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Ciaran Carson and Edward Kamau Brathwaite: The Writing Styles and Language Use Essay

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The writing styles and language use of Ciaran Carson

Carson’s first book was The New Estate (1976). In the ten years before The Irish for No (1987) he perfected a new style which effects a unique fusion of traditional story telling with postmodernist devices. The first poem in The Irish for No, the tour-de-force ‘Dresden’ parades his new technique. Free ranging allusion is the key. The poem begins in shabby bucolic:

‘And as you entered in, a bell would tinkle in the empty shop, a musk

Of soap and turf and sweets would hit you from the gloom.’

It takes five pages to get to Dresden, the protagonist having joined the RAF as an escape from rural and then urban poverty. In Carson everything is rooted in the everyday, so the destruction of Dresden evokes memories of a particular Dresden shepherdess he had on the mantelpiece as a child and the destruction is described in terms of ‘an avalanche of porcelain, sluicing and cascading’.

Like Muldoon’s, Carson’s work is intensely allusive. In much of his poetry he has a project of sociological scope: to evoke Belfast in encyclopaedic detail. The second half of The Irish for No was called Belfast Confetti (1990) and this idea expanded to become his next book. The Belfast of the Troubles is mapped with obsessive precision and the language of the Troubles is as powerful a presence as The Trouble themselves. The title “Belfast Confetti” signals this:

‘Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks,

Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type…’

In his next book, First Language, (1993) that won the T. S. Eliot Prize, language has become the subject. There are translations of Ovid, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Carson is deeply influenced by Louis MacNeice and he includes a poem called ‘Bagpipe Music’. What it owes to the original is its rhythmic verve. With his love of dense long lines it is not surprising he is drawn to classical poetry and Baudelaire. In fact, the rhythm of ‘Bagpipe Music’ seems to be that of an Irish gig, on which subject he is an expert (his book about Irish music Last Night’s Fun (1996) is regarded as a classic):

‘blah dithery dump a doodle scattery idle fortunoodle.’

Carson then entered a prolific phase in which the concern for language liberated him into a new creativity. Opera Etcetera (1996) had a set of poems on letters of the alphabet and another series on Latin tags such as ‘Solvitur Ambulando’ and ‘Quod Erat Demonstrandum’ and another series of translations form the Romanian poet Stefan Augustin Doinas. Translation became a key concern, The Alexandrine Plan (1998) featured sonnets by Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé rendered into alexandrines. Carson’s penchant for the long line found a perfect focus in the 12-syllable alexandrine line. He also published The Twelfth of Never (1999), sonnets on fanciful themes:

‘This is the land of the green rose and the lion lily, /

Ruled by Zeno’s eternal tortoises and hares, /

where everything is metaphor and simile’.

I well recall the disappearance of the book containing the second printing of that translation, Kings, Lords and Commons, from the shelves of Cork Public Library when I was a teenager, its banning perhaps the last of a series of insults to O’Connor, a writer who had tried to see Ireland whole, ancient and modern, Gaelic and English, an insult to a voice capable of the scrupulous meanness of Joyce’s Dubliners and, almost, of the baric grandeur of O’Rahilly – or Merriman – invoking the gods of the defeated.

Even an odder symptom of the position into which Irish had been maneuvered, was that the first 20 lines of that same excommunicated poem were to be found in the poetry book we studied at school, Fíon na Filíochta. The freshness of their salute to the natural world certainly earned them a place, but the continuity between the poet’s grasp of a summer morning, birds and sunrise, and his capturing of human passion in the same active idiom, meant we had to stop there.

It is human desire and frustration in the mass – mostly female sexual desire – that Merriman deals with, the spokeswomen and men like his presiding goddess, Aoibheall, speaking for the common good of a country where sexuality, marriage and procreation are difficult and distorted. As they were to remain. Though famine is not mentioned and emigration and mass respectability are still in the future in Merriman’s day, their companions, poverty and meanness, were already to the fore.

His poem seems at times prophetically far-sighted, though its form is archaic, combining the ailing with the “court” or “parliament” form, reminding us that at the time of writing, outside of visions, courts and parliaments were dominated by the English-speaking minority. (It can also be truly obscene in its vituperation.)

