Derek Mahon

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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).

Robin Skelton

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[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.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

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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",...

(This entire section contains 223 words.)

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"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.∗

Alan Brownjohn

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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.∗

P. N. Furbank

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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 high-jinks in the long verse letter 'Beyond Howth Head'—'Dover Beach' done over by Auden—in which he reviews his theme more discursively. This is a sparse and not very ambitious collection, but the work of a sure talent. (p. 375)

P. N. Furbank, "Knockabouts" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1972; reprinted by permission of P. N. Furbank), in The Listener, Vol. 88, No. 2269, September 21, 1972, pp. 374-75.∗

Douglas Dunn

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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 other poems. "Hommage to Malcolm Lowry", "After Nerval", or "Epitaph for Flann O'Brien" are examples. No matter the sincerity of these genuflections, Mahon's cleverness, wit, and grace are preferable when working against less literary subjects. "Cavafy", for instance, though literary enough in its origins, is an exhilarating series of poems.

Mahon's image of enchantment is summarised for him in the life of the gipsies. He has written about this in his earlier books. In the new collection [The Snow Party] he imitates a poem by Philippe Jaccottet, "Les Gitanes." A world of bandana and banjo, sing-songs under the stars at places with no disheartening historical associations—it looks like self-indulgence, though Mahon is too alert to allow his writing to create anything so inept.

Mahon's consciousness controls his imagination, as it must, to save the integrity of imagination and prevent it from being the repository of mere longings. (pp. 78-9)

The finest poem in The Snow Party is "A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford." The poem starts with a literary occasion, but Mahon leaps over the possible limitations of that; the poem blazes off the page, and is the consummation of his writing so far, simply one of the finest poems of the decade. There is nothing wrong with it; and the same can be said for "The Banished Gods."

To say of a poem that there's "nothing wrong with it" might sound as grudging as the terms of praise said to be characteristic of the great jazz player, the late Pee Wee Russell—"it doesn't bother me." But I think it's true praise. Neither Mahon nor Hugo Williams, though, is a poet of negative virtues, writing tight little syntactical perfections which protect, lovingly, a single precious image. Mahon's "elegance" is more significant than that; he is not playing for safety but living up to a subjectively formed stylistic ideal within which he can be seen to perform in language without sacrificing what he feels for his concerns. (pp. 80-1)

Douglas Dunn, "Mañana Is Now," in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. XLV, No. 5, November, 1975, pp. 76-81.∗

Anthony Thwaite

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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 the collection with its most impressive poem, a meditation with the bleak title "A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford". Here "A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole", and are celebrated as dumb survivors whose tenacity spells out a hard-won lesson….

[With] Mr Mahon one senses a pressure of events behind the taut evasiveness….

Anthony Thwaite, "At the Point of Speech," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3843, November 7, 1975, p. 1327.∗

Terence Brown

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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 turns to a local tradition in quest of roots, identity, fragments that he may shore against what he feels is the contemporary ruin. Mahon rejects such a strategy, such imaginative Jacobinism, since the local tradition he knows in his bones is not one with which he feels much ready sympathy. Mahon's 'hidden Ulster' is no Gaelic pastoral-aristocratic idyll, but the Protestant planter's historical myth of conquest, and careful, puritan self-dependence frozen to a vicious, stupid bigotry which constricts personal identity, crippling the possibility of change, growth and excellence…. So 'Ecclesiastes' is a powerful, impassioned rejection of the tradition that lies beneath the surface life of Belfast's superficially emancipated suburbia. It is a denunciation of the Northern Protestant's self-understanding and a call to him, to abandon a stance of intolerant rectitude and ridiculous isolationism which is the fruit of an assertive, black-minded self-dependence…. (p. 195)

