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4 June 2024

John Burnside’s soul music

The late poet, novelist and New Statesman columnist was equally attuned to the natural world and what lies beyond it.

By Kathleen Jamie

“I was a pit-town child, escaping,” wrote John Burnside in his memoir, A Lie About My Father. Raised in pit and steel communities with their damaged masculinities, a Catholic in Protestant Scotland, John Burnside went on to became a titan of literature, not least because his was a generation who regarded their backgrounds and “identities” as something to be transcended or transformed. He knew that a world of the half-sensed and imagined lay beyond and suffused the immediate everyday. He taught his readers and his fellow writers, especially Protestants like myself, that we could reach, without shame, for an awareness that was more spiritual than our cultural backgrounds would allow. Spiritual, but also natural.

Born in Dunfermline in 1955, John had a difficult childhood and decidedly rocky start: his second memoir Waking Up in Toytown details his experiences of alcohol and drug addiction and psychiatric wards. After studying literature at Cambridge College of Arts and Technology he became a computer programming engineer and began publishing in the late 1980s, soon establishing a decades-long relationship with Jonathan Cape. In 1996 he moved from England back to his native Fife. His writing seemed to come to him easily, the way an ice skater can make it look effortless, gliding out onto the ice, but this belies the thought, reading and sheer intellectualism behind his work.

He was one of very few who could move between fiction and poetry, and then essays, memoir and his eternally fresh nature columns, which he had written for this magazine since 2011. However, as his colleague the poet Don Paterson has noted, his fiction and poetry seemed to be drawn from different wells, revealing different John Burnsides. The poems became instantly recognisable, with a Burnside “feel” and lightness of touch. The novels were more of “a turn toward the dark” in his own phrase.

I first met him just after he had published his first novel The Dumb House (1997), with its sickly experiments, so I thought I would be scared of him. What was going on in that large head? Where was his imagination at? But he was as he remained: affable, jovial, sometimes contrary.

For a decade I worked with John at St Andrews University. We were hired on the same day in 1999 and John was still there at the time of his death. Almost at once he established an undergraduate course in environmental writing, surely one of the earliest, and began introducing students to American transcendentalism, and to the works of indigenous writers, especially Native American. (I think he would have made a great American writer, had he been born there rather than Fife.) His rate of production was a wonder to us – did he stay up all night, writing? He seemed to stay up all night certainly, but would come to work talking about American baseball results or recherché modern composers.

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He also travelled, taking himself on adventures and explorations. An interest in Sámi culture took him to the Arctic tundra where, inevitably, he got lost. For sure, he travelled to the beat of a different drum, though drum is not the word. His inner soundscape was more a sad, strange music. (That said, his poems often moved in and out of an iambic rhythm, giving them a sense of gravity.)

Once he began publishing, the awards followed. What we didn’t want, his fellow-poets, was to publish a book the same year as John! But during the 1990s and 2000s he was almost impossible to avoid. The surprising thing, perhaps, was that his writing was embraced here in the UK, a culture that has trouble with the spiritual, the half-sensed, the soul, the “beyond”. Perhaps he hit a chord because his work, especially his poetry, was also attuned to the natural and real, to woods and animals, to mist and snow, orchards, the sea, sunlight cast on a wall.

This was before “nature writing” became a phenomenon. Like Rilke, John managed to be earthy while expanding our imaginative reach into the angelic orders. His poems acted on one like a drug, a substance in the bloodstream. One would struggle to say what they were “about”. Rather, one might emerge blinking and wondering, “Where have I just been?”

Last year John was awarded the David Cohen Prize, which recognises a lifetime’s achievement. Hugely deserved, but who knew his lifetime would so soon be over? His acceptance speech with readings, which is available to watch online, is profound. It is “wondrous and beauteous” – which is what he calls the world around us. It’s also funny, and elegiac.

His passing leaves a gap not only in our literature, but in our ability to exist in the world. He increased the possible ways of our being. Where is he now? Well, he once wrote “If there is an afterlife for me, it will be limbo, the one truly great Catholic invention, a no man’s land of mystery and haunting music… with just the interesting outsiders… the faultless sceptics God cannot quite find it in Himself to send to hell.” He’ll be in good company then. The loss is all ours.

Kathleen Jamie is Scotland’s Makar (national poet). John Burnside’s nature columns, poems and essays are available to read at newstatesman.com.

[See also: John Burnside (1955-2024): a retrospective]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024