I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the example of Ciaran Carson, the Irish poet born in 1948, who wrote (like the rest of his generation from the North) in the immediate shadows of Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, and who died in October 2019.
I got to know Ciaran just a bit in 2013 when I was on a Fulbright to the Seamus Heaney Centre, which Ciaran had come to direct after many years as a freelance journalist, prose writer, translator, and poet. He was wry and dry-humored and always impeccably dressed. (Word is he had an attic absolutely packed with three-piece suits.) He also played flute and tin-whistle at Madden’s Bar on Tuesday nights with his wife Deirdre and whoever else showed up for the evening’s “trad session”—a casual, improvised collective playing (“performance” isn’t quite the right word) mostly turned inward toward the space the musicians were gathered around, rather than outward toward the bar’s patrons. I once asked him how long he’d been playing at Madden’s, and he replied in his distinct Belfast accent, “Oh not long, Way-uhn, just every Tuesday since 1984.”
Ciaran grew up (as he explained it to me) in one of only five Irish-speaking families on the Falls Road, in the very heart of Catholic West Belfast. He had a stutter—but you wouldn’t know that unless you talked with him for more than about a half hour, after which he would move beyond his pre-scripted (and often really funny) performative set pieces of language and into the murky uncertainty of real back-and-forth conversation—which was, at least in my experience, when his stutter would sometimes come out. He was kind, generous, irreverent, and brilliant, and he was beloved by the small but robust poetry world of Belfast.
It’s well known that Ciaran was fond of saying, “Everything happens in a small back room.” For Ciaran’s 60th birthday in 2008, W. R. Irvine edited a festschrift titled From the Small Back Room, which was published by Netherlea Press. In the preface, Irvine explains that Ciaran’s phrasing comes from Nigel Balchin’s 1943 novel The Small Back Room, in which the book’s protagonist “struggles against wartime officialdom, bureaucracy, and his own incipient alcoholism[.]” Irvine says that for Ciaran “the small back room functions as an important metaphor [. . .] it’s the place where it all happens: the music; the companionship; the conversation; and the creativity.”
It’s worth saying that Ciaran was certainly not naïve about what could happen in small back rooms. Much of his adult life was spent in Belfast during Northern Ireland’s complex, 30-year civil war between Nationalists, Unionists, and the British Army called, understatedly, “the Troubles.” Ciaran was also a member of a minority community in a city and state where for much of his life Catholics experienced significantly diminished access to jobs and education. Ciaran was undoubtedly aware that small back rooms are places where politicians make dirty deals, where states are carved up, where killings are planned, and where bombs are pieced together.
But he also understood small back rooms to be places of intimacy, creativity, and negative capability—places where artists forge their ideas, where writers make their work, and where friendship and love (artistic and not) are built. Small back rooms are, above all, provisional spaces where ideas are worked out before performance, presentation, and action. Just because terrible things sometimes emerge from small back rooms doesn’t erase the importance of the sort of space they are. It is the intimacy of the small back room—the fact that it’s sheltered from the public eye and the marketplace of ideas—that makes it so vital, the very heart of “everything.”
It’s also important to emphasize, here, that Ciaran was a poet. In his celebration of the “small back room,” I hear a quiet celebration of poetry itself—this “small back room” of literature well out of view of most of those who participate in literary culture, let alone mainstream culture. When as an undergraduate I felt myself first drawn to poetry as an art, part of what attracted me was its “small back room” quality. I remember a professor telling us a story (maybe apocryphal) about a famous poet—was it Charles Wright?—saying that what he loved about being a famous poet is that no one has any idea who you are.
For three years of college I organized my schedule so that each day after lunch I could go to the library for an hour and read one new book of poetry pulled more or less at random off the poetry section shelf. The world I entered there (and never really left) was a “small back room” inside the library, inside the university, inside the town, inside the country. It was occupied by me and a bunch of poets—some famous—that no one really knew about, and it hummed for me with invisible promise.
Back in November, famous poet Ocean Vuong posted on Instagram a series of ideas about metaphor. The ideas were both smart and incomplete, the sort of theorizing that occurs among fellow artists in a small back room. Another famous poet, Matthew Zapruder, responded by critiquing Vuong’s ideas about metaphor, adding what he thought Vuong was missing: a more avant-garde conceptualization of metaphor that took into account the methodologies of surrealism. Both poets were asserting things that were extensions of their respective aesthetics. I would argue that a larger articulation of how metaphor works emerged from the combination of their ideas—from the conversation they were having—than from either poet’s assertions taken by themselves. In a small back room—say, if Vuong and Zapruder were talking in a bar or coffee shop or someone’s apartment after a reading—all of this would be perfectly fine; this is how the world of the small back room proceeds.
