John Burnside
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John Burnside’s Poetry: No Ideas but in Somethings

‘It is the poem’s mysteriousness that is exact, not its meaning.’
What do you think this means? A poem that’s exact about mystery without being exact about meaning is always going to remain meaningless. And that doesn’t make it exact at all. Or am I being too logical?

The quotation is Douglas Dunn’s verdict on a poem by Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘The Eamis Stone’, and so might be dismissed as the slip of someone labouring to be generous to his subject. But Sean O’Brien, in his magnum opus, The Deregulated Muse (1998), uses it with approval to describe much contemporary Scottish writing, as it differs from contemporary English writing:

vestigial but undimmed apprehension of mystery, felt both as a mental climate and in landscape… In English poetry this capacity has retired almost beyond the margins but in Scotland it makes itself felt as a kind of unstated positive, not only in Herbert, but intermittently in Dunn, Paterson, Jamie, and especially in John Burnside.

After Don Paterson, John Burnside is probably the most celebrated of these poets. In 2000, his collection The Asylum Dance won the Whitbread Prize for Poetry. In all his recent work, the ‘vestigial but undimmed apprehension of mystery’ is certainly now not just a characteristic of Burnside’s poetry but its central theme. Burnside’s blurb-writers are fond of emphasising this: ‘no-man’s land’ will always be mentioned as Burnside’s territory; the poems are always ‘hymns to the tension between’ or ‘poetry rooted in the tension between’, or ‘the “somewhere in between” of dusk or dawn, of mists and sudden light, where the epiphanies are’. The protagonists of his poems are ‘infinitely mysterious, difficult and “out there”’. The Whitbread Judges said that the poetry was ‘a sensory delight with an epiphany on every page.’

This year saw his latest collection, The Light Trap, continue in this vein – epiphanic, mysterious, descriptive of all that eludes description.

The danger of such a poetic strategy is surely obvious. Chesterton spells it out in ‘The Mystagogue’: ‘The honest man is he who is trying to utter the unutterable, to describe the indescribable; but the quack lives not by plunging into mystery, but by refusing to come out of it.’ Is Burnside the honest man or the quack? Perhaps Chesterton is an unfortunate name to use here, given his dislike of anything vaguely modernist in poetry. Perhaps he represents the philistine in twentieth-century literature. But whatever else he was, Chesterton was no dry materialist; and it was not just as a Catholic that he was open to mystery, to the numinous or epiphanic. If Burnside writes about mysteries, epiphanies, the ontological no-man’s land, then it is a relevant question whether he manages to say anything about them.

Burnside’s technique with mystery in The Light Trap is simple, and shows that he’s read some philosophy. It’s a conversation with dualism, essentially pro-Heidegger and anti-Kant. Put simply, Kant believes we have no direct access to reality, to das Ding an sich. Burnside follows Heidegger in not allowing that there is some split between things as they really are, and things as they are perceived. For Burnside, as for Heidegger, we are always there in the midst of things, not standing outside them. There is no separation, as there is for Kant, between ideas and things, between noumena and phenomena. Rather, our task is to rediscover the transcendental conditions of being human, not in some transcendental realm – but in the facts of life.

The structure of Burnside’s poetry is dictated by this philosophy. He will make a statement which belongs to the realm of ideas – noumena: then he will give a list of things – phenomena.

It’s difficult not to think in déja-vu
when everything seems so familiar

– wisteria; lilac; the century plant in bloom
like a pillar of salt –
difficult not to believe we might go down

amongst the shadows, stealing love from time
and coming home…

(‘Taxonomy II Fauna’)

Thus the two realms are properly and realistically intermingled.

