Defending Poetry: John Burnside’s ‘The Music of Time’

Oliver Dixon on John Burnside’s The Music of Time,
Poetry in the Twentieth Century


John Burnside


The Music of Time, Poetry in the Twentieth Century. £17.99. Profile Books. ISBN: 978-1781255612

In these strange, untethered days of lockdown, caught between the pleasure of having more time for reading and reflection and the anxiety of wondering what’s coming next and what state the world will be in when we finally emerge from this crisis, many of us have sought out big, important books on weighty themes, often looking either to challenge deep-seated assumptions or to reaffirm beliefs that have come to seem precarious. Literature – and poetry in particular – have felt like a vital consolation and support-mechanism during these times, because they reassert the individual human spirit and celebrate its struggles and complexities in ways which transcend intellectual argument and political rhetoric. Expository books which remind us how poetry, novels and stories continue to communicate a message of hope and endurance during adversity have also in turn become all the more treasurable.

John Burnside’s The Music of Time was actually published at the end of 2019 but seems especially relevant to the current mood. My initial assumption, based on its subtitle ‘Poetry in the Twentieth Century’, that this was a kind of ambitious historical overview of 20th century poetry, soon proved unfounded. In fact, this curious medley of approaches and angles on a broad array of 20th century poets, linked thematically and sometimes contextualised by passages concerning Burnside’s own experiences, is nearer to a collection of poetry essays, albeit a rather more coherent and composed project than the loose gatherings of disparate prose-pieces (of the ‘Selected Essays and Reviews’ variety) often brought out by established poets. Burnside does have a thesis, a kind of heartfelt Shelleyan Defence of Poetry as a positive social force, which he sets out at the beginning and returns to in the last chapter. Whether this amounts to an over-arching narrative interlinking these “vagabond and digressive chapters” (as Burnside calls them himself) is perhaps another question and one which the author seems aware of himself in the rather apologetic ‘Note to the Reader’.

The title The Music of Time seems to speak of a similar unease. The possible literary reference to Anthony Powell’s novel-sequence A Dance to the Music of Time is never acknowledged and is probably unintended, although one of the recurrent themes throughout the book is the concept of “the noise of time”. This is flagged up in the Introduction as a quote from Osip Mandelstam, meaning the intrusive dissonance of ongoing social reality. Burnside may perhaps have wanted to use this as his main title, but Julian Barnes’ 2017 novel about Shostakovich is also called The Noise of Time (there is an earlier ‘Selected Prose of Mandelstam’ edited by Clarence Brown with the same title too.)

Burnside suggests that Mandelstam’s enduring poetry still allows us to “transform the noise of time into a kind of music”, which in turn links with the other main motif of the book, “the music of what happens”. This phrase – originally attributed to the mythical Irish warrior Finn MacCool and later used on numerous occasions by Seamus Heaney and adopted as the title of a collection of poetry essays by the eminent American critic Helen Vendler – is so familiar that it must surely border on cliché for many readers. If this, then, is Burnside’s major theme – how 20th century poetry has been able to transmute the noisy flux of everyday reality into the lasting, melodious patterns of “the music of time” – we may admire his drift but wonder about the originality of his starting-points and where in the chapters to come he is going to take them in order to discover some kind of fresher perspective on his material.

Chapter One begins with one of the personal anecdotes Burnside effectively employs as doorways into the particular themes he’s exploring. In fact, some of the most engaging sections of the book occur when memories of experiences at different stages of his life lead into rich encounters with poems and individuals, often where location and poem-locale overlap and motivate him to an intriguing trail of reflections, as for example when he visits Moabit Prison in Berlin and ponders the fate of Karl Haushorfer, an intellectual who had been active in the plot against Hitler and written poems while in prison awaiting execution. There is also a marvellous story about Burnside going for a haircut in Cambridge as a student and finding out, after seeing a photograph, that his Spanish barber was formerly a poet at the time of the Spanish Civil War.

At other times, however, the connection between anecdote and theme seems more tangential. In Chapter One, Burnside is also in Berlin, where he meets an old man who claims to have been present when John F. Fitzgerald delivered his famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech in 1963, shortly before his assassination. This leads to considerations of American history and Fitzgerald’s advocacy of poets like Robert Frost (which he devotes a whole chapter to later on) and then an examination of Auden’s ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’. Burnside’s focus on the line that has become perhaps the most commonly rattled-out poetry-cliché of them all – “Poetry makes nothing happen” – is only partly rescued by an attempt to revaluate it and show that from its multi-layered context Auden was almost inferring the opposite and that poetry can in fact be “a way of happening, a mouth”.

