The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century
John Burnside
Profile Books
Review by Fiona Rintoul

“There’s hunners o' years no broken into yet,” was my grandfather’s favourite riposte to petty frustrations. Born soon enough to remember the First World War and gone before the millennium, he was a child of the tortured twentieth century whose horrors and achievements – and poetry’s kaleidoscopic response thereto – are the subject of The Music of Time.

A highly personal work by the Scottish poet John Burnside, The Music of Time is above all an urgent defence of the power of poetry. Two decades into the twenty-first century, it is easy to see why such an entreaty is necessary. There are no longer “hunners o' years” to break into – or there might not be. If we are to save ourselves from climate change, populism and small flickering screens, then we need the unique insights that poetry provides.

Burnside contends, for example, that it is poetry that brings home to us most starkly the catastrophe of species loss. As the species die, so the number of animal encounter poems rises. And it takes a poet, Robert Frost in Two Look at Two, to demonstrate that by destroying species we are annihilating ourselves.

“What Frost would have us understand … is that there is so little of the wild in us, so little sign of life that, as dusk falls, we could easily be mistaken for inanimate objects,” Burnside writes.

To naysayers, who complain that poetry is difficult, its nuggets of wisdom too hard to extract, Burnside’s answer is: that is the point.

“There are those who, avoiding the challenge of difficult art, content themselves with what Goethe calls ‘technical facility accompanied by triteness’, but this, surely, is no more rewarding than cheating at solitaire,” he writes.

Which is not the say that we should indulge wilful obscurity. The trick, for readers and critics alike, is “to be alert enough to the gap between difficulty and obscurity to discern one from the other”. Neither is it to deny “the abuses to which poetry has been subjected, from the feckless amateurism of unchecked ‘self-expression’ to the facile scheming of those contemporaries whose poetry has clear and palpable and all too often extraneous designs upon us”.

But somehow, despite these slights, poets continue to offer a muscular dissidence we cannot do without, striving as they do “to see the universe as it is, rather than as we are told it must be”. In this book, where detailed analysis of individual poems is interspersed with reminiscences about school trips to coal mines, family holidays in Berlin and Aunt Margaret’s hairstyle (which is just like Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova’s) Burnside shows us how words on the page can bring us an understanding beyond words – and beyond science – whether we are in mourning, in love (or out of it but still married to the once beloved), at war, in exile, in despair or – as now – in crisis.

“Knowing is not only a matter of scientific enquiry,” he writes. “It involves some other faculty – intuition, we might say, or apprehension – that traditional science is obliged, for rigour’s sake, either to dismiss or discount.”

Poetry can access that “other faculty”, and in the twentieth century, drenched in ice-cold rationality, that perhaps mattered more than ever, though of course, poets bring their own problems, as Burnside acknowledges. Ezra Pound may have skewered the evils of “runaway capitalism”, but can we forget his spluttering anti-semitism? What about the dissonance between Rainer Maria Rilke’s vision of marriage and his married life?

Poets are not perfect. But through the likes of Maria Zambrano, a Spanish Republican poet and philosopher, and her vision of la razón poética, “in which she proposes a system of enquiry into the totality of human experience that not only allows for but demands the use of all our available faculties”, Burnside believes that we can “begin to discover a new and very different sense of what poetry’s potential role in society might be”.

This is a wide-ranging volume that starts in Russia and ends, more or less, in Singapore. Enriched by Burnside’s clear, luminous prose, it tackles overlooked – in this country at least – issues of translation and challenges the reader to think more deeply. About death. About life. About everything.

It is also the story of one working-class man from Fife’s journey to poetry. The not-fitting-in at university. The expectation of a life down the pits. In that alone it fascinates. We must thank God for the Cambridge barber who shared with Burnside the Republican motto from the Spanish Civil War: “Soldado instrúyete”. Educate yourself, soldier. May we all heed this injunction and resist, as Burnside did, “the idea that I should think of it [my future] in certain terms and not others”.