The first poem in The Light Trap, ‘Koi’, is the real showcase for this technique. Burnside could have written the poem just as a series of statements prompted by his musings on these ornamental carp:

The trick is to create a world
from nothing…

The trick is in the making

not the made…

As everything is given

and conceived

imagined real…

…it’s not the thing itself

but where it stands…

Or he could have set out to compile a list of sense-impressions from his encounter with the fish:

the sound a blackbird makes

in drifted leaves…

or the unexpected scent

of jasmine by the west gate…

the clouds

reflected in these puddles all around
the bowling green…

Et cetera. Instead, they are mixed up:

…a sudden

ambiguity of liverwort or birch
suggesting no man’s land

or journey’s end…

…Crimson and black


or touched with gold

the koi hang in a realm of their invention
with nothing that feels like home…

There we have it – no man’s land, journey’s end, nothing that feels like home. Our human restlessness – which we struggle against, but should recognise as the essence of ourselves – appears to be the theme. To be happy we should aim to be ‘trading the limits of speech / for the unsaid presence’ (‘Taxonomy: 1. Flora’). Again, it should be stressed that this is Heidegger as lyrical interlude.

The problem is that ‘the unsaid presence’ is impossible to write about satisfactorily. If ‘mystery’ is Burnside’s theme, his writing is always going to be a record of failure. It is possible, as Paul Muldoon has demonstrated, to make this record entertaining and meaningful. But you have to be exact in your meaning, as well as your mystery. Burnside lacks exactness. All through The Light Trap the poor man goes through a pantomime of precision – which is actually a parade of imprecision. Burnside’s favourite word, apart from ‘someone’, ‘somewhere’ and ‘sometimes’, is ‘something’; and a fun game to play when reading Burnside is to find a word to substitute for ‘something’ whenever it appears in the text (for some reason, ‘dogshit’ often seems to work):

they said we were born with souls
and I thought of something paper-white
and empty, like the sweet communion host…

(‘Blackbird (dream catcher)’)

And this is how darkness works: an alchemy
of chalk and silver, all our memories
of other gardens, distance, moonlit streams,
transformed to something punctual and slight…

(‘The Light Trap II’)

…one bright afternoon,
in wintertime,

something will come from nowhere
and touch a man

(‘After Lucretius I’)

something like guesswork
happens amongst the leaves

(‘Viriditas III’)

The terns were feeding out along the shore,
hovering over the sound like holograms,
and something was moving away
in the windless grass

(‘On Kvaloya IV Jain’)

…how something was always present in the snow
that fell between our parish and the next

(‘Being and Time’)

All in all, ‘something’ occurs 25 times in The Light Trap, a collection of 27 poems. Is this how a poet writes a poem where the mysteriousness is exact, not the meaning? Just by using ‘something’? Might one not conclude that technique is impoverished here and not just Burnside’s lexis? Does this give us what O’Brien called ‘a vestigial but undimmed apprehension of mystery’? No: because what ‘something’ means most often in Burnside’s work is not a mystery at all. ‘Something’ generally stands for a word from the vocabulary of metaphysics concerning being. Often it’s spirit, or soul, or essence:

I used to think old age would be like this…

I thought of someone skilled – a juggler, say – adapting to the pull of gravity

by shifts and starts, till something in the flesh
– a weightedness, a plumb-line to the earth –
revealed itself, consenting to be still.

(‘The Gravity Chair’)

At times I think what makes us who we are
is neither kinship nor our given states
but something lost between the world we own
and what we dream about behind the names…


a glimpse of something, not quite what we thought,
but just enough, that we can think of home
in this, the most provisional of worlds


Because what I choose to believe
is that something will show
a glimmer between the lines of transmigration…

(‘Birth Songs: IV Gymnasium 1522’)

Of course, it is impossible to use terms like ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ in modern poetry without dragging in a vast burden of unwanted theological baggage. But if such terms are merely replaced by the word ‘something’, then nothing is added. Whatever force ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ may once have had is taken away. Instead, there is the cosy realm of post-religious ‘religious’ experience – the sentimental ‘intuition’, long ago exhausted by Wordsworth’s ‘sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused’, but comfortingly retro.

There is a difficulty, too, in the use of philosophical notions as a theme in poetry. If the poetry is philosophy retranscribed and broken up into lines, there is about as much point as a Warhol silk-screen print of Martin Heidegger. Therefore, the less the philosophy appears in the poetry, the more it is an unsaid presence, complex and informing, the better.