But—and here’s the thing—social media is not a small back room, even in the realm of poetry. Social media gathers enough poets into one place that the interactions that occur no longer possess the intimacy and provisionality of the small back room. Very shortly after Vuong and Zapruder posited their ideas, hundreds of people immediately felt compelled to take sides. Vuong and Zapruder’s offerings quickly came to represent things well beyond what they were. For some, Zapruder’s critique represented a sort of literary revanchism of the straight white male poet trying to claw back territory from the queer poet of color who now teaches in the MFA program said white poet once attended. For others, Vuong’s assertions represented a sort of younger-generation simplicity, a lack of understanding (or inclusion) of literary history and the legacy of the avant-garde. Those who defended Zapruder were painted as reactionary or even racially motivated. Those who defended Vuong were called naïve about—or blind to—poetry’s history and Vuong’s power in the poetry world. Very little of it had to do with the substance of what Vuong and Zapruder had said.
In Ciaran’s idealized small back room, ideas are provisional, negative capability is tantamount, and conversations are built by a shared commitment to the intimate collectivity of the room as much as by the individuals inside it. In social media, ideas are quickly distorted or abstracted into representation—which diminishes radically the ability of dialogue to have the creative, productive force of conversations in the “small back room.”
The world of poetry is, at its core, still organized around poetry books. Sure, the occasional poem published in a magazine can “go viral” on social media and significantly enlarge (or destroy) a poet’s career. But the book is still the primary unit of presentation poets aspire to, and it is generally the book that is viewed as offering the definitive versions of a poet’s work (obsessive revisers such as Marianne Moore notwithstanding).
As I see it, there are three main spaces of poetry-world activity that surround and support the production and publication of poetry books. The first is the “small back room,” where intimate communities of conversation consider aesthetic questions, read and discuss poems, and support each other in the production of poetry. The second is the literary journal, where poets publish poems that will eventually land in books, as well as adjunct work such as aesthetic statements and reviews. The third is social media, where poets make contact with one another, share and promote (usually already-published) poems, and engage in discussions about poetry. Two of these spaces—the small back room and social media—are communal locations of interpersonal connection. And two of these spaces—the literary journal and social media—are publishing platforms.
It’s a bit jarring, perhaps, to refer to social media as “publishing”—but that is, in fact, what it is: self-publishing, in fact. All of us who participate in social media are regularly “creating publics” (to use Matthew Stadler’s definition of “publication”) for our ideas. The fact that those ideas are published in a more or less immediate, real-time environment doesn’t diminish the fact that they’re published—that the conversations on social media are performed for a large and semi-anonymous audience. Certainly, some poets use social media in a less performative way; they have very small numbers of “friends” and “followers” and post back and forth privately. But most poets I know have hundreds of “friends” who aren’t really friends, and thus they participate in the public world of poetry social media, which is the world I’m talking about. This world is absolutely a “small back room” in relation to mainstream culture—but it’s not at all a small back room in relation to poetry.
It’s important to say, here, that I’m on multiple social media platforms myself, both as an individual and in my capacity as editor of Copper Nickel, and I certainly pay attention to the conversations that happen online. I’m not saying social media is bad. Through it I discover new poems and poets, I learn things about the lives of poets whose work I admire, and I promote both my own poems and work published in Copper Nickel. Sometimes it seems like social media was made precisely for diffuse, niche communities such as that of poetry.
But poetry conversations on social media rarely occur in the mutual spirit of the small back room. When there’s conflict on social media, the person who’s being addressed often isn’t really the intended audience for what’s being said; rather judgments and arguments are performed for a broad audience, often in the service of branding oneself and enlarging one’s own visibility. Those who think social media posts are open-minded, provisional, literal, and intimate—instead of performative, permanent, abstracted, and public—shall proceed at their own risk.
Literary magazines, both print and online, are, I believe, actually closer in ethos and function to Ciaran’s “small back room” than social media.
