Friday 15 November 2019

Obituary: Ciaran Carson

Belfast-born poet was immersed in Irish music and took a surreal view of the Troubles

UCD honour: University College Dublin conferred an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Arts on poet Ciaran Carson in June 2011. Photo: Shane O'Neill / Fennells
UCD honour: University College Dublin conferred an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Arts on poet Ciaran Carson in June 2011. Photo: Shane O'Neill / Fennells

​Ciaran Carson, who died last Sunday aged 70, was a poet whose work captured the sense of strangeness that comes from living in Belfast and the world.

His digressive and erudite poems, as well as his unpredictable prose, can often put imaginary places and situations alongside real ones, and dream sequences are a regular feature of his oeuvre.

​The poets who emerged from the Troubles responded to the situation in a range of ways, some indirect, such as Seamus Heaney's use of archaeological images and Michael Longley's reflections on mythology. At times Carson's own approach could be direct, but he might also turn to other conflicts or make arcane connections.

Although his style has much in common with Paul Muldoon's long-lined and learned rambles around a range of references, there is a sense of story-telling and psychological association that makes his work all the more unsettling.

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In part this came from his deep immersion in Irish music, with its free-flowing melodies and ballads. Carson, urbane and dapper, was an accomplished exponent of the flute and the tin whistle.

Readings - a feature of his velvet voice was his stammer - could spontaneously become concerts and vice versa: he would frequently perform with his wife, the fiddler Deirdre Shannon, and burst into song.

​​​For much of his professional life he was Traditional Music Officer for the Northern Ireland Arts Council: he considered jamming and drinking sessions around the island of Ireland to be much-needed field work.

But the sense of reality and unreality operating at the same time came most strongly from Carson's distinct upbringing. He grew up in the Catholic Falls Road area. His father learnt to speak Irish and taught it (Carson's mother was one of his students).

Irish was the language of the home, alongside some Esperanto, and the poet would later recall: "If you spoke English in the house it was a sin… it was evil. You learnt to speak English on the street."

Ciaran Carson was born in Belfast on October 9, 1948, one of five children. His father worked as a postman. The family was Catholic, and although Carson would soon come to question the faith, he remained attached to the music of its liturgy, and in particular the Latin mass: one collection, Opera et Cetera (1996), uses Latin tags as the starting point for poems.

Carson attended St Mary's Christian Brothers' Grammar School. From there he went to Queen's University, Belfast, in 1967.

Seamus Heaney was one of his tutors; poets Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian were in the year below.

Beyond the university, the Troubles made an immediate impact on Carson: once, when he was sitting in a taxi, a bullet missed him by an inch or two. On many other occasions he was stopped by the police, and once reflected that he might have come close to joining an armed group.

Instead he worked for the Arts Council, first as a music officer and later as literature officer. It was on his musical travels that he met Deirdre Shannon. They married in 1982.

His first collection, The New Estate (1976), was spare and lyrical, drawing on his experience of moving to a modern housing development with some regret at the impact on older ways of life.

But his breakthrough was the more expansive collection, The Irish for No (1987). Its substantial opening poem, Dresden, pointed clearly in a new direction for Carson, with stories within stories starting in Northern Ireland and making an eventual connection with the bombing of Dresden.

Alongside his poetry came prose.

Carson won the T S Eliot prize with First Language in 1993; Breaking News (2003) won the Forward Prize.

Translation had always been a feature of his work from The New Estate onwards, and this became an increasingly significant way of exploring his feeling that there was no definitive way of putting things: one volume, aptly called From Elsewhere (2014) placed translations of Jean Follain's French poems beside Carson's own elaborations of them.

He translated from Irish, and also Italian, rendering Dante's Inferno to great acclaim.

His significance to both Irish and English letters was honoured by his appointment both as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a member of Aosdana, the Irish body of 250 outstanding artists.

From 2003 until his retirement in 2016, he was professor of English at Queen's University, Belfast, and director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. On his death, the Irish President Michael D Higgins paid tribute to Carson, and fondly recalled a journey the two had made together to the Scottish isle of Iona.

Before he died, Carson completed a last volume of poetry, Still Life, to be published this Saturday.

He is survived by his wife and their three children, Manus, Gerard and Mary.

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