Mahon, Derek (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Derek Mahon 1941–
Irish poet, editor, critic, and essayist.
Of the several skillful poets who emerged in Northern Ireland during the 1960s, Mahon is considered the most eclectic in themes and technique. Unlike his compatriots Seamus Heaney, John Montague, and Michael Longley, who focus on Irish history, society, or culture, Mahon is more detached. Born in Northern Ireland to Protestant parents, but distressed by the violence and unrest within Ulster, Mahon lives and writes in England. A sense of exile pervades his poetry.
With his first two volumes of poetry, Night Crossing (1968) and Lives (1972), Mahon came to be regarded as a gifted craftsman. When The Snow Party (1975) and the "selected collected" Poems: 1962–78 (1979) were published, however, Mahon developed a stronger reputation as an important poet. These works present what have come to be Mahon's primary themes: the decay of civilization and the alienation and isolation of the modern individual. Mahon explores these concerns from the standpoint of an outsider, sorrowfully observing the winding down of order and meaning in the world. His finest achievement to date, "A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford" in The Snow Party, has been described as one of the finest British poems to have been published during the 1970s. Its description of a shed wherein hundreds of mushrooms are huddled has led to various interpretations concerning human aspirations.
Although Mahon's subjects are usually serious and his outlook bleak, his verse is consistently balanced by wit and a sharp sense of life's ironies. These qualities, along with Mahon's tight linguistic control, appeal to both critics and readers. Having "tidied up" and collected his early verse, Mahon has embarked on a new phase characterized by a wider imaginative range and including the recent volumes Courtyards in Delft (1981) and The Hunt by Night (1982).
[Derek Mahon's collection Night Crossing] suffers from gentility…. He writes deftly, levelly, subtly, reminding one of the controlled mild ironies of Larkin, though he lacks Larkin's nostalgia and Larkin's particular usage of ennui and anxiety. Moreover, he does, from time to time, edge into romanticism and, in his Legacies, after Villon, he reveals considerable rhythmical vitality and some sardonic gusto. This is a good book, but a safe book. It was the Choice of the British Poetry Book Society and some of the poems won an Eric Gregory Award. One can see why, even while yet again realizing that the very coherence and control which makes the book an award winner is also that which makes one restlessly wish for poems whose idiosyncratic originality would make for more excitement and more controversy. (p. 400)
Robin Skelton, "Five Poets and Their Stances," in Poetry (© 1969 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXIV, No. 6, September, 1969, pp. 397-401.∗
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The Times Literary Supplement
No one has satisfactorily explained how it is that a whole young generation of Irish poets—Heaney, Mahon, Longley, Muldoon and others—is apparently devoted to the well-made poem at a time when their English, Scottish and to a smaller degree Welsh contemporaries have almost entirely thrown it overboard in favour either of grim fragments or of vapid maunderings. The longest poem in Derek Mahon's [Lives], "Beyond Howth Head", is of a shapely fluency which set the pattern for the verseletters of Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley: behind it all there is perhaps the shadow of the Robert Lowell of "Near the Ocean" and "Waking Early Sunday Morning". Whatever the explanation, these new poems of Mr Mahon's have an attractive suppleness and wit. What stops them from going beyond that is a common quality of being marginalia, literary notes ("An Image from Beckett", "J. P. Donleavy's Dublin", "After Cavafy", "Edvard Munch"). Not that one pays much heed to those remarks of Kingsley Amis's years ago, about all the topics and subjects one shouldn't write about; but "secondhand" often implies "shop-soiled", and Mr Mahon's eyes and words are so fresh that it seems a pity to let them steam up with literariness….
"Moving Around," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3667, June 9, 1972, p. 651.∗...
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Between Night Crossing in 1968 and his new collection, Lives, Derek Mahon produced a very promising … pamphlet called Ecclesiastes. It now looks like a bridge between a pleasant but slightly too romantic and too tidy early style and something much tougher and more ingenious. Lives is a very good book, difficult and cryptic, but far more versatile and skilful technically, and managing to be both original and moving about his troubled Irish settings without being derivative or simplistic. There is no comfort in his new poems, very little of the nostalgia he was once prone to. 'Entropy', the title of one of them, might be said to be a central theme: modern society, with its fitted carpets, 'ploughshare factories', 'bright cars' and 'ditched bicycles', is running down in this bleak, brooding landscape where the past offers no valid illusions to live by and a poet's 'germinal ironies' offer the only kind of (very marginal) hope. (p. 842)
Alan Brownjohn, "Change Direction," in New Statesman (© 1972 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 83, No. 2152, June 16, 1972, pp. 842-43.∗
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P. N. Furbank
The first poem in Derek Mahon's Lives is about arriving home in Dublin, distraught, after a Transatlantic flight: and something like the time- and place-confusion of jet-travellers gives the book its theme. The poems, written from that Atlantic island whose aerials are turned towards Britain and America, are about wanting to locate oneself, to decide to what parts of the human inheritance to direct one's aerial. Are signals still to be received from Raftery, the saints or Stone Age man? Or does the poet, like the anthropologist,
know too much
To be anything any more?