That might seem counterintuitive, because publishing in a magazine takes way more time than, say, posting a poem or a bit of criticism on Facebook. But literary magazines are generally understood to be stepping stones on the path to book publication, whereas publishing one’s ideas on Facebook or Twitter is rarely an intermediate step on the way to something else. And unlike books, which present finalized versions of a poet’s poems, literary magazines are places to try out new work and to put that work into conversation with other contemporary poems.
I’ve been editing literary magazines for twenty years, and something that strikes me when I’m reading through submissions is how often really good poets submit work that’s not (or not yet) successful. All poets treat submitting to literary journals with different levels of provisionality, but it’s consistently true that as a magazine editor I get to read failing poems by excellent poets—poems that will never make their way into the poets’ books. Some poems published in magazines—even high-profile ones—don’t make their ways into poets’ books; or if the poems do, they appear in significantly revised versions.
My point is that the work of literary magazines is simultaneously appreciative, critical, collaborative, and provisional. When a new issue of a magazine is out in the world, we often say: “Did you see what So-and-So is working on? I can’t wait to see the book!”
Sometimes conversations on poetry social media seem simply out of proportion to the scope and impact of the world of poetry. That’s not to say that poets shouldn’t think and feel passionately about our art! But despite the appearance of poets everywhere on our curated social media feeds, and despite the fact that our arguments and actions might have poetry implications, it’s worth remembering that what we say in the world of poetry has few if any societal implications. When I go to a baseball game, I sometimes look at the stands across the field and try to figure out which small section of people over there represents every person in the world who read my last poetry book. There are undoubtedly many poets who sell far far better than I do, but for the most part even they couldn’t fill just one city’s baseball stadium with their readers.
In an interview with the Bennington Review, Jericho Brown explains, “As far as I know, the books of contemporary poetry most widely read before the  presidential election were Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. [. . .] So if that’s the case, how does Donald Trump get elected? [. . .] [D]o I believe that poems change persons? Yes. Do I believe they change people? No.” My grad-school professor James Kastely used to say that a great book can “reach inside your soul and reconfigure it forever”—which is so wonderfully articulated and absolutely true. But it is profoundly unlikely that even the most impactful contemporary poems and/or the most robust conversations in the “small back room” of poetry can change the trajectory of history. To think otherwise is, as Zbigniew Herbert said, “vanity.”
In the Winter 1975 issue of Honest Ulsterman, Ciaran Carson published an absolutely scathing review of Seamus Heaney’s North. Ciaran’s arguments were four-fold: (1) Heaney had, by his fourth book, “acquired the status of myth, of institution.” Consequently, “[e]veryone was anxious that North should be a great book; when it turned out that it wasn’t, it was treated as one anyway, and made into an Ulster ’75 Exhibition of the Good that can come out of Troubled Times.” (2) Heaney’s “bog poems” in particular treat the violence of the Troubles “like this is natural; these things have always happened [. . .] and that is sufficient ground for understanding and absolution.” (3) Heaney’s “need to be precise” and his “desire to abstract, to create a superstructure of myth and symbol [. . .] are not compatible. One gains its poetry by embodiment of a specific, personal situation; the other has degenerated into a messy historical and religious surmise—a kind of Golden Bough activity[.]” Consequently, (4) Heaney has “moved—unwillingly perhaps—from being a writer with the gift of precision, to become the laureate of violence—a mythmaker, an anthropologist of ritual killing[.]”
I can’t really imagine a more crushing takedown of Heaney’s North than that. The fact that I disagree with it doesn’t really matter. It’s certainly an interesting and valid position for Ciaran to take, particularly when we remember that Ciaran was writing from well inside the violence of the Troubles. Though I find the historical long-view that Heaney takes in North to be deeply valuable from my own position outside the daily horrors of that place and period, my understanding of the book significantly enlarges through Ciaran’s criticisms.
I mention Ciaran’s review because it’s not particularly well known to American readers—many of whom see Heaney’s “bog poems” as canonical poetic statements on history and violence—and because it’s important to see that Ciaran himself could be unsparing in his criticism. But the tenor of that criticism—at least to my ear—leans toward what he saw as the larger good of poetry and keeps in sight what he believed were Heaney’s virtues alongside what he thought were Heaney’s failings.
