Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

‘His greatness was matched by his kindness’: remembering John Burnside

‘His greatness was matched by his kindness’: remembering John Burnside

Andrew O’ Hagan.View image in fullscreen

Andrew O’Hagan: ‘He was among the best writers of his generation’

Scottish novelist

John Burnside had a gift for naming those things that exist beyond plain sight, and for roaming through “empires of light against the coming dark”. He made a lifetime’s work out of being an unpredictable and beautiful writer, giving us 17 collections of poetry, 10 works of fiction, three volumes of memoir, and a book of essays. He was among the best writers of his generation, fully voiced and perfectly pitched. He always left his readers in an unforgettable place, leading us with kindness through a world of glints and echoes. He was the sort of person who paid honour to his own talent by seeking out talent in others. A soulful man, he now leaves behind a body of work that will only grow stronger as new generations discover it. The day he died, I saw the last poems he sent out, and one of them, The Persistence of Memory, exudes the kind of interior music that Seamus Heaney wrote at his best. The speaker is back in the field where he played as a boy, watching as the friends of his youth are called home to tea by their mothers. He is alone again in the dark woods. “Decades ago, I suppose,” John writes, “though I cannot be sure. / I have waited here, under the stars, / for the longest time.”

Dina Nayeri.View image in fullscreen

Dina Nayeri: ‘He had bottomless stores of kindness and warmth’

Iranian-American novelist and essayist

John Burnside was brilliant. In the sad days since his passing, his peers in Scotland and around the world have mourned him as one of his generation’s most gifted writers. John was prolific, wise, and shockingly talented, as a poet, a memoirist and a novelist. He overcame a difficult childhood. He wrote every day. He was a keen gardener and devoted to Fife and the natural world, to the beauties of language, and to simple, powerful ideas like preservation, redemption and grace. John Burnside the man was even more impressive than the poet who moved thousands of readers.

He had such bottomless stores of kindness and warmth. For three decades, he has been the backbone of creative writing at the University of St Andrews, where I taught alongside him. From this corner of Scotland, John launched many talented novelists, memoirists and poets, and guided many others (myself included) who will remember him as a most generous and caring mentor.

He made space for the lonely and the grieving and the searching. He really listened. He reminded his students that life was far more interesting than writing or art, that they should pay attention to it more than their careers.

He was legendary for his two-hour pub chats with students. In class, he was funny, always delighted to be there. “An hour wasn’t enough,” one student said. “It flew by. We talked about his grandson’s music taste, paganism, Scottish history, and debated if a cooked heart bleeds or not.”

In his last months, John spoke often about his new grandson, Apollo, marvelling at his small, clumsy movements, his attempts to figure out the world and its objects. Though he struggled with his eyesight, John was so good at seeing – especially the vulnerable and the fragile: children, birds, wounded people, trees. He taught me to be patient, to listen better to our students, to stretch my arms wider than felt possible.

John is the reason I came to St Andrews, the one who called me to the countryside, to write, to tend to students, and to think. My family and I arrived in a village in Fife on a dark December afternoon in 2021. It was around 3:30pm and the sun was already retreating. I called John with all my worries and fears about this new life. My head was filled with so much doubt, so much noise. He said, “Don’t listen to that nonsense.” He told me to breathe, to step outside and smell the coming storm. He told me to watch the light change on the horizon. To take long walks and watch out for areas that are in danger of overdevelopment, to get involved in their protection. “Nothing,” he wrote in Going Back, “is as true as the darkness of home.”

I’ll miss the way John laughed with his whole body. I’ll miss that he couldn’t stop laughing sometimes. I wish I’d had 10 more long conversations with him, or just five, or one. I wish I’d sat in those pubs for longer, instead of rushing off to catch a train. I wish I’d asked him all the questions I was too afraid to ask. He would have answered them.

John was like a father to many of us. Now that he’s gone, I keep returning to lines from his poem At My Father’s Funeral, where he imagines his father standing at the window, peering in.

the look on his face
like that flaw in the sway of the world
where mastery fails
and a hinge in the mind
swings open – grief

Goodbye, dear John. Because I knew you, I will listen, look and hear better, I’ll smell every storm and I won’t listen to any more of that nonsense.

Sarah Perry.View image in fullscreen

Sarah Perry: ‘When John thought well of you, it was like walking into sunlight’

British author

I met John first in his memoir Waking Up in Toytown, and it was exactly like falling in love: I’d never read anything like it, and knew I’d always be looking for that same feeling again, and not find it. I didn’t know at that time that he was also a revered poet and novelist, or that I had Glister and Black Cat Bone in store.

