© Image by Norman McBeath

John Burnside

(b. 1955)

"Our response to the world is essentially one of wonder, of confronting the mysterious with a sense, not of being small, or insignificant, but of being part of a rich and complex narrative." - from 'Strong Words', John Burnside

Share this page

Share this page Bookmark and Share


These poems come from a special recording for the Poetry Archive:

! Missing Player !
To listen to the Archive's recordings, software called Adobe Flash Player (version 10) needs to be installed on your computer and you need to enable JavaScript in your browser settings.

Adobe Flash Player can be downloaded, free of charge, here.


Select bibliography

  • The Hoop, Manchester, Carcanet, 1988
  • Common Knowledge, London, Secker & Warburg, 1991 - out of print
  • Feast Days, Secker & Warburg, 1992 - out of print
  • The Myth of the Twin, London, Jonathan Cape, 1994 - out of print
  • Swimming in the Flood, Jonathan Cape, 1995 - out of print
  • Penguin Modern Poets 9 (contributor with Robert Crawford and Kathleen Jamie), London, Penguin, 1996 - out of print
  • A Normal Skin, Jonathan Cape, 1997 - out of print
  • The Dumb House (novel), Vintage, 1998
  • Sense Data: New Science Poems, Waning Moon Press, 1998
  • Love for Love: An Anthology of Scottish Poets in Love (editor), Edinburgh, Polygon, 2000
  • The Mercy Boys (novel), Vintage, 2000
  • The Asylum Dance, Jonathan Cape, 2000
  • The Poetry Quartets 7, The British Council/Bloodaxe Books, 2000
  • Burning Elvis (short stories), Vintage, 2001
  • The Light Trap, Jonathan Cape, 2002
  • The Locust Room (novel), Vintage, 2002
  • Wild Reckoning (editor with Maurice Riordan), London, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2004
  • Living Nowhere (novel), Vintage, 2004
  • John Burnside Reading from his poems, CD, The Poetry Archive, 2005
  • The Good Neighbour, Jonathan Cape, 2005
  • A Lie About My Father (memoir), Jonathan Cape, 2006
  • Selected Poems, Jonathan Cape, 2006
  • Gift Songs, Jonathan Cape, March 2007
  • The Devil's Footprints (novel), Vintage, March 2007
  • The Hunt in the Forest, Vintage, 2009
  • Waking up in Toytown, Jonathan Cape 2010
  • Black Cat Bone, Jonathan Cape 2011
John Burnside (b. 1955) is the author of eleven collections of poetry and five works of fiction. Burnside has achieved wide critical acclaim, winning the Whitbread Poetry Award in 2000 for The Asylum Dance which was also shortlisted for the Forward and T. S. Eliot prizes, and winning the 2011 T. S. Eliot Prize for Black Cat Bone. Born in Scotland, he moved away in 1965, returning to settle there in 1995. In the intervening period he worked as a factory hand, a labourer, a gardener and, for ten years, as a computer systems designer. He now lives in Fife with his wife and children and teaches Creative Writing, Literature and Ecology courses at the University of St Andrews.

Burnside's intensely lyric poems occupy a borderland between two worlds. On the one hand the earthly experience of our bodies is rendered in richly sensuous language that can sometimes tip into the visceral: "stripped flesh/and the cords/of muscle/ribbed and charred/like something barbecued". ('De Humani Corporis Fabrica'). His detailed knowledge of ecology and love of the natural world stitches his poems into the fabric of specific landscapes and locales. On the other hand his poems continually break free of the bodily and the merely personal: as he himself puts it "the lyrical impulse begins at the point of self-forgetting." (Strong Words, Bloodaxe, 2000). It is this blurred territory between the self and the other that Burnside has made particularly his own. His poems are fraught with glimpsed presences; ghosts, angels, ancestors, our own unlived lives.

This recording amply demonstrates Burnside's distinctive music. The poems are remarkable for the consistency and integrity of his vision. Motifs thread through his work - wings, stars, dust, flesh, snow, dark, light, blood, rain -establishing his own private language which nevertheless has the power to draw the listener in. His modest delivery allows us to concentrate all the more clearly on the beauty of the language through which, in the words of the philosopher, Heidegger, one of Burnside's influences, he "brings the unsayable . . . into the world." (The Origins of the Work of Art).

His recording for the Archive was made on 21 January 2003 at The Audio Workshop, London, and was produced by John Green.

John Burnside's Favourite Poetry Sayings:

"If it was really Shelley who stood and listened to the skylark, it was not Shelley in any important sense; he did not mean for me, reading the poem, to be thinking about him listening to the bird; he was entirely willing to vanish, and to let me become the 'I'. - Blue Pastures" - Mary Oliver

"It is a happy thing that there is no royal road to poetry. The world should know by this time that no one can reach Parnassus except by flying thither. Yet from time to time more men go up and either perish in its gullies fluttering excelsior flags or else come down again with full folios and blank countenances. Yet the old fallacy keeps its ground. Every age has its false alarms. - diary entry" - Gerard Manley Hopkins

"The other world is here, just under our fingertips. - December Journal" - Charles Wright


1988 Scottish Arts Council Book Award, The hoop

1991 Scottish Arts Council Book Award, Common Knowledge

1994 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, Feast Days

2000 Forward Poetry Prize (Best Collection – shortlist), The Asylum Dance

2000 T. S. Eliot Prize (shortlist), The Asylum Dance

2000 Whitbread Poetry Award, The Asylum Dance

2002 Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award (shortlist), The Light Trap

2002 T. S. Eliot Prize (shortlist), The Light Trap

2005 Forward Poetry Prize (Best Collection - shortlist), The Good Neighbour

2006 Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award (winner), A Lie About My Father

2011 TS Eliot Prize (winner), Black Cat Bone

Search for a poem or a poet:

My Archive

Create lists of your favourite poems and poets and share them with friends.

Browse all poets by name

View all poets

Browse all poems by title

View all poems

Glossary of poetic terms

View full glossary
Historic recordings Hear famous voices from poetry's past.

View all historic recordings
Support The Poetry Archive The Poetry Archive depends on donations from public bodies and private individuals. Find out how you can contribute to the work of the Archive.