Equally important, Ciaran is also well aware, in his review, of the abstracting, reductive powers of representation and kitsch—which are the lifeblood of social media (just look at how cartoon emojis represent human emotions!)—when he worries that Heaney has been “made into an Ulster ’75 Exhibition of the Good that can come out of Troubled Times,” as well as when he begins the review by describing a well-circulated Edward McGuire’s portrait of Heaney as “an advertisement [. . .] idealized almost to the point of caricature[.]” He closes by cautioning against these impulses again when he asserts that “Heaney is too good and too sensible a poet to turn into Faber’s answer to Georgie Best.” Ciaran’s argument is basically that poets can—and will—fail in their work and their ideas, and that turning them into reductive representations can obscure what they actually say and do. Alternately, those of us who admire North could hold up Ciaran’s review to show how the narrow context of the moment can affect how creative work appears to its critics. Both cautions could serve, today, as warnings against the distortions of social media.
I believe, with Ciaran, that the social unit of the “small back room” is the heart of any creative activity, and I believe that the “small-back-room” quality of poetry creates a kind of family of poets. In this year of pandemic, when social media has sometimes allowed us to maintain social connections from our spaces of isolation, we might find ourselves compelled to elevate social media’s value—and social media certainly does have value for those of us who use it, particularly when it serves to disseminate poems and poetry-related information to a broad audience. And yet, the performative quality of social media diminishes its ability to be a true forge of creative activity, a place where conversations have constructive power.
I can hear quick criticisms of these ideas: Negative capability, provisionality, and indeterminacy are values of privilege; action and engagement are essential to push for change within society and the arts, and social media allows for sustained action and engagement. As such, privileging the “small back room,” with its sense of generosity and intimacy, fails to challenge existing power structures—as does the idea that literary magazines, which serve as gatekeepers within the world of literature, are a good or “fair” place for literary disagreement to occur. These arguments are certainly not wrong. Social media has allowed for the conversation of poetry to become enlarged and diversified—particularly because social media has offered start-up magazines and emerging poets a way to gain visibility in a relatively short period of time. That has been good for poetry.
But let’s not mistake a couple corporate-owned marketing platforms for the cultural and intellectual center of the art.
It’s also worth saying that these arguments about privilege and power aren’t unlike Ciaran’s criticisms of North—which are more or less in line with (e.g.) Noor Hindi’s powerful poem in the December 2020 issue of Poetry, “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying.” (Ciaran’s version would be “Fuck Your Lecture on History, My People Are Dying.”) They’re related to the arguments the Black Arts Poets used to criticize Robert Hayden, and they’re only a few steps away from Williams’ view that Eliot was cozying up to British literature right when American Modernism should, he believed, be seeking an American way forward (i.e., “Fuck Your Lectures on Europe, My People Are American”!). Poetry has always been rancorous, and its relationship with the sociopolitical world has often been a source of complication and contestation.
Still, the best, most generative conversations mostly happen out of the public eye. Those conversations will ideally seed complex thinking that is accumulative and goaded by the spirit of shared endeavor, rather than by the spirit of instantaneous performance. Our small back rooms are places where conversations are less likely to be abstracted away from our actual ideas and words, places where our arguments are intimate and generous and productive. The fact that the public world of social media increasingly has the power to create and destroy careers makes it an even less provisional space than it was only a few years ago. And provisional spaces are essential to developing artistic ideas—particularly if those ideas are to be nuanced and layered and multifaceted, as humanistic thought generally should be.
Which is to say: Ciaran was right in his insistence on the humble space of the “small back room,” and even as we begin (hopefully) to emerge from this messy, isolated, and terrible period, he continues to be right.
One night toward the end of my time in Belfast, my wife and I went to Madden’s to have a drink and hear Ciaran play. That evening he had friends in town—old neighbors who had retired to Newcastle, Northern Ireland, on the coast of the Irish Sea.
I got to talking to one of them, who asked me how I knew Ciaran. I told her that I was on a Fulbright at the Seamus Heaney Centre, that I’d been there for six months.
“Alright,” she said, “but how do you know Ciaran?”
“Well.” I paused. “He directs the center.”
She straightened up in her chair. “Oh! How did he get that gig?” she asked, looking genuinely curious.
She had known Ciaran for probably thirty years. Was she messing with me? “Ciaran is one of the most famous poets in Ireland,” I said, watching her face for a glimmer of agreement. “Same generation as Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian? The Irish for No? Belfast Confetti? He’s published at least a dozen books.”
She looked at me with incredulity, followed by a quick, and then quickly dismissive, acceptance. “Well I had no idea!” she said. “I knew he wrote journalism sometimes. But to us in the neighborhood he was just the nice man who watched the kids and played the tin whistle.”