John Burnside has come enviably far for someone who published his first book of poems by accident. ‘It was partly my fault and partly misunderstanding,’ he admits, still cringing somewhat at the memory. ‘I gave a script to my publisher as a working basis for something I might do. I’m not sure what happened but the publisher brought it out – and I thought, oh no!’ The mistake doesn’t seem to have done him any harm though. He’s been garnering awards and accolades ever since, winning the prestigious TS Eliot prize in 2012 for his latest poetry collection ‘Black Cat Bone’.
'We don't go round chanting about freedom'
John is generous with and genuine in his praise for other poets, and refreshingly for a British writer this admiration reaches beyond the anglo-saxon world. ‘I’m full of wonder and awe at French poetry!’ he exclaims. ‘I’ve no idea what they’re trying to do – it’s totally abstract, not rooted in the real world at all. But I learn something from reading it and especially from meeting French poets. I’ve met French poets whose work I’ve read on paper and sort of thought,’ he puts on an incredulous voice, ‘”what are they doing?” When I’ve met that person, I’ve realised they’re trying to do something similar to me, it’s just a different convention. In British poetry in particular, anything abstract is a big no-no. I can understand why – it’s part of the anglo-saxon temperament to be suspicious of that kind of thing. We don’t go round chanting about freedom or love or anything like that.’ He takes a sip of beer before continuing. ‘In contrast, Spanish people can talk about the soul. I’ve tried to translate Spanish poems and there are things where you think, well I can’t do that, because in English ‘my soul rises to meet…’ sounds awful! I mean, I try to mention soul in my works, but I have to work hard to get away with it. Whereas in Spanish poetry it just comes rolling off the tongue.’
While John’s made it clear in various articles that he’s cautious about the politicisation of poetry, he’s also talked of poetry’s ‘public role’. While this isn’t quite the contradiction it first appears, he admits that it’s a difficult line to walk. ‘The trouble with poetry that becomes polemical is that it often loses some of its weight as poetry. Trying to make the most beautiful poetry you can usually involves certain kinds of subtlety, which can rule out certain political statements. You can say, well, actually I want poetry to say something,’ he pauses, ‘something more. I think it is possible to bring these two things together. I’m not sure I’ve done it, but I think it’s possible.’
Sitting in front of tractors
The crux of the matter, it seems, is subtlety. ‘I think that the kind of poetry that says, oh isn’t war terrible – well, we all know that! Most people think that war’s terrible. But to convey certain, subtle qualities of response to situations, for example celebration of the natural world say, is hopefully a fair contribution. Going further than that, I think any use of language to try and investigate the world in a way which is subtle and rich and to arouse the complexity of things is already political. The powers that be want to make our language as simple as possible because language for them is persuasion and corruption and selling us ideas. So anything that insists on complexity of language, and subtlety of observation and attention to small detail is already political. So in a sense all poetry is political. A poem that makes you think again about this table makes you live in the moment. It already makes a small political gesture against the ways in which the powers that be, the system, whatever you call it, tries to make us live in a different time frame.
Slightly wistfully, he adds with a smile, ‘What I can’t do of course, and I’d love to do it, I’ve tried doing it, is the kind of poem where people say “Yeah, I’m going to do something about that! I’m not just going to write a letter to my MP, I’m going to go and sit down in front of a tractor.” I haven’t written that poem. I don’t know if anyone has.’