John Burnside was born in 1955 and became a published poet almost by accident. For a while, he worked as software engineer. After long days—or in the midst of—crunching numbers and signs, he would write poems to allay the ennui. He sent a poem to a friend in publishing, who then asked to see a book—and published it without telling John. Since then, he has published over a dozen books of poetry, as well as seven novels, three volumes of memoir, and two collections of short stories. There’s a pagan sensibility, playful and heretical, to Burnside’s work—the poems have been, from the beginning, full of equinoxes, solstices, and the rituals of living, and a sign of the environmental concerns which are both the bedrock and the backdrop of his spirit. He’s written meditations on Bible verses, and also meditations on how LSD unlocks the psyche. But beneath all of these themes, carrying them, there is ever a hankering for music. If a poem isn’t musical, it doesn’t interest Burnside, who now teaches the art at St. Andrews in Scotland, the third oldest university in the English-speaking world. It’s an old but in his hands vibrantly fresh tradition, to want an art generated by the sounds words make as much as the morality they evince. His latest book—Learning to Sleep—draws on the experience of trying to survive heart failure in the splendid isolation of a hospital ward during the height of COVID, trying, really, to get a good night’s sleep despite the madness of the illness and the illness of the world.
Lately, there’s been a glitch in the present tense,
the blackbird calling from the holly tree
and that frost-scent on the wind in late July,
a spindrift from the east that finds me out
as stranger to the soul
I took for granted …
There’s a stunning, smooth, perfected lyricism here. As fine as any you’ll find today in the English language. Burnside’s work is always ghosted by a prayerfulness that’s deeply haunted, as if one of the quarrels within him were the longing and the wish to be free of it:
Give me a little less
with every dawn:
colour, a breath of wind,
the perfection of shadows,
till what I find, I find
because it’s there,
gold in the seams of my hands,
and the night light, burning.
And though regret suffuses the longing, it never turns to nostalgia in Burnside’s work, always lingers on the hope for another look. Here’s the last stanza of “The Night Ferry,” gorgeous and deft in its clear-eyed music, its promise—to whom? The muses? Time itself?
Give me these years again and I will
spend them wisely.
Done with the compass; done, now, with the chart.
The ferry at the dock, lit
stern to prow,
the next life like a footfall in my heart.
JESSE NATHAN: I’m curious how you think about subject matter. (Or how you have thought about it at different times.) Particularly in terms of its relationship to the music of poems. Does it matter what a poet is writing “about”? How does it matter (or not) in your experience? How do you know when a poem is coming on? How do you practice waiting? Curious how walking plays a role in your process. Why is music—the music of language, if not the music of the spheres—of such an overriding concern to you? Do you recall any particular or vivid examples of the sound of words leading you to the subject (or subjects, subject matter)?
JOHN BURNSIDE: This is—or rather, these are—interesting questions. I suppose I can best come at them obliquely, by talking about the one thing I most want to avoid on the page—i.e., stating the obvious. All too often, on a “poetry scene,” people prioritise “subject matter” (especially, perhaps, at the moment, when so much literary endeavour seems intent on proving its socio-political credentials). But, if we reflect for a moment, this concentration on topic strikes me as very limiting. As someone who has been involved, in various ways, and to varying degrees, in environmentalism since the late ’70s, I consider myself to be thoroughly in the deep ecology camp (and I write about this often, in journalistic ways). So I am sure that, as I am working, environmental concerns insinuate their way into the content of a poem organically, as other concerns will—but I would never start from there. It seems to me to be stating the obvious when we say in a poem: Gosh, isn’t it bad to be messing up the planet (or tolerating racism, or sexism, or other prejudices)—and surely these are topics that most people who bother to read poetry at all can agree on. But writing a heartfelt poem about such matters, no matter how artful, seems to me not at all interesting or useful.
So I never trust my occasional impulse to write such a poem, no matter how sincere, or subtle, or skilled my conscious brain thinks it may be. Working as I do, I am obliged to trust in the sounds, the rhythms that come out of the day-to-day, the sheer immediacy and truth of the quotidian (as against the world that the powers-that-be are trying to sell us), and the images that lead, sometimes via fairly roundabout paths, to metaphor. I trust to metaphor in the spirit of Hannah Arendt’s remark: “Metaphors are the means by which the oneness of the world is poetically brought about.” I hope that I do not come to (too many) conclusions and I trust that, as Marianne Moore has it, the power of the visible is the invisible. Or to continue with Arendt: “What connects thinking and poetry is metaphor. In philosophy one calls concept what in poetry is called metaphor. Thinking creates its ‘concepts’ out of the visible, in order to designate the invisible.”
I suppose I am shamelessly in pursuit of the invisible (which I do not see as in any way “otherworldly”), but the only approach I have for this endeavour is to begin by conveying, as well as I can, and with an economy dictated entirely by the poem’s musical concerns, what I experience in/from the given world. From that description, if it makes the right connections, and if it sings in time with the rhythms and frequencies of its home place, it may be that something—the invisible, the ineffable—emerges in the reader’s imagination. As to knowing how a poem is coming on, the first thing to say is that I feel an urgent desire to go for a walk. Or at the very least (given my current physical condition) to be in a place where I can be alone, and quiet, and where I can breathe freely. This, in fact, is my small contribution to the poem as it forms: I listen, I quiet myself, and I breathe. These seem to me to be the essentials. What comes into play then, in the resulting stillness, is a mix of many things, not all of them “conscious”: the traditions of my reading and of my true kinfolk, the native urges of my blood, the sense I have of being anchored to gravity and light. All those frequencies. But I don’t want to be too fanciful or theoretical here: my summary, my working answer is, as Izaak Walton says: “Study to be quiet”—and see what comes.
Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.