No 5 - 1975
Like the two limbs of a cross
Your words, my answers lie
Together in the place
Where all our meanings die.
BURNS SINGER achieved only a limited popularity in his lifetime, and since his death in 1964 — at the age of thirty-six — he has found few champions. An incomplete Collected Poems (1970) was issued with an embarrassing memoir by Hugh MacDiarmid and an evasive introduction by W. A. S. Keir. The book occasioned little interest. But Singer is one of the few original poets of his generation. Born two years before Ted Hughes, his makes an interesting corrective to Hughes’s later vision. Anne Cluysenaar draws the distinction in ethical terms. She quotes a passage from ‘The Gentle Engineer’, written in 1951-2.
It is my own blood nips at every pore
And I myself the calcified treadmark of
Process towards me:
All of a million delicate engines whisper
Warm now, to go now
Through dragnets of tunnels forwards as my life.
I carry that which I am carried by.
She comments, ‘This sense of being part of the universe, not lost in it, allows for a more positive formulation than does “wodwoism”.’ There is not the dissociation between man and his environment, but rather continuity and interdependence. Singer was an accomplished scientist, while Hughes is a romantic anthropologist.
James Hyman Singer (he later adopted his mother’s maiden name, Burns, as his middle name) was born in New York in 1928. His ne’er-do-well father and long-suffering mother returned to Scotland when the child was four. His background was insecure, unsettled. He could never claim a distinctive landscape, and nor had he any clear racial identity, being a mixture of Polish, Jewish, Irish, and other blood. He remained an American citizen, though he did not return to live in America.
Educated in Glasgow, he spent two terms studying English at the University, but left it and Scotland in disgust, choosing to avoid the university experience which he felt was inimical to creative work. He went to London and, aged seventeen, taught mathematics at a ‘dubious private school’. He went from there to Cornwall where he came ‘under the tutelage’ of W. S. Graham, from whose mature work he learned basic lessons. He spent two years in Europe, then returned to Glasgow University, this time to read biology. He told his professor he wanted to ‘write poems about animals’. In fact necessity — his father’s poverty and his mother’s suicide — drew him back, and though he did not finish the course, he became a marine biologist, entering the Scottish Home Department’s Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen. After four largely unhappy years, he returned to London as a freelance. He wrote literary essays for Encounter and The Times Literary Supplement, scripted documentaries about the sea, wrote Living Silver, a popular hook about marine life, and collaborated in a major anthology of Polish poetry in translation. All this time he was writing poems as well. He married the black American psychologist and painter, Marie Battle, and lived in brief security with her in Cambridge, but ‘the caterwauling insecurity of my belief in myself’ never left him. He died of natural causes in Plymouth, while engaged in marine research. Behind him he left a wealth of unpublished material: poems, notebooks, diaries, and other writings. Only one large collection of his poems, Still and All (1957), appeared in his lifetime.
During his life he elected certain ‘tute1ary spirits’ or teachers, and acknowledged his debt to them. W. S. Graham, and in Paris the painter Wols, at Glasgow the biologist Professor C. M. Yonge, and Hugh MacDiarmid drew him. Later he became fascinated with the writings of Wittgenstein, and the cerebral quality of some of his work is due to this allegiance.
MacDiarmid finds Singer obscure. If this is the case, the obscurity lies not in vocabulary, allusion, private reference or symbolism: it is a subtlety inherent in the intellectual agility and intensity of the poet. He was more than what MacDiarmid called ‘a rootless cosmopolitan’. In some ways he is as rooted a poet as MacDiarmid, though he avoids dialect and does not celebrate a particular nation. His roots are in a world which science has clarified and made luminously mysterious through its limited definitions. This is one aspect of his originality.
It was the discipline of science and later philosophy that saved him from the easier practice of the poets he admired — Barker, Graham, and to some extent, MacDiarmid. As a poet, he remained an outsider. Drawn towards the literary power centre — London — he could not abide the ‘literary gatherings’. He made a number of enemies as a result.
The title poem of Still and All develops the analogy between personal language and personal identity. Language is, too, a place in which to move. It impresses its own natural disciplines, but is flexible to a degree. It has laws of growth, like a natural organism; and the voice that carries it is also carried by it:
These words run vertical in their slim green tunnels
Without any turning away. They turn into
The first flower and speak from a silent bell.
But underneath it is always still
Truly awakening, slowly and slowly turning
About a shadow scribbled down by sunlight
And turning about my name. I am in my
Survival’s hands. I am my shadow’s theme.
The repetition of phrases and words which, in varied contexts, acquire different shades of relationship, is typical of Singer’s style. In this poem certain phrases and images change places and in different constructions relate in analogous ways: the ‘shadow’ image, the tunnels, the word ‘turn’, the word ‘green’. Despite the abstract manner, the poem has the consistent hardness of particularised images, even if they are unasserted; and more important, it has the authority of Singer’s voice rhythms. He creates a complex of organic relationships, linked by analogy.
The poet suffers when the analogies and connections fail — usually at the apprehension of death which disrupts the harmony of his vision. In the poem ‘18IIIXSG’ language ceases to unite: it disrupts, separates:
To what I am. Between us language roars
Its floods to drown me in. My death is sure:
Though safe to watch me going down we stand
Beside ourselves with horror on dry land.
