“It’s not about you, it’s about the language,” Ciaran Carson used to say – just one of the reasons why I admired him so much. That mix of genius and humility, that constant honouring of the alchemical power of language, the mysterious sources from which it springs, and of the magical vortex in which he operated - a zone of happenstance, serendipity, coincidence - when he was writing well. I admired him for his disdain for small talk: how random encounters would suddenly deepen into intense rhapsodic musings on an entirely unpredictable range of subjects: syntax in Paul Celan; the rate at which unwaxed lemons decay; porphyry. When he invited me into the “ekphrasis factory” of his study earlier this summer to show me the range of art books he was consuming, the raw materials for his last great book of poems, I felt blessed beyond measure. As in life, as in the work, Ciaran Carson was also inspirational in death: his honesty and stoicism since his diagnosis earlier this year were utterly remarkable, and touched everyone who knew him profoundly. Poetry has suffered a devastating loss, but the latticework of language Carson leaves behind – dazzling, mercurial, true – is a staggering bequest. I will be forever in his debt.
Sinéad Morrissey won the TS Eliot Prize for her fifth collection Parallax in 2014 and in 2017 she won the Forward Prize for Poetry for her sixth collection On Balance.
After a silence of four years, Ciaran Carson produced a cascade of new poems. He kept on writing up to the end with courage and aplomb – an inspiration to anyone who believes in poetry. Jeff Holdridge of Wake Forest University Press (who will be publishing the US edition of Still Life) asked me for a few words to put on the cover. When I showed him what I had written, Ciaran said that he was pleased:
“Abundant, pitch-perfect, Ciaran Carson’s miraculous new poems find their own shapes. Detours illuminate the themes and propel the narratives. Tumult combines with decorum. Meanders give way to rapids. The ‘trills and warbles’ add up unerringly to a majestic utterance, ‘a new acoustic’. This is indeed writing for dear life. This is poetry of genius.”
Michael Longley is a poet
Ciaran gifted me these words for the back of my first pamphlet: ‘As the great French poet Francis Ponge has it in his ‘Mollusc’, “The least cell of our body clings as tightly to language, as language has us in its grip.”
That mutual grasp - us holding language; language holding us - was of endless interest and excitement to Ciaran, as it became for so many of us who knew the pleasure of his friendship. That mutual grasp and the transformations it makes possible.
Cell was a word we often spoke of, gripped by its various implications: a simple structure; a storeroom; a chamber for sleeping or writing; the small back room he liked so much, where the music of what happens happens; a compartment in the brain; the hexagon in a honeycomb; a room in a prison; a nucleus of political activity; the body’s tissue; a cavity; and, to quote the OED 15a, as Ciaran would have me do: ‘The fundamental, usually microscopic, structural and functional unit of all living organisms’.
Ciaran was attentive to the world at the cellular level. Nothing escaped his eye and ear - the paintings of Vermeer, the Muji pen, the texture of the yarn, the poems of Jean Follain, the pallor of a ping-pong ball, the trembling of the window, the bits of text that stay.
To all of it he gave fundamental, microscopic attention, finding and composing new structures with each extraordinary new book. Attending not just to the word within a phrase, but to its very cells: the single letter within the alphabet; the punctuation marks. This was just one part of his genius.
Still Life contains some of the best poems he has written; some of the best poems in the language. It comes as no surprise that here Ciaran is attentive, too, to the cells of his own body and what they may hold. The courage of all this, and the tenderness and joy in its pages, is almost impossible to fathom. To have spent time with him over the years, and in particular these last few months, sharing poems and conversation over coffee somewhere in Belfast, and then lastly in his home, has been a gift I cannot begin to describe.
Ciaran you have left us - left us with so much. Thank you.
Gail McConnell publishes poetry and literary criticism and is senior lecturer in English at Queen’s University Belfast
Ciaran Carson was to my eye a figure out of Shakespeare, Puck crossed with Ariel. Certainly he was a delightful kind of hybrid – back in the bad old days of republican and loyalist roadblocks he used to joke that his name ensured him immunity on both sides. I recall vividly the first time I heard him give a poetry reading, in the middle of which he stopped to play, with perfect aplomb, a tune or two on the flute, accompanied by his wife Deirdre on the fiddle. Happy days, cresting on summer’s wave.
He was a wonderful poet, an exuberant translator, from a number of European languages, including Irish, of course – his version of Dante is quintessentially and pungently Carsonian – and a memoirist who could spring a sigh and a laugh simultaneously from his readers. I recall from many years ago a party down a lane somewhere in rural England – there was a book festival on – when Paul Muldoon and I spent an hilarious couple of hours in the company of Ciaran in someone’s rather grand drawing room; afterwards it took another couple of hours for the stitch in my side to abate. There will be from now on more laughter, and more poetry, up the steep slopes of Parnassus.