Recognising, as [Roy] McFadden did before him, the impossibility of any simple regional loyalty Mahon, like McFadden, is drawn to romantic outsiders, individuals, who assert their individuality not in dour, provincial self-satisfaction but in bohemian excess, rhetorical panache, by style in the face of metaphysical bleakness. So he celebrates De Quincey, Van Gogh, Dowson and the tragic generation, a forger who works in agony and fanaticism…. There is something in [his] poems of that fabricated cosmopolitanism we have detected in earlier poets, suggesting Mahon's insecurity, caught between a narrow society he dislikes and the larger world outside his province, where he must make his life. What is not fabricated is the note of loneliness, bordering on terror, that informs his work. Some of his poems treat journeys by car, train and plane, as essentially solitary, if not quite so finally desperate, as those in MacNeice's late work…. [Like MacNeice] Mahon not only experiences cultural dislocation, but moments of metaphysical frisson…. Like MacNeice also, he senses an interdependence of dark and light knowing that life's moments of vision and ecstasy are set against the dark and cold…. (pp. 196-97)

History, it is important to make clear, does not mean for Derek Mahon that complex of Irish linguistic, ethnic, religious and geographic truths sensed as permanencies which it is in the poetry of John Montague or Seamus Heaney. History for Mahon is no saga of land and people but a process, 'the elemental flux' ('Rocks') which casts one man as coloniser, another as colonised, and man in innumerable roles. So … [Lives] must be read as a series of experiments in perspective, in which modern Irish and European political and historical experience are viewed from different spatial and temporal angles.

'Edvard Munch', for example, contemplates one of the Norwegian artist's canvases, considering the mysterious relationship of material things to historical and political process—comparing the relationship implied in the painting to that in experience itself. 'The Archaeologist', 'What Will Remain' and 'Entropy' step into post-history and into gigantic landscapes to see man's life sub specie aeternitatis, the planet littered with capitalism's banal bric-à-brac…. 'Consolations of Philosophy' and 'Gipsies Revisited' balefully regard the assumed security of modern bourgeois life from the grave and from the tinkers' roadside, while the bright searching images of 'An Image from Beckett' reveal a landscape and city of some unlikely human future hopefully immune to death, irony and absurdity…. 'A Dark Country' tests the possibility, by contrast, of local, personal attachments in a lyric of moving, tentative affirmation … while 'Lives' is a witty series of perspectives on Being itself, in its unlikely manifestations.

Two things raise these perspectivist experiments above the level of clever mannerism: the poet's depth of humane feeling and his imaginative range. In these poems the poet has made a virtue of necessity. Accepting a dissociated sensibility as the inevitable possession of a Protestant Ulsterman, he has exploited his understanding of fragmentation and flux in a series of richly imaginative poems, in which confusion or triviality might so easily have resulted. Derek Mahon has expressed admiration for writers of the American South, who managed to write, as he sees it, good poems out of a 'morally ambiguous situation'. In Lives and in his more recent poem 'A Disused Shed in County Wexford' Mahon has given good grounds for belief that he has the necessary imaginative and intellectual gifts to emulate them. (pp. 198-200)

Terence Brown, "Four New Voices: Poets of the Present," in his Northern Voices: Poets from Ulster (© Terence Brown, 1975), Rowman and Littlefield, 1975, pp. 171-213.∗

Brian Donnelly

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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, part of Mahon's preoccupation with the individual's sense of isolation, for in them the speaker is usually looking at events in his native place from the outside, at a safe, if uncomfortable, vantage point. In 'Glengormley' (Night-Crossing), a poem written before the present unrest began, Mahon celebrated the then unheroic quality of life in a Belfast suburb. The tone and humour of the opening lines recalls to mind much of MacNeice's verse…. (p. 23)

Viewed in retrospect, few utterances by Ulstermen can have proven so ironic given the course of events in the province over the past six years. When Mahon has confronted the troubles in his subsequent collections it has been as an exile (he has resided in England for several years) and the state of exile, of being isolated in place and time, is a condition which he explores over and over again in his verse. (p. 24)

[The] specific instance of a general feeling of being cut-off from the goings on of the majority of men occupies a central place in Mahon's poetry. In many of his best and most characteristic poems the speaker or central character is a lonely, isolated figure, an odd man out. We encounter him in all three collections, in such poems as 'Grandfather', 'My Wicked Uncle' (Night-Crossing), 'The Last Dane', 'A Dying Art' (Lives) and in 'A Refusal to Mourn' (The Snow Party) in which Mahon memorably recreates the life of an old man living alone in the small but telling details of his lonely existence…. (pp. 24-5)

However, it is those characters who are totally alienated from any form of normal social life and aspirations that he has so vividly given voice to in his poetry. His affinity with Beckett in this respect is first made apparent in the fourth section of 'Four Walks in the Country near Saint Brieuc', entitled, 'Exit Molloy' (Night-Crossing)…. In this short monologue Mahon has succeeded in capturing the tone of the Beckett hero, a tone of bewildered and resigned detachment from the sufferings of the body heightened by characteristic pedantry.

