Ciaran Carson was born and grew up in Belfast, where Irish was the first language of the family home; Carson learnt English playing on the streets. From an early age, he was ‘always aware of language, how it operates. How if you say it in one language it’s not the same as saying it in another’ (as stated in a Guardian interview). Carson’s poetry is interested in the profound interdependence of language with selfhood and action, and his work examines how we articulate our experiences of loss, home, conflict, love. He is equally skilful at conjuring tiny, textured everyday details, as exploring huge abstract concepts such as memory and death. He is a skilled translator, producing versions of work from Japanese haiku poets, Ovid, Baudelaire, Seán Ó Ríordáin and many others, including a book of poems after Arthur Rimbaud.
After graduating from Queens University Belfast, in 1971, Carson worked for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for over 20 years as a specialist in traditional music and culture. He is a flautist, and he and his wife Deirdre, a highly-accomplished fiddle player, often perform together at readings. Until 2015 Carson was director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queens University. His many awards include the Irish Literature Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Forward Poetry Prize and the Costa Poetry Award.
Carson’s first collection is titled The New Estate, after the housing development to which his family moved when he was ten. Personal and national origin stories are interwoven, and in some ways the book also becomes an origin story for Carson’s later collections. The very first poem sets out so many of the themes we find recurring in his work: names and how they are fixed and unfixed, material objects, a highly-textured evocation of place, a sense of distinctions being collapsed, and a registering of violence in the place one calls home. ‘The Insular Celts’ of the first poem arrive in Ireland, where:
The words for breast
[ . . . ]
In the spirals
Of their brooches is seen the flight
Of one thing into the other.
The book is full of makers: of tools and weapons (‘The Insular Celts’), music (‘O’Carolan’s Complaint’), bells (‘Casting the Bell’), cloth (‘Interior with Weaver’, ‘Linen’, ‘Stitch’, ‘The Patchwork Quilt’). Carson is always interested in the resonance of objects and details, and some poems are given over to a single object or practice, whilst others bring deftly-conjured specifics into close play with emotional states. For all this emphasis on making, Carson himself is overtly present more as remembered child than poet. A child’s consciousness is conjured in an adult’s recollection with humour and generosity, as well as a sense of complex family dynamics. Honest, contemplative portraits of mother, father, grandparents, brothers and sister, along with images of local haunts (cinema, corner shop, Chinese restaurant), build an intimate sense of atmosphere. Several poems about houses, often translated from or after other poets, emphasise the huge significance for every human of the very local.
The New Estate may have set in motion many of the themes which Carson returns to, but he did not publish his next book, The Irish for No, until 1987. In his Arts Council role, he focused on music, touring and playing in bars and back rooms. However, it was a musician, John Campbell, who inspired him to write again:
The Irish for No opens boldly, chattily, musically, with just such a poem. The long lines of ‘Dresden’ spill over the margin as the poem itself spills over several pages. Dresden – as recalled by the main character in the narrative, RAF Bomber Horse Boyle – is not mentioned for over 60 lines. The style is relaxed but full of energy, the long lines allowing for a storyteller’s diversions and comments – ‘I stayed there once, / Or rather, I nearly stayed there once. But that’s another story’, ‘Of course, the thing was’. Of course, for all its narrative informality, the poem is carefully structured: Horse Boyle is invoked poignantly in reverse as older man, young pilot and child, all narratives contributing to the main tale of a man haunted by destruction.
Part I shows us how the long, discursive line is suited to storytelling, free-associative evocations of memory, and slippages of sense and logic. In Part II, we discover that this long line is also an effective tool for conveying the violence and complexity of the Troubles:
Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type. And the explosion
Itself – an asterisk on the map.
That ‘Suddenly’ is apposite. The flexible long lines are packed with lists of proper nouns and place names, fragmented sentences which create a sense of heavy accumulation: ‘A Saracen, Kremlin-2 mesh. Makrolon face-shields. Walkie-talkies’. But they also bend around existential questions (with the implication that these are posed by the interrogating police, with a different intention) and offer us a mind in process:
[. . .]
Where am I coming from? Where am I going?
If Carson has found the form and language to express, so powerfully, his experience of violence and destruction in his home city, he is also acutely aware that language is never neutral; action is not separate from words. The narrator is a composer of words (‘I was trying to complete a sentence in my head’), and the act of writing the poem and the act of violence are blurred together in the line ‘This hyphenated line, a burst of rapid fire’. As Mark Ford observes in the London Review of Books, ‘The idea that all language is inherently political, and therefore culpable, can rarely have been so concretely imagined’.
