A tribute to Ciaran Carson

Ciaran Carson at the Popescu Prize ceremony, 2015. Photo: Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society.

Ciaran Carson, who sadly died on 6 October 2019, had a long association with The Poetry Society, as a contributor to The Poetry Review, as a National Poetry Competition judge, and as a noted translator shortlisted for the Society’s Popescu Translation Prize.

Born in Belfast on 9 October 1948, Carson studied English at Queen’s University. He worked in the Arts Council of Northern Ireland from 1975 to 1998, with responsibility for Traditional Music and, subsequently, Literature. In October 2003 he was appointed Professor of Poetry and Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s.

His numerous poetry collections published by Gallery Press include: The Irish for No, Belfast Confetti (winner of the Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Poetry), First Language (winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize 1993), Breaking News (winner of the Forward Prize 2003), For All We Know (Poetry Book Society Choice; shortlisted for T.S. Eliot Prize 2008 ), Collected Poems (2008), On the Night Watch (2009) and Until Before After (2010). From There to Here (Selected Poems and Translations) was published on the occasion of his 70th birthday in 2018. A posthumous collection, Still Life, will be published by Gallery Press in 2019.

A noted translator, his books included: The Alexandrine Plan (his versions of sonnets by Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé); The Midnight Court (a translation of the eighteenth-century Irish poet Brian Merriman); The Inferno of Dante Aligheri (awarded the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize) and The Táin (an epic of early Irish literature). In 2013 he was shortlisted for The Poetry Society’s Popescu Prize for European Poetry in Translation for In the Light Of: after Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud. Hear ‘As I Roved Out’ and read ‘Demotic Nocturne’, both from that collection. Carson was also a successful writer of memoirs and novels. Last Night’s Fun is a book about traditional music – he played the flute and tin whistle. The Star Factory, his memoir about Belfast, won the Yorkshire Post Book Award.

Ciaran Carson’s connection with The Poetry Society included judging the National Poetry Competition with Elaine Feinstein, Simon Smith and Denis MacShane MP in 2004. He featured regularly in The Poetry Review, as both contributor and subject. In reviewing Carson’s Collected Poems in 2009, Steven Matthews wrote: “there is a mighty verve pushing forward the whole project, a verve which coins the often eruptive energies at the level of the individual poem. The whole career reads as a set of variations upon an early established understanding about the precariousness of the world out of which, and about which, Carson writes.”

Peter Fallon, his publisher at The Gallery Press, said: “We at The Gallery Press are devastated by the death of Ciaran Carson. Since his diagnosis in March he has been heroic. But we’re not surprised. His work was heroic for the thirty-five years he and I worked together. To edit and publish his books was a privilege and an excitement. There are few better books than his Collected Poems. It is not an exaggeration to compare his mapping of Belfast with Joyce’s of Dublin. We always planned to publish Still Life on 16 October – and we did, with pride and the heaviest heart. But oh, what fun we had! Our hearts go out to Deirdre, Manus, Gerard and Mary.”

Maurice Riordan wrote, “Ciaran Carson entered my poetry world when I read ‘The Insular Celts’ in the Faber Book of Irish Verse back in 1974. This elegant poem featured in his first collection, The New Estate, in 1976. But it was The Irish for No, his second book eleven years later, that really took my breath away. He had adopted the long line (then being ‘revived’ by CK Williams) and combined its sinuous rhythms with a mesmerising voice. It seemed to set free a ramifying associative imagination that stayed earthy and robust. I still think its opening poem, ‘Dresden’, is a masterpiece of narrative.

“I met Ciaran just a few times, and we corresponded around the translations he made from early Irish for The Finest Music. He was brought up speaking Irish and remained steeped in the tradition, in its music and folklore as well as the old literature, and so he was a key contributor to the anthology. But beyond that, in all his poems and prose, his spirit was various, daring, curious and – with deep reaches into Baudelaire, Dante, Ovid, Jean Follain – he measured up squarely to the modern world. He is one of giants of Irish poetry.”

Hear ‘As I Rove Out (Aube)‘ by Arthur Rimbaud translated and read by Ciaran Carson from In the Light Of: after Illuminations, Arthur Rimbaud, pub The Gallery Press. Ciaran Carson reads his poem with a short introduction. 

Read Demotic Nocturne (Nocturne vulgaire) by Arthur Rimbaud translated by Ciaran Carson from In the Light Of: after Illuminations, Arthur Rimbaud, pub The Gallery Press. Translated by Ciaran Carson.

30 October 2019