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
(The entire section is 85 words.)
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...
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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 at work.
Yeats's dominance was such that those gifted poets who followed closely on his heels, chronologically speaking—Austin Clarke, Padraic Colum, and Denis Devlin, among others—were driven into real or figurative exile. Not even the feisty, wholly individual Patrick Kavanaugh, who always spoke with his own voice, was able to have things altogether on his own terms. MacNeice, a Northern Protestant, luckily felt no obligation to compete with the legend of W. B.—he lacked the proper cultural credentials anyway—but he had the misfortune to be forever paired in readers' minds with his English contemporary, Auden.
It was more the simple passage of time and the complex course of extra-literary...
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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 radically. All the poems in The Irish for No are written in long easygoing lines—more or less fourteeners—and exhibit a wonderful fidelity to the casual flow of ordinary speech and storytelling. What could be more enticing and relaxing than this for the opening of a yarn?
Horse Boyle was called Horse Boyle because of his brother Mule; Though why Mule was called Mule is anybody's guess. I stayed there once, Or rather, I nearly stayed there once.
This is the beginning of ‘Dresden’, the book's first poem....
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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 name, its geography, its history. “The subversive half-brick, conveniently hand-sized, is an essential ingredient of the ammunition known as ‘Belfast confetti’, and has been tried and trusted by generations of rioters.”
The disturbing wit of that phrase is echoed throughout the volume, which repeatedly invokes and appeals to Belfast argot, idiom and speech rhythms in order to make palpable the place's variety, its refusal to become homogenised. Hence the volume's dedication: to Carson's father, who is addressed in both Gaelic and English. Hence, too, the fact that a sub-theme is precisely that of fathers and sons, of heritage, disinheritance, blood-ties (with all that such a term can mean), and thus memory. And...
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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 one-volume-every-three-years career progression (and over-production) characteristic of the contemporary poet. And all the better for that: the first thing to be said about the new book is how delightedly we may recognize in it the signs of a quite exceptional and original talent, having discovered its proper expression, enthusiastically trying to keep up with itself.
Carson has generously acknowledged the impact of his reading of the American poet C. K. Williams on this process of self-discovery; but, although the very long line, characteristic of both The Irish for No and Belfast Confetti, may well have its origin in Williams, the ample new book makes it also, once and for all, Carson's own. Belfast Confetti...
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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 provisional,” where familiar places are “swallowed in the maw of time and trouble,” and where a woman, sitting in her car, stoops for the dashboard cigarette lighter and finds her permanent wave “neatly parted” by a bullet. Writing in long, looping lines reminiscent of C. K. Williams, Carson limns the tensions between maps and places, language and reality, in a city where gunshots punctuate sentences, buildings disappear, and the poet himself becomes a “hyphen, flitting here and there …” among the ruins. And though his themes are “rubble and erasure,” his response is neither to wring his hands or furrow his brow. To the Troubles and the suffering they have wrought, he brings a relish for the absurd and an ironist's curative...
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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 Valerie Eliot, guest of honour and presenter of the award named in honour of her husband, not only failed to gloss a single line of the Waste Land, but spoke not a single word of encouragement to that roomful of expectant poets and poetasters.
For all that, the choice of winner was unexceptionable: the prize of £5,000 went to the Belfast poet Ciaran Carson for his fourth book of poems, First Language. Carson, being a man from the Falls Road area, is almost inevitably a poet of the Troubles; but though of Belfast, he does not write directly about it these days in the way that other Northern Irish poets have done. His last book, Belfast Confetti (1989), is the closest that he ever came to chronicling its...
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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 well as in contemporary Belfast. The collection sports a representation of the Tower of Babel on the cover; First Language thus continues Carson's preoccupation with the failure of communication and understanding between groups and individuals in Ireland. Repeated references to ziggurats and clinker-built ships signify the stepped and layered nature of the languages and belief systems which coexist in Northern Ireland, something which can make for confusion, but also, Carson suggests, enables forms of cultural translation. A central concern of the volume is with the metamorphoses undergone by biblical and mythological narratives as they become part of contemporary culture's self-understanding. This isn't quite as dry as it sounds....
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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 uncarapaced Carson, very relative to be sure, but at least a personality with a history, with moments: “Roses are brought in, and suddenly, white confetti seethes against the window” (“Snow,” Belfast Confetti). Gave us his father, a postman (“My mother's version is, he lacked ambition”). And Belfast: “a helicopter trawls / Its searchlight. Out there, on the ground, there's a spoor of Army boots,” etc. In short, a peopled local world, smack up against the teeth. First Language is a more specialized, linguistic performance. Here, Carson-the-man is ruthlessly blacked out as a buzz and flap of language fills each square with cartoonish exaggeration.
