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Ciaran Carson, Versatile Belfast Poet, Is Dead at 70 October 9, 2019

Ciaran Carson, whose poetry and prose captured the pungency, tensions and rich heritage of Northern Ireland, especially his native Belfast, died in the city on Sunday. He was 70.

Laura Susijn of the Susijn Agency, which represented him, said the cause was lung cancer.

Mr. Carson was perhaps best known as a poet, and his most acclaimed collection may have been “Belfast Confetti,” published in 1989.

“Carson’s lanky verses and prose poems have made poetry out of the scary complexities of the distraught city,” Thomas D’Evelyn wrote of that volume in The Christian Science Monitor. Its title poem begins with a jarring collision of imagery:

Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks,
Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type. And the explosion
Itself — an asterisk on the map. This hyphenated line, a burst of rapid fire …
I was trying to complete a sentence in my head, but it kept stuttering.
All the alleyways and side-streets blocked with stops and colons.

He experimented with structure, and his style evolved, from longer lines to shorter, fragmented ones.

“I can’t say why the forms in which I write have changed so radically over the years,” he told the Wake Forest University Press in 2010, “but it seems we should adopt new methods for new situations. The situation demands the form.”

His exploratory nature also infused a wide variety of prose works. There was the mosaic-like “Shamrock Tea” (2001), which, as The Guardian put it, “claims to be a novel but might equally be filed under History, Philosophy, Art, or Myth and Religion.” There was the idiosyncratic memoir “The Star Factory” (1997), which The Chicago Tribune called “a positive, loving, even celebratory evocation, the work of a man determined to live an ordinary urban life, and to clear in it a place for the imagination.” There was “Last Night’s Fun,” his meditation on traditional Irish music, each chapter bearing the title of a beloved song.

“He leaves such a wide body of work that people will have their own favourites, including the magnificent ‘Belfast Confetti,’” The president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, said in a statement. “Representing Belfast in all its variety, the memoirs and books, such as ‘The Star Factory’, revealed a deep love of place.”

Ciaran (KEER-ahn) Gerard Carson was born on Oct. 9, 1948, in Belfast. His father, William, was a postman, and his mother, Mary (Maggin) Carson, worked in linen mills. The family was Roman Catholic and bilingual, speaking the Irish language at home, and Mr. Carson grew up with an appreciation of words, their origins, their sounds.

“I used to lull myself to sleep with language,” he wrote in “The Star Factory,” “mentally repeating, for example, the word capall, the Irish for horse, which seemed to me more onomatopoeically equine than its English counterpart; gradually, its trochaic foot would summon up a ghostly echo of ‘cobble,’ till, wavering between languages, I would allow my disembodied self to drift out the window and glide through the silent dark gas-lit streets above the mussel-coloured cobblestones.”

He earned a degree in English in 1971 at Queen’s University, Belfast, then in 1975 took a job with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. He would remain there until 1998, dealing first with traditional music and then literature. His first poetry collection, “The New Estate,” was published in 1976.

His poetry often addressed the tensions inherent in living in Belfast during troubled times. “Last Orders,” from “Belfast Confetti,” begins starkly:

Squeeze the buzzer on the steel mesh gate like a trigger, but
It’s someone else who has you in their sights. Click. It opens. Like electronic
Russian roulette, since you never know for sure who’s who, or what
You’re walking into.

Another collection, “Selected Poems” (2001), included a work titled simply “Fear”:

I fear the vast dimensions of eternity.
I fear the gap between the platform and the train.
I fear the onset of a murderous campaign.
I fear the palpitations caused by too much tea.

I fear the drawn pistol of a rapparee.
I fear the books will not survive the acid rain.
I fear the ruler and the blackboard and the cane.
I fear the Jabberwock, whatever it might be.

I fear the bad decisions of a referee.
I fear the only recourse is to plead insane.
I fear the implications of a lawyer’s fee.

I fear the gremlins that have colonized my brain.
I fear to read the small print of the guarantee.
And what else do I fear? Let me begin again.

Mr. Carson — who was also an accomplished translator, working in several languages — viewed writing poetry not as an exercise in setting down an idea, but as an exploration.

“The kind of examination question which used to be put, ‘What did the poet have in mind when he said …’ is an assumption that the poet clothes his thought in verse,” he told The Spectator in 2012, “whereas the poet often doesn’t know what he has in mind: He follows the language, and sees where it might lead him, which is usually a very different place from what he thought at the onset.

“If you know exactly what you are going to say in a poem,” he continued, “that poem will be a failure. Besides, there is no interest or fun, in saying what you already know.”

Mr. Carson, who was a skilled flutist, married Deirdre Shannon, an accomplished fiddle player, in 1982. She survives him, as do their three children, Manus, Gerard and Mary; and four siblings, Caitlin, Pat, Brendan and Liam.

Mr. Carson had been struggling with cancer for some time, and some of his most recent poems mused on the approaching end of his life. One, called “Claude Monet: ‘The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil,’ 1880,” published just two months ago in The New Yorker and part of “Still Life,” a collection to be published by Wake Forest University Press early next year, concluded this way:

How strange it is to be lying here listening to whatever it is is going on.
The days are getting longer now, however many of them I have left.
And the pencil I am writing this with, old as it is, will easily outlast their end.

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