Lifesaving Poems: John Burnside’s ‘A Private Life’



I found John Burnside‘s ‘A Private Life’ in a poetry magazine some years ago. I wasn’t much interested in the magazine. This is different from saying I wasn’t interested in the poems inside it.

I was undergoing one of my periodic bouts of poetry exhaustion and was feeling rather tired of the whole business, the circus, the who-said-what-about-whom of it all. I felt I wanted to crawl into a hole and cry for a week. Or a year, or however long it took.

Then I opened the page and there was ‘A Private Life’.

I felt immediately as I do with all poems I love that it had been written just for me at that moment, as a kind of telepathic letter or predictive text of healing.

I still get a very real thrill from the fact that it comprises two simple sentences (‘I want to drive…’ and ‘I want to see…’) with no complex verbiage or vocabulary. I felt Burnside had somehow seen into the fried state of my nervous system and poured liquid balm into it, slowly muttering a silent prayer as he went.

I thought about it today as I drove an empty stretch of Dorset road returning home from work after one of those weeks when you wake each day unable to remember your house number and your name.

My pace still quickens when I read it, though paradoxically it feels as though it is slowing down.


A Private Life


I want to drive home in the dusk
of some late afternoon,
the journey slow, the tractors spilling hay,
the land immense and bright, like memory,

the pit towns smudges of graphite,
their names scratched out for good: Lumphinnans;
Kelty. I want to see
the darkened rooms, the cups and wireless sets,

the crimson lamps across the playing fields,
the soft men walking home through streets and parks,

and quiet women, coming to their doors,
then turning away, their struck lives gathered around them.


John Burnside, from Swimming in the Flood (Cape, 1995)


  1. Your commentary brings the poem into sharp focus: it is indeed beyond the conventional representation. Burnside’s gift – and he has dealt shrewdly with the burdens of gift– is to illuminate his subject from a point between the extremes of documentation/history and the illusion of immediacy. He is candid about his desire but aware of his inability to fill a void so infinite: his best poems have a liturgical rather than confessional humility. Something like that. Extraordinary!

    Liked by 1 person

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