John Banville’s latest work is Mrs Osmond. A former literary editor of The Irish Times, he is now UCC professor of creative writing
It is no diminution of Ciaran Carson’s exceptional literary achievements to say first that he was an extraordinarily gifted translator. Irish was his cradle language, and his writing in English always had the verve and zest of a learned language. This was particularly true of his translations – of Merriman’s Cúirt an Mheán Oíche and the Táin, or Dante’s Inferno. As well as from Irish and Italian, he translated short poems from French and Spanish with great style and lucidity.
As well as linguistic hybridity which maybe fed his gift for translation, Ciaran was culturally mixed in many ways. He enjoyed telling audiences in England that he had played minor hurling for Antrim in Croke Park, leaving them to make what they could of it. If his multiculturalism had a fixed centre it was Irish music. He was a wonderfully lyrical flute-player and singer, especially of The Wild Colonial Boy. He found the brilliant rhythm for his ebullient Merriman in “a jig tune, Larry O’Gaff (also known as Daniel O’Connell and Bundle and Go”. Irish music was always his point de depart. And his Pocket Guide to Irish Traditional Music is the authoritative statement of its protocols – when you can volunteer a contribution and – more importantly – when you can’t. None of this is to underestimate his crucial poems in the period of the Troubles and around them, in books like The Irish For No. He was always close to the cultural ground, with an unparalleled ear for its sounds and its rules. He will be very sorely missed.
Bernard O’Donoghue is a poet and Oxford academic
In one of my abiding memories of him, Ciaran Carson sits on a black metal bench outside Castlecourt Shopping Centre on Belfast’s Royal Avenue, for an interview I am conducting for a Literary Belfast app. He wears a brown trilby, a navy blazer (with pocket handkerchief) over a paler blue shirt and deep red tie. His trousers, which are a very light grey with a fine stripe, are from Hentsch Man. I know. I asked him. He emailed me the link. Over the years, I probably talked to Ciaran as much about clothes as I did about writing. And why not? Style for him, I always thought, was a question of how you stood in relation to the world. Your angle of approach. (‘Stylish in his bones,’ is Patricia Craig’s verdict in her Guardian obituary.) He was the ultimate connoisseur of the well-crafted thing, whether it was a line of poetry, a shoe or a pen. And if an object could be unearthed in an antiques shop so much the better. That day on Royal Avenue he talked about Smithfield Market, on which Castlecourt had been overlaid: a labyrinth of secondhand shops, destroyed by an IRA firebomb in 1974. If the city is, as he wrote, the map of the city, Ciaran drew Belfast better than anyone I ever read.
Glenn Patterson is a writer
I was at the Dublin launch of The Irish for No. National Gallery, 1987. In truth, I went to hear someone else. I’d never heard of Ciaran Carson until then. But to be fair to my 19-year-old self, he’d published only one book and that was 11 years before.
That collection, bought that afternoon, is on a shelf of “sacred texts” in my flat in Dublin. The feel of floodgates opening, after long silence, remains palpable in every page. The wit, the copiousness, the electrical current... The signature Carson long line owed as much to the circuitous storytelling of John Campbell of Mullaghbawn as it did to Allen Ginsberg. I think it was Theo Dorgan who called Carson’s long line the meter of the sean nos. I always liked that.
Carson was the Troubles’ great laureate. No other of that extraordinary generation and a half made such poetry from conflict’s prosaic day-to-day: the rapid fire of punctuation, an casual interrogation’s existential questions, the silent paranoia.
But Carson was too much, too multitudinous, to be confined by the merely political. He was Ireland’s equivalent of Fernando Pessoa, the immortal Portuguese of many aliases. Where most of us struggle to be one fair-to-middling poet, Carson was several poets and all of them off the charts. He was the yakking shaggy dog stories of barfly Belfast during civil war. He was the Japanese miniaturist. He was Rimbaud & Baudelaire & Mallarme transposed liberally.
Few were lucky enough to know him. Most of us never got close. We all revered him and grieve his going into the world of light.
Conor O’Callaghan is a poet and novelist
When news of Ciaran Carson’s death broke I found myself reaching for Nina Simone singing The Twelfth of Never, the infinitely-dated love song that gave its title to Ciaran’s 1998 collection of shape-shifting sonnets and whose insistent “until…” echoes darkly through the thought-filled spaces of his 2010 collection Until Before After. How sad and strange to be writing about him now in the past tense, this poet who was himself the exuberant master of shifting between time zones, of artfully stretching and breaking time and space across the poetic line, and who, as a sprightly translator, crossed so many lines in his work; those between languages, art forms, linguistic registers, places and states of being. Immeasurable was the word that first came to mind when hit with news of his loss; the loss to the life of poetry in Belfast and far beyond is beyond measure, just as his immense, copious, open-ended work deals in that which eludes our grasp.
A poet of infinite variation and musical intensity – whom we find in On the Night Watch (2009) listening in to the white noise ‘to plumb // what was / immeasurable’ –his poems as stunning, dynamic arrangements of words will continue to disturb, question, complicate, and push at the limits of form and meaning, story and history. We need his animated, illuminating intelligence, his fine-tuned attentiveness to language, his transformative music, now more than ever.
