Burns Singer was born James Hyman Singer in New York, 1928, to Bertha Burns of Greenock and her husband, Michael Myer Singer, a trans-Atlantic travelling toilet salesman.
‘In the rough-and-tumble of boyhood, he was an oddity’, wrote Jack Webster, the journalist who, as a child, Singer and his brother had been sent to live with from their home in Glasgow to the village of Maud during World War II.
He returned within a year, and begun Arts and English at Gilmorehill before the war was out, but ran away, planning never to return ‘to that snaky, lochy country’, only to do so, and try again with Zoology, abandoning his studies a second time upon his mother’s suicide, which led to his father’s attempted suicide, both in 1951.
His art school friend and fellow poet, James Russell Grant, writes of him at this time, ‘Jimmy was demented with grief and despair for weeks. There wasn’t enough whisky in all Scotland… He would take a sudden run in front of a tram, if you didn’t catch a hold of him’. According to Grant, it was as they stood in shock on discovering his mother’s suicide that a cheque for £100 arrived, heralding the publication of his long, multi-faceted poem, ‘The Gentle Engineer‘. Throughout his life, Singer would struggle with melancholia, for which, at one point, he was proscribed electroshock therapy.
After four years as a marine biologist, He moved to Cambridge and married the renowned American psychoanalyst, Marie Battle, who took upon herself the incredible name of Marie Battle Singer.
He became a freelance literary journalist in London and in 1957 he published his semi-fictional study of the British fishing industry, Living Silver, based on his experiences working at the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen.
Also in 1957, he published his sole collection of poetry, Still and All, the title being in part a condensing of his poetic self-positioning, in part a pastiche of William Carlos Williams’ 1923 collection, Spring and All. The book was granted a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and in a short missive he wrote for their following bulletin, amid an argument of pure sophistry, we find the exhilarating bones of his reasoning and what sets his poetry apart-
In 1962, drawing on his Polish ancestry, he published Five Centuries of Polish Poetry; careful translations he had made with his old friend, Jerzy Peterkiewicz, whom he had worked with for many years.
Other close friends and poetic influences included George Barker, Kathleen Raine and G.S. Fraser, who tried to nurture the young Singer, getting him writing work in London and included his poems in Springtime. An Anthology of Young Poets and Writers, 1953. Singer however, generally balked at what he saw as the sycophantic culture within the London poetry scene, often verbally, and as often outrageously.
Above all though, he valued the poetic force that was Hugh MacDiarmid, upon whose living room, as a youth, he had imposed himself to the point of irritation, besieging the busy writer to read swathes of what MacDiarmid felt to be erudite, non-sensical ‘ectoplasm’. The pair continued the mocking-if-affectionate rivalry of Master and Protégé for years to come; whilst Singer was a features writer for TLS, the Observer and elsewhere, he wrote intense, part-caustic, part-venerable essays on MacDiarmid, which they would then offhandedly mention in letters to each other. ‘A magnificent mouse of a man’, Singer, himself described elsewhere as ‘the kind of Viking Vikings leave at home’, calls him in one. Such plaudits were received by MacDiarmid offhandedly, with a mere thanks for the piece about me. For Singer’s criticism of MacDiarmid always led into respect, as if a compliment meant nothing should it not be served on a brickbat-
‘The wildest of wild Scotsmen’ … ‘capable of writing so badly that his admirers have come to look forward with trepidation toward the appearance of a new work by him.’ … ‘Yet, at least they look forward, not back.’
‘Hugh Macdiarmid is the only Briton alive who has written at least two stout volumes of great poetry.’ … ‘His very worst books contain crystallizations of human experience that clarify the muddiest moments of life and give a clean line to the most intricate contortions of the spirit.’
‘The scale of his work is almost unknown in England and, apart from two friends, completely unappreciated in Scotland.’
But MacDiarmid would have the last word, writing the preface for Singer’s Collected Poems, posthumously, in 1970. The tone of his piece has caught critics off-guard, unaware perhaps, of Singer’s own jibes and their on-going friendly rancour that reached beyond the grave. While elsewhere MacDiarmid claimed Singer had the potential to have been a better poet than he was himself, here he writes him as ‘obscure’, ‘a torrential non-stop talker’, ‘unable to suffer fools gladly – or, indeed, at all – and never hesitating to say so’ and, most notoriously, describing him as ‘a rootless cosmopolitan’.
Yet it is a moniker that is hard to argue with; born in New York to a transient Mancunian Pole and a Scots-Irish Norwegian to remain a US citizen all his life, sent from his home to live with strangers on the eve of war, barely able to cover his contempt for his childhood compatriots, to leave Glasgow again as a teenager ‘in disgust’, to be found selling newspapers on the streets of Paris after being dismissed from the US army for picking a fight with an anti-Semite, pitching his tent by the caravan of his chosen mentor, W S Graham in Cornwall, working as a marine biologist in Aberdeen, getting fired, discharging himself from a psychiatric hospital after three days, moving to Cambridge to briefly marry an American, then to London to gain a momentary reputation as a fiery essayist and intellectual, ranging the bars, drinking his earnings, orating on entry to anyone who wouldn’t listen- poems spoken as personal beration; else timid, aloof, unsurfacing; ever impecunious, banned from G.S.Fraser’s soirees for pilfering a book, finally to head to Plymouth with a grant to again study the sea, for his dreams were always of the sea.
He died in Plymouth a few days shy of his 37th birthday, 1964. Grant writes ‘I saw the death certificate. There was no sign of any disease. The heart just stopped beating.’
After the 1970 edition, his Collected Poems was reordered, redacted, expanded and re-edited by James Keery for Carcanet, and republished in 2001. Keery has also written several essays on Burns Singer and how he fitted into the Apocalyptic poetry of the 1940s.
‘God! Give me patience to bear myself or courage to destroy myself.’
‘I think what I’m really seeking all the time is the source of Original Sin in myself.’