Ciaran Carson obituary

Poet who superimposed a psychic overlay on the streets and terraces of his native Belfast

The poet Ciaran Carson, who has died aged 70 of cancer, grew up in the Catholic Falls Road area of Belfast. He went on to transfigure his native city, and transfix his readers, with a rich accumulation of poems, metafictions and other unclassifiable prose works, the most recent of which, Exchange Place (2012), was lauded for its elegance and precision.

Carson had Belfast lore and topography at his fingertips, but he superimposed a psychic overlay on the city’s mundane streets and terraces, its feuds and factions, the aggravations and atrocities of the bloody 30-year Troubles.

The title of his 1989 collection, Belfast Confetti, can refer to the debris falling after an explosion, bits of type erupting from a typewriter (as in its cover image), or a hail of bullets. The high-pressure contents of this book are compressed into an enigmatic and exhilarating pattern of reflections and events.

Belfast Confetti is dedicated to the poet’s father: William Carson, a postman and Irish-language aficionado. He is a strong presence in his son’s literary output. Ciaran’s mother, Mary Maginn, a one-time mill-girl, gets a look-in too; but the father is predominant. From Carson Sr, Ciaran inherited a love of Irish (the five children of the family grew up bilingual), a flair for traditional music and storytelling and a respect for education as a way of making a mark in the world.

Following his schooling at St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ grammar school, Ciaran went on to study for a degree in English at Queen’s University – where one of his tutors was Seamus Heaney, and two other poets, Medbh McGuckian and Paul Muldoon, were fellow students.

He subsequently became an officer with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, with responsibility for traditional music, and throughout the 1970s and 80s travelled all over Ireland, playing the flute and the tin whistle in pubs and back rooms, often accompanied by his future wife Deirdre Shannon (herself a gifted fiddle-player). They married in 1982.

One result of all this jollification was the eccentric and beguiling prose account of those heady days, Last Night’s Fun (1996). “One of the most inventive looks at Irish music,”a reviewer called it, while John Banville summed it up in four words: “Wild nights; ashen days”. It’s the wild nights, with all their spark and fervour, that stay in the mind.

The New Estate (1976) announced the arrival on the poetic scene of a confident new voice. By 1987, however, the lyrical tone of this first book had given way to the disruptions and dislocations of The Irish for No, as “Belfast tore itself apart and patched itself up again”.

Other collections followed with increasing rapidity: First Language (1993); Opera Et Cetera (1996), with its display of technical virtuosity; and the marvellously subversive and narcotic sonnet sequence The Twelfth of Never (1998), in which some of Ireland’s most cherished myths and symbols are taken to pieces and audaciously reassembled.

At the same time, the poetry was interspersed with idiosyncratic prose works: Fishing for Amber (1999), Shamrock Tea (2001), The Pen Friend (2009), and The Star Factory (1997). The last is Carson’s partly autobiographical, wholly inspirational book about Belfast, which evokes the poet’s “dark city” in all its pungency and particularity.

Asked by the Irish Times earlier this year to nominate his current favourite book, Muldoon chose Carson’s From There to Here: Selected Poems and Translations (2018). Praising his “ability to find connections in so many aspects of the world”, he was echoing an earlier comment of his own, that Carson, as an incomparable poet and luminous prose writer, was “terrifically engaged by everything and anything – stamp-collecting, hurley, cooking”.

It is this abundance, alongside felicity of expression, humour and immense erudition, that gives Carson’s work its wonderful zest and intricacy.

Other recognition came in the form of the TS Eliot prize, the Irish Times Irish literature prize, the Cholmondeley award, and the Forward prize. Carson’s achievement as a translator was acknowledged with the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation prize in 2002, for his version of Dante’s Inferno; he also translated The Táin (2007) and many poems from the original Irish, as well as the French poet Jean Follain (From Elsewhere, 2014). Influences absorbed and cast in a new light – Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Keats, Borges, Calvino, Flann O’Brien, Alberto Manguel – impart a cosmopolitan flavour to Carson’s oeuvre, without diluting its intense attachment to his home territory.

Some years after resigning from the Arts Council, Carson became the first director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s, a post he held from 2004 until his retirement in 2016. He was a longstanding member of Aosdána, the association of Irish artists.

Stylish in his bones, he might have applied his comment on Follain – that he “was invariably properly dressed for every occasion” – to himself, with his love of traditional hand-made suits and shoes, antique tweed jackets, silk shirts and subtle ties. “Hardy-handsome,” Heaney called him, referring to the portrait of Carson by Jeffrey Morgan, “with his Black Mountain behind him and his talismanic flute …”

Carson remained characteristically stoical in the face of his illness. His first action on receiving the diagnosis of lung cancer was to embark on a series of poems, ostensibly about paintings (by Poussin, Canaletto and Thomas Jones, among others), but also celebrating his life with Deirdre in a particular part of north Belfast, and of the area itself. The new poems, under the title Still Life, will be published this month.

His poem Letters from the Alphabet, reaches “Z”, the end-point, and culminates in a two-line stanza that makes an appropriate valediction for the postman’s son: “In the morning you will open up the envelope. You will get whatever/ Message is inside. It is for all time. Its postmark is The Twelfth of Never.”

He is survived by Deirdre and their children, Manus, Gerard and Mary.

• Ciaran Carson, poet, born 9 October 1948; died 6 October 2019


Patricia Craig

The GuardianTramp

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