Maria Johnston is a poetry critic and academic
“Like everything, it is what it is, and we live with it.” That’s how Ciarán signed off the last email I have from him, on July 28th just passed. He was outlining an attitude that had pervaded all of our interactions since I came to Queen’s in 2005 and he was in post as the Seamus Heaney Centre’s first Director: you do what you do, and what happens happens. What Ciarán did, and what he made happen, already fills books, and will continue to do so, by readers and scholars better able than I to do justice to the power and quartz-edged brilliance of this most international and cosmopolitan of Belfast’s sons. To have been alive to read his works is itself an honour, but to have shared time and (always) jokes with him, from the briefest of street-corner exchanges to extended evenings of intricate disquisitions on any writer or traditional musician you could think of: these I will count as the greatest privileges bestowed upon me. Simply put, Ciarán was a genius of untold dimensions. His labyrinthine engagement with the world of literature he brought back and mapped into his writings of Belfast and beyond. Like a subway transit system in perpetual motion, Ciarán gave to this city transports and destinations it could never have imagined without him. And these will run continuously on the perfectly tracked lines of his books for eternity.
Dr Philip McGowan is director of internationalisation, School of Arts, English & Languages, Queen’s University Belfast
My impression of Ciaran Carson during my 10 years in Belfast was of a man in the middle of everything. It was a privilege to see him read his work often, such was his generosity towards the writing community in Belfast and beyond. He had a word for everyone, from poetry enthusiasts to students to us dull academics. Friends would come out of the writing group he led with a new sense of purpose. His boundless imagination and attention to craft inspired a whole generation of writers to reclaim Belfast for poetry and prose. I have taught Carson’s work to Irish, English and American students and it makes them sit up. They know something rare and unusual is happening. His poems are full of twists and turns, movements that leave you disorientated and breathless. They are full of the same power as his readings: an almost unbearable kinetic energy that is perfectly controlled by a master at work.
I find it hard to separate my experience of living in Belfast with his poetry. Taking a short cut, I hear Belfast Confetti. Hearing music, I think of Last Night’s Fun. I cannot imagine Belfast without his caustic wit, fierce imagination and sharp pen.
Dr Caroline Magennis is a lecturer in 20th and 21st century literature at the University of Salford and chair of the British Association for Irish Studies
When I heard Ciaran Carson had died I kept thinking of Mahon’s great elegy for Louis MacNeice. Like MacNeice, Carson was the poet for “rinsing the choked mud, keeping the colours new”. He was endlessly adventurous, “auxiliarizing verse with prose” as he puts it in The Ballad of HMS Belfast, inventing new worlds at will (his work is full of trap-doors and portals onto underworlds and hidden realms). Above all, there is the magic of his language, which is ever alive and limber, muscular, stringent.
As a crime writer, I love the mystery vibe in Carson’s work, its “atmospheric genre fogs”, its “Belfast Caravaggio interiors of noir”. This is a poetry of bullet trajectories, getaway cars, stool pigeons, coded messages, dark deeds plotted in the snugs of pubs, where the poet wanders the urban labyrinth like a bewildered gumshoe, trying to “piece together the exploded fragments”. As a novelist, I learned so much from those questing narrative poems that change tack, pull up short, take one step forward and two steps back, unfolding, for all the world, like an investigation by Philip Marlowe or McKinty’s Sean Duffy. He is a touchstone, one of the greats. He will endure.
Liam McIlvanney is a crime novelist and co-director, Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand
I have heard that up to the very end he was chatting and singing this does not surprise me as his force was tremendous . For 50 years since his early twenties he has been a cultural influence in the fields of poetry music and folk music fiction and education creative writing and critical work. I would not be surprised to learn he has one or two plays lurking about or that there are paintings and sculptures languishing in his non-existent garage. Because anything he turned his hand to was turned. His proficiency with languages stemmed from his original upbringing in Falls Road Irish and his use of English as a secondary, imperial tongue.
His understanding of politics was deeply formed by growing up in the schools and churches of Belfast yet he became a world traveller, an international powerhouse and a beloved source of humour and wisdom for the dozens of students who followed his flame. It was he who introduced me to women poets like Eavan Boland, Tess Gallagher and Elizabeth Bishop. It was he who praised my own work to Gallery Press so that they took me on. It is no exaggeration to affirm on a merely personal level that my life as poet would never have developed as it did without his original guidance.
He was working on his first full collection with Blackstaff when I met him first and I was privy to his working methods, to the way he garnered and sifted words so that I began to see that poems grow out of other poems and poets grow out of other poets. I do not deny that he will be sorely missed but as long as we can reach along the long and heavy shelf of the beautiful legacy he has left us, particularly the new spellbinding collection, the fruit of his illness, we are in touch with him as clearly as the fine book of Kells of his handwriting, for he loved pens.