Babel is the theme and Babel the effect,...
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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 pith was a wordless bubble.
Though there's nothing in the thing itself, bits of it come back unbidden, Playing in the archaic dusk till the white blip became invisible.
… Roses are brought in, and suddenly, white confetti seethes against the window.
—from “Snow,” by Ciaran Carson
The Irish have a word for those experiences that raid not only the border between the articulate and the inarticulate (or for that matter, between snow and roses) but also the invisible borders between words and things, words and music, work and play, sense and nonsense, truth and stories: crack. Such raids may happen in...
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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 from the past: anecdotes from musicians and singers, the dereliction on Arranmore island, the Irish fried egg, the manufacture of poitin, many mornings after the night before. One thing exuberantly leads to another: being in tune, for example, has some connection with being attuned to the spirit of the time, just as keeping time is a way of holding on to it, or storing it for the purpose of restoring it.
Not that it's ever exactly the same thing: critics of traditional music all note how the tune never reaches a final form, but goes on renewing itself. Every performer, and performance, brings something singular to the stock held in common. If it was static it wouldn't be alive and an ingenious commentator like...
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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 framing devices, lurking behind a highly untrustworthy “I”, Carson himself is busily at work, boiling up a pot for the requisite (or faux-) alchimie du verbe, slapping up trompe-l'oeil backdrops, and gluing together Airfix kits of “Heinkel, Stuka, Messerschmitt”: the vehicles which will ferry his personae about.
The personae themselves are mostly off the peg, but cunningly retailored to their new contexts: Montagues and Capulets, Miranda (possibly Carmen), Mahatma Gandhi, even a pair dubbed Black and Decker. Noirish escapades follow—sinister meetings, fragments of conversations, deals, duels, a siege. A modish ahistoricity flattens everything into a present tense where Alpha-wing...
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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 triangles.”
The times: The morning after the night before. The night before the morning after.
The tunes: “I Do Not Incline,” “The Hen's March O'er the Midden,” “The Lark in the Morning,” “What the Divil Ails Him,” “The Active Old Man,” “The Funny Mistake,” “Good Morning to Your Nightcap,” “The Duke of Leinster's Wife” (or “The Lady's Pantalettes”), “Though Late I Was Plump,” “The Dear Meal.”
There is music that stands by itself at recitals and concerts. There is music inextricably caught in the life going on around it; the life it springs from and competes with in the fug, brag, clatter and shuffle of clubs and pubs. American music—jazz,...
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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 a lifetime trying and still don't get it. And there are those who connect with it immediately, as though it was all just sleeping inside, waiting to be tapped into life by a good 6/8 jig beat.
This is the world Ciaran Carson is writing about in Last Night's Fun, a complicated, delightful, frustrating, engaging, revealing and completely mysterious book about what might be called the many humors of Irish music. It also includes a good description of an Irish breakfast du morte (the details of which are almost too uncomfortable to relate. Suffice it to say glistening lard dripping off of almost everything is one of the essentials).
This is the real thing, as Irish as a book can get both in style and...
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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 entire book.
Part memoir, part meditation on Irish music, this collection of essays is awash with tall tales, jokes, etymological digressions, and the kind of lore about musical instruments and legendary musicians that accomplished practitioners accumulate over years of playing and hanging out with one another. While each essay is self-contained, each segues into the next. Thus an essay called “The Steampacket,” about (as much as anything) music and memory, ends with the word “whiskey.” And is followed by two essays about whiskey—“Parliament whiskey,” which is the kind you buy in a store, and poitin or homemade whiskey.
Similarly, the essay titled “Around the World for Sport” (from...
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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 Square. He had anglicised his name to Tony Malocca. My father hired a car and a driver for the great occasion, and brought me along for the ride, letting me sit up front while he sat beside Tony in the back. We drove the forty-five miles or so to Belfast and stopped at the big gate outside the jail. My father told me to sit where I was till he had completed his business with Tony. From that day to this, I have thought of Belfast as a jail surrounded by drab, cold streets. The fact that my sister May has lived congenially enough in Belfast for many years has not altered my impression of the city. I visited her a few months ago and found it as grim as it was in 1939. But my experience of it, I concede, is limited. I stayed away from...