Unfortunately, Burnside never ceases to remind us of his philosophy. He is a remarkably prolific poet, publishing a collection once every two years. He writes neither short lyrics nor long narratives, but a pseudo-sequence of short lyrics – all of which are, across books, part of the same narrative, with the same theme. Is this what Terry Eagleton once called the grave preoccupations of the major poet – or repetition, running on the spot? In the late Twentieth Century, writing about the boundaries of experience is bound to be self-conscious. Epiphanies have to be spoken of circumspectly, subtly, or, in Burnside’s case – as something happening to someone. And if that someone happens to be –

always that foreign self, who never leaves
the middle ground

yet never fully
hoves into view:

a blur at the edge of the print
that might be human:

a single
time-lapsed suggestion

of movement, that could just as easily
be something else

(‘After Lucretius IV’)

is it really possible to be interested?

The last poem in the collection, ‘A Theory of Everything’, concludes shatteringly:

for this is how the world
occurs: not piecemeal

but entire

and instantaneous

the way we happen:

woman blackbird man

Again, it is not the case that ‘the poem’s mysteriousness is exact’. Both the meaning and the mysteriousness seem pretty inexact. What is ‘the way we happen’? After reading Burnside, we can only say and not say. In a sense, there’s something unified about experience; but in a sense, something still eludes us.

Perhaps ‘blackbird’, here and elsewhere, also illustrates a further danger for Burnside. Marianne Moore, in ‘Avec Ardeur’, a poem for Ezra Pound, concludes:

I’m sure of this;

Nothing mundane is divine;
Nothing divine is mundane.

For Moore, to call what is simply pleasing ‘divine’, is an example of a ‘word disease’ (had she been reading Wittgenstein?). Burnside knows Marianne Moore’s work very well, but he doesn’t agree with her. He’s constantly engaged in presenting the mundane as divine: what he calls ‘a decipherment of snow / as sanctuary’ (‘Viriditas II’). But if you disagree with Marianne Moore, you run the risk of terrible bathos. When you’re done with the divine build-up, the appearance of the mundane can sometimes disappoint:

But that night, as the sky above me turned,
I found a different swimmer in the steady
shimmer of the tide,
a living creature, come from the other side
to slip into the cool
black water. I remember how she looked,
beneath the moon, so motiveless and white,
her body like a pod that had been shelled
and emptied: Mrs Pearce, my younger sister’s
science teacher…


Ah yes, Mrs Pearce, that vestigial and undimmed mystery, caught in the buff by young Peeping-Tom Burnside. Can she still make a complaint? Or is she supposed to realise that she was being transformed into an otherworldly vision of beauty, and be grateful?

It’s not really fair to say so, but that bathos, inherent in most of the poems, is also there in the author’s photograph. For connoisseurs of poets’ pretentious poses, TV’s Tom Paulin remains the leader in the field. He’s captured, looking grave but enchanted, and fingering his chin in wonder as though it’s just been surgically reconstructed. But Burnside is catching him up. For years, he had been a disappointment. On his early books, published by Secker and Warburg, there was only a simple black-and-white photo-booth mug-shot, about the size of a stamp. But when he moved to Cape, things changed. Burnside, no longer content with his modest, Asda employee-of-the-month look, branched out into something more poetic. In the new photograph, now available in sepia, Burnside has clearly tried to present himself, head slightly on one side, as a bard listening out for the plainsong of the stars.

In general, there’s too much of the paraphernalia of poetry around Burnside – his philosophy, poems dedicated to other poets, untranslated epigraphs, the eclectic mixture of references, lacunae and sparing punctuation. This is an extraordinary, extraneous life-support machine for one frail idea, the numinous, and Burnside’s trammelled, repetitive technique for ‘capturing’ it . Who is that reader who knows a lot about Lucretius, but who also knows a lot about the notion of ‘home’ in Heidegger, and who reads a lot of Wallace Stevens, and who reads Walter Benjamin and Heraclitus in the original German and Greek respectively, but who also reads Latin passably and is also well-versed in the botany of the British Isles? Burnside’s ideal reader would have to be better read than Coleridge.