The holding of the first Scoil Merriman in 1968, a memorable Saturnalia, celebrated the poem, claimed for the language the rediscovered energy of the Fleadh Ceoil of the 1960s already saluted by John Montague as the death knell of “Puritan Ireland” (not however a “myth” as he called it). Like the Fleadhanna it asserted the value of a skill like the fiddler’s, whether the poet’s blinding technique and creative handling of archaism, or the scholarly skills which had recovered an alternative Irish past. It did that, the admission of Cúirt and Mheán Oíche to public view and academic debate broke up several pointless antitheses, especially the one between language and the freedoms of modernity.

A reading of Ciaran Carson’s Cúirt reinforces my sense of how serious a poem this is, how concerned with issues from clerical celibacy to class, fashion, language and idiom, that have preoccupied Ireland for most of the past three centuries.

The poem’s recuperation also posed a challenge as to how a voice was to be found for its idiom, so saturated with the “poetic” phraseology of a learned poet in a learned time, writing a work of high debate, with personages drawn from myth and satire, in the English language of an age that rejects formal grandeur. O’Connor had gone for a vigorous colloquialism which could on occasion be coarse. Ciaran Carson calls on a style he knows well, the style of the Irish song in English, which accommodates itself to traditional airs, is capable of the grandiose or bathetic and can capture the artificialities of literary convention while remaining unpretentious, like a traditional performer.

A virtue is that a reader is constantly aware of a misty presence beyond it, the true grand style which has gone out of our reach. It alludes to the ballads, (“O all you young men who are single and free/Beware of that yoke until death guaranteed… “); it can be repetitive, literary; its flexible line allows that, though the force of rhetorical repetition in Irish can sound more comic in English than it really is in all cases. If wedding guests can be “Befuddled and boozed in a bibulous Babel”, an august tone must be found for the visionary fairy palace, “stately, capacious, ornate, chandeliered”.

Carson’s handling sounds serendipitous but like his own verse is full of choices, torsions, flexions aptly and subtly made.

Bright Phoebus arose from the darkness of night and got back to his business of spreading the light.

Around me were branches of trees in full leaf and glades decked with ferns of a sylvan motif…

This is verse made on the living, spoken or sung phrase, rather than the word, and it matches perfectly the readability of the original, swinging from narrative to invective and back. And Brian Merriman, though his name is absent from the book’s front cover, is alive again in his poem, as in the dream-encounter (related by Carson in his introduction) with the great coated bard and his “intricate Irish”.

Ciaran Carson is the most polyglot of poets writing in, or in connection with, English (‘the shibboleths are lingua franca since German became current’ is a characteristic line), and the great merit of his translation is that it employs a language as multiple and fragmented as Dante’s Italian – perhaps more so. It sounds less like an epic and more like The Canterbury Tales. Everyday insults – ‘up yours’, ‘you little squat’ – jostle grandiose phrases such as ‘convocation of melodic air’; markedly Irish and Scottish words (‘stirabout’, ‘tawse’) come up against venerable poeticisms (‘the bosky chase’) and Sloaney exclamations (‘O such an awful nook!’). There are hints of American (‘palooka’, ‘hellions’), while anti-French touches of humor turn the devils into ‘seigneurs’ and the divisions within the eighth circle, bogie, into Parisian ‘arrondissements’.

The contrasting idioms uttered by his damned recall the plurality of tongues which Carson has heard in Ulster and explored acutely in his other poetry. In Hell, as in the place ‘caught between/Belfast and Belfast’, different styles of speech bring with them different imaginings of history, individual and political, so that the questions ‘Was it really like that?’ and ‘Is the story true?’ become difficult or impossible to answer.

In his introduction, Carson explores a comparison between his own circumstances and the civil conflict through which Dante lived: in Belfast, ‘we see again the vendetta-stricken courtyards and surveillance towers of Dante’s birthplace, where everyone is watching everyone, and there is little room for maneuver.’ In the translation itself, loaded words continue the analogy. Hell has ‘borders’ and ‘precincts’, and at one point Dante is made to ask of his ‘divided city’: ‘is there one just man/in it? Or are they all sectarians?’

