Remembering John Burnside, 1955-2024

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John Burnside was extraordinary. As a writer, he had a tremendous talent, which he displayed so fluently across genres. Poetry. Novels. Memoir and more. He held, in perfect balance, the abilities to both think deeply and to write clearly.

He was an exceptional writer. But he was also a wonderful human being. His graciousness, humility, and kindness glowed warmly, as did his literary gifts. He was generous with his time and advice, and he remained, right up until his death, hugely invested in the paths and potential of younger writers. He was, in general, lovely to be around.

John wrote about the dead leaving in our lives spaces that become sacred. For a great many, the space that he has left will be exactly that.

“It might sound sentimental to say it, but we are blessed by the dead, and we know that we are, in spite of our protestations to the contrary. They leave spaces in our lives that, for some of us, are the closest thing to sacred we ever know. They are there and then they are gone and, after a time, we come to see a certain elegance in that – the elegance of a magic trick, say, where the conjuror rehearses the vanishing act that we must all accomplish sooner or later.” – John Burnside, I put a spell on you.

In 2023, John Burnside was awarded the David Cohen Prize for literature. The David Cohen Prize is awarded biennially to one writer from the UK or Ireland for their complete body of work. Burnside was announced as the winner, in recognition of his lifetime’s achievement in writing, by chair of judges Hermione Lee. She said:

“As chair of the judges of the David Cohen Prize, I am desolated to hear of John Burnside’s death. It was a great privilege and delight for me and my fellow judges to award the David Cohen prize to him in 2023. These were my words about him at the prize-giving ceremony:

‘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.’”