Ciaran Carson 1948-
Irish poet and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Carson's works through 2003.
Carson grew up in the troubled city of Belfast, Ireland, and the city plays an important role in his work. His poetry is characterized by long, lyrical lines and often explores the very nature of language.
Carson was born in 1948 in Belfast to Gaelic-speaking, Catholic parents. His father was a postman and is a strong presence in Carson's poetry. Carson worked as Traditional Arts Officer for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, an organization that seeks to preserve Irish traditional arts while supporting the artist's right to add to tradition. Carson published his first collection of poetry, The New Estate (1976), when he was 28. Eleven years passed before he published his next collection, The Irish for No (1987). Carson's First Language (1994) won the T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize for the outstanding book of poetry published in Great Britain in 1994. Carson has chosen to continue to live in Belfast, despite many precedents of other artists fleeing the area when they have gained popularity.
The poetry in The New Estate is a celebration of traditional craftsmanship and an exploration of how things are constructed. Most of these poems are conventional in form, composed in unrhymed tercets and quatrains. The collection also contains numerous references to Irish legend and tradition and attempts to connect them to modern life. Carson's poems are personal and domestic and do not address Ireland's political turmoil. The Irish for No is a departure from his first collection and explores how miscommunication can lead to violence, as well as how violence permeates language and life in contemporary Belfast. Instead of despairing, Carson responds with black humor and satire to the chaotic urban landscape he portrays. In Belfast Confetti (1993) Carson combines his ability to vividly render everyday life with his evocation of Belfast's complex history of conflict. The poems are characterized by long lines and Carson again employs irony and sardonic humor. In First Language, the troubles in Belfast recede to the periphery and language takes center stage. Carson explores how English, Gaelic, and Belfast slang intersect, and how communication often fails. The collection is filled with Carson's versions of other poets' work, including that of Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, and Ovid. In Opera et Cetera (1996), Carson concentrates exclusively on the manipulation of language. The poems in this collection are filled with puns and wordplay; several are adaptations from the work of Romanian poet Stefan Augustin Doinas. In Carson's most rigid use of form yet, the poems all follow the same form: a ten-line lyric poem with five rhymed couplets in long lines. The Star Factory (1997) is a memoir of Carson's life growing up in Belfast. It is a rich portrayal of the city and its inhabitants, who live their everyday lives amid the chaos of political conflict. Shamrock Tea (2000) is a novel set in 1950s Belfast. The protagonist, a young boy named Carson, is sent on a quest by his uncle to obtain shamrock tea, a mythical drink that causes people to see with clarity that the world is connected and infinite. His Uncle Celestine thinks that shamrock tea will unite Ireland, if he can put it into the water supply. The novel follows Carson and his two friends as they embark on a magical journey to search for a supply of the elusive tea.
Carson's The Irish for No and Belfast Confetti have garnered the most critical acclaim for the poet. Critics have praised Carson's technique in The Irish for No, stating that his style complements the theme and purpose of the collection. Reviewers have also lauded Carson's rendering of dialogue and sound in his poetry. In a review of Belfast Confetti, Ben Howard asserted, “Carson's wit enlivens his lines, as do his energetic rhythms and his precise, auditory imagery. He has a keen ear, both for speech and for the sounds the world is making.” Several reviewers perceive echoes of Louis MacNiece's poetry in Carson's work. Some critics have noted a similarity between Carson and fellow Belfast poet Paul Muldoon in terms of style and use of vocabulary. Commentators have also pointed out that Carson has a fondness for list-making, both in his poetry and his prose. In another review of Belfast Confetti, John Lucas concluded, “It's notable that [Carson] often strips the similes away and deals out seemingly endless lists: as though he's determined to itemise all the bits of confetti. The result is that by the time you get to the end of the volume you have an almost visceral feeling for Belfast. …” Most critics agree that Belfast is a central character in much of Carson's work. Several reviewers have found Carson's Opera et Cetera and Star Factory self-indulgent because of his elaborate use of language and wordplay in both books. Critics generally appreciated Shamrock Tea for its magical qualities, rhythmic prose, and erudition.
