FIGWORT (not really a poetry lesson)



This morning I discovered eyebrights — flower  of the family, figwort, plants that grow in Ireland. They have long stems with brownish flowers clustered at the top. Why, you might ask, would I need to know what an eyebright or a figwort is?

One of my best-kept secrets (I’m probably deluding myself to think everyone doesn’t know) is how little I know about anything. I suppose anyone who is sane knows they don’t really know that much about anything. A little bit of knowledge is a limiting thing, as we all know.

I was reading an article I found online–about Maxine Kumin (the American poet whose work fascinates and delights me, and who died last week–at 86), and the article mentioned the Irish poet Ciaran Carson, of whom I had never heard. Even though I don’t know much, I do have curiosity born of my awareness that I don’t know, so I looked him up. I was taken with the five poems of his I found online. I also found several biographical sketches of him which, when I read far enough into them to get to their discussions of his work, made my eyes glaze over as I realized I don’t know enough academic jargon about modern poetry to understand. But his poetry is apparently not “modern,” but “postmodern” or, for all I know, “post-postmodern.”

I have no recourse other than to believe the articles I’ve found about Carson and call him modern, or postmodern, or post-postmodern, whichever a given scholar says he is. (Academic writing is, you probably know, a giant game of “he said—she said,” and trying to come to a conclusion may be a totally self- defeating activity. When I say things like that, I may simply be expressing my sour grapes because I am not one of those scholars even though I’m about to retire from a profession which seems on the surface to require such scholarship.) Back to the proposition that I don’t really know as much as I should or could. On the other hand, I’d guess not another member of the English department at SMU knows if Carson is modern or post-postmodern or simply odd.

Carson’s poetry is some of that stuff that looks somewhat like poetry, but when you read it, you’ll be unable to relate it to the definition of poetry you learned in Miss Swanson’s fourth grade class, starting with memorizing “If” by Rudyard Kipling.

Much of Carson’s work seems to refer to or is directly about the Irish struggle for independence from England. I don’t know. But his poems frequently make reference to “British army helicopters” and “trip wired mine fields” and such.

It’s easy to imagine that the flower of the figwort is shaped like and has the brownish-red color of the red fig (not of the green variety). I haven’t been able to find the etymology of the word “figwort,” but I’d bet it is related somehow to the ordinary fig, introduced to England early in the 16th century (about the time the Christmas carol that mentions “figgy pudding”

The Irish Poet

The Irish Poet

became popular).


you stoop
& pluck

a stem
of eyebright

The poet and his (mistress, lover, partner, friend) walk hand in hand through the trip wired field, paying attention to nothing but each other until the other reaches down and picks “a stem of eyebright.” I was struck by the image even when I did not know what eyebright is—or have in mind a clear picture of trip wired fields.

“Let Us Go Then,” by Ciaran Carson  

through the trip
wired minefield

hand in hand
eyes for nothing

but ourselves

undaunted by
the traps & pits

of wasted land

you stoop
& pluck

a stem
of eyebright

Writing poetry turns out to be either a mystery-shrouded activity or a monumental task. You’d think it would be easy to write a “line” of poetry like that. It’s just prose spread out.

Here’s another poem by Ciaran Carson, “Fear.”

I fear the vast dimensions of eternity.
I fear the gap between the platform and the train.
I fear the onset of a murderous campaign.
I fear the palpitations caused by too much tea.
I fear the drawn pistol of a rapparee.
I fear the books will not survive the acid rain.
I fear the ruler and the blackboard and the cane.
I fear the Jabberwock, whatever it might be.
I fear the bad decisions of a referee.
I fear the only recourse is to plead insane.
I fear the implications of a lawyer’s fee.
I fear the gremlins that have colonized my brain.
I fear to read the small print of the guarantee.
And what else do I fear? Let me begin again.

(Carson, Ciaran. “Fear.” Selected Poems. Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest University Press. 2001

It seems like nonsense, gibberish. It’s so obvious, the sounds —“ee” and  —“ain” repeated in images that make little sense together. But read it aloud so your voice doesn’t fall at the end of each line. When you finish, do as the poet says, and begin again. You may be surprised. I was the first time. And I read it several times non-stop. The last time I stopped after the first line. Every syllable, it now seems to me, belongs exactly as it is. I’m not in the habit of “analyzing” poetry, so I’ll just say all of those small, prosaic, unrelated images are, in fact, “the vast dimensions of eternity.” That’s what I’d say to a class.

And then I realized Carson does artfully and brilliantly what I have been tinkering with for some time now (since I bought the huge volume of Postmodern American Poetry—and I don’t even know what postmodern is). I want so desperately to express my experience that I’ll try anything.  I have several folders on my hard drive of this kind of stuff. Perhaps obscure nonsense says it as well as anything.

“One Tree,” by Harold Knight (written, I swear, before I knew of Ciaran Carson)

One tree
in forty-one

a vacant lot

complex razed
to renew
and invest

and I
apart alone

one joy gained
another lost

turn back
to speak your

2 Responses to FIGWORT (not really a poetry lesson)

  1. wfupress says:

    Thanks for mentioning us! We publish quite a lot of Ciaran Carson’s poetry. We would love to collaborate on a blog post, and we would appreciate a follow.

  2. wfupress says:

    Reblogged this on Wake: Up to Poetry.

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