Derek Mahon 1941-
Irish poet, playwright, and journalist. See also Derek Mahon Literary Criticism.
Derek Mahon's poetry expresses the feelings of exile and the oppressiveness of history that characterize the modern individual. His is a pessimism that sees great beauty in mundane aspects of life—a frying pan, mushrooms, cigarettes—but despairs at their impermanence and eventual meaninglessness. Part of Mahon's art, however, has been to apply exceptional technical ability and light humor to these weighty themes. Mahon made his reputation as one of several young authors constituting a renaissance in the literature of Northern Ireland, but he has not identified himself with Ireland as closely as some of his contemporaries have; instead, Mahon has most often written as an outsider and observer, and in doing so has developed an original poetic voice that eschews provincialism and explores the role of the artist in a larger world.
Mahon was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1941, and was raised in Glengormley, County Antrim. He attended school at the Protestant-run Royal Belfast Academical Institution from 1953 to 1960 and graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1965 with a degree in French, haven taken a year of his college education to study at the Sorbonne. While in Dublin Mahon met many present and future Irish authors, including Michael Longley, John Montague, and Louis MacNeice. Like Longley, Mahon received the Eric Gregory Award for poets under 30 in 1965. After leaving Trinity he traveled through North America and Europe, then published his first book of poetry, Twelve Poems (1967), and held posts teaching English in Toronto, Belfast, and Dublin.
During the 1970s Mahon established himself as a journalist in London, providing book and theater reviews for several prominent publications, including the Observer, the Listener, the New Statesman, and the Times Literary Supplement. He also launched a short-lived literary magazine in 1970, Atlantis, along with Seamus Deane and W. J. McCormack. In 1974 he took a post as features editor for Vogue. During these years he also published several of his important early works, including Night Crossing (1968), Ecclesiastes (1969), Beyond Howth Head (1970), Lives (1972), and The Snow Party (1975). The last of these includes his most anthologized poem, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford.” By the mid-1970s Mahon was well known as a poet; in 1977 he accepted a post as writer-in-residence at the New University of Ulster, Coleraine, County Derry, in Northern Ireland. While there he published a collection of poems with Seamus Heaney, his own The Sea in Winter (1979), and an early collected works, Poems 1962-1978 (1979).
In 1979 Mahon left Ulster, vowing never to live in Northern Ireland again. He went to London to work for the BBC developing features, including screen adaptations of Irish novels, and later worked for Radio 3 writing profiles, in order to earn money to support his writing career. He renewed his relationship with the New Statesman in 1981, taking the post of poetry and fiction editor. That year he also published the well-known poem Courtyards in Delft, and then produced his first translation, Gérard de Nerval's The Chimeras (1982). He followed these with The Hunt by Night (1982), which like Courtyards in Delft reflects Mahon's interest in the visual arts.
In the 1980s Mahon produced the first of his verse adaptations of plays by Continental writers when he reworked two plays by Molière: the first, High Times (1985), is a version of the French playwright's School for Husbands; the second is a rendering of School for Wives (1986). In 1986 he began a weekly book column for the Irish Times, which ran through 1989. Mahon was awarded the Scott-Manriet Prize in 1987 for his edition of Philippe Jaccottet's Selected Poems, and in 1990 he received the Lannon Literary Award for Poetry; the following year he published a celebrated edition of his Selected Poems, which won the Irish Times' Literature Award for Poetry. In 1995 he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.
Throughout his career Mahon has served as a visiting professor of writing, at institutions including Trinity College, the Cooper Union, New York University, the University of East Anglia, and Barnard College. He has been widely recognized for his accomplishments in literature, and a 1999 survey in the Irish Times ranked him one of the ten most important Irish writers of all time. His recent works include Birds (2002), a translation of Saint-John Perse's Oiseaux, and an adaptation of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (2004). Mahon is divorced with two children, and lives in Dublin.
Major Poetic Works
Central themes in Mahon's poetry include exile, art, and modern culture. Mahon addresses his own alienation from his homeland throughout his works, as in “Afterlives” from The Snow Party, where the poem's speaker returns to Belfast and finds it unfamiliar, or in “Rage for Order,” from Lives, where he describes the poet as “far from his people” and too distanced from the everyday violence of Irish politics to comprehend it. While Mahon's depictions of the artist's separation from society tends toward the self-condemning, he writes more sympathetically about other exiles, unwilling outcasts who have been ignored or excluded from the larger community. Poems from Lives and The Hunt by Night are among those which seek to give voice to the voiceless and forgotten. Mahon has adopted the personas of Vincent Van Gogh, the Roman poet Ovid, Norwegian novelist Knut Hamson (who was disgraced after meeting with Hitler), the eighteenth-century Gaelic poet Anthony Raftery, and Samuel Beckett's character Pozzo from Waiting for Godot to explore the thoughts and feelings of the exile, and he has voiced the plight of nameless, faceless souls struggling against violence and persecution.
