My Cultural Life: Ciaran Carson

On the eve of the publication of The Collected Poems the poet talks about his love of song, Gerard Manley Hopkins and wonders what Shakespeare would be like after a few drinks

When did you first fall in love with poetry?
It depends on what you mean by 'in love', and what you mean by poetry. I'm sure that songs were among the first pieces of organised language I ever heard. Both my father and my mother sang, and both sang to me when I was little. The songs entered my consciousness in a kind of osmotic way, and I can still hear them. And I'm sure they still lie at the back of my writing. 

If by poetry we mean the kind of thing represented in school anthologies, I well remember the first time I encountered the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Frost in Fourth Form in a book called A Galaxy of Poems Old and New. Hopkins in particular was a revelation, as he was to many of my generation. I'd never seen the English language used in this way before, with such intense heft and power.

Which poets do you most admire and why?
There are so many. Shakespeare, the great Russian poet Mandelshtam, Rilke, Dante, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, to name just a few. Frost and Hopkins again. All of them have their own voice, but they resemble each other in their meticulous care of the language and the ability to make it new and surprising, to present the world in another verbal light.

Lately I've been reading Paul Celan as translated by Pierre Joris - a bewildering and fantastic experience that I keep going back to, trying to figure out what is going on. The work is unparaphrasable but strikes you with some kind of weird, visceral and authoritative immediacy.

If you could have written any poem in history, what would be it be and why?
Another difficult one, but I'd be happy to settle with Robert Frost's 'After Apple-picking'. It's a wonderful example of the ordinary transformed into the extraordinary. Wonderfully delicate and powerful. 

'I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight/ I got from looking through a pane of glass/ I skimmed this morning from the drinking-trough/ And held against the world of hoary grass./ It melted, and I let it fall and break.' 

Everything in those lines belongs to the real world of natural speech, yet they extend it into another dimension.

A new anthology of your Collected Poems is just being published, which line of your poetry are you most proud of?
It's a question I'd avoid asking myself. So many of my books, especially in the last few years, depend on the cumulative effect of the poems and the lines within them that I'd be loth to single out any one line.

Does The Collected Poems represent the end of one phase of your writing career and the beginning of another?
The Collected Poems was published on my 60th birthday, so in a way it's only a conventional gesture of celebration. As the book was being edited I had already embarked on another collection, On the Night Watch, and I finished it by the time The Collected Poems was in place. It'll be published by Gallery Press next April. 

I think it's another departure; but it is not unconnected to all that has gone before. And I'm scribbling away at the moment at some poems which might amount to something, or might not. That's the trouble and the joy of poetry, that you never know what's coming next. If you did, there's be no point in doing it.

If you could have four cultural figures from any period in history around for dinner who would it be and why?
You'd have to include Shakespeare, if only to see what kind of fellow he was over a few drinks. Brian Merriman, the author of Cúirt an Mheáin Oíche (The Midnight Court), which I translated a few years ago. I've a notion he must have been a traditional fiddle player, and I'd like to share some tunes and crack with him. The painter Titian, whose work is packed with all sorts of examination of the human condition, mysterious, subtle and frightening at times, yet full of the joy of his art. And John Donne, who must have been as witty a fellow in conversation as he was in his poetry.

If you could have produced one piece of art in history, what would it be and why?
Titian's 'The Death of Actaeon', which I go to see in the National Gallery any time I'm in London. I see new things in it every time. I often go back to the passage in Ovid's Metamorphoses which inspired it, trying to see how the story gets transformed into marks of paint on a canvas. It deals with the big subjects, sex, birth, death, in passages of ambiguous glooms and lights. Endlessly unplumbable depths. But of course to have produced it you would have to have been Titian, and that's unimaginable.

Which Irish cultural figure to you most admire and why?
I've always loved the singing of Darach Ó Cathain. Sean-nós singing, of which he was a magnificent exponent, hardly features in the general picture of Irish cultural life, and many people might not be aware of his existence. But the sounds and rhythms of his voice are ingrained in my ear and I cannot imagine writing anything without a ghost of that voice somewhere at the back of my mind.

What has been your cultural highlight of 2008 thus far?
Recently the poet Paul Farley, from Liverpool, gave a brilliant lecture on Louis MacNeice under the auspices of the Seamus Heaney Centre. It was everything a lecture should be, informative, scholarly, entertaining, delivered by someone with a real passion for his subject and for language. In particular he drew comparisons between MacNeice's work and that of John Clare which would never have occurred to me, and so threw a whole new light on the poetic process.

What cultural event are you most looking forward to?
I'm not much one for going out to cultural events. I am looking forward to watching a DVD of the films of Bill Douglas - My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home. I saw them many years ago on TV and was completely rapt. Beautiful, simple, complex film-making, harsh and tender at the same time.

What's been the best piece of advice you've ever had?
If you know exactly what you're going to write, don't bother.

If you could write your epitaph in no more than 10 words, what would it be and why?
'Happy to Meet and Sorry to Part'. It's the name of a jig which I've been playing on the flute for at least half my life. Lovely jig it is too. There's always another way round it. 

Peter Geoghegan