David Burnett was born in 1937 in Edinburgh, where he currently resides. After a childhood spent in India followed by school and university in Scotland, he qualified as a professional librarian, and worked for many years in this capacity at Durham University, specialising in older printed books and contemporary literary manuscripts, before full retirement in 1997. David has published widely as a scholar librarian, receiving among other awards the Panizzi Medal of the British Library. In Durham he was responsible for many special exhibitions bringing to academic and public attention the work of numerous writers, including fellow poets such as Basil Bunting and Ian Hamilton Finlay. He was a co-founder, in 1975, of Colpitts Poetry, one of the UK’s most prestigious live poetry reading organisations.

David’s poetic career has been an unusual one. He is the author of over forty volumes of poetry, the majority of which have been privately published in limited editions, often accompanied by exquisite artwork to which some of the poems relate thematically. He is an acknowledged connoisseur and collector of wood engravings, and has collaborated with notable artists in this field such as Richard Shirley Smith, Simon Brett, Sister Margaret Tourneur, and the Durham-based Russian artist Kirill Sokolov. His unique personal collection of over 1,500 contemporary British wood engravings and some 500 fine press publications has been gifted to the Yale Center for British Art. A distinguished poet-translator, he has worked with the Chinese scholar John Cayley, producing, in Mirror & Pool (1991), wonderfully imagined poems paralleling more literal translations of the ancient Chinese originals (see ‘Crane Tower’, ‘Moonrise’). The versions of 76 French poems contained in Transfusions (1991) demonstrate a profound imaginative connection with other poets’ voices (‘Third Hypothesis on the Death of Empedocles’). In Quoins for the Chase (2003), 400 pithy reflections on poetry and its place in the world, David injects new life into the almost forgotten art of aphorism.

David’s early poetry consists largely of poignant short lyrics beneath whose formal surface lies intense religious or erotic feeling, culminating in the quasi-sequence of The Heart’s Undesign (1977) from which ‘Lullaby’, ‘Laughter’, ‘Unlearned’, ‘Bitterness’ and ‘Epitaph’ are taken. With Jackdaw (1978), he begins a new phase, incorporating into his work lapidary poems of passionate political and humanitarian feeling (‘Auschwitz’, ‘Hiroshima’, ‘To Posterity’). That strain continues, combining with appreciations of fellow poets such as ‘Rimbaud’ and ‘Marina Tsvetaeva’ who troubled, or were troubled by, their times. ‘The Island’ (1994) and poems in the collection Something of Myself published in the same year (‘Incident off Iceland’, ‘The Dream’, ‘An Orkney Calendar’, ‘At Avebury’) draw upon a fascination with myth and mystery. More recently, in poems such as ‘In Principio’ and ‘Alexandria, 31 BC’ from Evergreens (2002), he reveals a keen feeling for history – its ironies, and the relationship of supposedly important events to the lives of supposedly insignificant people who are his real focus and concern. David’s lifelong reflection on poetry and its practice (see ‘Emily Dickinson’) and his exceptional gift for aphorism are exemplified in ‘Metaphor’ and ‘Warp and Weft’ from the recent Underwoods (2013).

David’s is a unique voice. His poetry goes its own way in defiance of schools and trends. In that, as in its formal control and precision of feeling, lies its great strength, a quality never more clearly shown than in the poem ‘Beethoven’s Hat’ which, together with a poignant tribute to his native Lothian, heads this collection: a hat firmly, rightly, on.

David wishes Simon Brett’s wood engraving of the poète maudit Arthur Rimbaud to ‘stand alone and foremost’ as an introduction to this first selected edition of his poetry. The two other engravings are by Joan Hassall.

 
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