Because words like ‘sectarian’ are so firmly hooked into a particular modern context, they drag the poem towards us and away from medieval Italy. They make it obvious that Dante’s text is not being neutrally rendered into English but that something is being done with it or made out of it. Often, when we read translations, we forget about the intermediary presence of the translator: we like to think that the book in front of us is Vertigo by W.G. Sebald (say), whereas really it is Vertigo, a version of Sebald’s Schwindel. Gefühle. By Michael Hulse. In the Belfast poems, the movement of words from one place or voice to another is a focus of attention.

Carson encourages us to see that the slightest transposition matters. When he writes, ‘Spokesman for censored political party spoke in someone else’s lip-synch,’ the dropped articles at once invoke the supposedly impersonal presence of a newscaster and suggest a kind of into national sclerosis in the speaking voice. His Inferno investigates the processes of verbal transmutation in the same way, and nowhere more sharply than when, in a translator’s equivalent of lip-synch, it employs Italian words.

To bring Italian into an English poem is one thing: in Carson’s ‘Second Language’, for instance, ‘Growling figures campanile above me’ opens an appropriately dizzying exoticism of perspective. But to use Italian in what is meant to be the English translation of an Italian poem is something else. When he has Virgil say, ‘There’s not much time to lose, so make it presto,’ we might think that he is here latching on to what could be a gift to the translator, a word used by Dante which is also naturalized in English. But it turns out that ‘presto’ is not in fact in the text of the Commedia at this point.

The lip-synch is being faked, and indeed there would have been an element of fakery even if Dante had used the word, for ‘presto’ in English (with its aura of foreignness and special affiliations to magic and music) is not the same as presto in Italian. The appearance of the word in Virgil’s speech has about it the dazzle of a short circuit: since it was brought into English without visible modification, it looks like a perfect translation; but because it has been brought into English at all, its meaning must have changed. The difference between the two languages is never more intractable than when they appear to merge.

‘Language can be registered in many ways,’ Carson has said of translating the Irish poet Séan Ó Ríordáin, ‘and bringing one language to bear upon another is like going through a forest at night, where there are many forking paths, and each route is fraught with its own pitfalls.’ His Inferno – a journey beginning in a dark forest – alerts the reader familiar with Italian too many new paths through Dante’s poem; but readers who cannot consult the original can even so gain a sense of the pressure it exerts on Carson’s English.

In the canto he chose to translate first, Dante and Virgil encounter a giant buried up to his navel and spouting an incomprehensible babble: ‘Raphèl maí amècche zahí almi’ (incomprehensible, but not untranslatable; Carson gives ‘Yin twa maghogani gazpaighp boke’). As Virgil explains, ‘this egomaniac/is Nimrod, who built Babel; he’s the cause/of all our tribulations linguistic.’ Apart from the last two words, this speech is straightforwardly idiomatic, an instance of the kind of translation that pretends to repair the effects of Babel by conjuring out of the foreign text a recognizable English voice. But what of ‘tribulations linguistic’? Who would ever say that? The illusion of easy communication disintegrates; the curse of Babel reasserts itself, English collapses into translationese. As often in the translation, the failing here is orchestrated so as to exemplify the difficulties to which Virgil refers. Carson does not attempt to overcome our tribulations linguistic, but works imaginatively within them.

Usually, ‘translationese’ is a term of opprobrium, applied (often rightly) to translations which fail to achieve fluency or elegance. Carson rebuts the assumptions surrounding the word: ‘Some of us expect translations to sound like translations, and to produce English which is sometimes strangely interesting.’ There may be a hint of special pleading here, for it can occasionally be hard to distinguish between the ‘strangely interesting’ and the inept.

There are passages in this translation where the awkwardness appears to have stiffened into a routine. But more often Carson finds ways of opening up expressive possibilities which are available only to language that is being used to translate. As with other strangely interesting translations (Logue’s Homer, Pound’s Cavalcanti, Browning’s Agamemnon), these can be understood only if we keep in mind the translated ness of the words that we are reading.

