Limits of Orality and Textuality in Ciaran Carson’s Poetry

by Grzegorz Czemiel (Author)
©2015 Thesis 240 Pages
Series: Mediated Fictions, Volume 3


Following the evolution of Ciaran Carson’s work, this book aims to trace the tension between orality and textuality, which can be discerned in the poetry of the Northern-Irish writer. Assuming these forces to be the two major sources of all literature, the author delineates, using deconstruction, how they inform and structure Carson’s poetic œuvre. Further thematic analyses focus on three major themes: memory, city and history, adopting various critical approaches, among them New Historicism and psychoanalysis. Finally, taking cue from Carson’s later work, an epistemological and metaphysical dimension of his poetry is revealed. This serves as the final vantage point from which the author offers a potential glimpse beyond the said dialectic, unveiling Carson’s broadly ethical project.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One – The dialectics of orality and textuality
  • I Aspects of orality in The Irish For No
  • The turn
  • The revival of the oral tradition
  • The dialectic
  • The Irish For No
  • The ends of discourse
  • Locality and the reservoir
  • The image of speech
  • Ying-yang, I-Ching and politics
  • II Aspects of textuality in The Irish For No
  • The scene of writing
  • The human spoor and the typing machine
  • The webs of discourse
  • The Smithfield labyrinth
  • III Reversed dialectics in First Language
  • The tower of Babel
  • The Second Language?
  • Carson’s archi-writing
  • Tak – yes
  • The Rhizomatic Underground
  • The answers and the contract
  • Chapter Two – The three mazes: city, memory and history
  • I City
  • The Belfast flâneur
  • The transient city
  • Mapping out
  • The rhizomatic map
  • The urban neurosis
  • Playing with the panopticon – Carson as psychogeographer
  • The mouth of the poem
  • The poetics of loss and junk
  • The Belfast Ballad
  • II Memory
  • Obsession
  • Proust’s souvenir involontaire
  • Bergson’s expansions
  • Deleuze’s boxes
  • Phenomenological memory
  • The aura and its geology
  • The textile garden of memory
  • III History
  • The breakdown of History
  • Storyteller’s dissemi(nation)
  • The War Correspondent from Belfast
  • Chapter Three – The limits of knowledge and the space of the poem
  • I Revision of epistemology in For All We Know
  • The subject of the book
  • The architecture of the book
  • Strangers, doppelgangers and identity
  • Linguistic mediation
  • Time
  • The Art of Fugue
  • Signs and the limits of language
  • Love
  • Causality
  • II Approaching the subject of death in On The Night Watch and Until Before After
  • The great shortening of the line
  • From in Behind
  • The language of Being
  • The death-poem
  • Poetic dwelling
  • Homecoming
  • Radical alterity – Emmanuel Levinas
  • Until Before After – the coda
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Primary sources
  • Secondary sources

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In the beginning was the Word.
John 1:1

The trace must be thought before the entity.
The (pure) trace is différance.
Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology

How things are named by any other name except themselves,
thereof I meant to speak.

Ciaran Carson, “Whisky”

Literary scholarship, as any other field of research, looks into its subject matter from two perspectives: that of present day issues and themes, and the historical point of view which regards the development of literature itself and theoretical reflection on it. Any literary theory whose ambition is to grasp the phenomenon of literacy in general cannot allow itself to reduce any of the two perspectives to another, but faces the difficult task of combining them into a dynamic paradigm. Thus, it can be argued that no reflection on literature and literary theory can be deemed complete without verifying how its tools function when applied both to contemporary problems and their historical evolution, i.e. proving the potential to shed light on its subject both in synchronic and diachronic terms. These two dimensions and corresponding approaches are central to the organization of this book and I shall return to them later in this introduction. At this point, however, I would like to address the question regarding the roots and origins of both literature and literary studies.

This book does not attempt to establish a firm basis of the phenomenon of literacy. Moreover, at some point it might even be necessary to entirely drop the very idea of a positively defined source or mythical spring from which the art of crafting words stems. What this work is in fact trying to prove is that we cannot speak of a definite centre or core that contains in itself a self-enclosed set of essential features that characterise literature. What I would like to propose is to consider the process of evolution in literature as a dynamic, self-propelling dialectic of two features, which have been at various points in history used to designate as the founding principles of literature: orality and textuality. These two models, I would argue, are specific boundaries and oppositions that can serve as signposts delimiting the field in which the phenomenon of literature emerges. ← 7 | 8 → For that purpose, however, the two terms need to be redefined and reassessed – released from their traditional, commonsensical meaning. Thus, it becomes crucial to inspect the ideas that lie behind writing and speaking, so that they can be reconfigured in such a way as to describe a functional model for the production of literary texts.

