Poetry News

Interview with John Burnside

By Harriet Staff

John Burnside, who won the controversial T.S. Eliot Prize this year, took part in this interview at The Economist.

Here he talks about why he writes:

What makes you write poetry, and when did you start?

I started quite late in writing poetry as a serious pursuit, as opposed to playing a mildly diverting game. It seems a long time though. What makes me write is the rhythm of the world around me—the rhythms of the language, of course, but also of the land, the wind, the sky, other lives. Before the words comes the rhythm—that seems to me to be of the essence.

Do you often revise your own work—and is there a move from handwritten to type?

My method is rather singular, in this poetic culture, at least. I write—or maybe I should say "compose"—in my head, or as Mandelstam said, "on the lips". The poem builds in my mind and sits there, as if in a register, until the poem, or a piece of a longer poem, is finished enough to write down. I can hold several lines in my head for quite some time, but as soon as they are written down, the register clears, as it were, and I have to work with what is on the paper. I think of it as being similar to working with metal: as long as the lines are in my head, they are warm and malleable; when they are written down, they are less workable, a little like when worked metal is plunged into a cooling tank. Not much happens on paper, and though I type the poems up later, I would very rarely make changes at that stage.

And a bit on the prize controversy:

The T.S. Eliot Prize came under criticism from two of its shortlisted poets for accepting private sponsorship from an investment firm. How do you feel poetry, or institutions that foster poetry, can justify themselves publicly?

Actually, the prize money was given, as it always has been, by the Eliot estate. I think the way that story was put out there did a huge disservice to Valerie Eliot’s generosity and long-standing support for poetry. As to poets justifying themselves publicly, I really don’t see the need. Poetry stands or falls by its music. It may have a part to play in the social sphere, but it isn’t the part that politicians and administrators—and Auden’s ‘executives’ perhaps—would like it to play.

Read the rest after the jump.

Originally Published: March 6th, 2012