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  • The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century by John Burnside
  • Roger Gilbert
The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century.
By John Burnside. London: Profile Books, 2019; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century is unmistakably a poet’s book. Its author, John Burnside, has published over a dozen collections of poems, as well as numerous works of fiction and nonfiction. Only a poet of Burnside’s considerable stature could have persuaded two major presses to publish this curious hybrid of literary history, memoir, social commentary, and appreciative exegesis. The book is by no means a mere folly or vanity project, however. International in scope yet unabashedly personal, it features mostly affectionate, occasionally barbed portraits of a gallery of poets who together illustrate Burnside’s broad claims about the social and spiritual efficacy of poetry, its power to attune us to “the dailiness of life,” and in doing so to “save the world every day” (12, 14). These are familiar ideas that Burnside expounds with eloquence and passion. Yet the book remains frustratingly slippery in its avoidance of any overarching narrative or argumentative structure. Its twenty-three chapters, titled with brief phrases that give only the slightest hint of their topics, oscillate between accounts of individual poets and broader themes like animals, marriage, the Holocaust, politics, and race.

Despite a few perfunctory gestures toward continuity (e.g., “as we shall see in the next chapter” [249]), the book’s segments are relatively self-contained, making it feel more like a collection of essays than a fully integrated treatment of twentieth-century poetry. Such collections were at one time a mainstay of academic publishing, providing a vehicle for critics as diverse as R. P. Blackmur, Helen Vendler, and Hortense Spillers; sadly, the form seems lately to have gone out of fashion. There’s no evidence that any of the pieces making up Burnside’s book were published separately, however, and in truth most lack the coherence of well-wrought essays. What The Music of Time more nearly resembles is a related genre, the compilation of lectures, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the book had its origin in talks given to undergraduates or other non-specialist audiences. Among other things, this [End Page 271] would explain the nearly total absence of scholarly citations. Burnside makes no attempt to engage with previous critical accounts of the poets he discusses, or of modern poetry writ large. When he does cite other commentators, they tend to be far removed from his immediate subject; he includes lengthy quotations from music and art critics, for example, as well as philosophers and legal scholars. All this gives the book an eccentrically homegrown, slightly blinkered, defiantly non-academic quality.

Burnside’s lack of interest in acknowledging sources or precedents extends to his central trope. For many readers the phrase “the music of time” will inevitably call to mind Anthony Powell’s multi-volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time, yet Powell is never mentioned. Burnside links that phrase to another, “the music of what happens,” which he ascribes to its original source in an Irish folk tale but whose more recent uses by Seamus Heaney and Helen Vendler (the latter as the title of a book of essays) he again leaves unnoted. These are small omissions, perhaps, but they contribute to an impression of haphazardness that prevents the book from achieving the authority a work of this scope requires. Burnside’s use of the musical metaphor also suffers from conceptual fuzziness; at times he suggests that poetry’s primary task is to transform “the noise of time” into music, while at others he portrays “the music of what happens” as existing independently of art.

The book’s subjective character is reinforced by Burnside’s frequent inclusion of autobiographical vignettes, usually at the beginnings of chapters. We hear about excursions in Berlin, Scarborough, Switzerland, and Singapore, along with memories of literary encounters in school and college, all of them vividly evoked but for the most part only tenuously related to the poems and poets he goes on to discuss. These narratives establish...