The New Estate (poetry) 1976
The Irish for No (poetry) 1987
Belfast Confetti (poetry) 1993
First Language: Poems (poetry) 1994
Letters from the Alphabet (poetry) 1995
Last Night's Fun: A Book about Irish Traditional Music (essays and poetry) 1996; also published as Last Night's Fun: In and out of Time with Irish Music, 1997
Opera et Cetera (poetry) 1996
The Star Factory (memoir) 1997
The Twelfth of Never (poetry) 1998
The Ballad of the HMS Belfast: A Compendium of Belfast Poems (poetry) 1999
Fishing for Amber: A Long Story (fiction) 2000
Shamrock Tea (novel) 2000
Selected Poems (poetry) 2001
SOURCE: Wills, Clair. “Responses and Allegiances.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4431 (4 March 1988): 254.
[In the following excerpt, Wills describes how Carson demonstrates the connection between violence and language in The Irish for No.]
The use of physical force and verbal persuasion are at opposite ends of the spectrum of communication, and neither could be said to be alien to Ireland. It is the connection between these two ways of getting your message across which interests Ciaran Carson in his outstanding new collection, The Irish for No; he demonstrates how the violence which arises from the breakdown of communication penetrates the structures of language itself. The book is split into three parts, the first and third of which comprise a series of long poems seemingly aimless and arbitrary in their adherence to the rhythms of colloquial speech and the distorted procedures of oral narrative. In stark contrast, the central series of short Belfast poems present “a formula for the collapsing city” in the “squiggles, dashes and question marks” which lie somewhere between language and silence. So, “Belfast Confetti” represents the disturbance caused by an explosion on the map of the city and on that of the page:
Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks, Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken...
(The entire section is 648 words.)
SOURCE: Drexel, John. “Threads of Double-Stranded Words: News from the North of Ireland.” New England Review 12, no. 2 (winter 1989): 179-92.
[In the following excerpt, Drexel provides a brief survey of contemporary Irish poetry and details how Carson's work relates to it.]
Fifty years after his death, Yeats's influence on Irish poetry is finally beginning to fade. It isn't that the current generation has discounted him—to the contrary. But if there is a presiding figure now for younger Irish poets to contend with, it's Seamus Heaney. Heaney's accomplishment in our day may not match that of Yeats in his, but Heaney is by far the most visible Irish poet currently...
(The entire section is 2866 words.)
SOURCE: Ford, Mark. “Sssnnnwhuffffll.” London Review of Books 11, no. 2 (19 January 1989): 14.
[In the following excerpt, Ford argues that Carson establishes a particular political context in The Irish for No.]
[The Irish for No] is Ciaran Carson's second collection of poems. His first, The New Estate (1976), revealed an intricate, lyrical poet intensely aware of traditional Irish cultures, and concerned to connect them meaningfully with the sprawl of modern living; these early poems are taut, rather literary, and often very beautiful. His themes are pretty much the same in his equally impressive new book, but his approach to them has changed...
(The entire section is 948 words.)
SOURCE: Lucas, John. “Changing History.” New Statesman and Society 3, no. 112 (3 August 1990): 42.
[In the following excerpt, Lucas praises Carson's Belfast Confetti.]
There's so much going on in Ciaran Carson's new volume [Belfast Confetti] that it's impossible to do more here than offer a few pointers to its riches. First, then, the title. The phrase crops up, menacingly and/or enigmatically, in several poems and is glossed in one of the many-layered prose pieces that regularly punctuate the second, middle section of the volume. “Brick” offers a meditation on the material out of which Belfast is built—just as others debate the origins of the city's...
(The entire section is 639 words.)
SOURCE: Corcoran, Neil. “Past Imperfect.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4510 (2 November 1990): 1184.
