John Burnside. An Appreciation

The acclaimed Scottish writer John Burnside died at 69. “Stop all the clocks, cut out the telephone,” wrote WH Auden in his poem Funeral Blues. This is the way I felt when I heard the news. It’s a strange, destabilising moment when you become keenly aware of something because it is made conspicuous by its absence. There’ll be no more John Burnside novels, memoirs, nature pieces or poems but most importantly, no more John.

I have a favourite story about him. I was walking down the street on a wet, windy midwinter’s day in St Andrews and I saw him approaching me in the other direction, wearing only a suit jacket for protection. He had recently grown a beard and appeared as a living monolith battling his way through the cold wind, the rain blowing in his face. I thought of King Lear and half expected him to shout “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”

As the space between us shrank, and we passed each other, this lauded writer - one of only three poets to win both the TS Eliot and the Forward Poetry prize for a single collection, and future winner of the prestigious David Cohen Prize for his entire body of work - a man with every word of the English language at his command, growled, “Stupid country!” and continued walking slantwise against the wind.

I was introduced to John by a mutual friend at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and immediately we got into a discussion of America in the 1960s, perhaps because I was American. I had no inkling that he would end up my PhD supervisor at the University of St Andrews. The relationship between the PhD supervisor and the PhD candidate is a unique and sometimes peculiar one. The word supervisor is a holdover from when students were treated like novices, who were given a spiritual supervisor when they entered the monastery. I was already putting behind me a career in journalism; when I entered the PhD programme I immediately reverted to thinking as a student sitting at the teacher’s feet.

Well, not literarily his feet. My first meeting with him, in his sunny office started a ritual of removing books, which covered every surface of the room, from a chair so I would have a place to sit. The meeting was awkward and, of course, I supposed he hated me.

I would slowly learn that John wore the title and persona of esteemed writer Professor Burnside as ill-fitting clothes. I will never fully understand the British class system, but John was keenly aware of his working class roots. He had attended Cambridge Polytech, not the storied Cambridge University, he did not have a PhD, he was the son of an alcoholic and sometimes violent father, and here he was a professor at the oldest university in Scotland, surrounded by Oxbridge-educated colleagues.

Yet, he wrote like an angel, was courageous in his trilogy of memoirs about confronting his past and his flaws and was without doubt a genius. You could not mention something that he hadn’t read and whenever I sang the praises of a work, he’d often said, “Yeah, that’s good. But you should check out…” and would mention a book I had never heard of, not unlike your high school friend who always knew of a better and more obscure band than you.

The breadth and scope of his work were truly astounding: poetry, novels, memoirs, short stories, and nature columns for The New Statesman. My meetings with him often evolved into discussions about everything under the sun: baseball, travel, politics, French poetry, Catholicism (we were both brought up Catholic), and - one of his favourite subjects - trees and how they spoke to each other.

One of his most frequent topics was the United States. John loved America. He loved our poets and novelists. He would often say, to shock people, that he was a republican. He was referring here to the small-r republicanism of Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau (we forget, not least of all Americans, that when the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln, a ‘radical republican’ was somebody who advocated racial equality). John spent time driving across the American Midwest and had developed an affection for the burger chain Steak ‘n Shake, where he once tried to convince a waitress who wanted to be a writer to come to St Andrews.

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His work is often described as dark. He did not hesitate to go places that other writers shy away from. “What do they want us to write about?” he once said. “Everybody went to a picnic and had a lovely time?” However, to describe his work only as dark is not to understand that for John, going into the darkness was a way to see the light.

What John wrote about Leonard Cohen he could have been written about himself: “everything in life that was authentic was a single entity, a fabric of mixed emotions and contradictions that could not be reconciled in a pretty lie.”

In his poem An Essay Concerning Light, he contrasted the “light from the houses television blue/a constant flicker, like the run of thought that keeps us from ourselves,” to nature's light, that had gone “unnoticed” and was “hiding the source of itself, in its drowned familiar.”

Here is what John Burnside has left us, a plea for us to “look again” and see how the darkness and the light are one.