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John Burnside’s slow-release magic

And why he’ll make a great Booker judge

Maggie Fergusson | December 12th 2014

The literary calendar is now so crammed with prizes it’s hard to keep abreast of winners, let alone judges. But today’s announcement of the panel for the 2015 Man Booker prize is cause for celebration. The column inches will go to the appointment of the chancellor’s wife, Frances Osborne. But the stroke of genius is the inclusion of John Burnside.

Have you heard of Burnside? Have you read a single one of his books? If the answer is no, and no, you’re in the majority. Should you have heard of him? Should you read him? Well, yes, and emphatically yes.

Since he published his first collection of poetry, “The Hoop”, in 1988, Burnside’s work has been greeted with rapturous reviews. He’s one of only two poets to have won both the Forward and the T.S. Eliot prizes for the same collection. “If genius is operating anywhere in English poetry at present,” the novelist Adam Thorpe has written, “it’s here, in Burnside’s singular music.”

Robin Robertson, himself a prize-winning poet and Burnside’s editor at Cape, remembers encountering his work for the first time. “It was dark, lyrical, numinous, muscular—and I immediately thought, this is extraordinary; this is exactly what I want to publish.” He invited Burnside to meet him for lunch. The poetry had led him to expect “a lean, dashing, Byronic figure—but in walked this lumpy guy in a cheap suit, carrying the world’s worst briefcase.”

Burnside was, at the time, working in IT. This was the period of his life he describes so vividly in “Waking Up in Toytown”, his second volume of memoir, which opens, unforgettably, “Not so long ago, when I was still mad, I found myself in the strangest lunatic asylum I had ever seen.” It goes on to chart Burnside’s attempts to give mental illness the slip by disappearing into “a Surbiton of the mind”, and a nine-to-five career in middle management.

To poetry and memoir, add short stories and novels—and prizes in every form. “It’s very, very rare for a writer to be equally good at poems and novels,” the critic Christina Patterson has written. “John Burnside is. He’s a brilliant poet, a brilliant memoirist, and a brilliant novelist … breathtakingly good.” Breathtaking’s the word. Both in his poetry and his prose, Burnside has the ability to stop you in your tracks, so that you simply have to pause and wonder before moving on. And then, long after the last page is turned, his thoughts and images continue to reverberate—a kind of slow-release magic.

This year, in case you’ve missed them, Burnside has published two extraordinary books—a collection of poetry, “All One Breath”, shortlisted for both the Forward and T.S. Eliot prizes, and “I Put a Spell on You”, a third volume of memoir, combining essay, autobiography and fiction. If you’re looking for a treat this side of Christmas, read them both.

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