Neil Corcoran: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Writing about web page http://www.liv.ac.uk/english/staff/neilcorcoran.htm
Corcoran begins by considering Ciaran Carson’s review of Seamus Heaney’s collection, North (1975), particularly Carson’s criticism of Heaney for being ‘the laureate of violence – a mythmaker, an anthropologist of ritual killing, an apologist for ‘the situation’, in the last resort a mystifier’ (213). Carson also accuses Heaney of falsifying issues and offering fake notions of history. Corcoran notices that such accusation have been prolonged by Edna Longley and Paul Muldoon and he suggests that such critics fail to notice the need for Northern Irish poets to break with English tradition in a manner such as Heaney’s. Heaney tries to meld the English lyric with a different kind of content.
Carson is different, because as Corcoran notes, in The Irish for No, Carson tries to disrupt the lyric entirely. Corcoran notices ‘a veiled reference to Heaney’ in ‘Irish for No’ and notes that while the climactic suicide at the end of the poem plays with Keat’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, it also offers ‘something of the wryly good-humoured acknowledgement of Heaney also to be found in poems by Paul Muldoon and Tom Paulin’ (214). Yet Corcoran wonders whether the ‘grotesquerie’ of the poem also ‘must intend some judgement on the sensorial opulence of Heaney’s early work’ (214).
The word ‘dark’ resounds throughout the book; but it would appear that Carson’s poem finds behind the door of Heaney’s earlier work not contemporary terror but literature; not the dark of Northern Ireland’s nightmare but the luxuriance of Keat’s ode; and those jam-jars which are full of frogspawn and blackberries in Heaney’s ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and ‘Blackberry-Picking’ are, in Carson, ominously empty, the sufferers of an imaginative reduction. We may infer from the sly allegorising of ‘The Irish for No’ that, in the dark of contemporary social and political attrition, Carson finds Heaney’s poetic of late Romantic expansiveness wanting. (214-215)
In Corcoran’s view, Carson dislikes Heaney’s imaginative ‘plenitude’ and ‘transcendence’ (215). For Carson, Heaney’s methods are ‘wrong ideas of literature, deriving too calculatedly from the traditions of Romanticism and High Modernism’ and Eliot’s mythical method (215). Postmodernism would look askance at such metanarratives, since Corcoran quotes Jameson who states that disbelief concerning meta- or master-narratives is a key tenet of postmodernism. In Carson’s scepticism at Heaney’s project, Corcoran sees the mergence of a new postmodernist Northern Irish poetry.
Corcoran sees Carson as a poet of the city, an urban poet, and he believes that Carson’s postmodernism emerges from his relationship with Belfast. The result is ‘an exfoliating narrative of turnings and returnings, digressions and parentheses, lapses and dissolvings, the haphazard and the circuitous’ (216).
Corcoran reminds us that there is no Irish word for no, but that ‘The Irish Word for No’ undermines such a claim. The ‘other language of the Irish’ is often referred to by Carson with what Corcoran calls ‘its signs of alterity, impossibility and negativity’ (216). Corcoran tries to unpack Carson’s own use of language suggesting two synthesised elements:
• a long line like that of C.K. Williams;
• and Irish storytelling and music.
Corcoran quotes from a letter which explains ‘an experimentally individuated prosody developed from an intertwining of kinds of otherness’ (217). Corcoran notes that Carson’s first language is Irish and that he has worked as Traditional Arts Officer for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Carson seems very invested in the oral tradition and Corcoran notes the charismatic Irish storyteller, the senachie, as an influence.
Corcoran also describes the book as a whole as having a ‘sinuous shapeliness’ (218). The structure is made up of 3 sections:
• section one contains 4 separate long narratives;
• section two contains 16 short poems about Belfast (each poem of nine lines, with long line and 2 stanzas of 5 and 4 lines);
• section three contains 4 separate long narratives;
• and in some editions the whole collection is prefaced by a short poem, ‘Turn Again’.
Corcoran admires the book’s ‘well-shaped formality’ and how it synthesises with ‘the apparently wandering digressive thread of its actual narrative structures’ (218).
Corcoran analyses “Dresden”: http://www.qub.ac.uk/heaneycentre/research/carsonpoemdresden.htm , which he describes as a poem that ‘invents a quite new register for the very neo-classical virtue of poetic “decorum” ’ (218). In this poem, Corcoran sees:
• ‘narrative undecidability’ (218);
• ‘secondhandness and subjunction’ (219);
• ‘stage-Irish, Flann O’Brien –like farce’ (219);
• ‘the pathetically confined spirit of Irish nationalism’ in relief with ‘the beautiful, antique redundancies of the Irish tongue’ (219);
• and a journey towards understanding ‘the depleted and demeaning social, cultural and political context’ (219)
Corcoran notes that the reference in the title comes only at the end of the poem, when we discover that Horse lived in England for a time and flew with the RAF over Dresden. Finally, the porcelain smashing in Dresden and a china milkmaid broken by Horse as a child become symbols of ‘the diminishments of his own life’ (220). Corcoran notes that often at the end of Carson’s poems ‘stories of such depredation’ are revealed (221). Corcoran adds: ‘Human lives are being broken because they happen where they are target points on an already written chart: peoples’ lives are taken out of their hands by the alien mapmakers and mapreaders of their destinies’ (221).