[In the following review, Corcoran discusses Carson's style in Belfast Confetti.]
Ciaran Carson's last book, The Irish for No, published in 1987, was one of the most warmly received volumes of poetry in the 1980s. For several reviewers recognition was accompanied by relief, since Carson had maintained a poetic silence of over ten years since his first volume, The New Estate. Now, only two years later—Belfast Confetti was first published by the Gallery Press in Ireland last year—comes the follow-up: Carson's is manifestly not the...
(The entire section is 1352 words.)
SOURCE: Howard, Ben. Review of Belfast Confetti, by Ciaran Carson. Poetry 160, no. 1 (April 1992): 41-4.
[In the following review, Howard concludes that Carson's exploration of Belfast in Belfast Confetti is compelling.]
“All poets adore explosions,” wrote Auden in “The Poet & the City,” but the tone of Ciarán Carson's new collection [Belfast Confetti], set in the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland, is seldom that of adoration. It is one of dark, sardonic mirth. Rather than keen for losses or decry atrocities, these fluid, vibrant poems capture the crackling ambience of contemporary Belfast, where “everything is contingent and...
(The entire section is 967 words.)
SOURCE: Glover, Michael. “Prize-Winner from Ulster.” Spectator 272, no. 8640 (12 February 1994): 32.
[In the following review, Glover explores how Carson uses language in First Language.]
The award of the first T. S. Eliot Prize for the poetry book of the year was, as one of the hot and overwrought multitude that had packed into the dining room of the Chelsea Arts Club last month was heard to remark, a typical poetry occasion: the words of the speakers were inaudible, the microphone having gone on the blink; the roar of the extractor fan positioned directly above the head of the Chairman of the Judges introduced an unexpected note of menace into the occasion; and...
(The entire section is 683 words.)
SOURCE: Wills, Clair. “Ulster Echolalia.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4747 (25 March 1994): 23.
[In the following review, Wills concludes that Carson's First Language is disappointing because the musicality of the language is overshadowed by the collection's larger intentions.]
The first poem in [First Language,] Ciaran Carson's fourth collection (an elegiac love poem) is in Irish, suggesting that what comes next (in English) is secondary in more ways than one. Yet any attempt by the reader to disentangle linguistic priorities is thwarted, as, throughout the volume, Carson draws attention to the chaos of languages and sign systems in history as...
(The entire section is 1222 words.)
SOURCE: Bedient, Calvin. Review of First Language, by Ciaran Carson. Poetry 165, no. 1 (October 1994): 31-4.
[In the following review, Bedient notes that the poems in Carson's First Language are uneven.]
In First Language, which won the T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize for the outstanding book of poetry published in Great Britain in the past year, Ciaran (pronounced keer-un) Carson's virtuosic verbal patter rains—no, hails—down like tinily-armed defensive contempt on contemporary Belfast. His previous books, including The Irish for No and Belfast Confetti (the title referring to crumbly brick used as a weapon), gave us a relatively...
(The entire section is 1191 words.)
SOURCE: Batten, Guinn. “Ciaran Carson's Parturient Partition: the “Crack” in McNeice's ‘More Than Glass’.” Southern Review 31, no. 3 (summer 1995): 536-56.
[In the following essay, Batten explains the Irish concept of “crack” and how Carson employs it in Belfast Confetti.]
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was Spawning snow and pink roses against it … There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
—from “Snow,” by Louis MacNeice
I broke open the husk so many times And always found it empty; the...
(The entire section is 7866 words.)
SOURCE: Craig, Patricia. “The Reel World.” New Statesman and Society 9, no. 405 (31 May 1996): 37, 39.
[In the following review, Craig describes how Carson writes about more than Irish traditional music in Last Night's Fun.]
There is a traditional Irish tune called “Last Night's Fun”, and [Carson's Last Night's Fun] is a book about Irish traditional music. However, in the assured hands of Ciaran Carson, poet and flute-player, the narrative eases and teases its way into all kinds of nerve centres, sidetracks and fluent disquisitions.
