Following on from Andrew Pepper's appearance, we were honoured to listen to Queen’s University's Professor of Poetry and Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre, Ciaran Carson, at the Blackbird Book Club before Christmas.
Carson began by playing a tune on his tin whistle, and later explained that he was, for years, suspicious of poetry, thinking it a bit ‘arty’ – for him, the real thing was the traditional music session.
This scepticism may be less about language than a justifiable fear of fettering that can come about when the poet becomes the Big Performer. Traditional music, on the other hand, is an ensemble art. There is a modesty to it and it would seem that this is what Carson admires.
A quizzical attitude to language may well also have had its origins in Carson’s own particular upbringing. He was born in the Falls Road area of west Belfast in 1948. The Carsons – a name commonly associated with the Unionist tradition – were one of only four families in Belfast at that time who spoke Irish at home. English was learned in the outside world, out on the streets round the Falls Road.
This sense of living in separate linguistic worlds bore creative results for Carson, for each word, its meaning and its sound, had to be continually thought about, inspected, weighed between one language and another. That process and high consciousness about language and languages would be very useful, especially for a poet, not only in terms of the ‘mot juste’ but also, perhaps, in the making of metaphor.
Those two languages represented two very different realities. And during the Troubles, the discontinuities were, of course, more greviously evident. But the imaginative fusion of opposites, the making of connections, the representation of one thing in terms of another, is that not what metaphor is?
Carson has published many volumes of poetry, as well as novels (read an interview and an extract from his latest novel, The Pen Friend, here) and a book on Irish traditional music. He has won and been nominated for many accolades, including the Eric Gregory Award, the TS Eliot Prize and the Irish Times Literature Prize for Poetry.
Carson’s most famous poem is probably ‘Belfast Confetti’, and it is a very fine poem because of how it builds ironic metaphors that encourage the reader to see and hear the complexity of life in Belfast during the Troubles. The street names are exotic - Inkerman, Odessa. But these streets were named in memory of British war campaigns and they are all in the Catholic Falls Road area.
People from the Falls fought with the Allies in the First World War. During the Troubles the army stopped and searched vehicles from a Saracen – a sight so common as to be almost banal, but always associated with violence. Therein lies the delicate and rueful irony of the central image – Belfast Confetti – signalling not love and marriage, but destruction.
It was clear from listening to Carson that he still favours the long line, which he used to great effect in his early poetry. But the formal Alexandrine is now more broken in its shape on the page, reforming into a stanza, both self-contained like an epigram and connected on each side.
The long line is not that common in Irish poetry in English, but characterises Gaelic poetry of the 17th and 18th century, and has survived in the ballad long line. Carson would be familiar with both the popular musical version and the more scholarly Gaelic genesis, and in his own poetry keenly fuses the everyday with an often subtle set of more literary allusions.