The deployment of simple rhymes, a simple vocabulary, a clear syntax in measured rhythms, with carefully worked enjambments, is belied by the completeness of the wit with which the language is used. The originality is in fitting extreme experiences into such limpid forms, which heighten rather than temper the power of the experience. Singer does not choose an extreme rhetoric: his suffering is in measure, and without indulgence.
Time is the great enemy and the great healer: in other words, it is itself neutral, and the clock’s ‘empty precision’ gains meaning only in particular contexts. Time is explored exhaustively in the narrative poems. Singer normally takes the story more or less for granted, concentrating on relationships or conditions and the ideas implicit in them. ‘Marcus Antoninus’ is one such poem, but a better one — perhaps Singer’s best long poem — is ‘The Transparent Prisoner’. Power is the dominant theme: power of men, forms, and language. The man with power (‘Marcus Antoninus’) and the man who is the victim of that power (‘The Transparent Prisoner’): both are portrayed. ‘The Transparent Prisoner’, a Second World War captured soldier, suffers first starvation and then slave labour. That is the plot. His escape and recovery are treated briefly in the closing stanzas. Singer is interested in the effect of extreme experience on the man’s mind — not in the physical details of suffering or in the adventure. The prisoner is made to mine for coal. Eventually:
My hands against the coal would grow transparent,
Then, like a match felt softly by its flame.
My arms would char into a wandering current;
Warm radiance crept up them till the same
Vivid transparence flooded every part
And I could see the beating of my heart.
The prisoner gazes up through the roof of his working tomb and ‘sees’ the grasses’ roots, the blades, the air, the sky, the sun. The vision — for it is vision — is intensely realised. The poem ‘Tree’ develops the idea: the tree wishes to become a man; the man wishes for some of the qualities of the tree. In apprehending the wish itself, the poet achieves half his desire. So, too, the prisoner. Acute suffering reduces the world to a point of ‘now’, and in that ‘now’ vision develops. It is a vision of unity.
The fifty ‘Sonnets for a Dying Man’ dwell, sometimes with a wilful obscurity, on the process of dying. Death is seen at work in all aspects — even the most vital — of life and relationship. There are thematic analogies with Hughes’s Crow. But the subject matter and the tone are more varied. The ‘Dying Man’ of the title is ‘everyman’, including the poet himself, as well — no doubt — as a particular person. Death becomes synonymous with doubt. ‘What they almost know’ — the final knowledge, death — obsesses the sonnets, which argue with and around it. This is philosophical poetry with, at its best, a vivid imagistic edge to it.
‘Biography of an Idealist’ is among Singer’s outstanding poems. It is subtitled ‘The Crystal and the Shadow’. Here he contrasts symmetry, perfection, and the idea of divine order, with power, hierarchy, and the implicit imperfection in the human order: chill light against living shadow, saint against king. The king, shortly before his execution, says:
‘If I believed at all
I believed in the small mistake
In judgement or behaviour
That only men can make,
The perfect limitation
Breached by imperfect power.’
When the saints take power, it is not God’s order they implement:
God is beyond belief:
His image everywhere
Half made of shape, half light,
The saints are counting money
Because the saints are men.
The ideal proves impotent in practice. Ideas, finished thoughts, are valueless: they are alive only as they are thought or enacted, not as abstractions.
In ‘Oracle Engraved on the Back of a Mirror’, language is a place, as in Graham’s poems, hut here continuous with individual identity and the common world. The pertinent lines occur: ‘For thought is always and only thought : /The thinking’s different: thinking’s in the blood’. A ‘thought’ is incomplete when abstracted from its source in thinking, and therefore in experience. The process of arriving at it reveals its limits and its potential. Anne Cluysenaar quotes a passage from Singer’s uncollected prose which illuminates his view of the ethical function of poetry — a view he shares, in different terms, with Donald Davie: ‘When a poet presents a series of logical thoughts in a poem, it is not to express the logic of his thoughts and thus to allow the reader to draw their logical corollaries in other mnemonics — rather, it is to force the reader through the thinking of these thoughts, since the process of thinking them is an essential part of the experience which he wishes to recreate in the reader. It does not matter therefore if one logical series is placed alongside another with which it is logically irreconcilable, provided that both series properly belong to the experience in which they are involved.’
In ‘Corner Boy’s Farewell’ Singer’s argumentative ‘thinking’ is best observed. The argument is carried in an extended rhapsodic syntax, moving with authority from particulars into more abstract cogitations. It is a generalised love poem, including elegiac elements and satire in the manner of Pound’s ‘Commission’. Relationship gives him the power to set out in quest of himself and beyond himself:
Let my poems have bees’ blood in them,
Let them be sharp but sensitive to honey.
For I still think of life as once of mist in Cornwall
Man-high and from the sea subsiding gently
Over the ploughed fields, brown, with scarce green growth,
But hidden under field-grey all that day,
Woven in one opacity.
Then on my eyesight the slant light broke
Of a single mist-drop narrowly slung to a cobweb
And each, the mist, through which my senses travelled
Broke at the sun-reflecting signal to its own:
The watered air grew bright with single claws:
So on the fine web spun from something stronger
One man can hold, precarious, complete
His own self’s light that never is repeated
But acts as orrery to all the lights of others:
And that same web grows finer with its function,
More beautiful to praise with each drop held
In that peculiar tension once forever.
A few copies of The Collected Poems of Burns Singer are available from Carcanet Press, who will be issuing a Selected Poems and a revised Collected Poems in 1976/7, edited by Anne Cluysenaar, Michael Schmidt’s Fifty British Poets will be published by Pan Books.
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