Medbh McGuckian is a poet
The joy of coming across a poem called Dresden which unstoppably begins,
“Horse Boyle was called horse Boyle because of his brother Mule;
Though why Mule was called Mule was anybody’s guess. I stayed there once,
Or rather, I nearly stayed. But that’s another story.”
And meeting Ciaran was like that too, one story leading into another, going for a drink in the Palace Bar here in Manchester, Ciaran in his beautiful tweed suit, an evening which started by his going behind the bar to explain what he meant, what was meant, by a Martini to the about-to-be-educated barman.
Talking to Ciaran about almost anything could be like that. Hilarious, straight-talking, always great clarity. One night in Belfast, after a good meal, the conversation turned to hurling, a great love of his, and a sport he knew well from his time as an Antrim minor. We were talking about the pros of the Cork strike, and he said there should be something written on it and would send me something that might help to get me started. A few weeks later, that prompt arrived, a two-volume history of hurling, from ancient times until the foundation of the GAA in 1884, in Irish. Ciaran’s fields of expertise were like that, all fed by his love of and curiosity about language, and music, and yes sport and poetry.
His writing never wavered from risks and he had a Borgesian flair for inventing worlds and forms: in prose, the entirely new zero style prose of his last novel Exchange Place easily matched the learnedness and tall tall tales of classics like Last Night’s Fun and The Star Factory. In poetry, he would step away from that brilliant and influential long line of the 1980s and 90s books like Belfast Confetti and The Irish for No to the newsflashes of Breaking News, the complicated narrative mirror of For All We Know, the densely talky version of the Inferno, and then there’s the haunted, stripped-down necessities of Until Before After and his Jean Follain translations. There was no one like him. His recent New Yorker poems, from a new manuscript called Still Life, suggested another new direction, poems which start off as meditations on paintings and, as was his attentive way as a writer, just keep going.
John McAuliffe is a poet, academic and poetry critic for The Irish Times
I never properly met Ciaran Carson, only glimpsed him fleetingly in a couple of places, but I have many of his books. I loved the way the long lines in Belfast Confetti, and also in For All We Know, scampered across the page, so full of fine particulars it was like being dragged at speed through the hedge of a history still buzzing with life. I loved how the sonnets in The Twelfth of Never asserted not the rule of the form but the life of the form, as did rhyme in Opera Et Cetera. There were the tiny broken lines of Breaking News, some of them no more than a word or two. Then there were the translations, The Inferno, From Elsewhere, and The Midnight Court. All these represented a governed energy that was all the more energetic for being governed. These were fields I thought I too was labouring in, fields that grew rapidly and were full of matter.
I can’t say anything about the specific and keen Irishness of the poems, which was obviously central to him. My Hungarianness – or indeed Jewishness, such as it was – did not work in the same way. He was fully lodged in his community in a way I could never be. It was the life of his music, a music that was pure music and words that dazzled and impressed me. How could one not love that?
George Szirtes is a poet and translator
Ciaran Carson was a poet of linguistic resourcefulness and energy who in a single poem could deliver a profusion of twists and turns and dazzling surprises (“The train slowed to a halt with a sigh like Schweppes” – Letters from the Alphabet, S). Despite the shapeshifting throughout his work, its seeming restlessness, its final effect and achievement is unified: an orchestrated body of work that moves between copiousness and lyrical economy. He was a renovator of the anecdotal poem as he demonstrated early on in The Irish for No. In the poems and prose interludes of Belfast Confetti he produced not only a wonderful homage to his native city but responses to the historic moment of the Troubles. His imagination and the full range of his output stretch well beyond those Northern settings – to Japan, Paris and elsewhere as well as into the world and work of visual artists which he rendered in language that was always afresh and often subversive.
Gerard Smyth is poetry editor of The Irish Times
Ciaran’s flute playing was an unearthly, sublime experience; and as a translator, he really was a character in search of an author--- in giving voice to authors without (from Dante to Merriman) he liberated the great author within. His versions are those of a true lover---faithful without seeming so. Belfast Confetti is a signature volume of modern Irish poetry, which manages the miraculous feat of assimilating the theories of Walter Benjamin and others to the lyric utterance of a major Irish city. And Last Night’s Fun is one of the deftest, most amusing and astonishingly wide-ranging studies of the relation between traditional music and the performing self.
When I was sent a proof copy of Ciaran Carson’s new book, Still Life, I happened to be reading another book about painting, Zbigniew Herbert’s Still Life with a Bridle (‘a touchstone for many years’, Carson told me). Commenting on the artistic revolution of the Dutch seventeenth century, Herbert writes ‘The artists tried to augment the visible world of their small country and to multiply reality’, placing the world of things at the centre of their art. In Carson’s work, whole streets come and go, leaving only waste land and ghosts. Yet Carson is also the poet of abiding and radiant visible reality, as stored in the urban archive against oblivion of The Irish For No, Belfast Confetti, and The Star Factory. He’s also a bit of a Dutch painter himself, lurking in the mirror like van Eyck in The Arnolfini Wedding, while a world of landscapes and interiors spins around him. His final poems wander in a vortex between art and reality, where “there is always / something else to see in everything we see”. The artist has vanished into the mirror but his multiplied realities dazzle from the work. I salute with a melancholy hail and farewell a master’s luminous shade.
