book represents a selection from seventeen previous publications of the poems
Jim Burns has written over the last forty-five years. It doesn't by any means
account for his whole opus and, given the unfailing consistency of his style
throughout these years (of which the present volume is itself evidence), it
is difficult to judge what criteria he has used to make the selection. When
the poems are all good what makes for the best? The title of the book and the
fact that he is in his seventieth year would suggest the poems here are the
ones - a hundred-and-ninety in all - Jim Burns wishes most to be remembered
His poetry has been a favourite with me for a long time and I can honestly
say I have never once seen a dud Jim Burns' poem. What I admire is the
frankness, the matter-of-fact plain-speaking. He shows us poetry doesn't have
to be what most non-literary people judge it to be - elitist,
difficult-to-penetrate, high-falutin', ego-parading, 'posh'. In an ideal
world it could be read by anyone...including the very people who'd normally
run a mile from it. In this sense Jim Burns' poems are democratic, political
in the way those of Andy Croft are.
He was born in Preston, worked in a cotton mill, was in the army for three
years, did a variety of jobs whilst writing and editing the magazines Move and Palantir; before retiring he spent
time teaching in adult education. He is an authority of the American Beat
scene and knows as much about jazz as anyone. His highly informative and
readable essays and articles have been published by Trent Books under the
title Beats, Bohemians and Intellectuals.
A favourite word of approval used by Northerners is 'genuine'. It describes
Jim Burns to a 't'. Pretension of any kind is anathema; to his great credit
he has kept clear of fashion and remained faithful to his roots. What he
gives us in his poems is virtually a social history of the last half of the
twentieth century, a picture album of growing up and living in a Northern
working-class environment. For nearly fifty years he has consistently offered
something quite different from the 'literary' (for one thing you don't find
many metaphors in his work): what this is is the view, demonstrated in every
line, that poetry is first and foremost a matter of how the world is
perceived, a heart-and-mind openness to experience expressible in
straightforward honest-to-goodness language, the language most people use
every day. What makes it poetry is the arrangement of the words and the
laconic twist that often comes at the end jolting you into a sudden
realisation, into a different understanding. Here's a short example called
The Bohemian Girl:
She was once fucked
by a famous poet, and
forever after was
accepted as an authority
on the arts. "One has
to feel it," she'd say,
and we'd sit silent,
knowing that she spoke
At first sight there seems to be nothing special about the language. But then
you hit the phrase 'from experience' and realise that the cliche is weighted
with a finely-poised irony; then you realise what 'feel it' and 'knowing'
really signify. In those seemingly simple nine lines a whole world is
contained and expressed; they are as carefully chiselled as in any poem worth
its name. The very ordinariness becomes extraordinary; everyday language is
itself renewed. There is more to Burns's poetry than first meets the eye.
He writes about life as most ordinary people experience it, its ups and
downs, its griefs and consolations; he writes about people-as-you-find-them
with sensitivity and compassion, often finding in them unacknowledged and
unrecorded heroic qualities: for example, in a sort of postscript to Auden's
poem 'Spain' from which Burns takes his title 'Today the Struggle', we are party to one those
innumerable betrayals (there are other poems in this vein) the present inflicts
on the past:
They were huddled together in a corner,
seven or eight ageing men, gathered
to help the local Polytechnic launch its
documentary about the Spanish Civil War.
All around them academics, drinks in hand,
exchanged information about this prospect,
or that, the departmental gossip, the next
research grant or not, and where
to publish so that it will look good
when filling in application forms.
No-one paid much attention to the old men,
in their sober suits, until one of them,
swung across the room on his crutches,
a gap where a left leg should have been.
People let him through, and then
carried on with their brisk conversations.
The Spanish Civil war had come and gone.
The struggle today was what concerned them.
He has a fine sympathy for the vulnerable - his mother in hospitable, the
homosexual who gets beaten up and spat upon, the victim of an accident, his
grandmother, former father-in-law, people he meets in pubs or on the street.
He also recreates memories of his early life - childhood, work, the army, work
- with clear-headed (he is never sentimental) poignancy. And he is a splendid
love poet. For example, in The Observation we learn
Three days without her,
and then the way
a girl's hair rests on
the nape of her neck
me of what I'm missing.
It's always the simplest things
that hit hardest.
A few loose strands of hair
are enough to bring
the old desires again.
There is a wide range of moods, emotions, thoughts, experiences,
observations, all paradoxically heightened for us by their very
understatedness...of which I have been only able to give small
indication. Of this quality,
this virtue, Jim Burns is a master. It has been an enormous pleasure
revisiting these poems. His fans will love this book; those who don't know
the work should rush out and buy it now.
© Matt Simpson 2007