Mahon's most famous evocation of the downtrodden and forgotten appears in “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” which describes the “thousand mushrooms” in the shed, finally exposed to daylight: “They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way / To do something, to speak on their behalf, / Or at least not to close the door again.” Despite this call to speak for the voiceless, Mahon's poetry most often casts doubt on the relevance of his art. In “The Sea in Winter” Mahon compares his poems to the shouts of drunks at closing time and likens them to “farts in a biscuit tin.” Similarly, in his poems about the visual arts he admires the skill of the artist—Pieter de Hooch in “Courtyards in Delft,” Edvard Munch in “Girls on the Bridge,” and Paolo Uccello in “The Hunt by Night”—but suggests that the very beauty of the artwork is deceptive, failing to account for the suffering and brutality that is a constant in human life.
Particularly in his later poetry, Mahon's characteristic attention to detail focuses on the minutia of popular culture. “The Hudson Letter” (a verse letter in the collection The Hudson Letter, 1995) reflects on life in New York City, focusing on graffiti, television shows, cigarette ads, and other samplings of a cluttered cultural landscape. The Yellow Book, the 1997 follow-up to The Hudson Letter, takes a more global view of postmodern culture, drawing from sex scandals in the British tabloids, the worldwide spread of McDonalds and Disney, and violent computer games to depict a world that has embraced conformity and sensationalism, while pushing aside genuine feeling—and, Mahon suggests, genuine art.
Mahon is generally regarded as one of Ireland's leading poets, with a career that emerged during an intense flowering of literary activity in Northern Ireland. He formed his reputation early on, publishing in the school paper at Royal Belfast Academical Institution and later at Trinity College. By the time he published his first book of poetry, he was widely admired in the literary community as a unique and important voice. The success of The Snow Party established him as a one of the leading poetic voices of Northern Ireland, and perhaps of all Britain. As early as 1979 Brian Donnelly proposed Mahon as the heir of W. H. Auden, suggesting the extent to which Mahon had impressed both readers and scholars of poetry. Even in his later verse, John Redmond has noted, the connection to Auden is apparent.
Auden is only one of the poets frequently identified with Mahon, however. Many critics cite Louis MacNeice as Mahon's most immediate predecessor and most significant influence. Dillon Johnston has seen in Mahon a substantial debt to MacNeice, and Peter McDonald has suggested that Mahon and his peer Michael Longley are the poets who have taken up MacNeice's mantle, not merely as Irish writers, but as authors concerned with history, the future, and the potential of art to last. Critics have also written about Mahon's relationship to poets as varied as the eighteenth-century master of the heroic couplet, Alexander Pope, American Hart Crane, fellow Irishman Seamus Heaney, and the authors he has translated, including Jaccottet and Nerval.
Although critics have routinely admired Mahon's technical skill, few have discussed it at length, beyond remarking on its uniqueness and brilliance. More often, commentators have focused on thematic issues in the poems. Throughout his writing career Mahon's thematic interests have been fairly consistent, but his ambivalent treatment of them has resulted in varying interpretations of his work. Some scholars have found Mahon entirely pessimistic, even cynical, but a few have argued for the presence of hope in the poems. Kathleen Mullaney has suggested that instances of silence in Mahon's poetry could represent the potential for peace, and John Byrne has proposed that the very ambivalence Mahon writes about leaves open the possibility for positive change.
Mahon's status as an Irish poet has also been a frequent subject of discussion. Most critics have noted that Mahon has self-consciously distanced himself from Ireland, embracing poets of many nationalities as influences and making the international city of New York his home base for many years. Tim Kendall has read in Mahon's work a rejection of his Irish roots; David Williams has written that Mahon himself questions whether an objective distance might disguise callous indifference toward the violence of Northern Ireland. On the other hand, it may be, as Robert Taylor has concluded, that Mahon's attempts to distance himself from Ireland have allowed him to write about his homeland with more compassion than he might have otherwise.