Shelley famously and optimistically proclaimed that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Adorno famously and pessimistically declared that poetry was impossible after Auschwitz. In The Music of Time, his new study of poetry in the 20th century, John Burnside makes a rather more modest claim: that to write a poem at all is an act of hope.
By any standards, Burnside’s own career seems cause for hope in poetry’s capacity to transform at least one individual life. Born in 1955, into a working-class family in Dunfermline, he did not start publishing until he was in his thirties, following an addiction-fuelled breakdown and a subsequent attempt at a commuter-belt career in computing. The 14 books of poetry he has since published have impressed critics with their haunting eloquence and won him a clutch of major awards, including the Forward and T.S. Eliot prizes. Then there are his eight novels, plus his three volumes of memoir, in which, inter alia, he revisits his childhood, where books and culture were dismissed as ‘soft’ by his father, an emotionally damaged, hard-drinking builder’s mate, given to acts of gratuitous cruelty.
As a work of historical criticism this new book is therefore a fresh departure for the indefatigable Burnside, currently Professor of English at St Andrew’s University. In order to appreciate it, you’ve got to choose not to be intimidated by its great length —or indeed by its references to Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard or Spinoza. Each chapter can in fact be read independently. The general tone — robustly intelligent, often emotionally astute and sometimes funny — makes the Spinoza references seem not just accessible but necessary.
Together these chapters form an implicit defence of old-fashioned liberal humanism as a philosophy, urging that we value individual human creativity as a potential bulwark against brutalism.