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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 industrial city in the world, the home of the Titanic, the scene of sectarian slaughter. There are old codgers propping up its bars who have not only never set foot outside the city, but who respond to the suggestion that they do so as they might react to an offer of sex with a badger.
If Seamus Heaney is the voice of rural Ulster, Ciaran Carson is the laureate of the urban North, the cartographer of its symbolic space. This wonderfully evocative book, [The Star Factory] is the latest chapter in Ulster's love affair with itself. Last year the Irish writer Seamus Deane plucked a minor masterpiece from his Derry childhood, Reading in the Dark, now it's Carson's turn to ransack his Belfast boyhood for gleaming,...
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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 past. His sinuous narrative visits the Catholic Falls and Protestant Shankill, the shipyards where the Titanic was built, pubs such as The Beaten Docket and the Crown Liquor Saloon, the Smithfield precincts destroyed by firebombs in 1974, the Belfast Central Library, and St Peter's Pro-Cathedral. To this tapestry are added memories of films, faded photographs and old radio broadcasts; they fill out the gaps.
The “Star Factory” of the title is a disused clothing mill on the Donegall Road. Despite its humdrum exterior, it preoccupies Carson's imagination. For him and for others, it has been the hub of a flurry of myths, a reliquary for antique images. Its fabric of Piranesi staircases and spent machinery mimics...
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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 sequence), and completely without tonal variation, Carson's poems are hardly distinguishable from each other. To some extent, this is a strength. There is an exuberance of spirit in the poems, a playful extravagance and irreverence in both the perceptions and the language which can carry over from poem to poem. The effect depends upon a sort of willing disorientation on the part of the reader, because there is rarely a coherence of thought or narrative thread to otherwise hold things together. As with an Ashbery poem, tone is everything. Assent to it, and there is not only the pleasant levity to enjoy, but also rarer, greater moments when an individual poem will take on some of the strange logic and irreducible truth of fable or dream....
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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 lyric or bardic lamentation. A scholarly, erudite poet, whose interests include history, linguistics, cartography and philosophy, he has explored the intricacies of dialect, the etymologies of place-names and the interrelations of the Irish and English languages. Yet in his most original poems he has employed a relaxed, sardonic persona, who appears more at home in the pub than in the library or seminar room. As the Literature and Traditional Arts Officer in the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Carson has endeavored to preserve his country's literary and musical heritage. But he has also ranged widely among foreign literatures, drawing sustenance from poets as diverse as the American C. K. Williams and the Romanian Stefan Augustin Doinas....
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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 forgotten (1798, 1690), yet the linguistic, electronic, and environmental resources used to manage the crisis (from the media-manipulation of politicians to the surveillance systems of the military) are, as Ciaran Carson reminds us, as wired-up and futuristic as anything to be found in London. However elusive the links between poetry and place might be elsewhere, in Ulster they are frequently so palpable that they become problematic. Just as the labyrinthine properties of Carson's writing would be inconceivable without Belfast, so the excellences and limitations of Heaney derive in no small measure from his experience of ‘dislocation’ in Ulster, from a grounding which has led him to explore, in more nearly universal terms, the creative...
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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 not know a dirge from a ditty to delight in Carson's descriptions of Wellington boots, schoolrooms, movies, smoking, eating, pubs, drinking (lots of drinking), etymology—and time.
Indeed, time is a recurring theme throughout Carson's book, though the reader is not always sure of where in time he is. “We are in Ballyweird on the outskirts of Portrush, County Antrim,” Carson writes in his opening sentence, “and it's the morning after the night before”—the first of many such mornings, the reader quickly discovers. Carson does eventually note, “I think it's 1979,” which is often as precise as he gets.
Carson doesn't worry about such matters as clocks and calendars, however, because for him,...
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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 functions in detail, and quoting at length from newspapers or books, with special fondness for dictionaries (“Chambers's entry for spunk is worth quoting in full”). The result is not so much hilarity, as in Joyce's parody of Homer, but bewilderment; why is he doing all this fancy wordcraft with scenes from his boyhood, when he might have done it better straight? And when, moreover, he might have avoided embarrassing comparisons with a master writer and true original? Maybe the Irish gift for gab was so overwhelming, Carson couldn't resist it, but given that he has a reputation as a decent poet, he should have known better.
Seamus Deane, also known as an Irish poet, set a better example by producing a winner...
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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 Golden Age painting, herbals, handbooks, histories of Esperanto, tobacco, submarines and microscopes, and much more besides, including a couple of works by Borges.
