Book review: The Music of Time, by John Burnside

The subtitle “Poetry In The Twentieth Century” might lead you to expect a historical survey, something that would have been an extraordinary undertaking, even if restricted to work first written in the English language. Inasmuch as this, or something like it, would seem to have been Burnside’s original intention, he sensibly changed tack and instead chose “to discuss poems and ideas of poetry as they inform not just ‘the life of the mind’ but also my day-to-day existence.” So we have a personal, rather than academic book, a poet’s record, examination and celebration of poems and poets who matter to him. The result is a book which is the product of remarkably wide reading and his response to this. It is perhaps a book that few will read cover to cover, but it is one which invites and deserves close reading, one also with many chapters that I would think  readers will return to again and again.

John Burnside PIC: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images
John Burnside PIC: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Not surprisingly Burnside soon recalls Shelley’s mighty claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” A cynic might respond that nobody but a poet has ever thought so, and that, far from being legislators, poets have more often been ignored or persecuted. Several of those Burnside admires and discusses were murdered (Lorca), killed in a Nazi prison (Haushofer) or disappeared in the Soviet Gulag (Mandelstam). Yet their words long outlive their murderers. It is not true that, as Auden wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen” and Auden knew it wasn’t. Poetry appealing to both the senses and the mind effects changes; it helps you see the world in a different light.

Poetry, by its insistence on the importance of the right words, gives the lie to the rhetoric of power. Even poets who seem to yield to power-worship and disgrace themselves by adopting virulent politics may be  redeemed when they find the right words. One of Burnside’s best and most sympathetic chapters, “A Stony Invitation To Reflect,” addresses the difficult question of Ezra Pound. “Given that he continued to speak and write racist nonsense for the rest of his life, is it possible to rescue anything from his work?” Well, yes, there are two things. In the Pisan Cantos [written in 1945 when Pound was being held in an American military detention centre as a result of the pro-Fascist wartime broadcasts] “all pride and arrogance spent, he testifies to the purpose of the poet”; “but to have done instead of not doing, / this is not vanity.” Second, considering Pound’s denunciation of usury, Burnside writes that “he saw the dangers of runaway capitalism, and in Canto 45 he offered a clear diagnosis of the damage done by usury to the human spirit, to the land and to communities everywhere.” He remarks also on the oddity that Pound who told others to “make it new” should have turned to the Middle Ages for inspiration and example, and was perhaps the last major poet in English to use the second person singular. As a legislator he was – happily – unacknowledged, nevertheless at times anyway a great poet.

Burnside’s own spirit is always generous and sympathetic, though he responds also to righteous anger, one reason why he rates Siegfried Sassoon so high among First World War poets, unconventionally above Wilfred Owen.

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He has a reverence for the Spanish Republic before it was destroyed by Fascism in the civil war – a reverence initially inspired by an elderly refugee barber in Cambridge – and for Haushofer’s Moabite Sonnets with their evocation of “Heimat,” poems written in a Nazi prison in the weeks before his murder. This chapter begins with a charming evocation of an imaginary film in which Haushofer is played by Leslie Howard, himself killed in an air-crash two years before Haushofer’s death.

The book is full of reflection on the conditions of modern life, the state and doubtful future of the Earth, on marriage, on success and failure, on animals and birds, what they means to us and what we owe them. He is, predictably perhaps, very good on Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney, and it will be an extremely well-read reader who isn’t introduced to poets he or she has never read, or perhaps not even heard of. It’s a rich, generous and often surprising book. Allan Massie

    The Music of Time, by John Burnside, Profile Books, 508pp, £25