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31 May 2024

John Burnside (1955-2024): a retrospective

A selection of pieces by the acclaimed poet, novelist and New Statesman nature columnist.

By New Statesman

John Burnside, the acclaimed Scottish poet, novelist and memoirist, has died aged 69. In 2011, the year that he won both the TS Eliot Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize for his collection Black Cat Bone, he began writing a regular nature column for the New Statesman – alongside poems, reviews and occasional essays. Whether describing the plight of the Sámi people in Norway or reflecting on his encounters with wildlife in his native Fife, John’s writing was lyrical, finely observed, deeply compassionate and often stridently political in his arguments for the value of the natural world. Here are some of our favourite pieces by John Burnside published in the New Statesman over the past decade.

Nature is a state of grace that can be experienced by anyone, anywhere
To preserve our environment, we must realise that nature is not elsewhere – in the safari park or on an eco-resort – but here and everywhere.

My near-death experience on a Covid-19 ward
Six days after I was supposed to die, I went home – and though I had only been gone a week, everything had changed.

The NS Poem: “Hymn to the Subjunctive”
“Even where nothing exists, it still occurs”

Unlike most of its kind, the short-eared owl comes to us in the daytime – but remains otherworldly
As I was held in its eerie gaze, I saw an alien intelligence, a mind that was totally other.

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Leonard Cohen knew that joy could be found – but we have to walk bravely into the dark to find it
On the heart and artistry of Leonard Cohen.

Who the green movement leaves behind
We should be learning from indigenous people such as the Sámi. Instead, in the rush to embrace green energy, they are being forgotten.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island – but it’s the one I love most
On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

The NS Poem: “Towards the Revival of Everyday Courtesies: Funeral Rites”
“At one time, we buried our dead/in whalebone and apples”

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