It seems appropriate to present now the working definitions of orality and textuality. With regard to orality, it is not understood here as a historical stage in the development of literature, but rather its constitutive element, which links “literariness” back to an oral tradition – a cultural institution responsible for upholding the continuity of civilization.1 As Przemysław Czapliński argues, the distinguishing features of this type of literature are:

 anonymity – it is the whole tradition that actually stands for the “author,” while individual works are produced in a processual manner by way of a set of operations comprising the rules of oral composition,2

 the fact that it establishes (and operates within) an ontological paradigm of communication, which shapes individual consciousness,3

 the belief that the spoken word is also a means of action, or gesture, which emphasizes its performative, physical aspect and liberates words from being mere “thought-representatives.”4

Importantly, this book does not attempt to engage in an anthropologically-inflected discussion regarding the so-called great divide, i.e. the relationship of orality and textuality on the historical plane of the development of cultures. Thus, I shall limit my scope of interest to what has been set out by the most influential scholars in this field as the general directions for conceiving orality, which Czapliński sums up as: a holistic approach to the “work,” its processual organization and interactive performance, its modes of actualizing memory, the powerful effect of live speech, as well as the articulation (and dependence on) a particular paradigm of communication.5 In short – orality is a mode of producing literature, ← 8 | 9 → which has its own sources, structures and forms, all related to the physicality of speech and rooted in the practices of a given community.

Textuality, on the other hand, is the condition of “writenness,” according to the New Oxford Dictionary of English (2001). This, however, can mean many things. Firstly, as we learn from OED, in the 19th century it was understood as adherence to the text, i.e. remaining faithful to the Holy Scriptures and accepting their authoritative position. This already foreshadows the closeness to the letter, both in a semantic sense (as patient hermeneutics) and in relation to its physical aspect, by focusing on the materiality of the book and typography. I take all of those elements to designate textuality, which is – from this perspective – both a state (condition of being textual, i.e. “etched” or “weaved”) and a process (the practice of reading, i.e. following the line of the text, as well as tracing the way in which the text dynamically opens up or closes before the scrutinizing eye).

Structuralism took the word “text” to replace the old notion of “work,” while post-structuralism made one step further by showing that text is not a closed structure, but an open-ended field where various chains of signification converge.6 From this perspective, also partly adopted in this book just like orality, “textuality is one way to know the world,”7 the crucial difference being that its field of operation is the signifier. This allowed Spivak to formulate the following definition: textuality is a “sowing that does not produce plants, but is simply infinitely repeated.”8 This metaphor, developed on the ground of Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, combines two crucial elements: the autonomous and iterative nature of text and its self-generative propelling that makes texts spread (or “disseminate” to employ Derrida’s term). This way of putting it, although rooted in one specific theory and thus prone to criticism, seems to be – as I shall try to prove – a productive approach and despite its limitations provides a firm basis for exploring the ways in which literary texts are produced.

Naturally, such an attempt is bound to be limited, as a thorough analysis would extend far beyond the scope of literary studies onto the fields of anthropology, philosophy and linguistics. It might perhaps be a utopian project to combine the knowledge from such disparate fields, since with such a large amount of data ← 9 | 10 → that these areas of study provide a complete synthesis would be an ever-receding goal, disappearing whenever we would want to finally capture it. What I propose instead is to try to retrace this model of literary production and its limits through a single narrative – that of the literary output of a single author, in this particular case – Ciaran Carson. The assumption that I am willing to admit to frankly here would be that the development of a particular “species” is reflected in the development of a single representative of that “species” – that ontogenesis follows closely the philogenesis. The premise is that if we take a closer look at the work of a single writer, whose ouevre is large enough to perform such an operation, it might be possible to discern in it, in its themes, internal tensions and resolutions, the exact same pattern that could be observed by scrutinizing the historical development of literature. This is not to say that I shall be trying to analyse the work of Ciaran Carson as a self-enclosed entity that hovers lonely over a desert of dead signifiers. Far from that – the perspective of New Criticism that would lean towards such an interpretation seems impossible in the case of this particular poet and writer, for his work is deeply indebted to and rooted in the cultural background from which it emerges. My argument here would be that it is the notion of the literary subject that needs to be redefined in this case. Therefore, it shall be of no concern here to establish connections between particular events from the author’s life and his works. It is rather the projection of him onto that field of literature (delimited by the two poles of orality and textuality) that will be the subject of this study. This projection, I would argue, extends beyond the singular psyche of a living person. It is a “subjective field” that contains elements that have psychological, cultural and intrinsically literary origin, which have been incorporated into the image of the author, the vague entity we come to know through the signature of Ciaran Carson and his work.

A question might be raised at this point whether such an approach does not fall into the category of pure “textualism,” a trend within human sciences that follows a radical interpretation of one statement made by Jacques Derrida in Of Grammatology, namely that there is nothing outside text, i.e. that text is the fabric of reality as we know it and cannot be pierced through in order to reach some kind of an objective truth about the world. This argument could be countered with the observation that the “subjective field” I would like to use as the point of departure here is comprised not only of abstract, immaterial elements, but can also envelop within its web-like structure the physical traces of the material world, which fail to be abstracted into symbols, such as smells, textures and tastes. Thus, it could be argued that any such “subjective field” is a structure that cuts across the boundaries of space and time, incorporating elements that are both textual and not, rearranging them into a delicate network that is projected ← 10 | 11 → onto the canvas of language. This, I would argue, would be the closest to any definition of literature that I can offer at this point.

