Animism in the Poetry of John Burnside.

Stag Beetle, by Albrecht Durer, on the cover of John Burnside's 'All One Breath'.

Stag Beetle, by Albrecht Durer, on the cover of  ‘All One Breath’.

An entry in the Scottish Poetry Society website introduces John Burnside as ‘a poet and novelist whose work explores fundamental spiritual and ecological issues about the nature of our dwelling on earth’.  In 2003, he and Maurice Riordan edited an anthology celebrating ‘that most lyrical, and […] persuasively magical of science writers’, Rachel Carson.(1)  Sensing an increasing willingness to speak across the divide between scientific rationality and poetry or magic, they invited poets to work with scientists.

Burnside, who has worked in information systems (and according to one source, botany) calls for ‘a science of belonging’.  ‘Imagine the science (and the poetry) that might have grown up in a society that was not rooted in hostility to, or romanticisation of, the natural world.  A science that had no preconceived ideas about ‘objectivity’, a pagan science in which no crude ‘order’ was projected upon the world’.  A science grounded in reverence for life.  Although (as Wittgenstein asserted) scientific knowledge can have great practical value, it ‘cannot and should not seek to eliminate mystery.  The more we know, the more mystery deepens’.

For Burnside, poetry is a form of ‘scientia’ – ‘a technique for reclaiming the authentic, for reinstating the real’.  Although he rarely uses the term, as far as I’m concerned anyone who writes that ‘a poem (or drawing, or song, or dance movement) that reclaims membership of a wider, more-than-human world is as necessary an enterprise as any I can think of’, is an animist.  In poems such as By Kautokeino, written in Finnmark, Northern Norway, he makes a conscious effort to attune his art ‘to the song of the earth’, which, he tells us, is not a metaphor but an actual sound that can be heard -though it may be necessary to step outside of one’s own culture, and the narrowly human realm to hear …

‘the subtler frequencies of earth and sky, / dead generations buried in the sand, / feeding the ling, feeding the birch trees and willows, / reindeer and Arctic fox and unnumbered men / who made a living here with skill and patience, / their works provisional, / their dreams immense, / their children raised in memory and song …’

He reccomends walking as a political act, because it ‘takes us away from the machine and back into the world …(connecting us)… with the rythm of the earth, the feel of a place, the presence of other animals, the elements, sidereal time, the divine’. (2)

One of the things I most appreciate about John Burnside’s perspective, though, is that as well as engaging with the otherness of what we contemporary animists may sometimes too comfortably call other-than-human worlds, he’s deeply concerned with questions of human identity, community, place and politics.  In a moving autobiographical memoir A Lie About My Father, he describes growing up in a family overshadowed by a violent alcoholic father, and paints a vivid picture of Scottish working class masculinity.  As a teenager he sought refuge in drunken absences, and the ‘sacrament’ of LSD, eventually succumbing to ‘a usually high-functioning, though sometimes catastrophic form of madness’. and admissions to psychiatric hospital.(4)

David Borthwick has written that a process of ‘anamnesis’ (unforgetting?), informs John Burnside’s eco-poetry.  His male speakers can’t cope with difference or accept the notion of interdependence, and are, therefore, distanced from social relations and alienated from their natural environment.  This is an argument that many Eco-feminists have made, of course, but it needs restating, not least in the context of the broad concensus that animism is all about relationship.  Burnside interrogates habits of domination, and feels that ‘every man in the world, down to the poorest man, has the possibility for excercising power, if only over his even poorer wife and children’.  We (men) need to learn to ‘transform ourselves, so that living is an act of grace, a transcendence of any need for power or control.’  His vision of a reconstructed masculinity involves ‘an inward process’ of transformation, rather than ‘visible achievements, or titles bestowed upon the successful’.  Hearteningly he now advocates the prinicple of ahisma – of doing, if not no harm, then the absolute minimum of harm’, and closes A Lie About My Father in the company of his own young son who, he hopes, will read it.(5)

The terms in which Burnside talks about violence will be very familiar to animists.  ‘Violence arises from the tendency to objectify others -humans, animals, terrain and so on […] – and spiritual enlightenment begins, I feel, in a first recognition that there are no objects in the world, that there is no possibility of being meaningfully ‘objective’.  Thus violence is the symptom of a spiritual failure, a failure to recognise the fundamental imperative to respect and honour ‘the other’. (‘Burning a Woman’. Swimming in the Flood, 36–41).

