Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on poetry. In this essay, he discusses the war reporting of Sir William Howard Russell and the use Carson made of it in “The War Correspondent.”
Ciaran Carson’s “The War Correspondent” is a tribute to the war reporting of Sir William Howard Russell, whose words written in the mid-nineteenth century come to new life in the work of the Irish poet. Reading Russell’s vivid, richly descriptive dispatches from the Crimean War, it is not difficult to see why they have exerted such an influence on the poet, who dedicates the entire volume, Breaking News, in which “The War Correspondent” appears, to Russell. Russell was an Irishman in the days before Irish independence; Carson is an Irish poet from a region of Ireland that remains part of the United Kingdom, who lived through thirty years of sectarian violence that turned his home city of Belfast into a virtual war zone. In Breaking News, Carson becomes a kind of war reporter himself, recording the sights and sounds of Belfast in the years following the uneasy peace settlement of 1998, during which tension and fear still pervade the air, British Army helicopters still fly overhead, and the memory of sudden, deadly violence remains clear. Carson also links the present-day reality of Belfast with the wars that have gone before it, including the Crimean War, an imperial war the traces of which can still be seen in the early 2000s in Belfast in the commemorative names of the streets: Sevastopol, Crimea, Inkerman. As Carson writes in “Exile”:
The poet Carson, however, had little interest in Russell’s patriotism or his accounts of the suffering of the wounded. What most caught his eye was the journalist’s keen observation, his eye for detail, his gift for the telling image.
The work of Russell marked the beginning of a new era in war reporting, through which the educated public became more fully informed about current wars than ever before. Although some of Russell’s dispatches took nearly three weeks to reach London and get printed in the Times—by contrast to instant satellite communications that enable war correspondents in the early 2000s to be heard and seen live by millions of television viewers—in their accuracy and detail they represented considerable progress over former times. Only sixty years earlier, news of a great English naval victory over the French was conveyed by courier to the British Admiralty, and no less a personage than the Duke of Clarence went personally to the theater at Covent Garden and told the manager to announce the news to the audience. It was common during the French Revolutionary wars and the Napoleonic wars to make such announcements in streets and theaters. Newspapers were not the sources of such information; without reporters on the spot, they were dependent on the government, which controlled the channels of communication, to tell them what had happened.
In the Crimean War, the first major war in Europe since the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the dry official dispatches that purported to describe events at the battlefront were eclipsed by the rise of a new type of newspaper reporter, the special correspondent, the greatest of whom was Russell. Russell’s reports not only informed the public about the nature and outcome of key battles but also exposed the mismanagement that led to the extreme hardships suffered by British troops in the severe winter of 1854–1855. Working for the Times enhanced Russell’s influence, since in the early 1850s it had a circulation of forty thousand, greater than that of all its rivals put together.
Russell’s reports give the...
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In the following essay, the critic gives a critical analysis of Carson’s work.
A poet and storyteller from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Ciaran Carson is a gifted teller of tales who won a T. S. Elliot for his poetry and has been nominated for the Booker Prize. He inherited his love of storytelling from his father, Liam, who would tell his children stories in Gaelic. ‘‘As far back as I remember, the age of two or three I think, ’’ Carson said on the Radio Netherlands Web site, ‘‘every evening, my father would sit us down and say, ’Now, here’s a story for you.’ And the story would appear to go on night after night for weeks. Whether in fact he did tell us stories each night, for weeks and months and years on end, I’m not sure, but in my imagination it was that way.’’
Carson’s poems, essays, and fiction are all infused with a distinctive, Irish style of tale telling. A common motif is his native Belfast, which is a living landscape to the author, scarred and worn by its violent recent history, yet alive with its people, culture, and history.
Carson’s poetry reflects the pain that natives of Belfast stubbornly endure. ‘‘Reading Carson’s poetry is a vicarious experience, ’’ commented William Pratt in a World Literature Today review of Selected Poems, ‘‘a bloodbath that is bloodless but thoroughly convincing, and for such a testimony to human endurance one has to be grateful despite the misery.’’ John Kerrigan observed in an Essays in Criticism article comparing and contrasting Carson with fellow poet Seamus Heaney, ‘‘Carson writes with Proustian intensity about the elusiveness of memory in poems which thickly describe the fashions, songs, and smells of vanished Belfast.’’ Kerrigan also noted the poet’s fascination with cartography in his imagery about Belfast. Drawing a parallel between Carson and other Irish poets, the critic explained that ‘‘Carson is interested in the dubiety of maps which seem authoritative: no more permanent than place, they keep changing along with the city, and shape perceptions of the territory through censorship and velleity.’’
The sense of the transitoriness and mutability of Belfast, as in his poetry, is seen in Carson’s autobiographical novel The Star Factory, in which he recaptures images of his youth before the time of terrorism between the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland began. Compared by some critics to James Joyce’s writing about Dublin and Seamus Heaney’s memories of Ulster, The Star Factory reconstructs the poet’s childhood memories in what New Statesman contributor Terry Eagleton called a ‘‘wonderfully evocative book’’ in which Carson ‘‘ransack[s] his Belfast boyhood for...
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