An abiding feature of Jim Burns’ informative series of critical books is their range of interests and his passion in recalling neglected and marginalised artists, poets and jazz musicians. This eighth collection of reviews and essays has a sequence of essays on Paris, sections on neglected British artists and American poets, the effects of the Hollywood blacklists, the early days of communism in Russia and America, as well as some of his own short fiction.
The Parisian section has essays on Chaim Soutine, Marc Chagall and other Montparnasse outsiders, Picasso and his milieu in 1900, existentialists, including Edmund Husserl, the way the work of photographer, Felix Nadar, shaped images of the city, and the role of the barricade in successive insurrections. As ever, Burns writes in a richly contextual and inviting manner and gives useful overviews and plenty of references for further reading.
The reviews of recent exhibitions and books on Sven Berlin, John Bratby and Stanley Spencer are illuminating. I did not know, for example, that Bratby was also a novelist. He also writes the Forties and Fifties Soho bohemia that produced
Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Minton and Michael Ayrton, through the lens of the lives of artists, Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller, who frequently feature as minor artists in accounts of the period. As Burns makes clear any sense of transgressive artistic practice was over by the Sixties and the scene had degenerated into the same old faces drinking away their lives.
Amongst the highlights of this book for me is the discovery of the poetry of Lola Ridge (1873-1941) in the essay, ‘Lola Ridge, Radical Poet’, and of Cambridge Opinion 41 (1965), an issue devoted to the impact of William Carlos Williams on English poets. The former essay sets her work firmly in the context of American modernist poetry and its social background. Irish born Ridge came to become a Greenwich Village bohemian via New Zealand, Australia, and San Francisco. Her feminist, street poetry, voicing class conflict, social protest, won the Shelley Memorial Award in 1934 and 1935. Her first poetry book, The Ghetto and Other Poems (1918) centred on the Jewish community of the Lower East Side, and created quite a stir, despite the fact that her portrayal was mostly second hand.
There is currently a revival of interest in her poetry and Light in Hand: Selected Early Poems introduced and edited by Daniel Tobin appeared in 2007. Terese Svoboda’s biography Anything That Burns You (2015) extends to 627 pages. Burns found a copy of Cambridge Opinion 41 in his archives, as he was a contributor. The magazine is not referenced in any of the histories and bibliographies of little poetry magazines produced by the British Library and elesewhere. This significant issue features the work of Basil Bunting, Andrew Crozier, Roy Fisher, Tim Longville, Tom Pickard, J.H. Prynne, John Temple, Gael Turnbull and others. Burns provides plenty of background information on the editors and the various approaches of contributors and various other related magazines and presses. It is the kind of recovery that aptly illustrates the great value that Burns offers to us all.
David Caddy 8th February 2017