David Wheatley is a poet and academic
As a student in Belfast in the Eighties, and then lingering for a further decade, I was always very conscious of how dysfunctional the city was. But while things were often grim, and despair was a regular option, there was a certain fortification to be found in the presence of the poets.
Hewitt, Longley, Fiacc, Ormsby, McGuckian and Simmons all meant different things to student poets like me, but Carson felt somehow essential. His work, both expansive and focused, revealed Belfast – and by extension the North – as a place with far more interesting ingredients than were immediately evident. It gave hope and suggested possibility. Sometimes it even made sense of the place.
Here was a man with imaginative access to everything from Dante to Derrygonnelly box players. Language itself – not just English and Irish – seemed to be his. I well remember readings to launch books like The Irish For No and Belfast Confetti and how those poems both dazzled and went deep. I also recall, with great gratitude, the aftermaths of such occasions and some uncommonly good times in the Common Room. He was always a gentleman. And always a mighty poet.
John Kelly is a writer and broadcaster. Notions is published by Dedalus Press.
I met Ciaran Carson for the first time way back in the late 1960s when a bunch of “students” used to hang out on the steps of Belfast Central Library. He published his first book New Estate in 1976 with Blackstaff and would produce over the next almost half century with Gallery Press some of most mind-blowing volumes of poetry in the language. Ciaran just didn’t write poems. He turned language into a physical thing – sounds, of course, but also structures, voices, he loved it all; not only English but Irish, his first language, and everything else that came his way – French, Italian, Dante, Rimbaud…. His imagination was a one-man industrial-strength, full voltage engineering factory, galvanising everything he read and heard into the lasting shapes of verse. But also his prose books, from memoir to fiction and back again, had at their heart the ambition of form. For his family and friends his loss is incalculable. For the rest of us it’s a shock to see him go but at least we have those great books of his – a rare and permanent legacy which will stand testament to his enduring attachment to his native city of Belfast and the Irish language tradition he did so much to modernise and sustain.
Gerald Dawe is a poet and academic
The first time I ever saw Ciaran Carson was one Sunday afternoon in Tom Kelly’s bar in Short Strand, a small nationalist enclave in east Belfast. It was the late 1970s. The bar, with the genial Tom Kelly as host, was an oasis in those dark days, even though it stood proud and alone as the old Short Strand was being demolished. Ciaran and Deirdre Shannon, his future wife, were talented musicians, absorbed in the creation of their music - the audience might as well not have existed. Twenty years later, in Last Night’s Fun, Ciaran revealed his interior life in a book that conjured up the Belfast of the 1960s and ’70s, ranging effortlessly from meditations on the Irish fried egg and the essential hangover cure of ‘The Fry’, to scholarly explanation of the tunes and stories of traditional music, and, most gloriously of all, descriptions of experiences of playing music with friends – smoking, drinking, improvising – weaving those beloved tunes with spontaneity while knowing that what is conjured up can never be repeated: “You are in tune with what goes on…Time accelerates or contracts. We make a contract with it to pretend that it will never overcome us.” Our Belfast poet. What a proud legacy he leaves us.
Margaret Ward is honorary senior lecturer in history at Queen’s University Belfast and the author of Fearless Woman: Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Feminism and The Irish Revolution.
Gallery’s 1987 The Irish For No, my oldest Carson book, is the most distressed – not that I pored over his subsequent publications less closely, but because I didn’t need to drag them everywhere I travelled so I could share their brilliant contents with ignorant poets; the electrifying impact of his work in that volume secured his fame outright. I took its beer-furred, tobacco-y pages with me on the day he died to hear Irish poets, including his friend Alan Gillis, read and honour him in Yorkshire for a large appreciative local audience, familiar with Ciaran’s achievement, sorry for this great loss. Once again, genius proves that attending to what is precisely local is exactly what makes it everybody’s as Patrick Kavanagh advised.
But however rightly we mourn Ciaran now, he left us so much of himself in his pages that I came away reminded of an aside from Shamrock Tea – “since the present has no duration and past and future do not exist …” the best writers can stop time to draw the momentous from moments and Ciaran did that in terrible times with humour, music and a devilish eye for detail which will enrich future generations in the front rank of Irish poetry, small comfort though that is to the many who love the man now.
Ian Duhig is a poet
With Heaney, Ciaran Carson is one of the few northern Irish poets to break through the ice of the British curriculum. Snatches of Belfast Confetti are still quoted to me in seminars by young English students who took it in, briefly aware of the violence we fear a return to. Consider that achievement in present times.
