(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.