Professor Ciaran Carson (Ireland)
9 October 1948 – 6 October 2019
On April 18th, 2007, at a Lannan Foundation event to celebrate Northern Irish poetry, Ciaran Carson read alongside Paul Muldoon and Michael Longley in the impressive surrounds of the National Geographic Centre in Washington DC. Seamus Heaney had sent a recorded contribution because his recent stroke meant he was unable to join them. Dana Gioia, then Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (appointed by George Bush), introduced the evening. Gioia suggested this line-up of poets reaffirmed “the poet’s ancient civil role” and he stressed the political dimension of their work.
As was typical of his readings, Ciaran began by playing the aisling air on his tin whistle and then explained the aisling tradition, proposing that the encounter between the Irish-speaking spéirbhean (sky woman) and the Irish poet writing in English results in a zone “in which the language that you speak becomes unsure of itself.” Ciaran concludes, “I was reared in the Irish language but now I’m writing in English, which is all my fault.” Ciaran politicised the use of language in a forum at the epicentre of the American political system, reminding the audience of the colonisation of Ireland by an imperialist force; by a foreign tongue.
Many of the poems Ciaran read that night were taken from his collection “Breaking News” (Gallery, 2003), which draws on the Crimean War to comment on Northern Ireland’s political situation: ‘Fragment’, ‘Home’, Horse at Balaklava’, ‘Sedan’, ‘Skip’, ‘Wire’, ‘War’, and one of his greatest poems, ‘Gallipoli’. It employs the writings of the first front line war-correspondent, the Irishman William Howard Russell, and is a rolling litany of the horror invasion brings to a country and its people. To reaffirm his “ancient civil role” Ciaran chose that night to read poems that all involved the consequences of invasion by an imperialist power. And it should be noted – as I’m sure the audience there that night noted – that America had recently invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. Ciaran’s reading, in front of Washington’s literary and political elite, was a carefully orchestrated comment on American foreign policy.
The recording of ‘Gallipoli’ you’re listening to was made that night in Washington DC. I selected it from the many recordings I have of Ciaran because, first, it is such a tremendous poem and he reads it brilliantly and, second, it exemplifies Ciaran’s often clever crafting of ‘the poetry reading’ to make a subtle comment about the context in which the poem is performed. And I think this reflects Ciaran’s integrity as an artist; that he cared passionately about the deployment of language and how, when we consider it carefully, language can force us to examine ourselves – ‘us’ being both the individual and the wider society.
If, as Gioia suggested that night, poets have a civil role, and if by that we mean a role related to citizens and their concerns, and possibly a ‘civilising’ role, then Ciaran is the greatest civil poet Ireland has produced in generations. Today, at this moment in time, we need Ciaran Carson and his poetry more than ever.
Of all the poems performed that night in Washington, ‘Gallipoli’ was the only one to be applauded after it was read. They got it, Ciaran. Thank you.
Board and Committee Member
The John Hewitt Society
Ciaran read for the John Hewitt Society on many occasions including at the Spring School in Carnlough, the International Summer School, and the Birthday Reading. The Washington recording was kindly made for me by Professor Sinéad Morrissey, who had read earlier in the Lannan Foundation programme. This and other recordings of Ciaran can be found in the Seamus Heaney Centre Digital Archive.
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