Ciaran could be amusingly awkward and was not averse to turning down interviews, insisting that his work spoke for itself. He saved his time for the Seamus Heaney Centre, where he brought together programmes and poets, readings and events, for years.
He was the international-calibre poet – and translator – who met with the street-level reality of modern Belfast. Nothing conveys a riot, the collapse of language, better than the aforementioned poem (you knew Ciaran was in, or around, that disturbance). Shortly after winning the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, he described wandering round the Waterworks in north Belfast, feeling on top of the world, when some local young scallywags brought him back down to earth by shouting “Speccy c*nt!” at him as he walked past. It seems typical that he told this story with a big smile and more than a hint that he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Connal Parr is a lecturer in history at Northumbria University
Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado
I was terribly sad to learn of Ciaran Carson’s death. A prodigious talent, his wide-ranging literary oeuvre may speak to the reader in different linguistic, historical, or symbolic registers, but it is always in his distinctive Belfast burr. For this reader, it is that voice, particularly within his Troubles poems, which has a renewed urgency in our current moment of political crisis.
He asserted of life in Northern Ireland, “If there’s one thing certain about what was or is going on, it’s that you don’t know the half of it. The official account is only an account, and there are many others. Poetry offers yet another alternative. It asks questions…It asks about the truth which is never black-and-white.”
Carson wrote home truths about the grey zones of lived place and experience in the North, and his poems chart its shifting, conflictive cityscapes and inscapes. In Turn Again (1987), the speaker states, “Someone asks me for directions, and I think again. I turn into / A side-street try to throw off my shadow, and history is changed.” Carson was a true visionary, and his rich, labyrinthine verses present alternative accounts of Northern Ireland that have changed its history forever.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is a Visiting Research Fellow, Queen’s University Belfast
It’s hard to imagine what life was like in Northern Ireland in the 1980s for school-children. All around us a civil war was raging that we could see with our own eyes yet the grown-ups kept telling us that it wasn’t a war it was only “The Troubles” and nothing to be worried about.
In school I was amazed that the situation was never addressed in history or in english class. We learned about Henry VIII’s marital problems or Thomas Hardy’s worries about the railways pushing into Wessex. Isn’t there anyone talking about this at all? I wondered. And then, thank God, I discovered Ciaran Carson whose poetry took seriously what was happening on the street outside his window. Urgent, powerful, lyrical, intelligent, funny, angry – Carson was a voice of sanity that I and many others clung to like a lifebelt. His poem Belfast Confetti said more in two verses about life during The Troubles than any number of movies, books and newspaper columns. As I dug deeper I saw that Carson was also a brilliant translator and a poet so gifted that any subject he chose to write about was transformed into something personal and immediate and was just as compelling as his breathless journeys through the Belfast streets.
Adrian McKinty is a crime novelist
When I’m unsure of what to say, I think of what the great, good man would recommend. Whatever the case, Ciaran would say go to the dictionary, particularly the Oxford English Dictionary ‑ one of his favourite things, as he describes it in a piece in The Tangerine magazine. Throughout many glorious, hilarious, musical, inspiring poetry workshops at Queen’s, filled to the brim with stories and anecdotes (the one about North Carolina ‑ I think ‑ which ends, improbably, “and that’s how I ended up winning the Country & Western singing competition”), the piece of advice occurring with the greatest frequency was “look it up in the OED”. With an enthusiasm ever undiminished, he’d say look up the word “set”.
It’s the closest thing to homework he’d…set. Who knows how many of us did.
As he says in the piece I mention above, of the less exotic, common word, “it will mean more things than what you thought it meant”.
His kindnesses are innumerable and his generosity extraordinary. The city of Belfast is changed without the prospect of him in it, and it’s hard to know what to say while we try to reconfigure the place and the language without him, however embedded in both he is. We try. As usual, of course, il maestro has it right, and it’s right there under entry 1a: “The act of setting (of a luminary)”.
Stephen Sexton is a poe
Ciaran Carson’s second book, The Irish for No, published in 1987, came as a surprise. His first book had been published 11 years earlier. The early poems were accomplished, polished, almost restrained. The poems in The Irish for No used a long line and were, among many other things, a set of digressions, the voice witty and knowing, every word set down with care, the author fully aware of each word’s weight and measure, its history and complexity. The poems seemed brilliantly loose and unbuttoned, but underlying them was a fierce control.
Carson took what he needed from story-telling, from Walt Whitman, from the American poet CK Williams, and then he set about tightening the texture of the poem, working out a verbal pattern that was closely woven. In the many books published since, and in the recent poems that have been appearing in magazines, there was a great formal restlessness. Having mastered the long line, he set about perfecting the short line. Having mastered a sort of throw-away eloquence, he, in recent poems, worked on a more hushed personal tone.
He also became a great translator and a wonderful prose writer, Last Night’s Fun and The Star Factory matching his poetry in the way they watched words and relished phrases and displayed, as the poems did, an organic sense of form.
