David Cohen Prize 2023: John Burnside wins lifetime award

David Cohen Prize 2023: John Burnside wins lifetime award

Celebrating the legacy of John Burnside

by Suswati Basu
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The prestigious David Cohen Prize for Literature 2023 has been awarded to Scottish poet, memoirist, and novelist, John Burnside. Organised by the John S. Cohen Foundation and New Writing North, this award recognises a writer’s lifetime achievement in literature. The announcement was made at a glittering celebration held at the Ham Yard Hotel in London, with Hermione Lee, chair of judges, doing the honours.

David Cohen Prize 2023 announcement.

Burnside receives the 2023 David Cohen Prize for Literature

The David Cohen Prize, now in its 30th-anniversary year, stands as a beacon of excellence in the literary realm. It is awarded biennially to a writer from the United Kingdom or Ireland for their outstanding body of work. This year, Burnside’s contributions to the world of literature earned him this coveted honour.

Upon receiving the 2023 David Cohen Prize for Literature, Burnside expressed his gratitude and humility, saying, “I have to say that, considering the list of previous winners, being added to such a company is more than a little daunting. At the same time, it’s a reminder that every writer is gifted with a live tradition and that tradition is rooted, not in mere fashions and fads, but in what Eugenio Montale called, with characteristic succinctness, the ‘long patience, conscience and honesty’ of those who precede us.”

Exploring the depths of nature and humanity

Burnside’s literary journey has been nothing short of remarkable. With a portfolio spanning sixteen books of poetry, including “Black Cat Bone” which garnered both the T.S. Eliot and the Forward Prizes in 2011, and his upcoming work “Ruin, Blossom,” set to be published in April 2024, Burnside’s poetic prowess is widely celebrated. Additionally, his prose work, including novels like “Glister” and “A Summer of Drowning,” and three memoirs, including the recent “I Put A Spell On You,” have left an indelible mark on the landscape.

Burnside’s deep-seated passion for the environment has been a recurring theme in his work. He has regularly contributed to the New Statesman on topics related to nature. His most recent prose work, “Aurochs and Auks,” delves into themes of extinction and mortality. Burnside’s radio work explores diverse subjects such as Sami music and culture, near-death experiences, and the captivating landscape and history of the Orkney Islands. Currently, he imparts his knowledge and expertise by teaching creative writing and ecocriticism at the University of St Andrews.

Hermione Lee, Chair of judges, effusively praised Burnside, saying, “He has been writing every imaginable kind of book – and some unimaginable kinds – for at least 35 years. He has an amazing literary range, he pours out a cornucopia of beautiful words, and he has won an array of distinguished prizes before this one. He casts a spell with language of great beauty, power, lyricism and truthfulness.”

Serving alongside Lee on the judging panel were Aida Edemariam, Helen Mort, Malachy Tallack, and Boyd Tonkin, each offering their unique insights into Burnside’s work.

Read: Nobel Literature Prize 2023: best books by winner Jon Fosse

In addition, Edemariam remarked, “John Burnside’s work has great formal range — poetry, non-fiction, fiction — and is outstanding in all these categories. He is a master of a kind of beautiful unease, a chronicler and celebrant of the borderlines between humans and the rest of the natural world, between knowing and not knowing, between darkness and light.”

Mort also praised Burnside’s poetry, describing it as “restless and haunting, populated by ghosts” and highlighting his distinctive use of stepped-verse forms. She added, “Reading his poems is an exhilarating experience.”

While Tallack commended Burnside’s ability to confront trauma with curiosity and expose its sources and legacies in his memoirs. “Whether writing about love, about music, about cruelty or about mental illness, his words illuminate,” Tallack noted.

At the same time, Tonkin delved into Burnside’s fiction, highlighting its distinctive flavour and captivating storytelling. Consequently, he described Burnside’s novels as taking readers on journeys into unsettling landscapes and disturbed mindscapes, full of menace, dread, and wonder.

The David Cohen Prize, founded in 1993, holds a special place in the literary world as it recognises a writer’s entire career. Dr. Imogen Cohen, chair of the John S. Cohen Foundation, expressed her delight in acknowledging such a magnificent writer and acknowledged the hard work of the judges in selecting this year’s recipient.

Hence Burnside’s name now joins the ranks of illustrious past winners, including VS Naipaul, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, Seamus Heaney, Hilary Mantel, and many others. His contribution to literature continues to resonate, making him a worthy recipient of the “UK and Ireland Nobel in literature.”

Clarissa Luard Award: honouring emerging voices

In a heartwarming gesture, Burnside bestowed the Clarissa Luard Award upon Abigail Peters. Established in 2005 by Arts Council England in memory of Clarissa Luard, this award is worth £10,000 and allows the winner of the David Cohen Prize for Literature to support an emerging writer whose work they admire.

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