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).