John Burnside 1955-2024

‘The trick is to create a world,’ John Burnside’s poem ‘Koi’ begins, ‘from nothing.’ Published in the LRB in 2001, it was one of nearly a hundred poems by Burnside that appeared in the paper between 1996 and his death last month at the age of 69. ‘The Persistence of Memory’ is published in the current issue:

Out in the field where, once,
we played Dead Man’s Fall,

the others are being called
through the evening dusk

As well as his many collections of poetry, Burnside was the author of several novels, two collections of short stories and three books of memoir.

Reviewing A Lie about My Father in 2006, Hilary Mantel called it a ‘challenging and troubling book’ by a ‘master of language, pushing language to do what it can. Fastidious, supple and unsparing, it is a book about lies that is more true than you can say.’ ‘Is autobiography necessarily a lie?’ Mantel asked:

Some people who read memoirs are quick to claim it is. ‘It’s just your version,’ they say, accusingly – as if it should be someone else’s, as if that would automatically be better. We are not born into truth. A child is unwittingly netted in the lies told by his wider family, and may unwittingly spread them; if one day the lies are picked apart, revulsion sometimes breeds the need to speak for oneself. Critics praise memoirs for being ‘honest’, though it does not seem much for them to be. In this case it seems beside the point. When Burnside says that ‘this book is best treated as a work of fiction,’ it is more than a defensive twitch, or a swerve from responsibility. It reflects the reality of a life in which nothing is what it seems: that is to say, a poet’s life.’

Burnside was born in Dunfermline in 1955. When he was three, as he wrote in the LRB in 2011, ‘my family moved from a rat-haunted tenement on King Street to one of the last remaining prefabs in Cowdenbeath.’ A few years later they moved to England. ‘Corby might have been known as Little Scotland,’ Burnside wrote, ‘but the new town had nothing of the deeply grained atmosphere of the Fife pit towns from which [my parents] had come.’ One of his pieces, ‘Losing Helen’, was about a young woman he met at the fruit and nut processing factory in Corby:

She was sitting by the window at the other end of the canteen: cradling a salt-white teacup in her hands, her elbows on the table, her round, very white face reflecting the glare off the road, she looked like she was lit up from inside, and from the moment I looked up and noticed her, she was aware of me, though she didn’t acknowledge the fact for the longest time.

In the mid-1990s he returned to Fife, working for a time as a software engineer and later taking up positions at universities, as a writer in residence at Dundee and then professor of creative writing at St Andrews.

Earlier this year he wrote to the LRB with some new poems, including ‘The Persistence of Memory’, and promising a new piece soon: ‘I’m filling the pens up for what I hope will be some productive working.’ He will be much missed.