A beautiful poem, 'In the Aran Islands', turns, in construction as well as in thought, on this axis. Witnessing a pub-singer, one of his hands 'earthed to his girl', the other cupping his ear to hear his own song, the poet sees it as what he longs for himself—to be doubly located, in the here and now and elsewhere…. It is a reassuring vision, cancelled simultaneously by a less comfortable one: a solitary seagull, going out like the song into the Atlantic night, reminds him of the wildness he must always lack. There is tact and precision in Mahon's rendering of such turning of his thoughts upon themselves, such tentative trying-on of different lives (the 'lives' of his title). There are, as well, fine intellectual...
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If events in Ireland have been thought malefic in their relations to the art of poetry (as they are to almost everything else) then that may be the reason why Heaney and Derek Mahon have both maintained two distinct styles apiece. One can be used for the racial-cum-archaeological manoeuvres of their imaginations, or simply the lyricism towards which they are drawn by temperament, and another for more direct utterance, for the kind of poem which, in their Irish circumstances, is expected of them.
The formula is too simple, and suggests a similarity between Heaney and Mahon which doesn't exist. Mahon's art is one of elegance, in which the assurance of his skill aspires to suavity, to an ease of writing in which the labour of making will be inconspicuous but impressive. Heaney's poems on the other hand are hewn, as if he wants to give the impression that, like Gaelic poets of old, he composes in the dark with a boulder on his chest. Mahon is also less immersed in the culture and history of Ireland. He appears to be re-enacting the Irish gesture of flight from possible parochialism towards a more sophisticated milieu of Europe complicated by home-looking, by the love-hate affections of the literary exile.
Yet it is these glances towards home, or, rather, intense stares productive of irascibility or melancholy, that, at present, predominate. This happens virtually on account of the over-literariness of many of his...
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In a verse letter by Michael Longley, a fellow Ulsterman, Derek Mahon is addressed approvingly as one of the "poetic conservatives". He might well take umbrage; for the spirit that emerges from his poems is one which, while it hungers for ceremony and inherited order, has only the wannest faith that ceremony survives or that such order has relevance. Wistful, reticent, resigned, the poems in The Snow Party sound like the fastidious reflections of self-imposed exile….
Lost futures, rather than Mr [Seamus] Heaney's lost pasts, are the substance of Mr Mahon's poems. "The Last of the Fire Kings", "Thammuz", "The Banished Gods" and (a beautifully judged stroke of minimalism) "Flying" are all hesitant reachings forward to possibilities just beyond the range of understanding. In these, and in other poems such as "The Snow Party" and in parts of the "Cavafy" sequence, there is a sardonic aestheticism, a diffident acknowledgment that art can arrest and fix at least something in what would otherwise be mere noise and flux. Two prose-poems, "A Hermit" and "The Apotheosis of Tins", play humorous variations on the theme….
For all its circumstantial wryness, this is tenuous stuff, however, and it seems to me, reading The Snow party, Mr Mahon's third book, that there is some danger of his talent thinning itself away into arbitrariness and whimsy. As if to show that he can indeed manage something more solid, he ends...
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In Derek Mahon's poetry it is possible to see what can be made of the Irish urban and suburban experience…. [Mahon] has produced a small body of remarkable verse, developing out of a sense of the complex, aesthetically uninspiring tensions of Northern Protestant middle-class identity. Mahon has spoken of the difficulties of writing out of such a background, from a 'suburban situation which has no mythology or symbolism built into it'…. (p. 192)
In 'Glengormley' and 'As It Should Be' Mahon considers the implications of suburban existence in a country whose past has been heroic, dramatic, mythological. 'Glengormley' recognises the new heroism of suburban survival, contrasting it, a little too predictably, with Ulster's prehistoric titanism…. The tone throughout is ambivalent, suggesting only partial acquiescence in suburban order…. The quality of life has no doubt superficially improved … but the poem concludes with ironic deflation…. For Mahon is no eulogist of suburban possibilities nor of industrial society's blessings. He cannot even rise to [Louis] MacNeice's excited response to its bright surfaces, sensing rather a new barbarism beneath a façade of materialist disregard for ideology, social hierarchy and commitment…. (pp. 193-94)
An antipathetic reaction to the conditions of advanced capitalism is, of course, a fairly commonplace response in modern poetry. Often the poet who responds in this fashion...
