John Burnside

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

About John Burnside

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

Additional material and useful links

John Burnside wins 2011 TS Eliot Prize

Special Guardian books podcast including a reading from John Burnside's TS Eliot Prize-winning collection 'Black Cat Bone'.

Still Life with Feeding Snake, Jonathan Cape 2017


On Shakespeare's Sonnets: A Poets' Celebration,...

Black Cat Bone, Jonathan Cape 2011

Waking up in Toytown, Jonathan Cape 2010

The Hunt in the Forest, Vintage, 2009


Sense Data: New Science Poems, Waning Moon Press, 1998


Burning Elvis (short stories), Vintage, 2001

The Dumb House (novel), Vintage, 1998

The Mercy Boys (novel), Vintage, 2000


1988 Scottish Arts Council Book Award, The hoop

Prize website

1991 Scottish Arts Council Book Award, Common Knowledge

Prize website

1994 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, Feast Days

Prize website

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

Prize website

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

Prize website

2000 Whitbread Poetry Award, The Asylum Dance

Prize website

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

Prize website

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

Prize website

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

Prize website

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

Prize website

2011 TS Eliot Prize (winner), Black Cat Bone

Prize website


Buy album £0.00

1De Humani Corporis Fabrica


3In Kansas



6The Good Neighbour

7By Kautokeino


10At Menno-Hof

11Milgram's 'Shock Generator'

12Harunobu: 'Catching Fireflies'

13Field Mice

14After Lucretius

15Heat Wave





8Sense Data

Books by John Burnside