John Burnside was born in Dunfermline, Fife on 19 March 1955, and grew up in Corby, Northamptonshire where his father moved for work. His family was Catholic. He studied English and European Languages at Cambridge College of Arts and Technology, and worked for many years as a computer analyst and software engineer. He became a freelance writer in 1996, the same year he returned to live in Fife. A former writer-in-residence at the University of Dundee, he now teaches at the University of St Andrews. He is married with two sons.
His first collection of poems, The Hoop, was published in 1988; it, and the follow-up Common Knowledge, won Scottish Arts Council Book Awards. In 2000 The Asylum Dance won the Whitbread Poetry Award and was shortlisted for both the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize for best collection. In 2008 he won a Cholmondley Award. In 2012, his collection Black Cat Bone won both the T. S. Eliot Prize and Forward Prize.
Burnside is also a prolific prose-writer. His first novel The Dumb House came out in 1997, and he has since published a further seven novels, three collections of short stories and two memoirs. The first, A Lie About My Father, concerns his difficult relationship with his alcoholic, sometimes abusive father, while Waking Up in Toytown reveals the author’s battles with drugs, promiscuity and mental illness in the Home Counties suburbia of the 1970s and 1980s.
‘[Life consists of] a quest, a journey, leading away from the social demand for persons and towards the self-renewing continuing invention (inventio) of the spirit. For me, poetry is both the account of, and the map by which I navigate my path on this journey and, as such, is an ecological discipline of the richest and subtlest kind.’ (John Burnside, in Strong Words, 2000)
Throughout Burnside’s oeuvre there is a sense of the liminal, the provisional and the transformative – ‘nothing but hints and traces, nothing known’, things ‘not quite there, / but not quite inexistent, nonetheless’. His poems are filled with descriptions of dreams, of the reveries of insomniacs, of overheard sleep-talk – moments of solitary, unwilled perception, taking the mind beyond mundane convention, beyond what we accept, too often unthinkingly, as ‘normal’. Even death sheds its usual blunt finality, becoming a series of transformations by fire and water, a process rather than an event, gradual rather than sudden; ‘something gone adrift between the trees’. There are occasional glimpses of angels and ghosts, but these are figures which keep their distance, and neither protect nor haunt; rather, they suggest other worlds, other ways of being, other realms of perception.
These metaphysical concerns take on a political edge, when what we think of as order and stability turns out to be a mirage or illusion: ‘and someone’s dog is barking at the noise / guarding its phantom realm of bricks and weeds’. Authority and ownership – in the early poems represented by male violence against women, in the later work by money and property – are as provisional as anything else, as ultimately illusory.
Underpinning his writing is the importance of relationships, especially those related to the notions of community and of home – not so much friendship as the intimacy of marriage and family, and the slightly distant and disinterested yet supportive ties of neighbourliness. He describes a marriage as ‘our difficult and unrelenting love’; despite his stated agnosticism, this can also be read in the context of a relationship with God. He has a distrust of ceremony, of anything organised, and puts all his faith – within that context of a commitment to ‘home’ – in the improvised, the spontaneous, the organic.
In a similar way, formally Burnside writes consistently in what might be called flexible pentameters, the rhythm kept as it were under the surface, an unostentatious foundation rather than a pattern asking to be recognised (unlike, say, Don Paterson, whose work seems to seek acknowledgement of its technical proficiency). ‘The trick is in the making / not the made’; the pentameter becomes a means to an end, a useful constraint to be broken when its usefulness fails. As in the example above, lines are often broken on the page, creating a looser visual effect, which can have the effect of speeding up one’s reading, not always to the benefit of the poem.
From the mid-1990s (and following the prose experiment of ‘Suburbs’) Burnside moved from the single lyric to building longer sequences of four or five linked poems, beginning with ‘Burning a Woman’ in Swimming in the Flood, and culminating in ‘Four Quartets’ from Gift Songs. Burnside is a discursive poet, allowing his thoughts to flow and develop gradually, without the constraints of set stanza lengths; and he alters the perspectives and voices within these sequences, bringing in past and present, personal and fictional, Scotland and abroad.
Usually wary of pinning things down, he strays occasionally into generalisations and homilies which ring hollow. The directness of a poem such as ‘History’ becomes slightly hectoring. Christopher Whyte, in The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature (2007) has articulated the way a focus on the always provisional comes to feel like ‘prevarication… will the vision, finally evoked, add up to more than the sum of its glimmers?’ At its most powerful – in sequences from The Asylum Dance – the ‘craft and guesswork’ of Burnside’s method composes poetry of great emotional, philosophical and musical intensity and complexity.
His most recent collection, Learning to Sleep, came out of his insomnia, which he feels led to a period of near-fatal heart failure in 2020, resulting in a state of oblivion, torpor and waking dreams which he expresses in uncharacteristically Christian imagery.