Ciaran Carson’s death hurts so keenly because everyone who knew him or read him felt the rush of his amazing mind, the grand pageant of his knowledge and infinite appetite for play. It is genuinely awful now to have to speak only in terms of his legacy, and the poems he left us, because it was such a thrill to be alive at the same time as his inexhaustible and heroic creativity, and to wonder about what he might do next.
Each of his books represented a radical transition and a startling event in its own right; taken together, they wind out as an incredible epic, one in which vitality is the main protagonist, tasked with surviving the hateful twentieth century, then warily embracing the radical transformations of the twenty-first.
In The Irish for No, Carson projected a way through the morbidities of the Troubles by refusing the elegiac mode that prevailed in other representations. He summoned images of a fragmented past, urging us to understand how they might survive their demolition and speak to the present. Nothing was ever lost to him. What appeared to be postmodern playfulness was really modernist rigour and recovery, apt for solving the kettled trauma of life during wartime. Reading that book in 1987, you had the feeling of having your co-ordinates entirely changed, that in order to read this book you would have to learn how to read it as you went. Its long lines had us flailing around for explanations, some looking to American precedents like CK Williams or Ginsberg, but Carson’s practically hiphop structures came from a closer place, the supple lines of narrative, melody and above all rhythm that run through traditional music. Above all, as with other great modernist poets, he brought poetry beyond word-music into a dizzying and organic dance; for rhythm, the closest to him in the past century was Fred Astaire.
Tradition radicalised, tradition renewed, tradition which only meant something if it entered into negotiation with other traditions. Others may have been credited with voicing the peace process, but Carson enacted it. His kinesis of Irish and English was also pushing towards a paradoxically Panglossian state of imagination, a place of sheer mobility. Roots were important, but only as important as another’s, the thing was to bring them into productive confusion. The plurality of tongues held a memory of pre-Fall Babel when everything made sense.
In this carnival, pleasures and terrors necessarily contend throughout the collections that followed, from Belfast Confetti (1989), First Language (1993) and the loopy Opera et Cetera (1996). The spectre of Carson’s father, William, an evangelist for Esperanto, was traceable in all of this work, directing the son to find a path back to Babel. The amazing poem “Hamlet” that ends Belfast Confetti confirms this direction, and when Carson came to make his version of Dante’s Inferno in 2002, he got to render the line for which he was fated, Nimrod’s explosive gobbledygook from the third circle of Hell: “Yin twa maghogani gazpaighp boke!” In this compression, there was room to parody Scots Irish (by then, an “official” language of Northern Ireland), cite Flann O’Brien’s mockery of how Irish sounds to non-Irish speakers, then end with a gloriously resolute of Ulster English (“boke” means puke, for the uninitiated).
Every translation of Carson’s was carefully meditated and scholarly; with a typically dedicated discipline, what began as an exercise in translating Baudelaire and Rimbaud turned into an unprecedented demonstration of how the English language could adapt to the demands of the Alexandrine form, something nobody before had felt equipped to perform. So in the book that followed, The Alexandrine Plan, apparently incompatible structures of thought and language were again put into avid correspondence. The original sonnets that came fast after, the Twelfth of Never (1998), completed a remarkably productive decade, especially remarkable in that up until this point Carson had not been an officially “professional” poet but rather employed as a traditional arts officer for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
Becoming Professor of Poetry in 2003 at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queens did not exactly free him from administrative duties, but it did apparently license new directions and energies. His first post-conflict collection, Breaking News, saw another radical transition into a minimalism that drew on European and American experiments to refocus on experience of Belfast that he had already communicated so vividly. The city then had been a vibrantly material place, full of smells, sounds and things; now it seemed more like a precarious arrangement of spaces, one in which the minutest event or gesture could generate painfully intimate significance.
Carson famously mapped Belfast many times over, experientially, historically, affectively, psycho-politically, on foot and by flight, but in the last fifteen years of his life he also moved into exploring other networks of entanglement and affection. A substantial late turn was towards the contemplation of real passion and compassion, of love as a state of exquisite jeopardy. For All We Know (2008) queried the unfathomability of both love and memory, an extended yet deeply serious riff on Lerner and Loewe’s “I Remember It Well”, with a pair of lovers voicing a series of poems that bore the same title. It amounted to a thorough mystery, erotic and ineffable.
There were very few love poems in the earlier work, and the most intensely realised of all of them, “La Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi” in First Language, was published only in his native, preserving a form of limited privacy. Carson was a singularly personal poet, but he only communicated such candour with graceful indirection. So the serious illness of his wife prompted him to adopt a radical economy of expression in On the Night Watch (2009), which evoked the thunderstruck state of someone invigilating their beloved, of the heaviness of every second endured when you have to wait and wait to hear words from doctors. From being a poet of most cartoonish immediacy, he now carved space and time as inquiringly and painfully as Andrei Tarkovsky, whom he had cited so powerfully in The Star Factory (1997), the book of magical and critical autobiography in which he again rewrote Belfast but this time with another model in mind, that of Walter Benjamin’s writing on his Berlin childhood. As with Benjamin, the city in childhood is remembered as incredibly vast and porous, with immensities of space and speculation punctuated by intensities and happenings.
Carson is a great European artist, who exemplifies what civilisation can produce, even as it gets so much else wrong. There is no way of doing justice to the achievements of this man, and it is certainly impossible to give due attention to everything he produced, books such as In the Light Of (2012), yet again an unprecedentedly ambitious adaptation of Rimbaud, or From Elsewhere (2014), combining more translations of the relatively unexplored Jean Follain, accompanied by responses prompted by the original. Above all, there was a full-hearted, gladdening book on traditional music, Last Night’s Fun (1996), and three mischievously conceived novels (Shamrock Tea , The Pen Friend , Exchange Place ) that pivot on the joyously fascinated appreciation of things, from paintings to clothes to stationery. Finally, there was an extremely apt and riotous version of Merriman’s The Midnight Court (2005), and another of The Tain (2007). If only Carson could have lived to translate everything ever written into his version of the English language … it was that good. His English improves that of everybody else.
Take a year, or ten years, and in the same way that he sat down to write of an evening, sit down each night and read some of this epochal writing. Take all your time, revel in the shock of his ingenuity and verve, and read them again. In the shock of loss, a kind of euphoria can emerge, one of immense gratitude for a writer who really made life worth living. It might be the grief talking, but for all of the brilliance of every other poet and poem from the past century, Ciaran Carson feels better and brighter now than the rest of them combined.
Michael Hinds is an associate professor in the School of English at Dublin City University.