Life's failures appear again and again in all three of his collections. Yet, no matter how bleak or desolate man's fate seems, the verse usually displays a grim, ironic wit and humour which holds final despair at arm's length. Sometimes, however, this proves almost malicious as in the address to the poets of the 'tragic' generation in 'Dowson and Company' (Night-Crossing)…. (p. 25)

But it is in the dramatic monologue that Mahon's alienated characters come most fully and convincingly to life. The monologue is a form that he has perfected and which allows his wit full play behind the mask of the speaker. 'Legacies', the final poem in Night-Crossing, is a case in point. This poem is a free imitation of François Villon's 'Le Lais' in which the poet, cold and destitute, writes a will which pours scorn on the world which has rejected him. The measure of Mahon's achievement is that he succeeds in vividly recreating the mood and spirit of the original French, a task that defeated Robert Lowell in his rendering of Villon in Imitations. (p. 26)

In a poem like 'Legacies' Mahon is restoring to English poetry qualities which are rare at the present time—conversational narrative combined with wit, intelligence and humour capable of realising a deep seriousness. The fact that 'Legacies' and many other poems have a literary basis (often in foreign literatures) is not a limitation, as some critics and reviewers have suggested. What is important is that Mahon almost always transcends the merely literary which can be seen to serve as starting points for his exploration of important human conditions and concerns.

The skill and ease in handling a colloquial narrative apparent in 'Legacies' is seen to good advantage in the long verse letter 'Beyond Howth Head' which concludes Lives. In this poem Mahon's wit is given wide scope. The form of the verse letter allows him to relax and to be discursive in his comments on life in general and Irish life in particular, much in the manner of Auden in his Letter to Lord Byron. Here Mahon is less intense in his view of life than in many of his other poems, although the swiftly moving narrative, carried along in neatly rounded couplets, contains a good deal of trenchant criticism of such issues as American involvement in south east Asia, the depopulation of the west of Ireland and Irish sexual morality. Yet, overall the mood is light as, for once at least, the poet has managed to put his more usual apocalyptic view of life into perspective, allowing that 'the pros outweigh the cons that glow / from Beckett's bleak reductio'. The poem ends on a well judged note of self-mockery which succeeds in keeping its comments on life from appearing pretentious…. (pp. 26-7)

The lighthearted mood of 'Beyond Howth Head' is atypical of the prevailing atmosphere of Night-Crossing and Lives which in general create sombre visions of the human condition. This view of man's fate is extended and deepened in Lives as in 'Gipsies Revisited' in which the life of the homeless and social outcasts is used as a metaphor of the real fate awaiting us all, only thinly disguised by the veneer of domestic well-being…. The projected vision of the world returned to its most primitive state is one that haunts Mahon's imagination. In 'Entropy', 'What Will Remain' and 'Consolations of Philosophy' (Lives) he approaches the bleak and unappealing negations of Beckett's Lessness. (p. 27)

Lives also includes poems that are sheer tours de force of the imagination. Such is the title poem, a play on the doctrine of reincarnation of the body…. Taken together, Night-Crossing and Lives show Mahon exploring and dramatising an attitude to life in a variety of forms. There is less a sense of development between them than a growing awareness on the part of the reader that the two parts of a single whole have been completed. In his most recent collection, The Snow Party, he has succeeded in moving far beyond the achievement of the earlier works. His central preoccupations remain the same, but there is clearly an attempt to encompass more in a wider diversity of forms and situations. Some of the poems in this collection would fit unobtrusively into either of his preceding volumes—'Afterlives', 'The Gipsies', 'Epitaph for Flann O'Brien', 'September in Great Yarmouth', 'A Refusal to Mourn' and the amusing concrete poem, 'The Window'. But in the poems that give The Snow Party its distinctive mood and character there is reflected a significant deepening of the imaginative range of the earlier work.

