"Think small. If you have a big mind, it will show itself." Richard Hugo
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About Will Burns
Will Burns is a poet and novelist. He first came to prominence in 2014 as a Faber New Poet and has since authored poetry collections ‘Country Music’ (Offord Road Books, 2020) which won the 2021 Laurel Prize for best first collection, & ‘Germ Songs’ (Rough Trade Books, 2019). He released the album Chalk Hill Blue in 2019, a collaboration with composer Hannah Peel whose music was set to his poems. (Hannah Peel, 2019.) His debut novel, The Paper Lantern (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2021) saw Burns named among The Observer’s Top 10 Debut Novelists of 2021. He is Poet-In-Residence at Caught By The River.
Burns delivers his poems with a clipped, frank masculinity: the rigamarole of a contemporary British man aware of the coarseness of the role he has been trained to inhabit but unable, perhaps unwilling to fully pull himself away. We wear our pasts regardless of our efforts to the contrary, in fact it is harmful to all to pretend otherwise, and Burns’ work is wholly engaged with that fact: the poet writes with clean strokes that bring up gravel on the upswing, unearthing the knots and traumas of a past hitherto unexpressed. This is poetry stoic against flourishes of style and form: words to capture truth by putting its outline down on paper in as universal a language as the poet can muster. There is also humility here, a writer in awe of the magnitude of even the slightest human condition and determined to leave only the marks and rhythm necessary to share with us the shattered beauty he has witnessed.
In ‘Transmission’, Burns practically acknowledges as much. “He understands this place / like a painter would.” The ‘painter’ of the poem seems witness to a change beyond him, the place, perhaps literally, where the pylons and wires of contemporary society make their mark on the countryside. “…the broad bands of hundreds / of shades of green?…” showing us the description of one thing melting as a metaphor into the other, nature and the future becoming one another’s camouflage. The witness only “sits and picks bits / from between his teeth. / And he watches it rain”, as the world changes and disguises its change, providing a stomach-stirring portrait of a man without the tools to interrogate his place in things, who for all of modernity’s advance can only shelter from the rain and take in a fragmentary view of the changes, as best he can.
This sense of a world quietly out of reach pervades over all of Burns’ writing, along with a bottled frustration that it truly ought not to be. “There is a double sense that things are just / wrong. Or wrongly labelled” in ‘The Word for Wood’, a poem where physics, interpersonal relationships and the very essence of a walk in nature are drawn away into shadow, horror, the disquieting sense of half-forgotten mythology. In the poet’s own idiom: “Your dogs have wandered off the path – / followed their innate memories of the pack / into the wood. The howls are maddening.” The world, and the way that we make meaning of it, has always been tenuous and terrifying, but a painter’s eye, as Will Burns demonstrates, can help us sit in our shared consternation and wait out the rain together.
Recordings made on 23rd February 2022 at the Soundhouse Studio, West London. Photography credit: Antonio Olmos.