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[Mahon's] imagination seems to be at once haunted and attracted by the thought of a total apocalyptic disaster which would wipe out the mess of the modern world and leave instead only the ticking of "a slow clock of condensation." Yet his other favorite scenario, "the ideal society which will replace our own," is as elusive and as ironically observed as the apocalypse. For between these two falls the shadow of Belfast, the dark industrial waste in which Mr. Mahon goes time and again to seek what he calls "the original poetry of our lives." The violence of recent years and the weight of the north's urban and spiritual dreariness have increasingly left their imprint on Mahon's work. From one point of view which he assumes, Belfast is the wasteland, the terminal point, the very antithesis of what a culture might be. But it is also the poet's own territory, his community, lost, but still passionately wishing to be found again…. The struggle between community and wasteland which consumes so much of Mr. Mahon's writing is not resolved in favor of either. More subtle than a resolution, there is an interweave, so that often we find the longing for community, "the ideal society," spoken by those who are most utterly victimized by the wastage of modern existence. In fact, as in "After Nerval" and "The Apotheosis of Tins," it is the very wastage which speaks or is spoken for. The rubble contains within itself the heavenly city we failed to realize....
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With three published volumes of poetry behind him—Night-Crossing (1968), Lives (1972), The Snow Party (1975)—Derek Mahon has now clearly emerged as one of the most talented of the present generation of Northern Ireland poets. Indeed, in the wider context of English poetry of the last ten years, his work has retained qualities that looked increasingly likely to disappear with Auden's death—qualities of wit and wry humour in poems that reveal a lively and quirky intelligence. He has early shown a technical mastery in poems where humour and a lightness of touch often combine to achieve an unexpected seriousness. Taken as a whole, one can discern in his work a preoccupation with man's spiritual loneliness and isolation which is reflected in the large number of poems that deal with individuals or groups forced by temperament or circumstances to live outside the normal social framework. At its most sombre, Mahon's verse reveals an acute awareness of the brevity of all human life and the futility and pathos of man's existence as a finite being….
As a northern Irishman Mahon has, on several occasions, dealt with the state of the Six Counties in his poetry. These handfuls of poems are, in their way, as valid and moving as many of the more historically conscious probings of Seamus Heaney and John Montague, poets who have made the evolution of the province their chief concern as artists. These poems are, moreover,...
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It is especially good to have Mahon's carefully edited 'selected collected' [Poems: 1962–1978]. It may be a little dismaying to find a poet under 40 devoting more time to tidying the drawers of his wardrobe than to adding new garments to it, but Mahon warns us that he may revise his poems still further, in the Auden manner. Mentioning Auden acts as a reminder that he and MacNeice issued their 'Collecteds' before their fortieth birthdays, and that precocious writers may have considerable achievements to their credit while still young. Mahon certainly has, and the fastidiousness which keeps his collection short also ensures that each poem is a properly accomplished work of art.
Mahon is not a characteristic Ulster poet: his version of lapidary is closer to Robert Graves's than to Yeats's. Yet childhood and adolescence in Ulster have left their mark on him—in poem after poem, he traces his wariness and refusal to be betrayed into easy afflatus to Irish distortions of reality.
Much of his work is pervaded by a sense of exile, and remembering the past becomes for him a matter of emblems and symbols. He is attracted to artists who have the power to make things from their various losses…. Mahon is a practitioner of the carefully stylised poem-as-letter, usually to Ireland from Europe or vice versa. 'Beyond Howth Head' shows him tooling up for his own 'New Year Letter,'… but there is more awareness of unease,...
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In 'Tradition and the Individual Talent,' T. S. Eliot warns against the tendency to single out and praise those aspects of a writer's work 'in which he least resembles anyone else', adding that 'the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously'. This dictum is relevant in the case of Derek Mahon whose new collection, Poems 1962–1978, includes most of his previously collected work, as well as some twenty-three new poems, most of which are printed in the latter part of the book.