Much of John Burnside’s poetry has been concerned with exploring the liminal and numinous (though he says that in Black Cat Bone, he wanted to deal more directly with solid real-life things).  This preoccupation emerges in recurrent references to Halloween, reflections of the nature of souls, and references to ephemeral phenomena that appear in twilight or mist.  The Light Trap begins: ‘Homesick for the other animals, / at midnight, in the soft midsummer dark, / we rigged a sail of light amidst / the apple trees beyond your mother’s lawn / and counted moths.’  The poet expresses an animist’s concern that in the process of naming other animals ‘we cannot help but treat them as our own /[…] though they are far from us, and rapt / in other frequencies, / like waves or stars …‘.  In Of Gravity and Light, seagulls drifting in mist are slowed ‘to something like a standstill / – only the barest / wingbeat troubles the air, the pearl and the grey /of light becoming flesh, then vanishing.’

At liminal moments we’re susceptible to change.  Identitybecomes less fixed, more open to possibility.  At the beginning of A Lie About My Father Burnside writes: ‘I have celebrated Halloween all my life.  Most years, if I can, I stay at home.  I make an occasion of the day, a prviate, local festival of pennance and celebration in more or less equal measure.  I think of my own dead, out there among the millions of returning souls …’.  Some of his most moving poems are personal.  In All One Breath there’s a poem about his father’s Funeral that opens with an epigraph describing ancient funerary practices, and the lines ‘We wanted to seal his mouth/with a handful of clay…’.  Another poem entitled Instructions for a Sky Burial includes a request to ‘carry me out of the house, unwashed and naked, /and leave me in the open, where the crows /can find me.’  After the dogs, rats, flowers, larvae, crows, and ants have taken what they need, ‘.. something / inexact and perfect forms itself / around the last feint wisp /of vein, or tendon, something like a song, / but taking shape, implacably itself / new breath and vision, gathered from the quiet.’

Burnside’s responses to the enigmatic notion of ‘soul’ are characteristically careful, tentative, and often elusive, but in An Essay Concerning Light he rejects the injunction in the Bardo Thodol (and implicitly in other transcendent religious traditions) that the departed soul should try to avoid returning to earthly form.  Having included other-than-human beings in his deliberations, he says: ‘Me, I would take the back road, out by the loch: / a moorhen in the reeds, the flush of dawn, / and no-one behind me, calling, again and again, / go into the light /nobly born / go into the light’.

Readers familiar with the work of Ted Hughes, another eco-poet with a strong interest in this metaphysical terrain, will find some curious paralells between their lives.  As a boy Hughes escaped into the countryside surrounding a small working class town under the mentorship of a much older brother with a fondness for shooting the wildlife.  Burnside escaped into the woods and fields around the small mining town of Cowdenbeath in the company of his ‘bright, funny, and utterly merciless’ cousin Kenneth, who ‘knew every bird in the woods, every fish in the loch’.  Both boys fished and trapped wild creatures (see John Burnside’s poem ‘Stickleback‘), and witnessed horrible cruelty to animals.  At the age of seven Hughes’s family moved to a mining village in South Yorkshire.  At the age of ten Burnside’s family moved to the steel town of Corby in Northamptonshire.  There are significant differences too, of course, but the convergences are fascinating.

Burnisde’s eco-poetry rarely becomes overtly political, though he does express his concerns fairly directly from time to time.  In Travelling South, Scotland August 2012, he passes through ‘miles of tract and lay-by on the way / to junkyards and dead allotments, / guard dogs on tether’, and regrets the loss of wolves, bear, and other wild creatures.  ‘We’ve been going at this for years: / a steady delete / of anything that tells us what we are…’.  The old gods are ‘buried undead beneath the rural sprawl / that bears their names, or wandering the hills / of Lammermuir and Whitelee, waiting out / the rule of Mammon, till the land returns / -with or without us – ‘.  Another of the All One Breath poems, Earth, is dedicated to David ‘Gypsy’ Chain, who was killed while protesting the clear cutting of Californian Redwoods in September 1998.  Don’t expect the poems to contain a point by point manifesto though.  Like Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney, he has engaged more directly with the issues in prose, but feels that poetry must ‘stand of fall by its music’.