What we get is a series of musings, not only on music but on innumerable fragments and figments retrieved...
(The entire section is 555 words.)
SOURCE: Norfolk, Lawrence. “In a Shower of Belfast Confetti.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4878 (27 September 1996): 12.
[In the following review, Norfolk argues that Carson's Opera et Cetera exhibits impressive verbal virtuosity, but in the end seems gratuitous.]
Ciaran Carson's fourth collection [Opera et Cetera] grants itself the most meagre initial materials. Two sequences based respectively on the letters of the alphabet and on radio operators' call-signs bracket two shorter groups, the first being glosses on a rag-bag of Latin tags and the second adaptations from the Romanian poet Stefan Augustin Doinas. Somewhere within these perfunctory...
(The entire section is 1033 words.)
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “The Songs That Play in Ireland's Soul.” Los Angeles Times (12 March 1997): E6.
[In the following review, Eder argues that Carson's digressions and reminiscences are the heart of his Last Night's Fun.]
The places in this evocation of musical Ireland [found in Last Night's Fun]: Carrickmacross, Cootehill, Carna. Innisbof, Cork City, Kilmallock, Verydarry, Sligo, Coolea, Ballyweird.
The breakfasts: “wavy bacon and the frilly-crisp, flipped-over eggs; the puckered burst seams of the sausages; the milk-tooth bits of fat in the black pudding … under a glaze of melted lard, ornamented by the fadge and soda cut in neat...
(The entire section is 846 words.)
SOURCE: Madigan, Charles M. “A Good Session with Irish Music.” Chicago Tribune Books (16 March 1997): 7.
[In the following review, Madigan lauds Carson's look at the traditional world of Irish music in Last Night's Fun.]
There are good sessions and bad sessions in Irish music, and it doesn't take a music critic to know one from the other. In the best of the best, everything melts away but the music. There are no clinking glasses, no shouting patrons, no drunks. There are only musicians, fixated, absorbed and reaching deep for something difficult to define.
You don't learn this stuff from music written down on paper. There are people who have spent...
(The entire section is 755 words.)
SOURCE: Nicholson, David. “Music to One's Eyes.” Washington Post Book World (22 July 1997): B6.
[In the following review, Nicholson concludes that, despite the lack of a Gaelic glossary, Carson's Last Night's Fun is an “otherwise delightful read.”]
“I cannot fix a linear chronology on these remembered tangled fragments,” Ciaran Carson writes about halfway through [Last Night's Fun,] this strange and wonderful little book. He's in the middle of an impressionistic account of days and nights playing music everywhere from airplanes to Chinese restaurants to public bathrooms (great acoustics!), but the words could serve as a summation for the...
(The entire section is 794 words.)
SOURCE: Donoghue, Denis. “The Gunman.” London Review of Books 19, no. 23 (27 November 1997): 24.
[In the following review, Donoghue asserts that the best parts of Carson's The Star Factory are those that look nostalgically at the past.]
I made my first visit to Belfast when I was almost 11, late in 1939. The war had just started, and Italy had joined Germany in aggression. My father was the sergeant-in-charge of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Warrenpoint, Co. Down and he was instructed to arrest all enemy aliens in the town and convey them for internment to Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast. The only alien we had was an Italian who ran the fish and chip shop in...
(The entire section is 2145 words.)
SOURCE: Eagleton, Terry. “Music in the Valves.” New Statesman 126, no. 4364 (12 December 1997): 45-6.
[In the following review, Eagleton discusses how Carson's The Star Factory represents the next step in the literature of Northern Ireland.]
The fascination that Belfast has for its inhabitants never ceases to amaze its visitors. The city looks about as glamorous as Barnsley but has bred as much mythology as Camelot. Legends lurk in its street corners, and fables wreathe its decaying factories.
