The Irish for no, yes and maybe

In poetry and prose, Ciaran Carson - son of a Belfast postman - delivers his gloriously mixed messages
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I read and I write." You can't argue with Ciaran Carson's description of how he spends his days, though the throwaway brevity does scant justice to his astonishing output over the past 15-odd years. Carson has only been able to devote himself full time to reading and writing - both poetry and prose - since he retired from the Northern Ireland Arts Council, where he held the post of Arts Officer, about 18 months ago. But even before, he'd get home from work and head for his study, where an energy-boosting bout of creativity was soon underway. Not that Carson would put it like this; he displays an engaging disinclination to take himself too seriously. A Belfast disdain for the poseur looms large among his characteristics.

I read and I write." You can't argue with Ciaran Carson's description of how he spends his days, though the throwaway brevity does scant justice to his astonishing output over the past 15-odd years. Carson has only been able to devote himself full time to reading and writing - both poetry and prose - since he retired from the Northern Ireland Arts Council, where he held the post of Arts Officer, about 18 months ago. But even before, he'd get home from work and head for his study, where an energy-boosting bout of creativity was soon underway. Not that Carson would put it like this; he displays an engaging disinclination to take himself too seriously. A Belfast disdain for the poseur looms large among his characteristics.

In his prose works, Carson likes to lead a merry dance, drawing readers behind him once he gets started on the trail of some enticingly vaporish possibility. His new book Fishing for Amber (Granta, £12.99) had its genesis in a story told by his wife Deirdre Shannon, about how she was walking with her parents near Lough Neagh when they came upon a well called the Holy Pool. Deirdre overheard two elderly couples reminiscencing about their youth nearby, and how they used to amuse themselves by tying a tin can to a stick and dredging up nuggets of amber out of this holy well.

Amber in Antrim? This can't be right, Carson thought. He promptly started leafing through the Irish Ordnance Survey Memoirs for 1835, where, to his surprise, found the story corroborated: "it is fine spring water and produces amber crystals". These crystals were soon embedded in his imagination, and wouldn't leave him alone until he constructed an entire edifice of them: a kind of literary equivalent of the famous Russian Amber Room which fell into Nazi hands during the Second World War and has never resurfaced.

Among the ingredients in this intoxicating undertaking are Dutch paintings of the 17th century, the kind of Irish tale -"Long ago there was an old hag living alone between the hills of Dog Big and Dog Little" - a bygone seanchaidhe (storyteller) might have recounted round a turf fire in darkest Donegal, and some classic metamorphoses from Ovid. Carson's intertwining narratives are generally based on the principle of one thing leading on to another, but with Fishing for Amber it's more a matter of one thing flamboyantly turning into another.

Ciaran Carson was born in 1948 in a street off the Falls Road in Belfast - before motorways and new housing changed its character. At the time, the area (mills, hills and red-brick rows) housed a distinctive community which included a fair number of working-class intellectuals like Carson senior, to whose memory the latest book is dedicated. Postman, storyteller, Esperanto-speaker and Irish-language devotee, his influence on his eldest son's output is forthrightly acknowledged.

Irish was the primary language of the Carson household, a circumstance that set them apart from friends and neighbours. "We were both excluded and admired," Ciaran remembers, a bit ruefully; thought in some ways a family of oddballs, but also respected for upholding Gaelic culture during a period when - as Flann O'Brien has it - it was neither popular nor profitable to do so.

The five young Carsons grew up bilingual: a marvellously enriching experience, but one which might have fostered ambivalence. (Some would attribute Carson's stammer, which comes and goes, to his early dilemma about which language to express himself in.) By an irony, the title of his award-winning poetry collection, First Language, refers to the one the book isn't written in.