Many of the poems assert the immortality of MacNiece and Auden and reveal the powerful presence of Samuel Beckett. The influence of non-English speaking poets, especially the French, is also evident, both indirectly and in the fine imitations such as 'The Condensed Shorter Testament', a reworking of his earlier rendering of Villon in 'Legacies' (Night-Crossing, 1968). Yet it is a measure of Mahon's true originality that he impresses us as being a uniquely individual voice in whom all influences have been melted down and absorbed in the crucible of his own quirky and fertile imagination. The sense we get from reading Poems 1962–1978 is of being shown aspects of life from new angles that are at first disquieting and, finally, compelling. The vision of reality is often at odds with our normal perceptions and if it fails to illuminate it almost always amuses....
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Since the mid-1960s, several Northern Irish poets have made their presence felt in the English literary world. The most praised, Seamus Heaney, has been hailed by some critics as a major poet—the most important since William Butler Yeats. There is now a growing interest in his work in America. Like Heaney, Derek Mahon has established himself in England as a considerable talent. His three volumes of poems have now been gathered into Poems 1962–1978, which will serve as a good introduction to his work for American readers.
There they will find a poetry that is poised, scrupulous and reserved. Irony is generally on hand to prevent escape into confessional self-indulgence. Like all good Irish poets, he does not fear artifice, nor does he eschew the offhand, conversational tone. He is very much a poet of light and form, at times pursuing a definition of Stephen Dedalus's "Ineluctable modality of the visible," as in the series "Light Music."… (p. 260)
Technically, Mahon's work is varied. He handles the long line with dexterity, as he does the octosyllabic couplet; he can rhyme unobtrusively, without jarring syntax, and can produce the sorts of matter-of-fact prosy poems more in keeping with contemporary taste. His early mentor was Louis MacNeice—like Mahon, a Belfast-born Protestant. Though his occasional flights of flamboyant rhetoric are generally more successful than MacNeice's, Mahon shares his honest...
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Two years ago Derek Mahon published what he called the 'selected collected' edition of his poems. It was, he said, 'in some senses, a first book, the kind of thing you put behind you before proceeding to the real business of learning and trying to create'. Understandably, he was uncertain about what this 'real business' might produce. Apart from outlawing 'impertinent rhetoricism', he was content simply to advertise himself as being 'at last in a position to begin'. Courtyards in Delft contains the first 14 results—and it's perhaps not surprising that their concerns are strikingly similar to those of his earlier work: the Troubles, the nature of human survival, the obstinate durability of 'mute phenomena', and the value of personal relationships. There is, though, a marked change in the manner of his new poems, if not in their matter. In the past, he has invariably worked best in one of two distinct styles: the cryptic-imagistic—often using details and devices reminiscent of Beckett—and the candid-explicatory. By combining the two in his most successful poem, 'A Disused Shed in Co Wexford', he made an exception to prove the rule: its images retain their elusive mystery in spite of being subject to his lucid analysis.
Most of the poems in Courtyards in Delft attempt to recreate this balance and fusion. But while still flickering quickly and wittily from image to image, they also tend to use longer and more...
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Derek Mahon's new collection [The Hunt by Night] contains several poems good enough to place alongside his "A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford", a justly celebrated piece…. It is not only in his confident use of the familiar stanza form that Mahon can be seen as the Marvell amongst his contemporaries and compatriots. He is a truly witty writer, and his recent work reminds me of T. S. Eliot's observation that all too often one is confronted by "serious poets who seem afraid of acquiring wit lest they lose intensity." That this is a genuine risk is illustrated by numerous, honourable present-day poets, but in Mahon's case what Eliot calls "wit's internal equilibrium" is immediately evident. Whereas there has always been a tough reasonableness behind his sometimes very slight lyric grace, there are all the signs that the lyric grace in itself is becoming tougher…. (p. 71)
Mahon's poems are full of radiant objects which shine all the brighter for their setting in a dark, chilly universe of exile and unrest, and a hard, crystalline energy informs the measured verse.
Mahon can, at times, appear a solemnly playful, self-aware doomsday dandy, and in "Another Sunday Morning" he simultaneously assumes and is amused by the stance. The echoes of Robert Lowell are unmistakable and, given the title, clearly deliberate, but the sardonic viewpoint is more reminiscent of Louis MacNeice in Regents Park than Lowell in Central....
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