John Burnside wins the David Cohen Prize for Literature 2023

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The John S Cohen Foundation and New Writing North are delighted to announce that the winner of the 2023 David Cohen Prize for Literature is Scottish poet, memoirist and novelist John Burnside. Burnside was announced as the winner, in recognition of his lifetime’s achievement in writing, by chair of judges Hermione Lee at a celebration at the Ham Yard Hotel in London earlier this evening.

The David Cohen Prize, currently in its 30th anniversary year, is awarded biennially to one writer from the UK or Ireland for their complete body of work.

On accepting the David Cohen Prize for Literature, John Burnside said: “I have to say that, considering the list of previous winners, being added to such a company is more than a little daunting. At the same time, it’s a reminder that every writer is gifted with a live tradition and that tradition is rooted, not in mere fashions and fads, but in what Eugenio Montale called, with characteristic succinctness, the ‘long patience, conscience and honesty’ of those who precede us.”

John Burnside has written sixteen books of poetry include Black Cat Bone, which won both the T.S. Eliot and the Forward Prizes in 2011 and, most recently, Ruin, Blossom, which will be published in April 2024. Amongst his prose work are the novels, Glister and A Summer of Drowning, three memoirs, of which the most recent is I Put A Spell On You and The Music of Time, a personal history of twentieth century poetry which was a Financial Times Book of the Year in 2019.

For as long as he has been writing, John’s work has concerned itself with the environment; he has written regularly on nature for the New Statesman and his last prose work was a meditation on extinction and mortality entitled Aurochs and Auks. His radio work has explored Sami music and culture, near-death experiences and the landscape and history of the Orkney islands. He now teaches creative writing and ecocriticism at the University of St Andrews.

Hermione Lee, Chair of judges said: “The David Cohen Prize is a literary prize for writers in the UK and Ireland which is like no other in this country and which I am very proud to chair. This prize is special. It looks at a writer’s whole writing life. The great names of the David Cohen Prize writers are wonderful models of lasting, unswerving, passionate dedication to a writer’s life. They have all been thrillingly adventurous, imaginative and daring in their work – and this year’s winner is no exception.

‘John Burnside, the winner of the 2023 David Cohen Prize for a life-time’s literary achievement, is a poet, novelist, story-writer, memoirist, and essayist. He has been writing every imaginable kind of book – and some unimaginable kinds – for at least 35 years. He has an amazing literary range, he pours out a cornucopia of beautiful words, and he has won an array of distinguished prizes before this one. He casts a spell with language of great beauty, power, lyricism and truthfulness. There is much sorrow, pain, terror and violence lurking in his work: he is a strong and powerful writer about the dark places of the human mind – but he’s also funny and deeply humane. He has a resonant Northern quality, with his Scottish language and landscapes and people and ghosts, his strange, wild, dreamlike story-telling and his mysterious adventures in the far North. There’s a deeply spiritual side to his work, but he’s also in love with ordinary, the everyday, the earthbound. He’s a writer who pays attention to the natural world with tenderness and care, even a kind of pagan religious intensity, and who makes us care about the things that matter to him.”

Sitting alongside Hermione Lee on the judging panel were: Aida Edemariam, Helen Mort, Malachy Tallack and Boyd Tonkin, who have all commented on different aspects of Burnside’s work.

Aida Edemariam said: “It was a privilege to spend over a year with the work of our greatest writers, and to see how they developed over long and stellar careers. Choosing one was extremely difficult.  John Burnside’s work has great formal range — poetry, non-fiction, fiction — and is outstanding in all these categories. He is a master of a kind of beautiful unease, a chronicler and celebrant of the borderlines between humans and the rest of the natural world, between knowing and not knowing, between darkness and light.”

Helen Mort said: “John Burnside’s poetry is restless and haunting, populated by ghosts. His use of stepped-verse forms is distinctively his and gives the writing an unsettling energy. Nobody writes the liminal better. He’s the master of the evocative image, creating worlds we think we almost know but can’t quite reach. He often gives the reader an uncanny, intoxicating, unshakable feeling of déjà vu. Reading his poems is an exhilarating experience.”

