Straight-Forward Honest-to-Goodness

Laying Something Down: Poems 1962-2007,
Jim Burns
158pp, 11.85, Shoestring)


This 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 for.
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
            from experience.
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
            reminds 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