ON a bitter cold day in March this year I visited Professor John Burnside in his office at St Andrews University.

The poet and novelist, then in the last week of his 68th year, sat behind his desk in a room full of books on a Friday afternoon and talked about life and death and literature and family for an hour. That day he looked, quite frankly, a titan of a man. A solid, sturdy presence in the room.

Quite something, really, given the fact that he had suffered years of ill health, including heart failure in 2020 at the height of Covid. 

That history means there maybe shouldn’t be anything too surprising about the news of his death which emerged late on Friday afternoon. But it still felt like a shock. Just a couple of months ago when I visited him he had seemed so vibrant, so alive.

Or maybe that’s what I wanted to see. When he had been rushed to hospital in 2020 Burnside had been given a “Do Not Resuscitate” order by the doctors who didn’t hold out much hope for him. And yet he had battled through. That seemed titanic. 

Perhaps on that day in March, though, there was a hint of fragility about him too. One that I didn’t really want to see.

READ MORE: Acclaimed Scottish poet and novelist John Burnside dies aged 69

Burnside wasn’t blind to it, however. We were there to talk about his latest book of poetry, Ruin, Blossom. The ruin in question was the Earth and what we’ve done to it. But, he admitted, the ruin was him too, “the ruins of me,” as he said. “Healthwise, I’ll never be the same again. The heart is ruined.”

That he had pulled poetry from the wreckage was typical of him. Burnside’s story is one of redemption in many ways. Raised in Dunfermline and Corby, he had grown up with a violent, abusive father, then lost himself in drugs, drink and debt in his twenties after his mother died, before opting for a suburban life and a career in computing.

But then he decided to commit himself to writing and for more than 30 years he produced poetry collections, novels, essays and memoirs full of darkness and desire, despair and hope. Faith and faithlessness too. 

In 2011 he won both the TS Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for his poetry book Black Cat Bone. Last year he won the David Cohen Prize given in recognition of an author’s entire body of work.

“His poems could up-end you like a drug,” his fellow poet Kathleen Jamie posted on X after the news of his death emerged. “Entirely attuned to the natural world, and the strangeness of worlds just beyond our senses.”

The Herald:

It's a good summary of the power and otherness of his work. But what I’m remembering now of that day I met him in March is something else. I guess, you could say, it’s love; his love for his family - his wife Sarah, his sons Lucas and Gil and his grandson Apollo who, he admitted, he doted on. 

In that sense he turned out not to be his father’s son. That may be as great an achievement as anything else in his life.

The last thing we talked about before I left was his plans for his next book of poetry. “A lot of it will be about time, memory and forgetting,” he told me. “There’s a kind of blessing in forgetting.”

There may well be. But John Burnside won’t be forgotten. He lives on in his poetry and his novels and in the vision of a man who came through the fire and forged something better of himself.