John Burnside, Scottish poet and novelist, dies aged 69

Poet was the winner of several awards, including the TS Eliot Prize, the Forward Poetry Prize and the Whitbread Poetry Award

Nicole Vassell
Friday 31 May 2024 16:13 BST
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John Burnside
John Burnside (Getty Images)

John Burnside, the multi-award-winning Scottish poet and novelist, has died aged 69.

The news was announced by his publisher Jonathan Cape on Friday (31 May).

In a statement, the publisher confirmed that Burnside died on Wednesday (29 May) following a short illness.

“John was amongst the most acclaimed writers of his generation, and published prolifically across many forms – chiefly as a poet, but also as a novelist, memoirist, writer of short stories and academic works – over a career spanning nearly forty years,” the message reads.

Among his achievements, Burnside won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for Feast Days (1992), the Whitbread Poetry Award for The Asylum Dance (2000), the Saltire Book of the Year for A Lie About My Father (2006).

In 2011, he won both the T S Eliot Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize for Black Cat Bone.

Anna Webber, John’s literary agent, said in a statement: “This is an immense loss. John Burnside had a unique voice that brought pleasure and solace to many readers across the globe.

“His work was characterised by deep empathy and understanding. He was finely attuned to the natural world, but also to people. These traits, so clearly visible in his writing, also marked out the man himself. John was kind and gentle and generous, and I will miss him terribly.”

John Burnside in 2019
John Burnside in 2019 (AFP via Getty Images)

Burnside was born in 1955 in Dunfermline and spent his early years in Cowdenbeath, Corby and Northamptonshire.

He studied English and European Literature at the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology, before working in IT as an analyst and software engineer.

Burnside’s first collection of poetry, The Hoop, was published in 1988 and won him a Scottish Arts Council book award.

As well as being inspired by the environment and ecology, Burnside’s work also dealt with personal matters. In the haunting memoirs A Lie About My Father (2006) and Waking Up in Toytown (2010), he detailed his experience with being the son of an abusive, alcoholic father.

Burnside’s most notable work is perhaps his 2011 poetry collection, Black Cat Bone, for which he won the T S Eliot Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize for the same book. Burnside, Ted Hughes and Sean O’Brien are the only people to have won both prizes for one book.

In 2011, Burnside spoke about his work being focused on the irrational, rather than the rational.

“Having been, as it were, mad, and lived with horror which at that moment I completely believed in, I know that rationality doesn’t carry you all the way. Irrationality interests me more than anything: sometimes it’s very dangerous, but it can be incredibly beautiful,” he explained.

In more recent years, Burnside was a writer-in-residence at the University of Dundee, before becoming a professor in the School of English at the University of St Andrews, with a special focus on creative writing, ecology and American poetry.

John Burnside is survived by his wife Sarah, sons Lucas and Gil, and grandson Apollo.

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