A Professor of English at St Andrews University has won the prestigious TS Eliot poetry prize for his latest poetry collection, entitled ‘Black Cat Bone’. John Burnside, former writer in residence at Dundee and published poet and novelist, has been shortlisted twice for the prize in previous years, but this is his first win. His work was described as a “haunting work of great beauty” by Gillian Clarke, chair of the panel of judges.
However, the competition has not been without its controversy this time round. Due to a recent withdrawal of its Arts Council funding, the prize has managed to secure a three-year sponsorship deal with hedge fund Aurum; something which has failed to sit well with some of this year’s nominees. Both John Kinsella and Alice Oswald, also award-winning poets, dropped out of the running in protest over the prize’s sponsorship.
Oswald said that “poetry should be about questioning not endorsing such institutions,” whilst Kinsella explained that “the business of Aurum does not sit with my personal politics and ethics.” Clarke, however, backed the prize’s new benefactors. “Take it from the rich, give it to a poet and reader,” she wrote.
In an interview with The Saint, Professor Burnside said he felt the media furore over the Aurum sponsorship was “artificial” and “a fuss.” Burnside pointed out that Valerie Eliot, TS Eliot’s widow, remains the largest funder of the prize. He felt it was unfortunate that Mrs. Eliot had been “sidelined” due to the controversy and added that he would rather support organisations that gave money to the arts as opposed to ones that didn’t.
Burnside, born in 1955, worked as a factory hand, a gardener and a computer systems designer before returning to Scotland in 1995. He is one of only two poets to have won both the Forward prize and the TS Eliot prize for the same book, the other being Sean O’ Brien whose collection ‘The Drowned Book’ scooped the two awards simultaneously in 2007. Burnside has also won the Whitbread prize for his 2000 collection ‘The Asylum Dance’.
Burnside said that he was “taken aback” and was “even a bit guilty” that he won, stating that, whilst he was thrilled, “it could have gone to anyone.”