Professor John Burnside wins David Cohen Prize for Literature

Friday 10 November 2023

Poet, memoirist and novelist John Burnside, Professor of Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews, has been named the winner of the 2023 David Cohen prize for literature.

Dubbed ‘the British Nobel’, the £40,000 prize is awarded biennially to a British or Irish writer in recognition of an outstanding body of work.

Professor Burnside was announced as the winner at a celebration in London on Thursday 9 November.

Chair of judges Hermione Lee said: “John Burnside 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. There is much sorrow, pain, terror and violence lurking in his work: he is a strong and powerful writer about the dark places of the human mind – but he’s also funny and deeply humane.”

Professor Burnside has written sixteen books of poetry include Black Cat Bone, which won both the T.S. Eliot and the Forward Prizes in 2011 and, most recently, Ruin, Blossom, which will be published in April 2024.

Amongst his prose work are the novels Glister and A Summer of Drowning; three memoirs, of which the most recent is I Put A Spell On You; and The Music of Time, a personal history of twentieth century poetry which was a Financial Times Book of the Year in 2019.

Accepting the award, Professor Burnside said: “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.”

The winner of the David Cohen prize must nominate an emerging writer whose work they wish to support via the £10,000 Clarissa Luard award. Professor Burnside has chosen Abigail Peters, a St Andrews alumna and young writer currently working on her first book, a coming-of-age memoir set in the fens.

Professor Burnside said: “Having worked for two decades with postgraduate writers, I have had occasion to meet students who show real potential in their craft for some way down the line – a year hence, say, or a decade (patience being the chief virtue of any writer).

“It is a rare pleasure, however, to encounter someone who is already there, fully defined and confident in their gifts and, at the same time, aware that writing is a lifelong and demanding discipline.

“In exceptional cases, I am struck with the immediate sense of a writer who is not only alert to the possibilities of narrative and the subtle pitfalls of memory, but is also attentive to the nuances of place and character and speech. Abigail Peters possesses all these gifts and more – and I am fully confident that we will all be reading her work for decades to come.”

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.


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