from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The T S Eliot prize, John Burnside & black cat bone

So we know that the T S Eliot poetry award, perhaps the most significant poetry prize in GB and worth £15K – not to be sniffed at by a poet  – and also, this year, beset by difficulty and controversy, has been awarded to Scottish poet John Burnside, and deservedly so. There is no one else whom I'm aware of writing in the way in which he does. For me, his is a distinctive and powerful voice in the global world of poetry, and again for me perhaps the most original and profound voice in contemporary British poetry. He's certainly a personal favourite.

The Eliot prize this year has raised some ethical issues. The Poetry Society, embroiled as it was last year in internal strife, has had its Arts Council funding cut (imagine here a long rant on the fact that £8m of the Arts budget has been diverted to the grrrrr Olympics). This means that the award, funded for the last 15 years by Valerie Eliot, will now be funded by Aurum, a 'dirty money' hedge-fund issue for some people (me included), like BP's major-gallery funding. I can see the other argument: that money earned in what some of us see as unethical ways can, so to speak, be absolved of its origins via patronage of the Arts. I just personally don't buy it, and I admire the stand taken by both
the poets who removed themselves from the shortlist on ethical grounds.

'Alice Oswald, nominated for Memorial, a retelling of the Iliad, pulled out, saying: "Poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions." She was followed by the Australian poet John Kinsella, nominated for Armour, describing himself as an anarchist, pacifist and anti-capitalist, "and hedge funds are at the very pointy end of capitalism".' (Guardian, 16th January 2012)

Controversy notwithstanding, I'm over the moon that this still-little-known poet has taken the award.

Burnside's liminal territory is unique in the contemporary English-language canon. It's not that Burnside could be described as a 'champion of the soul' – that would suggest self-consciousness, a deliberate attempt to import soul into his writing. It's more that soul, if that is the correct word, is a given in his territory; it infuses everything he writes, as breath infuses the body.With Burnside, you are standing at the edge of a forest, unsure whether the poem, and therefore you as reader, are canted towards the darkness of woodland or moving away, towards the light. But ultimately you get the sense – or rather I get the sense – that the poems' task is to take one deeper into the woodland in pursuit of – what? A glimmer on the wind? A truer light? A revelation that nothing is ever exactly, or even approximately, what it seems to be? An invitation to live deeper, knowing simultaneously that what we seem to seek will not be found in the form in which we think we seek it?

When reviewers speak, as they do (cf The Guardian, yesterday), of Burnside as a poet of the numinous, the immanent, they are right – and he is one of the few. But this is not fluffy New Age transcendence, but more an essential attempt on the wholeness brought about by marrying light with dark.

Reviewers have spoken of Burnside's latest, the T S Eliot prizewinner Black Cat Bone, as being a departure from the others. I don't think it is; rather it's a necessary progression, development or continuation of the territory that always engages Burnside: the mysteries of love and death, and the mystery of finding a thread to follow in the tangled forest that is, so often, our lives. This book may be more overtly 'accessible', though that seems a poor word to use in relation to this work, but if so, only because the narrative thread is slightly more on the surface than some of his poems allow. Slightly.

This latest, like its predecessor The Hunt in the Forest, has an archetypal quality to it, and Burnside uses to some extent the language and imagery of myth, fairy tale, magic. This one seems also to carry more liturgical references than some of his others; no surprise then to find that he was brought up, like me, a Catholic; as they say, one never manages to really leave the enclosures of the Church; one is only 'lapsed', not 'ex'.

In Black Cat Bone, as always, he offers the most un-self-consciously quotable lines: 'The only gift is knowing we belong / to nothing.' (From 'Creaturely') ; and 'I live in a separate country, white as the snow / on rooftops and stained glass // windows, the still of the woods / at furthest noon the only thought I have // and morphine skimming my mind, like the first / swallow in the courtyard...' ('Dope Head Blues').

Poignant haunting lines abound: 'the buds we wreathed in silk, for wedding nights, / discarded now, a summer's lease of green // gone back beneath the frost while, nonetheless, / alone in the furthest wood, a night bird sings //.

A personal favourite is 'The Soul as Thought Experiment', which opens:

Some days, it's enough to stand your ground.
Wind on the road and that coal oil and mackerel sheen
on everything you see; the wet 

leylandii turned in the rain...

and closes with:

...where you cannot help but think

of kinship, at that point where snow begins
on some black road you thought was yours alone,
made bright and universal, while you listen.

I can't recommend this collection highly enough; although if you want an easier introduction to Burnside's work, start with The Light Trap (Cape, 2002)


  1. A bit late to this post, but appreciated reading it. A bit late, also, to John Burnside who I really only recently (I can hardly believe this) really discovered. Blown away, as you might imagine, by Hunt in the Forest and Black Cat Bone. Also reading his lovely memoir. Will probably be getting everything he has ever written - will be, in other words, A Fan.

  2. Ah yes Andie of course you would like JB - and yes I'm astonished you didn't already know him! Right up your side of the lane! And to my mind he's perhaps the finest contemporary poet in mainland Britain. I have all his collections (tho not been tempted so far by his prose; but interested to hear you like his memoir - ok, will check it out). I also attended an Arvon course of his - modest and generous man.

    Good to hear from you. Not done anything about a workshop in Sussex - been a bit full-on here since my mum's death. Haven't forgotten tho. Rx

  3. Hi Roselle, finally making time to start reading your excellent blog! And another latecomer to John Burnside, yes my kind of poetry!First heard about him through this only last month and was so impressed by someone writing so clearly about shapeshifting in everyday life - an idea that's very close to me, but very out there for most people.

  4. Daniela, thank you - have replied to your other kind comment. I think there's a sea-change - people are hungry for words like Burnside's at last... Yes shapeshifting indeed. He is I think a seer.


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