Obituary Note: John Burnside

John Burnside
(photo: Helmut Fricke)

Scottish author John Burnside, whose career spanned more than 35 years and who was one of only four people to have won both of the U.K.'s most prestigious poetry prizes for the same book, died May 29, the Guardian reported. He was 69. Even though he was primarily known as a poet, Burnside wrote in many forms, including fiction and memoir. 

In 2011, he won the Forward Prize and in 2012 the T.S. Eliot Prize for his poetry collection Black Cat Bone, an accomplishment achieved by only Ted Hughes, Sean O'Brien, and Jason Allen-Paisant. Last year, Burnside won the David Cohen Prize, which is given in recognition of an author's entire body of work.

Hannah Westland, publishing director of Jonathan Cape, said (via the Bookseller): "John Burnside had a particularly miraculous ability to perceive and articulate both the wonders of the natural world and the everyday miracles that make up our lives. His work was mysterious but never mystifying, quite the opposite--he made sense of strangeness and to read him was to feel a lighting-up of the darkness. We cherished and will go on cherishing him and his work."

Anna Webber, his literary agent, added: "This is an immense loss. John Burnside had a unique voice that brought pleasure and solace to many readers across the globe. His work was characterised by deep empathy and understanding. He was finely attuned to the natural world, but also to people. These traits, so clearly visible in his writing, also marked out the man himself. John was kind and gentle and generous, and I will miss him terribly."

Burnside published his first poetry collection, The Hoop, in 1988, beginning a working relationship with editor Robin Robertson, with whom he continued to work up to the publication of the most recent collection, Ruin, Blossom (2024). Robertson, poetry publisher of Penguin Random House imprint Jonathan Cape, called it "one of the privileges of [his] life" to work with Burnside: "Flawed but fearless, fabulously gifted, he was a truly great writer."

Burnside's works also include the poetry collections The Myth of the Twin (1994), Swimming in the Flood (1995), The Good Neighbour (2005), Selected Poems (2006), All One Breath (2014), Still Life with Feeding Snake (2017), and Learning to Sleep (2021); the memoirs A Lie About My Father (2006), Waking Up in Toytown (2010), and I Put a Spell on You (2014); as well as eight novels, including The Dumb House (1997) and Living Nowhere (2003).

Noting that he "had a gift for naming those things that exist beyond plain sight, and for roaming through 'empires of light against the coming dark,' " author Andrew O'Hagan observed in the Guardian that Burnside "made a lifetime's work out of being an unpredictable and beautiful writer.... He was among the best writers of his generation, fully voiced and perfectly pitched. He always left his readers in an unforgettable place, leading us with kindness through a world of glints and echoes."

From Burnside's poem "Afterlife":

this bungled joy, this inarticulate
conviction that the future cannot come

without the grace
of setting things aside,

of giving up
the phantom of a soul

that only seemed to be
while it was passing.

Powered by: Xtenit