Colm Tóibín is an author
Coming across Ciaran Carson’s collection The Irish for No felt revelatory in Ulster in the nineties. There was a kind of hard energy in the work you couldn’t elsewhere. The voice was the voice of a fella beside you at the bar, but the fella got weird quick. In the tour de force, Dresden, for example, Horse Boyle (Horse because his brother was called Mule) came from Carrowkeel, a place that was so crabbed and mean, “men were known to eat their dinner from a drawer, which they’d shut the minute you’d walk in.” Horse goes off to England and joins the RAF, becoming a rear gunner who flies over Dresden, bombing the china factories. Horse thinks back to a Dresden statuette of a milkmaid on the mantelpiece he’d watch while he knelt with his family to say the Rosary. Carson tries to “pick up the thread”, and in the local, the specific, the winding detail, he highlights where all the national and religious ‘strains criss-cross in useless equilibrium’, as Heaney wrote of Francis Ledwidge.
The early books show a mind trying to get to grips with what had happened to his city and community. Beneath the craic and bitter wit, there is always something hard-edged, obdurate, desperate. The speaker is a flaneur perhaps, but a flaneur out of Kafka: “Today’s plan is already yesterday’s - the streets that were there are gone…”
Over many, many books of exemplary poetry and prose, Carson constructed a shadow-Belfast out of language: the word and the world continually merge in the work. Belfast Confetti, the stuff thrown at a riot squad, is “exclamation marks, nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type…”. I met him many times over the years: he usually wanted to cadge a light and/or complain to me about Unionists. When I interviewed him on stage last year over here in New York, we talked about the poems he’d take to a desert island. He spoke about his deep love for Emily Dickinson. He was the same Ciaran: spiky, generous, funny, impatient. It’s a sad day for Irish literature, and for all the poets.
Nick Laird is a poet and author
Truth is, he was better than the rest of us. Short line, long line, breezy, pinpoint, narrative, lyric, musical, conversational, poetry prose, translations - for God’s sake, he could do it all, and do it so it seemed like it was all that needed to be done. His work continues to set a standard. He never wrote the same book twice, every one of them inventive in an entirely new way, a scheme to it that had an essential style and ambition. Risk, brio and élan. He was the most urbane of contemporary Irish poets: every book he wrote knew of the world, no matter the language; no matter the century; no matter the point of origin - he knew how to strike it new.
I saw him read last year at the Irish Arts Center in New York, at their annual PoetryFest. He did a Desert Island Poems slot with Marie Howe, Ciaran picking poems by mostly American poets. He can’t have been well then, but he was smart and erudite and he bothered to bring his chosen poems to light with great energy and smart chat, and a strong sense that this was all still a pleasure to him, this talking about good poems.
I’m glad we have one more collection to come, Still Life. And grateful too for books that defined our age (Belfast Confetti, First Language, Breaking News, his translation of Dante’s Inferno, his wonderful Rimbaud translations, In the Light Of, - and so many others). Books that put it up to us, my generation, and showed us what was possible, if we had the blood and discipline (as Plath wrote of Yeats) to only try.
He was something. We all learned from him, if we wanted to learn at all. Style and substance; the high-flying line, the clipped precision; the moment of terrific, almost unimaginable, whirr and breathtaking accuracy. And always an impish sense of humour, poems that knew how to enjoy themselves and also to be sly and sharp and fierce. Poems that pushed form and tone and even genre, and yet seemed outlandishly elegant. Poems that engaged and yet never lost sight of style and flair. Poems that will not be forgotten. Poems that soared.
Vona Groarke is a poet
When I heard the news about Ciaran, at the start of a slow Sunday journey from London back to Belfast, I had a line from his wonderful translation of Dante’s Inferno running through my head. It’s the end of Canto I, where Dante follows the Virgil-Poet-Guide into the unknown with ‘So off he went; and I kept close behind’.
Ciaran gave a reading from that book at Queen’s in 2002 (in performance, it was Dante meets Belfast with a dash of Don Corleone), not long before he became director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. And for the last 16 years he’s been something of a godfather in Queen’s to a new generation of writers and critics, who have learned from him, been inspired by him, written for him, written about him, understood Belfast through his eyes. For the poetry students he was a benevolent and dapper Pied Piper figure; they followed him as ‘off he went’ with magical words and a wooden flute. He created, in the Centre, that fragile ‘small back room’ he always believed in as the place where the important things happen - the music, the conversation, the poems. And he did so with an extraordinary generosity of spirit, helping students and poets right to the end, even as he was writing what he knew was his own last book. Nothing will ever be quite the same again.
Fran Brearton is Professor of Modern Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast
GAOTH AN FHOCAIL
Ar tí dul i bhfostú i mbaclainn an chodlata
tháinig séideán gaoithe ag cnagadh ar an bpána;
é cúthaileach, tostach — teachtaire aduaidh
agus leisce air an drochnuacht a nochtadh.