It has been in turns the birthplace of the 18th-century Irish Enlightenment, the single modern tip of a backward rural colony, the fifth-greatest...
(The entire section is 685 words.)
SOURCE: Hitchings, Henry. “Serendipitous City.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4941 (12 December 1997): 20.
[In the following review, Hitchings provides an unfavorable assessment of Carson's The Star Factory.]
If Dublin disappeared, it could be reconstructed from the detail stored up in James Joyce's Ulysses. The same claim could be made about Belfast and Ciaran Carson's quirky book of prose pieces, The Star Factory. The difference is that Belfast is forever disappearing, and many of Carson's landmarks are long gone. He characterizes his native city as an “ongoing, fractious epic”, and feelingly explores the twists and turns of its present and its...
(The entire section is 719 words.)
SOURCE: Wiman, Christian. Review of Opera et Cetera, by Ciaran Carson. Poetry 171, no. 4 (February 1998): 291-92.
[In the following excerpt, Wiman analyzes Carson's style in Opera et Cetera.]
Though Ciaran Carson's poems are […] weakened by a style which seems less a necessity than a handy means of making more poems, there is a serious intelligence and inventiveness at work in his latest book [Opera et Cetera]. Written entirely in long-lined, free-verse rhyming couplets, adhering to predetermined patterns (twenty-six poems titled with letters of the alphabet, a series of poems arising out of Latin literary references, another alphabetically determined...
(The entire section is 421 words.)
SOURCE: Howard, Ben. “The Evolving Art of Ciaran Carson.” Shenandoah 48, no. 1 (spring 1998): 98-111.
[In the following essay, Howard traces the gradual inward movement of Carson's poetry, culminating in Opera et Cetera.]
Among the leading writers of Northern Ireland, no one is more protean than the poet Ciaran Carson. And no one's work embodies more contrarieties, thematic and formal. Born in Belfast in 1948, Carson came of age in an atmosphere of political conflict, and like others of his generation he has borne witness to sectarian violence. Yet he has dealt with the Troubles on his own terms, opting for black humor and intellectual satire rather than elegiac...
(The entire section is 4353 words.)
SOURCE: Kerrigan, John. “Earth Writing: Seamus Heaney and Ciaran Carson.” Essays in Criticism 48, no. 2 (April 1998): 144-68.
[In the following essay, Kerrigan compares the poetry of Seamus Heaney to that of Carson.]
In the human geography of these islands, diversity is the rule. Plainly, however, there are regions in which the juxtapositions of difference do not coincide with a tolerant multi-culturalism. Although the Troubles could only have happened in Ulster, there are aspects of the situation which echo across the archipelago. Events in Northern Ireland can seem locked—not least for Seamus Heaney—in a violent past which other parts of the archipelago have...
(The entire section is 8556 words.)
SOURCE: D'Aulaire, Emily. Review of Last Night's Fun, by Ciaran Carson. Smithsonian 29, no. 7 (October 1998): 36, 38.
[In the following excerpt, D'Aulaire asserts that music is the unifying theme of Carson's Last Night's Fun, but that the book is really about much more.]
Purportedly about Irish music, [Ciaran Carson's] Last Night's Fun is in fact about much more. Music is the instrument with which the author leads his reader through reminiscences that have as many twists and turns as the back alleys of his Belfast youth, and the book does include passages that require a musical background to fully understand and appreciate. But in the end, one need...
(The entire section is 814 words.)
SOURCE: Pratt, William. Review of The Star Factory, by Ciaran Carson. World Literature Today 73, no. 4 (autumn 1999): 749-50.
[In the following review, Pratt concludes that Carson took a big risk with The Star Factory and failed.]
A Ulysses for Belfast? Ciaran Carson tries hard to make it work, but he isn't Joyce and Belfast isn't Dublin. The fact that The Star Factory is more autobiographical than fictional is a major difference from Joyce's novel; Carson does, however, make use of many Joycean techniques, such as bilingual punning and catalogues of names (“Sometimes I am in religious awe of the power of names”), describing excretory...
