Book Reviews poetry

Book Review: John Burnside’s ‘Black Cat Bone’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I didn’t think I liked poetry, but I was wrong.

Black Cat Bone: Burnside, John: 9780224093859: Books

If you’d have asked me one year ago whether I would like to sit down an read a single poem, let alone an entire poetry collection in one sitting, I would have laughed in your face. I’ve always loved novels, and the odd non-fiction history book, but I’d never read poems. Not for pleasure. Granted, this was under seventy pages so I tackled it in less than an hour, but I’ve gone from actively avoiding poetry to actively reading it and writing my own in the space of eight months. Reading Black Cat Bone proved to myself how far I’ve come, and what I can get from poetry. I always thought that poetry was something people never really read, but too many people wrote themselves, even if they profess to be a literature fan. But I’m already thinking about which collection to buy next.

Burnside’s poems don’t rhyme, and they don’t often follow a particular metre, but they don’t have to. There were a few moments when I felt the rhythm was stilted or too erratic and I would rather he had cut down some lines than leaving me breathless, but I enjoyed every poem all the same. Burnside’s poetry possesses a rare lyricism, smattered with neologisms, which somehow never comes off as too conceited. He certainly isn’t afraid of using odd images, words or collocations. He often draws vocabulary from other languages – Dutch, German, Latin and ones I don’t recognise. As a linguist, this opened up some tantalising possibilities for me.

I love how Burnside documents his sources here. He’s open about the inspiration for his poems, often putting a quote or a bible reference at the top of each. He uses words from the quotes and weaves them into his own writing. He doesn’t pretend to be an ‘original’ author, struck by pure, divine inspiration. No writing is original anyway. We should all be more open about our sources, about where our inspiration comes from. Most of this happens subconsciously, but if we actively think about them, we can draw them out and give other writers the credit they deserve- at the same time as giving our writing a greater depth through acknowledging that we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. As Rob Pope once wrote, the view of the artist which has solidified over the last few centuries – one of the single poet slaving away in beautiful or despairing isolation – is completely outdated, and reflects Romantic notions of art rather than the actual process of making it.

Making art is never truly an original process. No poem, painting or prose is created in a vacuum. A highly intelligent person kept in isolation from childhood would never write a poem any kind of form we recognise, nor any prose either. Why do we persist in the belief that the ‘best’ art is original? A case in point: in a recent historical fiction workshop I was in, where it was my turn for my prose to be critiqued, I was warned several times about basing my fiction on a Suffragette’s autobiography. Apparently, I risked ‘plagiarism’, it would make my writing too ‘derivative’. Nobody asked me how I’d used it, that sometimes I blew up a single sentence into an entire chapter. And why should I refrain from using snippets of their language, of working in unusual words which Kitty herself wrote down almost a hundred years ago? Why shouldn’t I breathe life back into her story? But this time, in close third, with description, action and pace?

I wondered what their sources were. I wondered what made their writing less ‘derivative’ than mine. As Rosemarie Waldrop wrote: “The blank page is never blank. No text has one single author.”

There was a cognitive dissonance between their critique of my work as ‘derivative’ and a lack of recognition of their own sources, despite being historical fiction writers (with arguably the heaviest weight of research of any creative writer). Writing is determined by constraints at every turn. We write in pre-determined forms: journalistic, free verse, sonnet, haiku, historical fiction, thriller, close-third, prose poem etc. etc.

As long as we acknowledge our sources, no source should be off-limits to the writer. Nobody owns words. I appreciate Burnside for acknowledging his own sources. As a high-profile poet, he has a platform.

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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