What is the date of composition of Dante’s Inferno as translated by Ciaran Carson? Because translations of works from the past belong to two periods at once, their language can have an especially incisive relationship to time. When Carson’s Virgil prophesies the advent of a mysterious political leader – ‘All lowly Italy he’ll galvanize/ to freedom’ – the suddenly un-medieval word (galvanism was discovered in the late 18th century) is itself galvanic, creating the impression that Virgil’s language has leapt ahead of itself to keep pace with his prediction. Puns, as they encapsulate two meanings, can also include two temporalities.

With sinners between his teeth, Satan ‘worked his three mouths like a flax machine’: the suggestion here is that it would be best if we could manage to imagine a flax machine (whatever that looks like), but that if we can’t, a paper jam in the fax machine will do.

The writing styles and language use of Edward Kamau Brathwaite

Poetry of Edward Kamau Brathwaite has been concerned, for a long time now, with the attempt to reconstruct, in verse, in metric and in rhythms, the nature of the culture of the people of the Caribbean. This involves not only discovering what I would call “new poetic forms” — a breakaway from the English pentameter — but also, and more importantly, discovering the nature of our folk culture, the myths, the legends, the speech rhythms, the way we express ourselves in words, the way we express ourselves in song. That has been my concern for about ten years and is increasingly so. One has to develop technical resources of a very complex nature and at the same time one has to get an increasing knowledge of which our people are, where they come from and the nature of their soul.

Well, what’s important is that until we can do that we remain “ex-selves,” we remain nobodies, we remain just imitations of those who had colonized us. Considering that the man in the street, our own people, and the common man has always been himself, it is ridiculous that the artists have remained a shadow of that self. What we have to do now is to increasingly bring the artist and the people together. Both. I wouldn’t separate them. My poems start off as rhythms in my head, as patterns of songs which also have an objective. The patterns of songs have to say something, address themselves to some problems or go through some dialectical process.

From my head they have to be transferred onto the page, because that’s how I started, but then from the page I instinctively transfer it on to song. In other words, every time I write a poem I have to either have it read or read it myself to some kind of audience before I’m satisfied that it’s a real poem. The recordings are a necessary part of the whole process.

The audience gives Edward Kamau Brathwaite feedback. The audience completes the circle. The audience is the people I’m writing about and for, and therefore, if they can’t understand what I’m saying it means that it might be that I’ve failed. There are some cases where I think I’m ahead of the audience but then I would know that and they would know it too, but you’ve got to start from a base that the audience and yourself agree on and move from there.

I start off with a Caribbean audience which is representative of the people who have been down-pressed. The audience is usually a mixed audience, moving in terms of class from college educated to middle class right up to the laboring class because that is how our society is composed.

The immediate reactions are one of ascent or descent. You can tell from face and feeling, body movement, if you are saying the right thing. That is clear. But the long range reaction is very interesting. I’ll give you an example: I’m starting to use a lot of possession (religious) sequences in my work. Because the work is culturally accurate, instinctively when people come to it they want to perform it, they don’t just want to read it, nearly all my work in the Caribbean is done as a performance with groups. Now, a young group of actors recently came into contact with my latest poem which was essentially involved with religion, native religion, and Afro-Caribbean religion.

They were not themselves fully aware of what I was talking about but they could tell from the descriptions, the external aspects of the descriptions, the kinds of churches I was talking about. They went to those churches in order to experience for themselves what was happening and many of them have now become members of those churches. As artists they find themselves now being fulfilled as members of those people’s churches. I think that’s a very significant long term effect because it is really motivating people not just to talk about their culture but to become participants in its root basis. The Haitians have done it too. The Haitians are increasingly returning to vodun as a central experience. With the African person the religion is the center of the culture, therefore every artist, at some stage, must become rootedly involved in a religious complexity.

It is not mystification at all, that’s the thing about it. The religion is so natural, it is so vital, it is so socially oriented, so people oriented that there is no mysticism — mental mystification — in it al all. That is really the difference between an African oriented religion and a European one. Theirs is very mystified because they are not dealing with a living god; they’re not dealing with man in relation to god in relation to community.