Poems such as 'The Last of the Fire Kings', 'Thammuz', 'Matthew V. 29-30' and the title poem all dwell upon the inability of the individual to escape from violence. (p. 29)

[Perhaps] the most curious preoccupation in The Snow Party is the attitude to the world of inanimate objects which, because they are the paraphernalia of everyday life that we take for granted and discard after they have served their purpose, can be seen as an extension of Mahon's concern with the plight of the human outcasts in the earlier collections. These poems are not all meant to be taken wholly seriously as in 'After Nerval'…. 'The Apotheosis of Tins' is in a similar vein, one of the two delicately organised prose poems in the book, in which a tin in a rubbish heap asserts the independence of the world of objects against human 'patronage' and 'reflective leisure'. This poem is skilful and clever, and Mahon is able to use the occasion to poke fun at aesthetic pretentiousness. The stilted academic jargon of the speaker, the mocking allusion to Hamlet, the threatening tone are all controlled in beautifully balanced periods…. (pp. 31-2)

These poems are, admittedly, lighthearted and quirky. Yet readers who may be prepared to dismiss Mahon for entering such quaint and obscure corners of the imagination will have to pause for further reflection on the poet's imaginative processes at the final poem of this kind, 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford'. This is the concluding poem in The Snow Party and in it Mahon once again brings the inanimate world to life—in this instance 'a thousand mushrooms' locked away in a shed of a derelict country hotel. His evocation of their plight builds up into a convincing and moving metaphor of all the persecuted and forgotten peoples in human history…. Most critics, even those who see Mahon's poetry as 'tenuous stuff', the result of a talent 'thinning itself away into arbitrariness and whimsy' [see excerpt above by Anthony Thwaite] are agreed that this is an impressive achievement. Indeed, one reviewer regarded it as 'the consummation of his writing so far, simply one of the finest poems of the decade' [see excerpt above by Douglas Dunn]. Whether or not one is prepared to agree with this placing of the poem in a hierarchy—and I for one am—it is right to stress that 'A Disused Shed' is the culmination of Mahon's work to date and not an isolated and fortuitous success. It treats that theme that has been central to his work since Night-Crossing—exclusion from ordinary life and harrowing solitude—in a way that reveals one of the undoubted strengths of his poetry which is its ability, because of its eccentric perspectives on the world, to offer a fresh view on central human concerns.

It would be a mistake to conclude an evaluation of Mahon's poetry by claiming for it a narrow seriousness. His work is serious, as I have attempted to suggest, but it contains, too, a good deal of whimsy spiced with intellectual mockery and word play which is none too common in English poetry today. Yet, it is when this lightness, or seeming lightness, and quirky vision combine with his assured technical mastery to create a poem like 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' that the full potential of Derek Mahon's poetic talent becomes apparent. (p. 34)

Brian Donnelly, "The Poetry of Derek Mahon," in English Studies (© 1979 by Swets & Zeitlinger B.V.), Vol. 60, No. 1, February, 1979, pp. 23-34.

Peter Porter

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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, of being farther into a dangerous century, than there is in Auden.

Peter Porter, "Voices from Ulster," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9831, January 27, 1980, p. 39.∗

Brian Donnelly

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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. In 'Glengormley,' for example, Mahon celebrates the hum-drum existence of a Belfast surburb in a manner that is both gently mocking and affectionate…. His fascination with the ordinariness of the place is typical too, for he is, above all, a poet who imbues the prosaic with a tinge of romance. (pp. 131-32)

Much of Mahon's poetry is preoccupied with decay. His is an imagination that almost habitually conceives the impermanence of all human endeavour. In such poems as 'Entropy,' 'The Golden Bough' and 'Consolations of Philosophy' he imagines the world returned to its primal state, a wasteland of random matter, vegetation and silence. The trappings of civilised life are viewed as a thin veneer concealing the void into which all life will finally descend. (p. 133)

His most memorable poems are those in which [an] awareness of human destiny is charged with controlled pathos, as in 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' (The Snow Party, 1975), his finest single achievement so far…. [This poem] shows the imaginative richness and superb technical skill of this poet. The language is subtly evocative of a slow and lonely decay; the images are haunting…. (pp. 133-34)