What sort of a book could possibly amalgamate so much disparate information? There are two answers: one short, one long. The short answer is A long story. The long answer is more complex. Fishing for Amber is divided into twenty-six chapters. The title of each chapter starts with a different letter of the alphabet; the first is—conversely—Antipodes, the next Berenice, and so on down to Xerox, Yarn and Zoetrope. Each chapter contains a series of stories which are connected with each other more or less visibly. Thus “Nemesis” leaps, in fourteen...
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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 vivid kaleidoscope of colour as his characters. Set in Ireland in the mid-1950s, this tale revolves around a boy called Carson who discovers that he's been endowed with certain magical powers. These involve being able to enter the great van Eyck painting ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’, as well as to experience the hallucinatory qualities of shamrock tea. This fabled—or is it real?—concoction of herbs and roots opens one's mind and produces the effect of ‘seeing the world through rose-coloured spectacles—or rather green-tinted ones’. It's this perspective that Carson's uncle, Celestine (a fellow possessor of magic), thinks is needed if Southern Ireland is ever to unite with the North. With this in mind, Carson and a couple of friends...
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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 clarity”, in which everyday objects and their qualities are shot through with religious significance. It is a world so perfectly realized that one is repeatedly tempted to step inside. “Jan van Eyck was here” it says, in Latin, on the far wall above the mirror in the painting, and one cannot help wanting to test the assertion. But how could one ever hope to enter such a realm? There is only one way, Carson suggests, and that is the way of shamrock tea. Shamrock tea, it turns out, is an extremely heady Irish mix. Under its influence, the doors of perception are cleansed and everything appears infinite; all life seems “like a great chain, the nature of which is known when we see a single link of it”. It collapses oppositions and heals...
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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 that are part and parcel of everyday life. In this sphere, myriad worlds exist contemporaneously separated by the thinnest veil from what we perceive as the “real” world. The Christian culture, which Patrick brought, steeped like tea in that enchanted world for centuries to create the other constituent: An Irish brand of Catholicism that is influenced by the “Lives of the Saints,” holy relics and acts of saintly intervention—an environment in which pagan-type magic occurs regularly but is accounted for via hagiography.
Enter Ciaran Carson, a Belfast writer with a penchant for philosophy, a love of color variations and Van Eyck paintings, who takes seriously the concept of Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock...
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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 van Eyck is the centerpiece of [Shamrock Tea,] this almost psychedelic adventure and the portal through which shamrock tea and untold adventures can be experienced. The young Carson, his uncle Celestine, and his cousin Berenice begin the journey and are joined by Ludwig Wittgenstein, a Father Brown, and a young Maeterlinck, who happens to be the nephew of Maurice Maeterlinck, an art dealer in Ghent. Guided by knowledge of the saints, their feast days, and an array of intellectual minutiae, Carson, Berenice, and the young Maeterlinck, subliminally representing the Trinity, embark on a journey of discovery back into time, guided by an array of colors seemingly mundane in the ordinary world but jewel-like and brilliant beyond compare...
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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 rhyme, and for occasional assonance instead of rhyme; it could accommodate rapid shifts of register. So I tried to write a terza rima crossed with ballad.
Carson also emphasizes the vernacular character of the poem. The results may be a great deal more conversational, and at times less in thrall to theological gravity, than readers are accustomed to, while a sceptic might find the choice of precedent convenient rather than entirely convincing; but Carson makes it clear that he has tried to find his own way through the labyrinth of other versions, treating translation as a form of reading. His Inferno is offered more for its life than for its finality, as speech rather than monument....
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Flanagan, Thomas. “Waking from the Nightmare.” New York Review of Books 46, no. 7 (22 April 1999): 40-3.
Reviews three Irish works—Patrick McCabe's Breakfast on Pluto, Sebastian Barry's The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, and Ciaran Carson's The Star Factory—in relation to the work of James Joyce.
Howard, Ben. “After the Coronachs.” Sewanee Review 97, no. 1 (winter 1989): 65-9.
Asserts that Carson's poetry in The Irish for No contrasts with his earlier poetry in The New Estate because of its frank portrayal of Belfast's chaotic landscape.
Thurston, Michael. “Review of The Twelfth of Never.” Yale Review 88, no. 3 (July 2000): 171-89.
Suggests that the poems in Carson's The Twelfth of Never are best read as a sequence.
Additional coverage of Carson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 112 and 153; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 113; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; and Literature Resource Center.
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