From a vision outside the U.S.A. but inside the African Diaspora, Brathwaite grapples with the same issues I have grappled with throughout my life. While I agree with the overall tenor of what he said, I think he avoids dealing with the “blues” which is simply our response to the denial of our humanity by humans more powerful them both we and our traditional god(s). Brathwaite is not a “practicing” member of any particular organized religious group. He locates the center of religion in the people orientation. This is an avoidance of the most troubling question: why did our old gods fail us, what did we do to deserve our lot, to be (come) so Black and blue.

We reenter the question raised much earlier in this writing. There is a schism between the blues folk and the religious (particularly the Christians). I agree with Brathwaite that there must be a religious center, spiritual beliefs — but I do not believe that presupposes organized religions, whether Christian or Islamic. A central (and, some would say, existential) question ultimately must be addressed by every serious writer who confronts African American culture: the failure of “God” (religion) to provide earthly deliverance.

In search of the answer I went back to the beginning, to the core, to the people and placed my faith in them and in nature, in what I can witness and in what created me, thus:

  • Black people believe
  • In god, and I believe in
  • Black people, amen

Ultimately, every African American poet worth her or his salt must address in one way or another, directly or indirectly, bluntly or subtly, this most basic of all questions: how come we must suffer so. Regardless of the specific answer posed or the specific solution suggested, I believe such wrestling is an essential characteristic of the Black aesthetic and is also the source of our characteristic melancholic tinge which colors, to one degree or another, every African American gesture.

My understanding of the phenomenology of Black poetry was further uplifted by Kamau Brathwaite through an instructive lecture published in text form as History of the Voice. In terms of explicating the structure of his poetic language and relating that language to the liberation struggle, Brathwaite had gone further than any poet I knew. Brathwaite’s work has parallels in the work of some linguists, but the difference is: Brathwaite was dealing with the inherent revolutionary nature of Black expressive voice in the face of colonial domination, a paradigm which remains profound applicable today.

“Nation language” thusly:

Now I’d like to describe for you some of the characteristics of our nation language. First of all, it is from, as I’ve said, an oral tradition. The poetry, the culture itself, exists not in a dictionary but in the tradition of the spoken word. It is based as much on sound as it is on song. That is to say, the noise that it makes is part of the meaning, and if you ignore the noise (or what you would think of as noise, shall I say) then you or lose part of the meaning. When it is written, you lose the sound or the noise, and therefore you lose part of the meaning. Which is, again, why I have to have a tape recorder for this presentation? I want you to get the sound of it, rather than the sight of it.

In order to break down the pentameter, we discovered an ancient form which was always there, the calypso. This is a form that I think nearly everyone knows about. It does not employ the iambic pentameter. It employs dactyls. It therefore mandates the use of the tongue in a certain way, the use of sound in a certain way. It is a model that we are moving naturally towards now. Compare

To be or not to be, that is the question

The stone had skidded arc’d and bloomed into islands

Cuba San Domingo

Jamaica Puerto Rico

But not only is there a different in syllabic or stress pattern, there is an important difference in shape of intonation. In the Shakespeare, the voice travels in a single forward plane towards the horizon of its end. In the kaiso, after the skimming movement of the first line, we have a distinct variation. The voice dips and deepens to describe an intervallic pattern. And then there are more ritual forms like kumina, like shango, the religious forms, which I won’t have time to go into here, but which begin to disclose the complexity that is possible with nation language.

The other thing about nation language is that it is part of what may be called total expression, a notion which is not unfamiliar to you because you are coming back to that kind of thing now. Reading is an isolated, individualistic expression. The oral tradition on the other hand demands not only the grit but the audience to complete the community: the noise and sounds that the maker makes are responded to by the audience and are returned to him.

Hence we have the creation of a continuum where meaning truly resides. And this total expression comes about because people are in the open air, because people live in conditions of poverty (‘unhouselled’) because they come from a historical experience where they had to rely on their very breath rather than on paraphernalia like books and museums and machines. They had to depend on immanence, the power within themselves, rather than the technology outside themselves.

What was important for me is that Brathwaite had clearly articulated not only structural differences but also the social basis for those differences. When I put Brathwaite’s insights with Zora Neal Hurston’s remarks about “Negro Expression,” the shape of the poetry I wanted and needed to create became clear.