Although Mahon comes from Belfast the civil disturbances of the last twelve years have not forced themselves directly upon his imagination. From time to time he has expressed unease with the business of writing verse while the bombs go off and innocent people die…. Yet the deepest impulse in his verse is to escape the claustrophobia and nightmare of Northern Ireland and to flee into the solitude of the self. The tension in his work, which has led to some of his best poems, is the realisation that one is inevitably caught up in history and that no release may be possible. (p. 134)

In spite of the fact that Mahon has not confronted the historical evolution of Irish violence in the direct manner of some of his contemporaries, he has, nevertheless, written poems in which his attitude to the ambiguities of life in the North is implicit rather than explicit. A case in point is 'The Snow Party' in which Mahon succeeds in expressing the awful paradox that affronts the normal scale of human values: the coexistence of gross inhumanity with a civilised and decorous culture. His achievement is that his small stanzas obliterate the gap in space and time that allows us to conceive of these two orders of existence as being mutually exclusive. (pp. 135-36)

Most of the new poems [in Poems 1962–1978] are typical Mahon and, as well as the marvellous 'The Sea in Winter,' 'The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush' and 'Heraclitus on Rivers' are particularly fine. So, too, is the short and haunting 'Penshurst Place' in which he evokes the elegance and barbarity of the high Renaissance in two beautifully cadenced stanzas.

Yet all is not well. Most of the earlier poems have been revised, some very slightly and a few substantially. Many have been given new titles. By and large I feel that the revised titles were unnecessary…. But the revisions bother me more and this is only partly owing to a dislike of the familiar being tampered with. In 'Matthew V. 29-30,' for example, the larger stanzas seem to me to slow down the breathtaking pace of the original which is so much a part of this poem's total effect…. One could go on weighing the relative merits of the original versions of poems with these later ones. Suffice to say here that Poems 1962–1978 is a splendid book. (pp. 136-37)

Brian Donnelly, "From Ninevieh to the Harbour Bar," in Ploughshares (© 1980 by Ploughshares, Inc.), Vol. 6, No. 1, 1980, pp. 131-37.

Jack Holland

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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 skepticism; both, when at their best, also share the urge to pay homage to the object as it is, to refine perception of the thing down to an ingenuous clarity.

In spite of his background, Mahon has little to say about the position of the poet amid Northern Ireland's troubles, except the occasional ironic comment…. His restraint of the issue is as refreshing as the lack of it in so many other Irish poets is nauseating.

Part of the reason that Mahon is not better known here is that he belongs to an Irish literary tradition not much appreciated in America—or England, for that matter. It is an urban tradition, as indubitably Irish as James Joyce or Samuel Beckett or Sean O'Casey. It shares the prevailing moods of Irish poetry—bitterness, melancholy, tenderness; but it has a powerful ironic edge to it and a searing objectivity. Its esthetic and ontological complexities do not fit in with the rural/pastoral stereotype of the Irish poet dear to certain cultural circles—a stereotype that would lead, say, to a preference for Heaney's work. It is to be hoped that Mahon's poetry will introduce that other—urban—tradition of Irish writing to new readers, who will find it a challenging and sometimes radical one. (pp. 260-61)

Jack Holland, "A Searing Objectivity," in The Nation (copyright 1980 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 231, No. 8, September 20, 1980, pp. 260-61.

Andrew Motion

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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 elaborate verse forms, and to argue their themes with greater deliberation…. The danger of this development, obviously, is that the poems will diminish the resonance of their themes by spelling them out too clearly….

There are a number of moments when Mahon seems, tacitly, to be asking himself whether he should persist with this line of development, or revert to the strategies and strengths of his earlier work….

Noticing this dilemma helps to explain why three of the most arresting new poems deal with paintings. By depicting fixed moments in time, they offer refuge from flux at the same time as they highlight its difficulties. That is to say, they help him moderate his need to 'begin' again, and encourage him to write—in the title poem for example—without any sign of self-conscious striving…. (p. 20)

Andrew Motion, "Facing Two Ways," in New Statesman (© 1981 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 101, No. 2618, May 22, 1981, pp. 20-1.∗

John Mole

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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. (pp. 71-2)

John Mole, "Respectable Formalities," in Encounter (© 1983 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LX, No. 4, April, 1983, pp. 69-75.∗


Mahon, Derek (Poetry Criticism)