Malachy Tallack said: “To choose a winner  for this year’s prize was both an enormous challenge and, at once, a privilege. John Burnside stood out in our discussions as judges, right from the start, for his insight and precision, and for his virtuosity across forms and genres. In his remarkable series of memoirs, John Burnside confronts trauma with curiosity, exposing its sources and its legacies. He is generous, always, and preternaturally perceptive. Whether writing about love, about music, about cruelty or about mental illness, his words illuminate.”

Boyd Tonkin said: “John Burnside shines in many forms of literature. His fiction, however, has an utterly distinctive flavour, timbre and voice that makes it quite unforgettable. In his novels, readers will encounter Burnside in his darkest, and most daring, moods. These stories take us deep into unsettling landscapes, and disturbed mindscapes, rendered with a dreamlike clarity and intensity. We enter places on the earth, and places in the soul, full of menace, dread and wonder. Burnside’s fiction often enlists the style, and decor, of Gothic tales, with their uncanny events, ominous scenery and skin-prickling shocks, along with the looming presence of fear, threat, even horror. A child’s capacity for both terror and awe frequently underlies these journeys into mystery and danger. These works are no cold exercises in genre mimicry: achingly real currents of solitude, loss and mourning flow through novels in which everyday family tragedy shades into archetypal and supernatural drama. A consistently spellbinding narrator, Burnside unites a piercing sense of our modern malaise with a gift for channelling the timeless powers of nature and of myth.”

The David Cohen Prize was founded in 1993 and for three decades has been one of literature’s most prestigious prizes, recognising the UK and Ireland’s greatest living writers. Uniquely amongst these countries’ prizes, the David Cohen Prize for Literature recognises a lifetime’s achievement and is awarded based on a writer’s whole career. The biennial prize, of £40,000, is donated by the John S Cohen Foundation. Established in 1965 by the late philanthropists Dr David Cohen and Veronica Cohen, the John S Cohen Foundation is now chaired by their daughter, Dr Imogen Cohen.

Dr Imogen Cohen said; “It was my great privilege to observe Hermione Lee at work with her selected panel of  judges as they debated who should be this year’s recipient. As the chair of the John S. Cohen Foundation I am delighted that we are honoring this magnificent writer.”

In its 30 year history the prize has earned its position as one of the country’s most distinguished literary prizes, known as the “UK and Ireland Nobel in literature”. Past winners include dramatists, novelists, poets and essayists including VS Naipaul, Harold Pinter, William Trevor, Doris Lessing, Seamus Heaney, Hilary Mantel, Tony Harrison, Julian Barnes, Tom Stoppard, Edna O’Brien and Colm Tóibín.

Having received the David Cohen Prize, John Burnside gave the Clarissa Luard Award to Abigail Peters. The Clarissa Luard Award was founded in 2005 by Arts Council England, in memory of Clarissa Luard, a much-loved literature officer. The award is worth £10,000 and the winner of the David Cohen Prize for Literature nominates an emerging writer whose work they wish to support. On announcing Abigail Peters as the winner, John Burnside commented:

“Having worked for two decades with postgraduate writers, I have had occasion to meet students who show real potential in their craft for some way down the line – a year hence, say, or a decade (patience being the chief virtue of any writer). It is a rare pleasure, however, to encounter someone who is already there, fully defined and confident in their gifts and, at the same time, aware that writing is a lifelong and demanding discipline. In exceptional cases, I am struck with the immediate sense of a writer who is not only alert to the possibilities of narrative and the subtle pitfalls of memory, but is also attentive to the nuances of place and character and speech. Abigail Peters possesses all these gifts and more – and I am fully confident that we will all be reading her work for decades to come.”

Abigail Peters commented: “As a young writer there is no greater joy than having your work recognized by an established writer. John Burnside is not only that but also a wonderful professor and trusted mentor, and I am so honoured that he has chosen me for the Clarissa Luard Award. When I felt at sea in the foreign and exciting world of writing, John showed me the way forward and I am overjoyed that he sees potential in me. I have always been deeply passionate for a future as a writer, but winning this award has made that dream come into focus.”

Abigail Peters grew up in rural Norfolk, England and moved to New York for her undergraduate degree in creative writing at Columbia University. She then received her MA in writing from the University of St Andrews. Abigail writes about motherhood, nature, class, and grief. She is currently working on her first book, a coming-of-age memoir set against the backdrop of the fens.