(The entire section is 592 words.)
SOURCE: MacFarlane, Robert. “Solid but Sublime.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5042 (19 November 1999): 22.
[In the following review, MacFarlane discusses the structure and language of Carson's Fishing for Amber.]
Judging a book by its cover is generally agreed to be bad behaviour. But what about by its bibliography? Fishing for Amber, which is coyly subtitled A long story, carries a source list as well stocked as a second-hand bookshop. Running a finger along the titles, one discovers just what went to make up this odd and engaging volume. There are encyclopaedias, dictionaries, miscellanies, hagiologies, a shelfful of books on Vermeer and Dutch...
(The entire section is 858 words.)
SOURCE: Carr-Gomm, David. “Hey Presto! and Abracadabra.” Spectator 286, no. 9008 (31 March 2001): 43-4.
[In the following review, Carr-Gomm praises Carson's Shamrock Tea as “a highly seductive book.”]
Shamrock Tea is a heady brew, both as a book and as a drink. This is a tale that doesn't really have a beginning or an end, and when it comes to describing it, it's hard to do it justice. On first sight it's a struggle, as you have to wade through the lives of endless mediaeval saints by whom the author is obviously fascinated. Before too long, however, he's smoothly moved you up a gear or two, and suddenly you're seeing the world through the same...
(The entire section is 532 words.)
SOURCE: Dart, Gregory. “A Drop of the Soft Stuff.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5116 (20 April 2001): 29.
[In the following review, Dart argues that the catholicity of Carson's Shamrock Tea is both the novel's greatest strength and its greatest weakness.]
Jan van Eyck's “Arnolfini Marriage” is perhaps the most famous of all genre paintings, a man and his wife looking out at the viewer from a painstakingly detailed fifteenth-century interior. What is so fascinating about this picture? Why do we find ourselves returning to it again and again? To the protagonists of Ciaran Carson's new novel, Shamrock Tea, it offers a world of “hallucinatory...
(The entire section is 990 words.)
SOURCE: Murphy, Bernadette. “Under Enchanted Irish Tea's Spell.” Los Angeles Times (18 October 2001): E3.
[In the following review, Murphy notes that the reader will fall under Carson's spell in Shamrock Tea, even though the book never comes to much of a conclusion.]
Go back in history to the time of St. Patrick, who's said to have brought Christianity to the Celts, and you'll find why the Irish imagination is so supernatural, filled at once with saints and faeries, herbal cures and holy water.
On the one side is the ancient world of pagan ritual—bonfires and wee people, giants and banshees, a realm of magic and mystical understanding...
(The entire section is 703 words.)
SOURCE: Reale, Michelle. Review of Shamrock Tea, by Ciaran Carson. Review of Contemporary Fiction 22, no. 3 (fall 2002): 153-54.
[In the following review, Reale lauds Carson's Shamrock Tea and points out that it is the novel's journey, not its destination, that matters.]
Smoke it or drink it; the effects are the same. Shamrock tea induces magical flights of fancy and the ability to see colors, transcend time, consort with saints, and imagine worlds beyond reality. Belfast writer Ciaran Carson writes with a modernist's sensibility in the tradition of the greatest of the genre, such as Italo Calvino. The Arnolfini Portrait by the great Flemish artist...
(The entire section is 339 words.)
SOURCE: O'Brien, Sean. “Geographer of Hell.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5206 (10 January 2003): 27.
[In the following review, O'Brien praises Carson's translation of Dante Alighieri's Inferno, noting the “sustained energy and ingenuity” of his adaptation.]
In the introduction to his bold new version of the Inferno, Ciaran Carson explains:
When I began looking into the Inferno, it occurred to me that the measures and assonances of the Hiberno-English ballad might provide a model for translation. It would allow for sometimes extravagant alliteration, for periphrasis and inversion to accommodate the...
(The entire section is 1013 words.)