again with additional dramatic detail. Wilson is now “astonished” to learn that Singer has read a proof of his book, Singer consumes “an incredible amount” of whisky, recites “all his own poetry” by heart as well as “most of Hugh M’Diarmid and W S Graham”, is not only taciturn by evening but “hardly able to stand”, and is finished off by yet another “large” whisky provided at the flat.

John Wain turns out to be “aggressive … prickly, possibly with a touch of paranoia”, and looks “contemptuously” at Singer – not surprising, given that he is said to “detest drunken Scots”. The poet sleeps on, “looking rather like Shelley with his long blond hair and girlish features”.

Elsewhere in The Angry Years Wilson mentions again the periodical “Botteghe Obscura [sic], which paid top rates (and to which Burns Singer also contributed).” Botteghe Oscure was not an especially obscure literary periodical, but neither Wilson nor his proof readers seem to have found it necessary to check the spelling of the Italian.

Significantly, Wilson has by now dropped the unfortunate statement that Singer boozed himself into an early grave, though the Shelley imagery subtly provides a compensatory hint of premature and tragic demise for a doomed and “girlish” poet. (Was Wilson also thinking loosely of Henry Wallis’ painting of the Death of Chatterton?) It’s by no means self-evident that drinking contributed to the heart disease that killed Singer. But there are other missing elephants in the room.

We have it on good authority (Dr Eric Corner, Singer’s colleague at Plymouth, cited by Walter Keir) that in the last year of his life Singer visited several other writers in the South West, including the Cornish poet Charles Causley – and Colin Wilson, who had moved to Cornwall in 1957. If so, it’s strange that this second meeting is not mentioned.

Young Colin plays it safe with a mug of tea

Singer’s review of The Outsider, under the title “Chosen Few”, appeared on June 8 1956, but Wilson doesn’t say another word about it. A prominent review in the prestigious TLS by a reviewer who said he thought The Outsider “a masterpiece”? Modesty? Oversight?

In fact, Singer’s review hit the nail firmly on the head. A bag full of nails, in fact. Loftily casting Wilson (aged 24 at the time) as “a very young man who has written … a very ambitious book,” Singer (aged 27) faintly praises The Outsider as an honest, intelligent and “very interesting” but “desperate attempt to make sense of the conflicting views of life that have been thrown at [Wilson] by an immense variety of books.” About the best he can find to say is that “the charm of the book arises from its faults,” that it is “less portentous” than what it sets out to be, and “more human”.

“Mr Wilson’s reading has not been systematic enough, does not have sufficient structure, to bear the weight of awful generalizations that he seeks to impose on it.”

“… we have only a list of personalities … There is no obvious reason why a completely different assortment of writers, thinkers and artists should not be dragged together and forced to express the same concepts about the nature of the Outsider. Poor William Blake, in particular, is reduced to the status of a ventriloquist’s doll by the repetition of such remarks as: ‘The symbolism here is plain enough,’ and ‘In other words,’ and even ‘This is obvious.’ Whatever Blake was, he was never obvious in the sense that Mr Wilson means.”

And whatever Burns Singer was, he was never obvious in the sense that Mr Wilson means, either. He may have been a long haired poet, talking incessantly one half of the time and in a drunken torpor the other, but he had The Outsider down to a tee.

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