Our response to the world is essentially one of wonder, of confronting the mysterious with a sense, not of being small, or insignificant, but of being part of a rich and complex narrative. From 'Strong Words', John Burnside
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About John Burnside
John Burnside (b. 1955) is the author of fourteen collections of poetry and eleven works of fiction, as well as three uncompromising memoirs. He has achieved wide critical acclaim, winning the Whitbread Poetry Award in 2000 for The Asylum Dance which was also shortlisted for the Forward and T. S. Eliot prizes, and winning the 2011 T. S. Eliot Prize for Black Cat Bone. In 2015 he was a judge for the Man Booker Prize. Born in Scotland, he moved away in 1965, returning to in 1995. In the intervening period he worked as a factory hand, a labourer, a gardener and, for ten years, as a computer systems designer. He is a professor of English Literature at the University of St Andrews and divides his time between Fife and Berlin.
Burnside’s intensely lyric poems occupy a borderland between two worlds. His detailed knowledge of ecology and love of the natural world stitches his poems into the fabric of specific landscapes and locales. On the other hand his poems continually break free of the bodily and the merely personal: as he himself puts it “the lyrical impulse begins at the point of self-forgetting.” (Strong Words, Bloodaxe, 2000). He is foremost, however, a writer of alternating parameters. As his work in fiction and memoir has steadily and concentratedly expanded to offer perspectives to the world and of the growing human life, his poetic eye has narrowed. While he is undoubtedly a master of the long, iambic line, his subject and his focus are regularly pinpointed to the specificity of a crosshair’s centre and the capacity of a microchip. Few writers have made the written life of paintings so completely their own as him, and where this may once have risked the dead air of a Sunday jaunt around the Royal Academy, Burnside instead has repeatedly grown several lives out of a picture that we thought we knew, describing the unknown in the familiar with a surety that is at once disquieting and engrossing.
Over his more recent collections – Black Cat Bone (2011) and All One Breath (2014) – Burnside has laid the foundations of a firm, masterful language, undoubtedly his own. Their tough, unabashedly complex subjects might have been expected to be delivered in a matter similar to the more violent expressions of the imagist or modernist poets, but there is no Poundian loftiness to Burnside. Like Ted Hughes, or more recently Kathleen Jamie, the language employed is neither condescending nor streetwise. Instead he utilises the sharp note, the short measure of the shot-glass, his lines often built from the monosyllabic, but woven to the point of a reaching harmony. With his most recent work, Still Life with Feeding Snake (2017), he has mobilised this language and – now completely and undeniably his alone – to expand his poetry’s subject matter. Matters Biblical, artistic and astronautical are delivered in Burnside’s tongue, casting the reader towards a previously-known moment, story or image, which grows strange and unusual the closer the reader gets to this poet’s rendering of it. The subject is known, but the telling is alien, and the reader hears their own voice in this ice-clear lyricism; an experience of possession and comprehension which signals this new work’s specific achievement.
These recordings render this clear link between poet and reader. Followers of the poet will know that Burnside’s voice has tempered and tuned itself over his past three collections, and the sound of these poems now bears comparison not only with Hughes but also with Robert Frost, as the poet presents observation, explanation and reinvention with the close rhythmic hum similar to that of a bodhran drumbeat, or a bassline of Arvo Part. His delivery allows us to concentrate all the more clearly on the beauty of his language through which, in the words of Heidegger he “brings the unsayable . . . into the world.” (The Origins of the Work of Art).
John Burnside’s Favourite Poetry Sayings:
“If it was really Shelley who stood and listened to the skylark, it was not Shelley in any important sense; he did not mean for me, reading the poem, to be thinking about him listening to the bird; he was entirely willing to vanish, and to let me become the ‘I’. – Blue Pastures” – Mary Oliver
“It is a happy thing that there is no royal road to poetry. The world should know by this time that no one can reach Parnassus except by flying thither. Yet from time to time more men go up and either perish in its gullies fluttering excelsior flags or else come down again with full folios and blank countenances. Yet the old fallacy keeps its ground. Every age has its false alarms. – diary entry” – Gerard Manley Hopkins
“The other world is here, just under our fingertips. – December Journal” – Charles Wright
These recordings for the Archive were made on 21 January 2003 at The Audio Workshop, London, and produced by John Green, and on December 8th 2016 at The University of St Andrews.
Poems by John Burnside
Books by John Burnside
The Dumb House (novel)
Sense Data: New Science Poems
Waining Moon Press, 1998
The Mercy Boys (novel)
Burning Elvis (short stories)
The Hunt in the Forest,
Waking up in Toytown
Jonathan Cape, 2010
Black Cat Bone
Jonathan Cape, 2011
Still Life with Feeding Snake
Jonathan Cape, 2017
Scottish Arts Council Book Award, The hoopPrize website
Scottish Arts Council Book Award, Common KnowledgePrize website
Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, Feast Days
Forward Poetry Prize (Best Collection – shortlist), The Asylum Dance
T. S. Eliot Prize (shortlist), The Asylum Dance
Whitbread Poetry Award, The Asylum Dance
Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award (shortlist), The Light Trap
T. S. Eliot Prize (shortlist), The Light Trap
Forward Poetry Prize (Best Collection - shortlist), The Good Neighbour
Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award (winner), A Lie About My Father
TS Eliot Prize (winner), Black Cat Bone