The questions of orality and textuality have been often tackled by philosophers in the 20th century and proved to be inextricably linked, providing a creative tension that is centred around the most basic questions of the nature of language, our relationship to it and the function of literature. In a lucid essay on the subject, Joseph N. Riddel comments on the differing approaches to language and Being in the thought of Martin Heidegger, and its subsequent criticism conducted by Jacques Derrida. He remarks that for Heidegger, language is the “language of Being,” while poetic speech is the authentic voice of that language, a voice that articulates Being. Derrida, on the other hand, introduces the concept of différance, through which he wants to point out the fact that language is just a figural play of irreducible differences.9 This distinction would lie in the fact that for Heidegger the authentic language, ripe with meaning, is the place where Being dwells, i.e. where it announces and reveals itself. Thus, he posits a positive approach to language and gives the poets a primary place in the world, for they are shepherds of Being, tending to it and sanctifying it. Derrida, on the other hand, claims that language is governed by a certain “play” and the constant reiteration of a lack of meaning. This tension between the two thinkers establishes the dialectic that I would like to point out as the “engine” that “runs” literature, transforming the poem into a space where Being and difference collide, thus setting into motion something that could be called, for lack of a better expression, a literary consciousness. This phenomenon is, I would say, the proper object of literary studies and the final frontier of any serious poet.

Philosophical technicalities aside, I would like to point out that the question of the meaning of literature, along with its accompanying shadow of literary studies, is stretched between these two extremes: the orality, viewed by some as the firm presence, a basis and foundation of all possible literatures, and textuality, regarded by others as an initial “tracing,” a rift, slide or spacing that provides the necessary impetus to the circulation of meaning and thus gives rise to a play of meaning without which the literary work would not be capable of attaining the crucial hermeneutic depth. Ciaran Carson’s poetry is a vast body of works, which constantly oscillate between these two poles. The Northern Irish poet is equally drawn to both extremes: he indulges in both the traditional aspects of ← 11 | 12 → storytelling, lyric and epic poetry, and in the modern, purely textual possibilities from which he derives his elusive, multi-faceted style.

The crucial question regarding the dynamics of orality and textuality is whether this pair (thesis and its accompanying anti-thesis – it does not really matter how we ascribe the roles) leads up to a certain synthesis. This should be carefully probed, as a positive answer might entail a certain teleological perspective on literature. It would mean that there is a goal towards which literature strives, or some ultimate deep meaning that it tries to convey. I would thus argue, avoiding the temptation to fall into a historically determined Hegelian world, that there is no such thing – that literature is ultimately the expression of an existential condition of man and his relation to language, an open-ended region of freedom that has to be constantly reinvented but resists any closing up and pinning down. Whether this freedom is in the end intimately connected with death and whether there exists a way of breaking out of this dialectic remain pertinent questions – ones, however, that I will try to relate to in the last chapter.

Ciaran Carson was born in 1948 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he lives to this day. He is a poet, novelist, columnist, translator and Professor at Queen’s University Belfast, where he also holds the position of the Director of The Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. For over twenty years he was Traditional Arts Officer of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. He won numerous prizes, including the Eric Gregory Award, Alice Hunt Bartlett Award, Irish Literature Prize for Poetry, T. S. Eliot Prize, Forward Poetry Prize and the Cholmondeley Award. As a prolific author and accomplished musician, he has won recognition among both the reading public, poets and critics alike, making him a leading figure within the so-called “second generation” of post-war Northern Irish poets, which includes such notable figures as Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin and Medbh McGuckian. Ciaran Carson’s diverse output is marked, however, by a significant, unique turn. Although his first poetry collection New Estate (1976) was received well, he remained silent until 1987, when he published the ground-breaking book The Irish for No. This unusual period of quietude is all the more extraordinary because the latter collection brought about a radical change in his poetic diction and thus constituted a “second debut.”10 ← 12 | 13 →

The structure of this book follows roughly the historical development of Ciaran Carson as a writer from that new debut on, although this does not amount to claiming that the theoretical approach must always coincide chronologically with the work of a particular author. Simply, certain themes are reiterated and reworked, introducing a vast area of self-referentiality and intertextuality in Carson’s poetry. These motifs are evolving like voices in the fugue (another oral-textual pair), and cannot be understood without jumping forwards and backwards, or proceeding, like Carson himself likes to say, “two steps forward, one step back.”


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
mündliche Tradition Psychoanalyse Phänomenologie Dekonstruktion
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 240 pp., 1 graph

Biographical notes

Grzegorz Czemiel (Author)

Grzegorz Czemiel received his PhD at the University of Warsaw and teaches at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin (Poland). Specializing in contemporary Northern-Irish poetry, he also explores such topics as cartography, translation and urban studies, psychoanalysis and speculative realism in philosophy.


Title: Limits of Orality and Textuality in Ciaran Carson’s Poetry