Corcoran notes that the map is a key trope in The Irish for No and analyses the poem “Turn Again”: http://www.qub.ac.uk/heaneycentre/research/carsonpoemsturnagain.htm , which refers to a map of absent Belfast: ‘a collapsed bridge, non-existent streets, jails’ (221). Corcoran notes that in ‘Turn Again’ metaphors are dense ‘with a social and cultural history’ (221). In the poem, Corcoran notices notions of ‘the “other” Belfast’: ‘the ghost of a never-realised possibility’ (222). There is also the replacement of Irish street names with British imperial titles, which makes the map into a ‘trope of cultural and political inscription, as imprisoning maze and labyrinth’ (222). ‘Smithfield Market’ can be read similarly according to Corcoran, yet the ghostly inhabitant that emerges from the market has a ‘Gothic frisson’ (222).
Human subjects are also ‘dispersed into other kinds of inscription in the volume too: in particular, into brand name, advertising slogan and list’ (223). Corcoran provides a long list of brand names that appear in the book and he suggests that the labels ‘freeze the frame of history’ (223). He refers here to Carson’s poem, ‘Patchwork’, in which Lucozade is bought at a pub. Corcoran also notes that when used so often, labels and brands can become ‘ eerily dominating’ and may refer to ‘manipulative manoeuvres of the market place’ (224). Corcoran wonders whether ‘the agents of domination may hide themselves in the glitter of packaging and product’ (224). He also notes the link to the branding of personnel carriers. Yet it also happens that ‘named commodities have a habit of refusing their proper function’ in Carson’s poems (224). Corcoran also imagines Carson trying to keep an old version of Belfast alive through the mention of brand names and he refers to ‘Slate Street School’.
Corcoran turns to Carson’s review of Heaney’s translation, Sweeney Astray and Corcoran notes Carson’s fascination with the narrative’s preoccupations: Sweeney’s foretold death. Carson describes the effect on the reader as ‘reeling and frantic’ and Corcoran points out that this is also often the effect of Carson’s own poems. Corcoran notes that a smile used in Sweeney Astray, ‘one step forward, two steps back’, reappears in ‘Calvin Klein’s Obsession’: ‘I’m taking /One step forward, two steps back, trying to establish what it was about her / That made me fall in love with her, if that’s what it was…’ (qtd. 226). Corcoran sees such passages as self-reflexive, a synthesis of personal and involuntary memory and demonstrative of the movement, ‘one step forward, two steps back’.
Movement by digression, the characteristic movement of all the longer poems in the book, is the movement of one step forward, two steps back too: these poems get not exactly forward but back in upon themselves. In their own intricate circularity of purpose they too plot prophecies of foretelling and prefiguring and maps of dislocation, erasure and derangement’ (226-227)
Corcoran notes that the poem ‘Serial’ is a ‘vertiginous realisation of the impression of dejá vu’ and he reassesses ‘Calvin Klein’s Obsession’ in this light noticing the following:
• ‘processes of memory and sensation provoked by the Proustian mnemonic spurs of taste and smell’ (227);
• ‘a gradual drift of apparently free association’ (227);
• ‘memory and perhaps language itself are conjured in all their recessive duplicity, as products without origin and names without substance’(227);
• ‘the drifting into consciousness of a suddenly new appropriateness for the cliché’ (227).
Corcoran concludes that the intertexts in The Irish Word for No are often ‘the texts of popular culture, Irish ballad, advertising and street maps’ (227). Yet in the poem just analysed, Carson also quotes from Edward Thomas’ ‘Old Man’, yet this is one reference among many and Carson does not show the allusive reverence of Heaney or the playfulness of Muldoon. Corcoran decides to discuss this with close analysis of ‘Whatever Sleep It Is’, a poem about a painter in ‘a process of erasure and substitution’ (228). A character who has been erased becomes an angel in this poem and according to Corcoran, the poem itself is a kind of Annunciation:
• the painting is ‘[a]n allegory of its own process of creation or construction, of the one-step-forward, two-steps-back kind of accident, trial and error’ (229);
• it has ‘its own narrative in a ritual of self-cancellation (229);
• and by painting the Annunciation by accident, it suggests ‘the artist’s or poet’s lack of rational control over the processes of his or her own creativity’ (229).
Corcoran notes at last that the title of the poem refers to Robert Frost’s ‘After Apple Picking’, which Carson quotes again at the end of his poem as the woman in the painting has ‘a bowl of apples at her elbow’. Corcoran sees the reference as ‘supernumerary’, ‘a poised coincidence’ and ‘in no sense an inevitable element of the structure’ (230).
The poem does not explore nor explicate the allusion in a way that would allow readerly certainty: it retains a heuristic secrecy and patience. It is as if the literary reference takes its place as just another element in the poem’s patchwork fabric, as just another piece happening to be to hand’ (230).
For Corcoran, while the poems of The Irish for No are full they are also full of holes.
Narratives wander duplicitously or digressively, taking wrong turnings, turning again; language may well not mean at all what it seems to say, or may be read quite differently from how it is written; messages may not be delivered for eighty years. If you take one step forward you may well take two steps back. But there is no Irish for no. (232)
Neil Corcoran. ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back’. The Chosen Ground: Essays on Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland. Ed. Neil Corcoran. Bridgend: Seren, 1992. 211-233.