Carson took the title of Belfast Confetti for his next collection (1990), which explores the city and the effects of the Troubles in greater detail. The poems are a way to document and preserve a city which changes every day; as in The Irish for No, maps are no use, because ‘Today’s plan is already yesterday’s’ (‘Turn Again’). Once more the focus is on individual acts of violence and destruction and its human effect (as well as the effect on infrastructure), rather than specific ideologies. One interviewer describes Carson’s ‘incorrigible inclusiveness’ and Carson himself has said, ‘I’m not that interested in ideologies. I’m interested in the words, and how they sound to me, how words connect with experience, of fear, of anxiety’ ( The Guardian).
Here we find again the distinctive long line, but these poems are punctuated by substantial epigraphs, Japanese haiku and prose pieces. One gets the sense that, from book to book, Carson is exploring the best way of expressing something at that given moment; in his own words, ‘the poet often doesn’t know what he has in mind: he follows the language, and sees where it might lead him, which is usually a very different place from what he thought at the onset’ ( The Spectator). In fact, the whole book seems in motion: scents and touch-sensations unroll an unfurling patchwork quilt of memories; small actions have big consequences.
Language is more fully the focus of Carson’s next book, First Language, which won the inaugural T. S. Eliot Prize in 1993. The title is freighted with meaning: Irish is Carson’s first language, but most of the book is in English; the title poses an implicit question to its contents. His first three books were peppered with translations, and here we find substantial versions of Ovid, Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Seán Ó Ríordáin. The collection opens with a poem titled in French and written in Irish. The second poem, ‘Second Language’, explores how existentially loaded language is: ‘I woke up, verbed and tensed with speaking English’. There’s also a sense of play at work throughout the collection. The half-rhymes are highly satisfying: seas / argosies, Antipodes / tippy-toes, analysis / Nemesis, conundrum / condominium. The language shuttles between formal and informal and is appealingly chewy: ‘the blobs and squiggles they’d squidged on their chips’, ‘Ocularity a moiety blah skiddery ah disparity: the shotgun made a kind of statement, two / Crows falling in a dead-black umlaut’. In ‘Grass’, Carson draws on a whole host of discourses to toy with ‘the Powers-that-Be’:
Word or two and let the echolalia hang out – which the Powers-that-Be
Lapped up, since they never liked to Brian O’Lynn the sup without
Its inkling of Vermouth.
But despite this virtuosic insouciance, language is still dangerous in the book: ‘Tell no one, I mean no one, what you’re up to. / Never. Never. Never’ (‘Two to Tango’). This twinning of play and seriousness is found in the translations, too. In ‘Ovid: Metamorphoses, V, 529-550’, Carson confidently reworks the original text into his own form and metre, adding half-rhymes and his own contemporary spin. But this spin is a powerful appropriation of the Persephone myth to the world of sectarian violence and informers; as Persephone sucks the pomegranate seeds, we see Ascalaphus spying on her, ‘Stoolie. Pipsqueak. Mouth. He spilled the beans on her, he blabbed’. The translations from Ovid – and references throughout the book to other countries currently and historically marked by violence – also serve to underline the eternal nature of conflict.
Carson’s experiments with language and form continue in Opera Et Cetera and The Twelfth of Never. The title The Twelfth of Never (1998) comes from a phrase in Opera Et Cetera (1996) – Carson often carries over phrases and titles from book to book. The 14-line poems in The Twelfth of Never are written in alexandrine meter, a six-foot, 12-syllable line which can add either productive density or musical flourish to the traditional iambic pentameter of English-language sonnets. The poems are full of musical words and imagery and many of the titles are taken from traditional songs. They are also full of the language of fairytale and mystery (‘Woods of True’, ‘ghostly galleon’, ‘goblin’, ‘magic mantle’) and archaic inversions (‘I carelessly did stray’, ‘Who did salute me’). Poppies recur again and again, shifting in significance. Frequent references to salt, blood, potatoes, poteen and saturated colours create a sensory overload. The poems take in France, Japan and America as well as the island of Ireland through the ages, often referred to by its Latin name ‘Hibernia’. The result is lush and swirling, gesturing towards and then undercutting a romanticised conception of traditional Irish culture and ‘established’ versions of historical events. Yet throughout there is also anxiety about the poet’s relationship to Ireland, as in ‘1798’, a version of the traditional aisling, in which Ireland appears to the poet in a dream vision as a beautiful woman. Here the speaker is seduced amongst the ‘wild flowers, with dance and delight’:
And prophesied that I’d forsake my native land.
Before I could protest, she put her mouth to mine,
And sucked the broken English from my Gaelic tongue.
She wound me in her briary arms of eglantine.
Two centuries have gone, yet she and I abide,
Like emblems of a rebel song no longer sung,
Or snowy blossoms drifting down the mountainside.
As the speaker is wound in the woman’s briary arms, so we are wound in the sense of the poem. Whose fault is the forsaking? The nature of action, of right and wrong, of telling, is always unfixed.
