Burns Singer, forgotten bad boy of British poetry
1 A life and a death
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.
Burns Singer by Bet Low
It is hard not be impressed and fascinated by the sheer force of the romantic personality, however elephantine its defects. In the case of Jimmy Singer, or Burns Singer as he came to call himself, a maniacal display of personality seems generally to have eclipsed the very real merits of his poetry. To a large degree, it was the man (or boy) who was remembered: a skinny, pale, agitated teenager, with a shock of blonde hair brushed up vertically like a ‘forties Billy Idol or Jedward, posturing in a surplus flying jacket with a sheepskin collar, writing prolifically, talking incessantly and freely insulting both enemies and friends. Though he could at times be gentle and charming, most people, most of the time, seem to have found Burns Singer intolerably annoying.
The bare bones of his life are easily given (though note that his brief Wikipedia entry is inaccurate in several respects): born James Hyman Singer in New York in 1928, but later adopted his mother’s maiden name of Burns. A lifelong American citizen. Mother Scottish, father of Polish background; Singer was brought up in Glasgow, and later claimed that he started writing seriously at the age of six. Aged thirteen, he was evacuated for a while during the war. Post-war, very much part of the Glasgow arts scene – stalking Hugh MacDiarmid, frequenting events organised by David Archer, meeting W S Graham, Dylan Thomas, and the painters Robert Colquhoun, Robert MacBryde, Robert Frame and Benny Creme. Through Colquhoun and MacBryde, met George Barker.
After two terms at Glasgow University he abandoned his English studies in disgust, leaving for London where, at the age of seventeen, he briefly taught Maths “at a dubious private school”. Then to Cornwall to camp in a field next to W S Graham, followed by a spell in Europe, including brief service in the US army, from which he was dismissed “after a fight with an anti-Semite”. Returned to Glasgow to study Zoology, but after his mother’s suicide in 1951, worked in Aberdeen at the Marine Laboratory. Left for London in 1955, where he infiltrated the literary scene, living by writing and broadcasting. Moved to Cambridge in 1956, marrying Marie Battle, the African-American psychologist and academic, and researched at the Marine Biology laboratory in Plymouth. He died suddenly of heart failure at Plymouth in 1964, in his mid thirties. Marie Battle Singer (also Marie Burns Singer) died in 1985.
Wrote numerous reviews in the TLS, Encounter, and others. Wrote Living Silver (1953), a fictionalised study of the British fishing industry. One poetry collection published during his lifetime, Still and All (1957). Co-edited Five Centuries of Polish Poetry (1962) with Jerzy Peterkiewicz, husband of the novelist Christine Brooke-Rose. After his death, G S Fraser pulled together much of his disorganised poetry, the editing being completed by W A S Keir for a Collected Poems (1970). Carcanet later put out a Selected (1977), edited by Anne Cluysenaar, and another, much improved, Collected (2001), edited by James Keery. Walter Keir’s introduction to the 1970 Collected provides a good deal of biographical material, and is well worth reading, as is a substantial recollection of Singer by Jack Webster in the Glasgow Herald for May 12 1984. The only extended appreciations of Singer’s work that I have yet come across are Hugh MacDiarmid’s preface to the 1970 Collected, and an article by Michael Schmidt in Poetry Nation 5, 1975.
Jack Webster remembered the young Jimmy Singer as a thirteen year old evacuee:
“[He] remained a child apart, lean, pale and delicate with fair hair, slightly protruding teeth, a quiet lilting voice, and a creeping style of walk. In the rough-and-tumble of boyhood, he was an oddity, but the English teacher … was quick to declare him a genius. In a lifetime of teaching she had never encountered this calibre of pupil, an 11 year old with a phenomenal command of language … I remember … his quiet moods, bursting into chalk-white tempers when roused, and Mrs Singer’s refusal to accept my mother’s warning that Jimmy would cause her heartache before he was much older.”
The sullen child became the posturing teenage bohemian. The Glasgow painter Bet Low appreciated Singer’s style: “suntanned, sun-bleached hair and air force jacket with big fleecy collar.” Walter Keir recalled that “[to] his outré appearance … he added for a time a wispy Lenin-type goatee beard …” Both his appearance and behaviour could be calculatedly provocative. Bet Low recalled:
“Not everyone enjoyed his company. Among the motley groups at the centre [the Unity Theatre Centre in Glasgow] were CP [Communist Party] members and the comrades did not like or understand him at all. Jimmy would act, strike a pose, make an entrance, declaiming. The comrades invariably sat together, discussing seriously, looking solemn. One beautiful summer day, blue skies, sun shining through the wide open window, I was sitting quietly having coffee. A sudden dramatic entrance. Jimmy, declaiming, swept through the room and leapt straight out of the window. Vanished. Nijinsky – the famous leap. The comrades were dumbfounded … Jimmy wasn’t daft of course. He did things deliberately to provoke them. He also landed three feet below on a flower bed.”