Zora Hurston’s article, currently available in the volume Sanctified Church, is at once a timeless meditation on the nature of why and how we express ourselves, as well as a period piece obviously grounded in (but not limited by) the “slang” of her era.

Very few Negroes, educated or not, use a clear clipped “I.” It verges more or less upon “Ah.” I think the lip form is responsible for this to a great extent. By experiment the reader will find that a sharp “I” is very much easier with a thin taut lip than with a full soft lip. Like tightening violin strings.”

Zora’s ruminations opened a number of doors of inner insight for me, especially when set in the framework constructed by Brathwaite. In essence, Zora Hurston advised me to study our people, totally and without shame.

Well before I could intellectually articulate my theory of a Black aesthetic, I had already accepted the basic tenets because I loved the music of John Coltrane. My love of Coltrane was not instantaneous, in fact, early on I would walk out of the room when Coltrane came on the Saturday evening jazz radio program which I listened to religiously. But there was something that pulled me into Trane’s sound. Eventually, I realized “that woman” was in his horn, i.e. Trane was a profound blues musician. In him, once again I heard the cry of the blues, a cry that was both brutally raw in its sound and sophisticated in its articulation.

My ultimately successful efforts to feel, embrace and understand Coltrane intellectually stimulated and spiritually focused my development of Afro-centric literary theories. Throughout my life, music has always preceded intellectual discovery. The sound of the music would grab me well before I could make sense out of the structure and sophisticated articulation of both the country blues singers and the modern jazz musicians.

Modern jazz moved me to think, particularly John Coltrane. In modern jazz, Coltrane reintroduced blues as the dominant emotional vector as well as conceptual structure of his music. Afterwards, he began incorporating both spirituals/gospel and world music in his work. Finally, he added a spiritual dimension to his work by proposing that we are all one and all part of a much larger life force. Coltrane articulated key aspects of his philosophy in conversation with Nat Hentoff who wrote the liner notes for Coltrane’s path breaking release Meditations.

Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can’t ever forget it. It becomes part of everything you do. In that respect, this is an extension of A Love Supreme since my conception of that force keeps changing shape. My goal in meditating on this through music, however, remains the same. And that is to uplift people, as much as I can. To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives. Because there certainly is meaning to life.

The awesome inclusiveness of Trane’s music — a sound at once informed by the world yet unmistakably and unalterably Black — suggested to me the possibility of a non-racist approach to Afro-centrism. His music was like the sun, radiating ideas (shooting them out to investigate the depths of the universe) and at the same time gravitationally so strong that it pulled an entire galaxy into orbit around itself. Any question I could pose, the music had already addressed. Every answer I would achieve, the music would prepare me to accept. By 1992 I had begun formalizing my approach, or, as the musicians would say: I had found my sound.

What is interesting here is that although much of my work, particularly the oral, was immediately identifiable, the sound I had was not the sound I was reaching to attain. Again, the music is instructive. Jazz is generally created in a collective but simultaneously always celebrates the individual. In the best jazz combos, one can tell who each musician is just by hearing their own unique sound, yet it is paradoxical that an individual sound is developed by playing with others, never in isolation, even though the isolation of shedding is necessary to develop craft, develop technique. But technique is not sound. That is why Thelonious Monk, for instance, is immediately identifiable as a pianist even though he did not have the technical abilities of many pianists of lesser importance to the music.

All of these kinds of considerations are reflected in my poetry. While I spent years experimenting and performing, writing and rewriting, refashioning and/or jettisoning old ideas and techniques, discovering new ones and adopting others, through all of that I knew that ultimately it was about being myself. I had to find out who I was and had to articulate the truths that I found.

Eventually, I also understood that, if I were successful, not only would I create my own sound; I would also create my own sense. Like Black musicians have for hundreds of years, I would learn by reflection and projection, reflecting on myself and the world, projecting what I had discovered. I would have my own sound and I would conceive my own sense of what my life was about. This revelation is best expressed in a short poem contained in What Is Life, a collection of poetry and essays published by Third World Press in 1994


  1. Irish Times – Lthch: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.
  2. The Ballad of HMS Belfast (1999) collected his Belfast poems.
  3. The Midnight Court by Ciaran Carson Gallery Press.
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