Breaking News (2003) takes in many named and unnamed international conflicts, reflecting on the global, timeless nature of war and violence. ‘Exile’ makes the connection through historically-named Belfast streets (note the overlap with ‘Belfast Confetti’; many of the streets around the Falls Road, where Carson grew up, were named after battles in the Crimean War):
Carson takes another, totally different stylistic direction in this collection, using extremely short lines reminiscent of William Carlos Williams. The emphasis is on minimalist precision: telling details, flashes of colour. In ‘Blink’, they mimic the tiny details which everyone is noting suspiciously on everyone else:
down to the cut
of their clothes
of the retina
In Carson’s own words:
For All We Know (2008) returns to the alexandrine line and is extremely formally complex. It is based on the musical fugue, and is preoccupied with obfuscation and truth, in politics and relationships. Truth, inasmuch as it can ever be found, is found somewhere amongst the retellings and reformulations:
get their story right every time, down to the last word.
Whereas when they tell the truth it’s never the same twice. They
The poems elegise the speaker’s lover, who cannot be accurately remembered. Death also haunts Until Before After (2010), an account of a loved one’s illness. The book is divided into three parts and uses dense, minimalist language to explore the nature of death and being. The form – one, two or three words per line, the line-breaks cutting across rather than aiding the meaning – makes for careful reading and productive juxtapositions. The words ‘until’, ‘before’ and ‘after’ are used until the meanings blur, or contain both past and future equally within them. Idioms and throwaway phrases to do with time (‘time and again’, ‘time after time’, ‘the last time’, ‘after all’, ‘time would tell’) accumulate, impressing on us how constantly we refer to our position in time in everyday speech, though that position constantly eludes us. But they are love poems as well as meditations on mortality; we understand that it is the deepest love which has prompted these extreme existential questions.
Carson has written many other books, including translations, a novel, and a non-fiction book on traditional music. His astonishing range means each work provides something new to savour, but the books are also linked in various ways. Key themes resound, reinforced by poems of the same name and repeated phrases, not just within the same book but from collection to collection: ‘the patchwork quilt’, ‘the twelfth of never’, ‘Belfast confetti’, ‘the Powers-that-Be’, ‘I am sorry for your troubles’. Carson is interested in things suddenly being flipped around or collapsed together: time folds in on itself, words change meaning and memories change shape before our eyes, people slip in and out of paintings and in and out of each other’s perspectives – even a horse and a man can exchange eyes and viewpoints (‘Exchange’). Language, including names and places, is celebrated but unreliable.
Carson’s poems push and probe and ask; as he remarks in an interview, ‘Poetry doesn’t have any answers, but it does have lots of questions. It provides a questioning dimension to our lives’. Like the spiral brooch of ‘The Insular Celts’, Carson’s poetry achieves endlessness through exquisite craft.
The New Estate. Blackstaff Press, Belfast; Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 1976
The Lost Explorer. Ulsterman Publications, Belfast, 1978
The Irish for No. The Gallery Press, Oldcastle; Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 1987
The New Estate and Other poems. The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 1988
Belfast Confetti. The Gallery Press, Oldcastle; Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 1989
First Language. The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 1993; Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 1994
Opera Et Cetera. The Gallery Press, Oldcastle; Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC,1996
The Ballad of HMS Belfast: A Compendium of Belfast Poems. Picador, London, 1999
The Twelfth of Never. The Gallery Press, Oldcastle; Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 1998
Breaking News. The Gallery Press, Oldcastle; Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 2003
For All We Know. The Gallery Press, Oldcastle; Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 2008
Collected Poems. The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2008; Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 2009
On the Night Watch. The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2009; Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 2010
Until Before After. The Gallery Press, Oldcastle; Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 2010
In the Light Of. The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2012; Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 2013
Irish Traditional Music. Appletree Press, Belfast, 1986
Belfast Frescoes. With John Kindness. Ulster Museum, Belfast, 1995
Letters from the Alphabet. The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 1995
Last Night's Fun: About Time, Food and Music. Jonathan Cape, London, 1996
The Star Factory. Granta, London, 1997
Fishing for Amber. Granta, London, 1999
Shamrock Tea. Granta, London, 2001
The Pen Friend. Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 2009
Exchange Place. Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 2012
Adaptations and translations
The Alexandrine Plan. (adaptations of sonnets by Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud), The Gallery Press, Oldcastle; Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC,1998
The Inferno of Dante Alighieri. Granta, London, 2002
The Midnight Court. Translation of Brian Merriman's Cúirt an Mhéan Oíche. The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2005; Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 2006
The Táin. Translation from the early Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge. Penguin Classics, London, 2007
From Elsewhere. Poems from the French of Jean Follain. The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2014; Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 2015
Carson’s profile at The Poetry Archive
Carson’s profile at The Poetry Foundation
2009 interview with Carson in The Guardian
Carson on translating Rimbaud in The Spectator
Profile of Carson in The Independent
Video of Carson in conversation with Professor Meg Tyler at Boston University