The poet David Wright, encountering Singer in a tent pitched next to W S Graham’s caravan in Cornwall, dismissed him as “… a fanatical disciple of Sydney’s, equipped with portable typewriter and insupportable ego.” Even the tolerant Graham, who always retained a fondness for Singer, found his persistence trying. “He was a torrential non-stop talker”, recalled Hugh MacDiarmid, though he added: “but never without having something to say well worth hearing …”
Ambitious in his writing, but chronically insecure, Singer easily felt threatened by those he might consider as rivals, especially if he regarded them as less able than himself. “[I] hope,” said W S Graham in a letter to Marie Singer, “that Jimmy is less conscious of the writing of poetry as a competition.” Walter Keir again:
“… he very much gave the impression of a young Rimbaud who had wandered by mistake into a businessman’s convention or a suburban tea party, and what got on his nerves most of all was the complete indifference, if not positive antagonism, he usually met with. This both depressed and infuriated him, and from time to time forced him out of his basic shyness and gentleness … into extravagant and eccentric anti-social behaviour … Of course he made little attempt to conform … Instead he drank a lot, talked a lot, and read his poems aloud in bars to anyone who would or would not listen …”
Hugh MacDiarmid found him “… very often the life of the party, though in addition to his adolescent presumption and unconcern for other peoples’ feelings he had the drawback of being quite unable to suffer fools gladly – or, indeed, at all – and never hesitated to say so.”
With his translation to the ‘fifties London literary scene, Singer’s waspishness was aggravated to even greater extremes. James Keery perceptively notes that “he rapidly progressed to insider status … yet considered himself in many respects an Outsider, alienating a whole generation of young editors and fellow poets with his sharp tongue and well-documented aggression when drunk.” (With regards to the Outsider persona, it’s worth noting that in his later years at Plymouth, Singer visited Colin Wilson.) The very decent and long suffering G S Fraser, to whose literary soirées Singer soon gravitated, admitted, in his rather painful reminiscences of the poet, that he found him “a social fire-cracker” and “a source of profound social embarrassment to me,” who “made enemies everywhere”:
“In London … he often struck me as being gratuitously rude to poets or reviewers who didn’t satisfy his fierce standards of integrity … and I have seen him, at the poetry readings which I used to hold at my flat in Chelsea, reduce a very handsome and for all I know talented American Rhodes scholar to tears.
If Jimmy could smash up what I had intended to be a genially superficial social evening, he would; and perhaps, indeed, I often felt in my deep heart that he was right … Jimmy was at heart a severe person: Stoic, neo-Calvinist, a believer in harsh self-mastery and the cultivation of a dominating will. He was nevertheless most enchanting when relaxed and – not most tolerant, for he could never be tolerant – but most forgiving.”
But even Fraser had his limits:
“… I did once get in a fury with him when, in the middle of a large party I was giving, and in ear-shot of everybody, he said: ‘Poor George, it’s a great pity you can’t write decent English prose!’ Prose reviewing … was, after all, my bread and butter and kept a roof over my head. I buffeted Jimmy about the head and several of my henchmen, who detested him, were ready to hurl him downstairs …”
According to one henchman, the poet Gordon Wharton, events at one of Fraser’s Chelsea evenings took an even more serious turn:
“… some of the less honourable attendees used to steal GSF’s books, some of them review copies for the TLS (for whom George was also leader-writer in those days). I caught … Burns Singer in the act, and, being a bit pissed, tried to hit him over the head with a wine bottle. Unfortunately it was half full and, contents running up my arm, rather cramped my style. Still, he was exposed, and barred from the place.”
As one might suspect, Singer was prone to prolonged attacks of depression, talked of suicide, admitted to at least one attempt, and was at one point admitted to a psychiatric hospital as a voluntary patient, from which he discharged himself after three days, claiming that he couldn’t stand the food. By his own account, he had discovered his mother’s body after she had hanged herself in 1951, and had taken her down himself.
So on his own sudden death in his mid thirties, there were, naturally, rumours of suicide. W S Graham noted: “I was at the funeral in Plymouth … The cause of death was ‘heart failure’ and Marie insisted we see the death certificate.” A number of copies of this certificate may have been circulated to counter rumours; Jack Webster later wrote, “I have the proof of a death certificate that he died of a coronary,” and W A S Keir was careful to note in his introduction to The Collected Poems:
“There were rumours of suicide … It is therefore necessary to state categorically that his death was due to natural causes, to a. Myochardial lychaemia, and b. Atheromatous coronary occlusion. (I quote from his death certificate.)”
Dedication by Marie Burns Singer to John Bentley (the actor?) in my copy of ‘Still and All’
The doctor’s handwriting on the certificate may not have been the clearest; the first term should read “Myocardial ischemia”. At any rate, Singer suffered from heart disease, and died of a heart attack.
A loud life and an early death, then. Scientist, poet and bad boy. But how do this living and this dying proceed in the dimension of Singer’s poetry?
To be continued