Elizabeth Burns, a poet of the everyday and the transcendent
Elizabeth Burns, who has died after a long illness, was considered by many to be one of the finest of contemporary poets. Born in 1957, she was better known and appreciated in Scotland where she grew up and was educated, than south of the border; this despite the fact that a considerable portion of her creative output was written while living in England.
In her first book, Ophelia and other poems (Polygon 1991) there is a particular focus on the creativity and culture of women, a celebration of the strength and endurance of their sensibility. In subsequent collections, The Gift of Light (diehard 1999), The Lantern Bearers (Shoestring Press 2007) and Held (Polygon 2010), this theme develops as she explores domestic and inner life. In poems of family and children, the natural world and the world of objects, both aesthetic and utilitarian – what she called “the things of the world” – she could vividly conjure the visual and sensual while at the same time exploring larger ideas and connections.
Her poem ‘Listening to Bach’s B Minor Mass in the kitchen’, which won the 2012 BBC Proms Competition, shows her ability to occupy the everyday and the transcendent at the same time. Starting with the domestic “making rolls for my daughter’s/ birthday breakfast”, the music takes over. She ends with
of time and place dissolving, so what divides us
from the past and elsewhere, and from each other,
falls away, and everything’s connected and we are all
drops of water in this enormous breaking wave.
She wrote a great deal about art and artists. The pamphlets The Blue Flower (Galdragon Press 2005), about the artist Gwen John, and A Scarlet Thread (Wayleave Press 2014), about the Scottish painter Anne Redpath, address both the life and circumstances of the artists as well as responding to technique and palette. She had an intense appreciation of colour and her feel for form is evident in poems about basket-making and pottery. A keen collaborator, she also worked with painters, photographers, dancers and performers.
She published a number of pamphlets. The shortest days (Galdragon Press 2008) won the inaugural Michael Marks award in 2008. Her most recent pamphlet is Clay (Wayleave Press 2015), meditative poems on potters and their craft published a week before she died.
Much of her writing is characterised by descriptive clarity and elegant language, often exploring complex and profound ideas. As well as being formally fluent and accomplished, the poems are also resolved in what they say, as if the process of writing had enabled her to follow through her ideas to a natural, almost holistic resting point. As well as her more discursive style however, the poems she was working on towards the end of her life are pared down and incisive, as if she had managed to distil ideas and feelings into their simplest and most direct expression. These poems, though smaller on the page, are in fact bigger and more over-arching in their scope. This is particularly apparent in the pamphlets A Vessel Opening Out (produced for the collaborative exhibition ‘A Potter, a Painter and a Poet’) and Clay.
Elizabeth, who lived in Lancaster, was also a tutor, lecturer, facilitator and mentor, highly regarded by students and fellow poets. When she applied her keen critical sense to a piece of writing, you knew there was something here you needed to listen to. Dedicated to her craft, despite her gentle and self-effacing outward manner she carried within her a core of single-minded resilience. Nowhere was this more evident than in the last years of her life when, despite illness and at times debilitating treatment, she remained as active as ever, with never a hint of complaint or self-pity. Her commitment to her students, her level of attention and preparation, remained. Even in her last few weeks, amidst family and visitors she was working on poems, preparing her last publications.
For those who knew her it seems a travesty to refer to her in the past tense, for her presence remains in this world in a fine body of work which we can continue to enjoy and be inspired by and which, hopefully, will prove an exciting discovery for new readers.
PHOTOGRAPH: JONATHAN BEAN