Hern: the catastrophe of lyric in John Burnside

Brewster, Scott (2010) Hern: the catastrophe of lyric in John Burnside. In: Crisis and Contemporary Poetry. Palgrave Macmillan, London, pp. 50-58. ISBN 9780230247246


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The fleeting glimpse of ‘the beauty of the impossible’ in John Burnside’s poetry is often shadowed by a sense of threat and vulnerability that underlies this lyric moment. Burnside remarks that ‘the lyrical impulse begins at the point of self-forgetting’, and his poetry and prose have shown a deepening fascination with the ethics of retreat and (self)obliteration. The interplay of risk and responsibility, withdrawal and obligation in Burnside’s work from the late 1980s will be traced in relation to Jacques Derrida’s notion of the poematic, articulated in the essay ‘Che cos’è la poesia?’ (‘What is poetry?’). Derrida likens the poem to le hérisson, or hedgehog, able to turn in on itself for protection but in that act exposing itself to the risk of obliteration. Whilst the poem can retreat self-defensively, turning ‘its pointed signs toward the outside’, but it is also obliged to scuttle precariously across the thoroughfares of language. A poem is a ‘learning-by-heart’; on the one hand it yearns ‘to retain by heart an absolutely unique form … pure interiority, independent spontaneity’, yet on the other it appeals to the customary, the familiar and the shared. This double movement characterises that which Derrida terms the poematic. Intimate and singular, the poem is also ‘obliged to address itself to someone’, acting like an ‘imparted secret, at once public and private, absolutely one and the other’. The poematic marks both a retreat into ‘pure’ self-containment, and a countervailing exposure to distress and contamination; in its encounter with the other, the poem opens itself up to danger, but also to the possibility and surprise of the unprecedented and of the future. This essay will show how a Burnside lyric longs for concealment, purity and privacy, but its singularity is counterpointed by the absolute obligation to open out to the other, with all the attendant risks of adulteration. As such, Burnside’s work stands as an exemplary instance of the way in which modern lyric courts the crisis of encounter rather than stages the poetics of withdrawal.

Keywords:John Burnside, lyric poetry, Jacques Derrida
Subjects:Q Linguistics, Classics and related subjects > Q323 English Literature by topic
Q Linguistics, Classics and related subjects > Q321 English Literature by period
Divisions:College of Arts > School of English & Journalism > School of English & Journalism (English)
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ID Code:14993
Deposited On:18 Sep 2014 10:36

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