My feeling is that, given the insistence of traditional/hegemonic masculinities on simple, and ultimately brutal, certainties, and on being rational, and in control, and given the pressing need to find ways of practicing respectful relationship, the alert tentativeness of John Burnisde’s evocations of other-than-human animals, and of the strange beauty of ‘the real’, this ‘actual’ flesh and blood (and liminal and numinous) world, may, in itself constitute a significant political contribution.  When I first encountered his poems -they often have untranslated epigraphs in other languages- I thought they might be the work of another establishment voice.  I’m really glad that I read A Lie About My Father.  Contemporary animism needs to attend to the voices of ‘survivors’, especially those as attuned as John Burnside is to the perils of alienation from the living world.

Brian Taylor, 13/5/14.


1) John Burnside and Maurice Riordon, eds. Wild Reckoning; an anthology provoked by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Central Books, 2004.

2)  John Burnside“A Science of Belonging: Poetry as Ecology,” Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science, ed. Robert Crawford (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 91–106

3) Poetry and a Sense of Place an informal essay, with the hauntingly beautiful sequence ‘ Epithalamium’ appended.  Proceedings of the Writing and a Sense of Place Symposium, Tromso, August 1996.

4) What Makes You Write Poetry?  Interview in The Economist, 5/3/12.

John Burnside, A Life in Writing  Sarah Crown, The Guardian 26/8/2011.

A Lie About My Father, Jonathan Cape, 2006.

5) Borthwick. D The Sustainable Male:  masculinity, ecology, in the poetry of John Burnside, pp63-85, in Masculinity and the Other, Historical Perspectives, Cambridge Scholars Publications.

John Burnside Masculinity; the Problems of Power and the Possibility of Grace, Edinburgh Review, 100 (1999).

John Burnside’s nature writing column in the New Statesman.

Swimming in the Flood, Jonathan Cape, 1995,

The Light Trap, Jonathan Cape, 2002.

All One Breath, Jonathan Cape, 2014.

Poetry as Ecology

Travelling South Scotland, August 2012


3 thoughts on “Animism in the Poetry of John Burnside.

  1. Many thanks Brian. I’ve been enjoying going back through your work here very much, initially on Ted Hughes, lately on divination.

    Very glad to learn here (for the first time) about John Burnside, who I will follow up for sure. I love the moorhen passage.

    This left me wondering what an animist practice of ahimsa might look like? One that honours and affirms the sacredness of non-human living communities – including that of the predator-prey bond.

    I imagine that an animist view of the traditional precept to ‘refrain from doing harm’ might approach this practice rather differently to the classical Buddhist aspiration to reject all killing. Certainly not a new question, but a live one, for me.

    All best,

  2. Much appreciated Mat. Yes, I worry that some animist humans might be identifying rather casually with predation in the ‘natural world’, and overlooking the huge, gendered, and species-specific issue of human violence. It seems to me that the principle of ‘doing the absolute minimum of harm’, as John Burnside puts it, is a useful test for human carnivors, for instance.

  3. Many thanks for sharing this, the only book of John Burnside’s poetry I have read is ‘The Hunt in the Forest’ and I really liked the way he depicts experiences of the numinous in nature.

    At a recent Preston Poets Society meeting somebody read ‘Penitents’ and I was blown away by it. This and your article have inspired me to read more.

    I particular like the ideas you have mentioned of walking as a political act, and the way inner transformation contrasts with objective achievements.This strikes a chord with me, as when I meet up with people they always want to know what I’ve been doing- what I’ve achieved, in terms of publications, competitions, performances etc. Am I working? Am I busily fulfilling a role? Always, those quiet inner processes which constitute the journey of the soul are ignored. Lots to think about.

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