For a long time my reverence for his work felt as particular to me as a friendship. In due course we met in person, at a bookish party; my own debut novel was a year from reaching the shelves, and I felt overwhelmed and foolish in my ridiculous Spanish shawl until John discovered I had cigarettes, and came to smoke them with me. I ought to have been overawed, but there was no time for that: it was like being in the presence of a magic radio station that could supply whatever you wanted. He talked with a kind of mad wonder and erudition about everything from poetry and music to politics and clothing (my shawl suddenly seemed marvellous).

He reviewed my debut novel with such generosity I suspect it altered the course of my career, and he once wrote a long fatherly letter when paralysing fear and doubt had left me unable to write. This letter sent me back to my desk, because when John thought well of you, it was like walking into sunlight at noon: no shadows.

I think greatness is matched with kindness more often than we think, and he had so much of both. Now I’m grateful there are books of his I haven’t yet read – because he can’t be dead, not really, while there are still things I haven’t heard him say.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave.View image in fullscreen

Kiran Millwood Hargrave: ‘He was brilliant, dark, magnificent’

British novelist, poet, children’s author and playwright

I first encountered John Burnside’s poetry at 21, a lost nearly-graduate, considering teaching without much talent for it, considering law without much passion for that. A gift of the 2010 TS Eliot prize shortlist led me to Robin Robertson’s The Wrecking Light, and this in turn ignited a love affair with contemporary Scottish poetry: I bought all the Robertson, [Kathleen] Jamie, [Carol Ann] Duffy and Burnside I could find. Gift Songs was like a match burning close to the skin; reading it felt like I was dancing on the edge of exquisite light, possible pain. His poetry, for me, became about the building of something profound from the simplest of words. So when I found he was teaching a writing course with Fiona Sampson, I leapt at the chance to spend time with one of my favourite poets. Perhaps he would read my work and see something in it.

He saw exactly what it was: a painful, well-intentioned imitation of that which I loved. Admiration is a terrible teacher. You have to see things clearly to truly represent or honour them, and this is what John could do with music, with myth, with landscape. He taught me how to look at something squarely, and parse what it was I wanted to draw from it. He was a mercurial teacher, at times still and thoughtful, sometimes animated, even angered by a misconception or laziness of articulation.

We stayed in touch over the following years, a brief email here and there, each word scrupulous, and treasured by me. I bought every book he wrote, marvelled at how strange, how restrained and yet unbridled his poems were. God. He would hate what I am writing now. Get to the point.

John’s poetry is among the best ever written. He seemed to draw on resources beyond most people’s senses, touching on the arcane and weird threaded through everything. There was pagan abandon and blunt sensuality in his novels and his poetry. He was brilliant, dark, magnificent. A generous and direct teacher. I am grateful to have crossed his orbit, glad to have his poetry on my bookshelves and imprinted on to my heart. I know his legacy will grow and grow. Thank you, John Burnside – truly a mighty man.

Marjorie Lotfi.View image in fullscreen

Marjorie Lotfi: ‘He was a patient and understanding mentor’

Iranian-American poet

“Give me a little less / with every dawn,” John Burnside tells us in his poem Prayer, a hymn to the extraordinary and ordinary lives we lead, lives that are “gold in the seams of [our] hands”. I’ve carried a book of John’s poetry around with me in my bag for almost 25 years, despite having very little in common with him – me being an Iranian-American woman with a history of flight from war, and John a Scottish man born and anchored in Fife. Although it’s grounded in place, his poetry has always given me permission to lead a life separate from the one that others see.

About 10 years ago, the charity that I co-direct, Open Book, took a community group to see John read from Something Like Happy at the Edinburgh international book festival. The group – people who’d experienced homelessness, addiction, and mental health issues – had read the stories together ahead of the event. Though he didn’t need to, John joined us for lunch after he was done signing books, staying with us long after decorum and good manners required.

In 2019, John agreed to be my mentor for a memoir I’d been working on about leaving Tehran as a young girl during the Iranian Revolution. He was the first person to read the work in progress, and his initial encouragement motivated me to write the rest of the book. John gently asked me to go back and write the most difficult parts of the story. As a mentor, he was patient and understanding when that process took time. Despite the pandemic and his own near-death illness during that period, he was also quick to respond to questions, and always big-hearted and kind. I sent him those last parts of the book only a few weeks ago.

So many of John’s poems address the spaces between our own lives and the ones we might have lived, making us question the virtue of what we hold on to with such vigour, while reminding us that “there’s no forever”.

Source: theguardian.com