Thuigeas, ar ndóigh, a bheadh le hinsint aige,
gaoth an fhocail le fada anois sa bhfirmimint,
ó réalta go réalta i dtitim na hoíche. Mar sin féin,
d'eíríos de phreab, do lámh daingean im' lámhsa,
lasair an chumha ina laom idir do dhá shúil, codladh
ar neamhní, gaoth an fhocail go tobann ina gála gaoithe.
do Ciaran Carson, ar a bhealach dó
THE WIND OF THE WORD
I was on the brink of sinking into the arms of sleep
when a gust came, and rattled the window pane;
shy, reticent - a messenger from the north
hesitant to disclose the bad news.
I knew what he’d come to say, we’d been hearing
wind of the word across the firmament
from star to star in the long fall of night. All the same
I woke with a start, your hand firm in my hand,
flames of grief already arcing between your eyes, sleep
cancelled, wind of the word all of a sudden the full gale.
to Ciaran Carson, on his journey
I first met Ciaran in the mid 1980s. I had been trying to establish a routine of writing for the Irish News and had suggested him as an interviewee. This puzzled him because there was no particular news angle. He was between books. He had previously been maligned in some republican propaganda sheet and he was afraid, I think, that I was going to follow the same line, ask him why he was not representing the travails under British imperialism of the neighbourhood from which we had emerged.
I met him many times over the years at English Society readings. His memory of these, he has told me, is that I was often drunk. My own would moderate that image a little. I suspect that he did not take me seriously and this suspicion, as much as anything else, made some of our encounters a little edgy, as if each of us was expecting the other to snap. We were like old dogs that bristle in each other’s company.
We got to know and like each other better when I was writer in residence at Queen’s and he was Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre. Sometimes he seemed frivolous and playful at staff meetings. Often he was away writing. Student papers were double marked and once we were paired as markers and I found him a thoughtful and considerate marker.
I often attended his writing group on Wednesday afternoons. Once I read a chapter of a memoir and he was dismissive. He said that a story like that relies on us believing that it is true. A story should work as a story whether it is true or not. That was me dealt with. I photographed him a few times and found that he was a good subject. He participated in the making of the picture.
When he was ill, I felt that I did not know him well enough to call at the house but I wanted to dedicate my latest book to him. Frank Ormsby had suggested that and did the same with his latest. But my editor wanted a clear confirmation that there was no fada in Ciaran. Google his name and some entries have the fada and some don’t. So I emailed him and he got back straight away, thanking me for the dedication and scoffing at the fada. He was good at scoffing.
When the book came out, he took issue with my quote from the Irish language version of the Z Cars theme that our class had been taught at the Gaeltacht. He phoned me. I was at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I was in a bistro having lunch but went out into the street to sing the song to him. He then sang it back to me with a much sharper grasp of the tune, stuck to his point and we laughed.
The Aspects Arts Festival asked me a few weeks ago for some of my writers’ pictures for a small exhibition. I gave them one of Ciaran and in looking for it found an older picture of Ciaran with Seamus Heaney, and I sent it to him and he was very pleased and asked for a print. Then I suggested photographing him again and he immediately agreed. Two weeks ago I called at his house and he brought me up to the bedroom. He was nicely dressed and wearing a tie which he had thumbed out over the top of his jumper so that the knot jutted. He fetched his hat and posed with it, standing, and then sat at a little chair by the window. He had planned the pictures.
We talked about the fact that he was going to die and he said that he did not get worked up about it because there was no point in raging “against the dying of the light”. He said that he felt his life had been good because he had explored language. The experience of his illness had given him a book and that was something he was glad of. He said that he felt a writer had an ethical responsibility to use the right word.
Once I had interviewed him in front of an audience and he had spoken then too of a sense that language pre-exists. These are my words, not his but I think I am faithfully paraphrasing. I challenged him on whether he had an essentially transcendental understanding of language, and since he was a bit cussed and wouldn’t let me choose his words for him, he rejected that, but I think that is what he meant. So I asked him, after the photo session, if he had any expectation of an existence after death. He said, the universe is so big and complicated it would take some cheek to say you knew one way or the other.
Then he said he was sure I had other things to do, the gentlest nudge to be gone, and we hugged and parted. He showed me to the front door and I turned and saw him framed there and thought, there’s the picture I want. But it would have been impertinent to prolong the visit, so it is only in my head, Ciaran standing there in his woollen jumper and dapperly arranged tie, saying goodbye.
Malachi O’Doherty is a writer and journalist
Still Life, Ciaran Carson’s final collection, is published by Gallery Press next week, hardback €18.50 and paperback €11.95.
Ciaran Carson (1948-2019) is survived by his wife Deirdre, children Manus, Gerard and Mary, and siblings and brother to Caitlin, Pat, Brendan and Liam. His Requiem Mass will be on Thursday, October 10th at St Therese of Lisieux Church, Somerton Road, Belfast at 10am, then afterwards to Roselawn Crematorium for committal at noon.