And this takes us back to the problem with ‘mystery’ – commended as a good thing by Sean O’Brien. But ‘mystery’ must not go unexamined. If it is linked with Keatsian ‘negative capability’, then we should read Keats again: negative capability is ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ It seems at least arguable that Burnside, with his frequent explicit introduction of philosophy into his poetry, is irritably reaching after fact and reason – even if, for him, fact and reason are within mysteries, doubts and uncertainties. We ought to remember that Coleridge was Keats’s example of a lack of negative capability, a poet ruined by philosophy. Certainly Burnside differs superficially from Keats’s estimation of Coleridge: he seems well capable of ‘remaining content with half knowledge’. But again, what kind of half knowledge is Burnside content with? If half knowledge is real knowledge, then he doesn’t fit Keats’s idea at all.

Just suppose Burnside’s mysteries are mysterious, and they communicate the power of the numinous to us. There still seems to be something lacking.

Throughout The Light Trap, Burnside wishes to communicate to us the serene blissfulness of being alive. When we are invited to explore Burnside’s ‘no man’s land’, there’s no note of regret that ‘no man’s land’ is all the land we have. There is no anxiety in our state of unknowing. Everything is simple and good.

And who would ask for anything but this:
a quiet in the middle of the day,
the bird table scattered with peanuts and scraps of rind,
the hedge-trees white with snow beyond the fence?

(‘Blackbird (metempsychosis)’)

No cats stalk this particular blackbird. In the whole of The Light Trap, the closest Burnside comes to the possibility of bad things happening is a slight bitter-sweetness and acknowledgement of loss. What is lacking in Burnside’s sentimental concept of mystery is what realistically accompanies the indeterminate in life: fear. Mystery is sad, but never frightening. When loss does appear in his work, it’s only as the consequence of sophisticated consciousness. Often, he wishes to do away with the burden of being human and suffering loss, and be an animal. Here, he’s a deer:

…knowing the chasm between
one presence and the next as nothing more
than something learned like memory, or a song.

(‘Deer’ – my bold)

Equally the fish in ‘Koi’ understand nothing of the dark side:

…every time the veil above their heads
shivers into noise

they dart

and scatter

though it seems more ritual now

than lifelike fear

as if they understood

in principle

but couldn’t wholly grasp

the vividness of loss.


Fear is mentioned here, but it is the fear that fish might be supposed to have when they scatter underwater. If they did fully understand ‘the vividness of loss’, then fear would be ‘lifelike’. But in real life, surely fear is ‘lifelike’ for much more simple reasons. Burnside has emphasised the divinity of things so much, and the place of the numinous within life, that nothing really awful could happen. Nothing is material enough to be really distressed by hunger and pain. The worst that can happen is that one can change from one thing to another. Were Burnside a deer, as the poem ‘Deer’ imagines, and a pack of wolves came along and ripped him to shreds, no doubt he would hope some poet was standing by, and able to write:

Though each thing dies
into its own becoming,
the shed skin falling away,
still beautiful…

(‘After Lucretius II’)

The best writing about mystery is able to communicate much more than this sentimentalised unknowing. Kafka, for example, shouldn’t be far from Burnside: ‘The verdict doesn’t come all at once; the proceedings gradually merge into the verdict’ (The Trial). Actually, there is a poem of Burnside’s called ‘Metamorphosis’, but it’s not about waking up as a scarab or dung-beetle. Rather it concerns us being reincarnated as lovely moths, who flit about in a meadow of buttercups, ready and willing to live serenely. In his introduction to J A Underwood’s translations of Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges has discussed the theme of mystery in Kafka’s work. Real mystery comes about for human beings through subordination and infinity, through a knowledge of our limits, and an acknowledgement of the unlimited. Kafka married these two elements with his ‘talent for inventing intolerable situations’. Burnside too is preoccupied with the limits of being. Yet there is nothing of Kafka’s agony or calculated comedy in Burnside’s world.

On Chesterton’s definition, Burnside is quite obviously a mystagogue, the quack who lives by refusing to emerge from mystery. The Light Trap is an ironically apt title. Burnside is trapped in lightness, in his own wilful enchantment. In the picture there are no shadows, but what stands in the light isn’t even in sharp focus. Burnside’s ‘mystery’ is just happiness shot through a Vaselined lens. The Light Trap tries to show us a cloud of unknowing, and all we can see is Scotch Mist.

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