John Burnside

The Soul Ajar

If the most exhilarating moment in the making of a book comes at the start, when capricious fate allows us to believe that anything can happen, then the most daunting comes right at the end, when the final proof, checked and returned, goes into production and no further changes are permissible. That moment is now for my latest book, The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century, a labour of five years that seemed promising for just as long as it remained fluid and alterable. Now, like a school metalwork project finally plunged into the quench tank, it is finished. My brain, on the other hand, hasn’t quite cooled yet. Ideas that I’d thought were set down in full continue to smoulder, which suggests that, at the very least, this book is only a snapshot of some larger process that I may never be done with. Which is fine, I tell myself; no writing project is ever wholly accomplished and this one was particularly slippery, being an attempt to bring together, or rather to see the continuum between, what Randall Jarrell called ‘the dailiness of life’ (that is, the close at hand, the familiar, the palpable) and Richard Eberhart’s vision of ‘the wordless immanence of the eternal’. To find that continuum, the book argues, we have to use all of our faculties, not just the deductive, ‘mental’ processes of orthodox reasoning.

I’m not worrying about the basic thesis right now, though; it’s the title that’s bothering me. I’m concerned that it might be misleading, suggesting a more historical approach than I had intended. The Music of Time, while it spans the last century in approximate chronological order, is a highly personal affair, skipping over major figures and lingering, at times, on the neglected and the quirky, in pursuit of its core premise: that, in the words of Carl Jung, ‘the judgement of the intellect is, at best, only the half of truth, and must, if it be honest, also come to an understanding of its inadequacy’. I am not exclusively right-brained (my first serious occupation was as a systems designer, back in the days when computing was still fun) but I do work intuitively when it comes to reading and writing poetry, which can mean that I never fully define a project until I am pretty far into it – at which point I want to run back to the start and rewrite the whole thing, with a new emphasis on the discovery, long withheld from my ‘conscious’ mind, of what the book is really about. In this case, the subject is grace, by which I mean that poetry, whatever form it takes, is a gift that we receive from the world by remaining open to the improbable, the incalculable and the supposedly irrational. That openness is, I think, nicely described by Emily Dickinson: ‘The Soul should always stand ajar/That if the Heaven inquire/He will not be obliged to wait/Or shy of troubling Her’. This notion isn’t just ‘irrational’; it is also rather erotic, which is fine by me. I just hope I’ve given the reader sufficient warning that this supposedly analytical, historical work is more concerned with amour fou and ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ than chronology or literary schools. We’ll see.

It’s over a year since Lucie Brock-Broido died. Characteristically, she kept her illness to herself, not wanting to cause a fuss, and I hadn’t even known she was unwell. But then, we were friends at a distance, tentatively exploring in our correspondence a shared sensibility in our work, a sensibility that she liked to call ‘feral’. That said, there was something in the tone of her last missive that, through some kind of misplaced delicacy, I now see that I missed. I would have liked to call this note a letter, but by then we had resorted to email since she had given up trying to read my handwriting. On one occasion, she wrote: ‘Lo, it is July and I have just! found your card … I have read every word of your handwriting and, just as I am beginning to grok the code, I get to fill in whatever I want it to say. Thither and Yon. Duwhat? (Are there living persons who can read your hand? Is it a habit learnable?)’ Needless to say, I delighted in such critiques.

Lucie worked slowly, averaging a collection every seven years, and it showed. For me, she was the most exact and the most exacting poet of our age. I was impatient with the rate of progress, however. A few years ago I wrote to her to ask when a new collection might appear, saying I couldn’t wait much longer for her words (her previous book, Stay, Illusion, had come out in 2013). This was not a matter of politesse or flattery; though couched in the usual playful tone that email demands, it was wholly sincere.

She replied thus:

O, I am sitting whiling away the hours, and of a sudden comes your Hand from Switzerland … I, myself, am Not [writing]. On my Sabbathical [sic] last autumn, I was on the cusp of really beginning a new world/new book, and then came 8 November and my America went to pieces … Will you please tell the world how ashamed we are, horrified, humiliated, bitter, embarrassed. Tell the world please, from your side of the ocean, that we do not fathom how we wrought this creature into our own world, and yours, and the whole rest of the planet, that we pray it will be over soon.

She was already unwell, of course, and though the rise of Trump probably did have an effect on her writing, it was Jorge Guillén’s justa fatalidad that was calling her away from the page. In this age, poetry teaches the soul so many things, not least of which is the elegance of a seemingly vain hope. What I hope for is some rich cache of poems that she might have left behind, a treasure for future nights of dedicated, slow reading. In the meantime, as a small homage to the ‘simply perfectest’ poet of our time, I am dedicating this new, altogether imperfect book to her.

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