Burnside’s point, set out here and reiterated throughout the book, is that all poetry has a political and social aspect which gives it a meaningful impact not only on its readers but indirectly on the society it is part of, as with Yeats’s poems about the Easter Rising (in contemporary terms, one could also mention many readers’ current reinterpretation of Yeats’s apocalyptic ‘The Second Coming’ as a vatic prediction of the coronavirus pandemic.) This is a refreshing stance at a time when, despite a surge in popularity, poetry is often treated either as “a branch of the entertainment industry”(as suggested approvingly by Hugo Williams) or trivialised as a listicle of memes and sayings which give Instagram-users an “emotional/spiritual outlet”.

Emphasising his working-class origins on several occasions, Burnside’s political stance is enliveningly left-of-centre, culturally inclusive and environmentally engaged, in a way which is reflective of a further theme he takes from Mandelstam: the “longing for world-culture” the Russian poet wrote of. Burnside’s outlook in these essays is certainly internationalist and multi-cultural, with poets in numerous different languages invariably read within their specific contexts, as when he relates how, on a trip to Argentina, he discovers the work of Argentinian modernist poet Olga Orozco and demonstrates how her poems respond both to South American politics and wider philosophical concerns. He also shows bravery in exploring areas we wouldn’t necessarily expect of a middle-aged white poet, like his examination of racist attacks and the word ‘cool’ in the context of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Again, in the light of seismic current events, these issues clearly remain as relevant as ever and Burnside is right to address them so trenchantly.

But if Burnside’s stance is bracingly multi-cultural, one odd omission is any exploration of Scottish national identity in the context of Brexit, which (if it hasn’t been overtaken by the ongoing narratives around coronavirus and lockdown) is surely a key issue for any British poet writing in the past several years. It might have been interesting to see where Burnside locates his own work within the historically interwoven traditions of Scottish and English poetry. There is only one intriguing reference to this in the final chapter, never followed through: “ I left Scotland, a geographical entity that…remains my birth-place,…still discernibly alive with the energy of the old gods for those of us who persist in the sentiment that, in spite of everything, we are more Pict or Celt than Christian or Brexiteer”.

It’s also curious that for a book written by a university Professor of Poetry it seems largely innocent of the history of poetry criticism and literary theory – the ‘Note to the Reader’ implies this is a deliberate eschewal of academic discourse but it sometimes leaves us with the flavour of a slightly old-fashioned set of essays relying on Burnsides’ personal responses to the texts but rarely digging much deeper into the linguistic and technical complexities of the poems under discussion. It begs the question who the target audience is here: is it that chimerical beast, the general reader, for whom the extensive range of reference and large tracts of untranslated poetry in five or six languages are probably going to be tough going; or is it poetry specialists and other poets, who will probably want to have more to go on in terms of actual detailed critiques of at least some of the poems discussed? A broadly similar book, Ruth Padel’s The Poem and the Journey (2006), also ranged over a huge number of disparate poems according to different themes, but she  took a single key-poem to illustrate each theme and showed us how and why they work as effective individual works of poetry by analysing their forms, rhythms and sound-patterns, without ever lapsing into academic or lit-crit verbiage.

On the whole, though, most readers will find a plethora of new and illuminating insights in The Music of Time. Its purview is remarkable and I was pleased to discover several poets I’d never heard of before (not least Haushorfer and Orazco) while also reminding me of several others whose work I knew only partially (Joy Harlo, Lucy Brock-Broido, William Matthews). Female poets are embraced as much as male and the perspective is truly inclusive and eco-friendly, holding no truck with the hierarchies of white middle-class literary tradition. It made me want to return to Burnside’s poems to see how these various cross-currents and poetries in other languages have fed and nurtured his own. Furthermore, the book’s spirited Defense of Poetry feels immensely important, a timely and resonant affirmation in these uncertain, inward-looking times.

Oliver Dixon is a freelance writer based in Hertfordshire. His first book of poems, Human Form, was published by Penned in the Margins in 2013, a poem from which was Highly Commended in the Forward Prize 2014. His philosophy guide Who the Hell is Friedrich Nietzsche?(Bowden & Brazil) appeared in 2019. His poems and reviews have appeared in places such as PN Review, Poetry London, New Welsh Review and The Sunday Times. He also works as a college lecturer, working with students with learning disabilities.


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