When Carson was ten, the family moved up the road to one of the new housing developments which were already, in the late 1950s, radiating out from Belfast - hence the title of his first collection of poems, The New Estate. It came out in 1976, a year after he joined the Arts Council (taking responsibility for traditional music). He went to school with the Christian Brothers at St Mary's in Barrack Street - and didn't find the experience as harrowing as others have done - before Queen's University, where he read for an honours degree in English literature.

The New Estate was followed in 1986 by The Irish for No, which signalled a change of direction by giving itself leave to ramble, to approach its themes with a breathtaking audacity. Then, very rapidly, came four or five poetry collections and three books of prose (four, if you count the spirited Pocket Guide to Traditional Irish Music).

In the meantime, Ciaran Carson had married Deirdre Shannon - an accomplished fiddle player - moved into a handsome three-storey Victorian terraced house in north Belfast (where they still live) and become the father of two sons and a daughter. It's perhaps significant that the Carsons' part of the city is equidistant from nationalist and loyalist enclaves, furnishing an occasion to comment on the poet's incorrigible inclusiveness. He even shares a surname with the founder of the Northern Irish state, while having grown up in an atmosphere as far removed as possible from the "for-God-and-Ulster" ethos. "It seems the gene-pool got contaminated. Everything was neither one thing nor the other." Like it or not, we're all in the same Northern Irish boat.

He began as a poet, and only turned to prose at the urging of his editor, who kept going on at him to write a personal book on Irish music: the highly entertaining Last Night's Fun. Then he got a taste for prose - "You could do things in prose you couldn't do in poetry" - and even began to relish the inspirational element in research, which "was never something I would normally do". You'd be hoking around in a library, he says, not altogether sure what you were looking for, when your hand would suddenly reach up and draw down the exact volume you needed (even though you didn't know it). The "library angel", an almost spooky felicity, is always available to guide the true enthusiast.

Research fulfils some part of Carson's nature which is insatiably erudite, though the use to which he puts his findings is far from dry-asdust scholarship. He's a master of the creative medley, the exuberant elaboration. His book about Belfast, The Star Factory, came into being because he had it "at the back of my mind to try to write a memoir" - but not the usual stuff. What he was after was an intensive appraisal of a singular locality (Carson's Belfast), with a psychic dimension added. The book, in its intricacy and idiosyncrasy, achieves this purpose brilliantly. It's also, like most of Carson's work, about the practice of storytelling with all its ins and outs, its turns and twists and tropes ("everything is metaphor and simile").

This harks back to his childhood, as he listened to his father dispensing stories, night after night. Fishing for Amber is subtitled "A Long Story", though he calls it more of an extended essay - "but essays don't sell". It's an investigation into many aspects of amber with offshoots and digressions, but with several structural devices which hold the whole thing in equilibrium.

If it's a long story, it contains short stories, tall stories, factual stories, foot-off-the-ground stories, old stories, true stories, stories-withinstories. The more you try to classify it, the more you lose the thread. All you can do is read and admire it, and submit to its powerful playful logic and astringent charms.

Ciaran Carson is already at work on his next book, about herbs and their properties - about which the only thing one can predict with confidence is that it will take off into untold realms of richness and rarity. Whatever his literary influences - Borges, W G Sebald and Flann O'Brien come to mind - Carson remains totally original and utterly absorbing. Whether he's prospecting for amber, or pursuing historical accuracy, he uncovers gold.

Ciaran Carson, a biography

Ciaran Carson was born in Belfast in 1948. He graduated from Queen's University in 1971, and later joined the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, specialising in traditional music. His first poetry collection was The New Estate (1976). The Irish for No followed in 1986 and Belfast Confetti won the Irish Times Irish Literature Prize in 1989; First Language won the 1993 T S Eliot Prize. His prose works include Last Night's Fun (1996), on Irish music, The Star Factory (1998), about his native city, and now Fishing for Amber (Granta). This year Picador has published his latest collection, The Twelfth of Never , and an anthology of his Belfast poems, HMS Belfast . Ciaran Carson lives in north Belfast with his wife, Deirdre Shannon, and their three children.

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