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Mahon, Derek

MAHON, Derek


Nationality: British. Born: Belfast, Northern Ireland, 23 November 1941. Education: Belfast Institute, 1953–60; Trinity College, Dublin, 1960–65, B.A. in French 1965. Family: Married Doreen Douglas in 1972; two children. Career: English teacher, Belfast High School, 1967–68, and Language Centre of Ireland, Dublin, 1968–70; writerin-residence, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 1975, Emerson College, Boston, 1976–77, and New University of Ulster, Coleraine, 1977–79. Co-editor, Atlantis, Dublin, 1970–74; drama critic The Listener, 1971–72, features editor of Vogue, 1974–75, and poetry editor, New Statesman, since 1981, all London. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1965; Arts Council bursary, 1981; Scott Moncrieft prize, for translation, 1989. Agent: Deborah Rogers, Ltd., 49 Blenheim Crescent, London W11 2EF, England. Address: c/o Oxford University Press, Ely House, 37 Dover Street, London W1X 4AH, England.

Publications

Poetry

Twelve Poems. Belfast, Festival, 1965.

Design for a Grecian Urn. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Erato, 1967.

Night-Crossing. London, Oxford University Press, 1968.

Ecclesiastes. Manchester, Phoenix Pamphlet Poets Press, 1970.

Beyond Howth Head. Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1970.

Lives. London, Oxford University Press, 1972.

The Man Who Built His City in Snow. London, Poem-of-the-Month Club, 1972.

The Snow Party. London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1975.

Light Music. Belfast, Ulsterman, 1977.

In Their Element: A Selection of Poems, with Seamus Heaney. Belfast, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, 1977.

The Sea in Winter. Dublin, Gallery Press, and Old Deerfield, Massachusetts, Deerfield Press, 1979.

Poems 1962–1978. London, Oxford University Press, 1979.

Courtyards in Delft. Dublin, Gallery Press, 1981.

The Hunt by Night. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982; Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University Press, 1983.

A Kensington Notebook. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1984.

Antarctica. Dublin, Gallery Press, 1986.

Selected Poems. Oldcastle, Gallery Press, 1990; New York, Penguin, 1993.

The Yaddo Letter. Oldcastle, Gallery Press, 1992.

The Hudson Letter. Oldcastle, Gallery Books, 1995; Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University Press, 1996.

The Yellow Book. Oldcastle, Gallery Press, 1997; Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University Press, 1998.

Collected Poems. Oldcastle, Gallery Books, 1999.

Recording: Adam Zagajewski and Derek Mahon Reading Their Poems, Gertrude Clarke Whittall Poetry and Literature Fund, Library of Congress, 1992.

Plays

High Time, adaptation of a play by Molière (produced Derry, 1984) Dublin, Gallery Press, 1985.

The School for Wives, adaptation of a play by Molière. Dublin, Gallery Press, 1986.

The Bacchae: After Euripedes. Oldcastle, Gallery, Press, 1991.

Radio Features: on Brain Moore, 1975, J.G. Farrell, 1980, Olivia Manning, 1981, John Montague, 1982, and Robert Lowell, 1984.

Television Adaptations: Shadows on Our Skin, 1980, and How Many Miles to Babylon? 1981, both by Jennifer Johnston; First Love, by Turgenev, 1982; The Demon Lover, by Elizabeth Bowen, 1983; A Moment of Love, by Brian Moore, 1984; The Cry, with Chris Menaul, by John Montague, 1984.

Other

Journalism: Selected Prose 1970–1995. Oldcastle, Gallery Press, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1996.

Editor, Modern Irish Poetry. London, Sphere, 1972.

Editor, with Peter Fallon, The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry. London, Penguin, 1990.

Translator, The Chimeras, by Nerval. Dublin, Gallery Press, 1982.

Translator, Selected Poems by Philippe Jaccottet. London, Viking, 1987; Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University, 1988.

Translator, Phaedra, by Jean Racine. Oldcastle, Gallery Books, 1996.

Translator, Words in the Air: A Selection of Poems, by Philippe Jaccottet. Oldcastle, Gallery Books, 1998.

*

Critical Studies: "The Poetry of Derek Mahon" by Brian Donnelly, in English Studies (Nijmegen, Netherlands), 60, 1979; "'Singing the Darkness into the Light': Reflections on Recent Irish Poetry" by Harry Marten, in New England Review (Hanover, New Hampshire), 3, 1980; by Arthur E. McGuinness, in Eire-Ireland (St. Paul, Minnesota), 16(1), spring 1981; "Somewhere, Out There, Beyond: The Poetry of Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon" by Andrew Waterman, in PN Review (Manchester, England), 8(1), 1981; "Semantic Scruples: A Rhetoric for Politics in the North" by D.E.S. Maxwell, in Literature and the Changing Ireland, edited by Peter Connolly, Gerrards Cross, England, Colin Smythe, and Totowa, New Jersey, Barnes and Noble, 1982; "'To the Point of Speech': The Poetry of Derek Mahon" by Eamon Grennan, in Contemporary Irish Writing, edited by James D. Brophy and Raymond J. Porter, Boston, Twayne, 1983; "Poetry and Politics: Response to the Northern Ireland Crisis in the Poetry of John Montague, Derek Mahon, and Seamus Heaney" by Conor Johnston, in Poesis (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania), 5(4), 1984; The Significance of Landscape and History in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and John Montague by John M. Byrne, Newcastle upon Tyne, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, 1984; "Derek Mahon's Development" by John Constable, in Agenda (London), 22(3–4), autumn-winter 1984–85; "An Urbane Perspective: The Poetry of Derek Mahon" by Maurice Riordan, in The Irish Writer and the City, edited by Maurice Harmon, Gerrards Cross, England, Colin Smythe, and Totowa, New Jersey, Barnes and Noble, 1984; "The Poetry of Derek Mahon" by David E. William, in Journal of Irish Literature (Newark, Delaware), 13(3), September 1984; "Derek Mahon: The Lute and the Stars" by Robert Taylor, in Massachusetts Review (Amherst), 28(3), autumn 1987; "Cast a Wary Eye: Derek Mahon's Classical Perspective" by Arthur E. McGuinness, in Yearbook of English Studies (London), 17, 1987; "History in the Poetry of Derek Mahon" by Joris Duytschaever, in History and Violence in Anglo-Irish Literature, edited by Duytschaever and Geert Lernout, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1988; "Derek Mahon's Humane Perspective" by Brendan Kennelly, in Tradition and Influence in Anglo-Irish Poetry, edited by Terence Brown and Nicholas Grene, Totowa, New Jersey, Barnes and Noble, 1989; "International Perspectives in the Poetry of Derek Mahon" by Bill Tinley, in Irish University Review (Dublin), 21(1), spring-summer 1991; "History and Poetry: Derek Mahon and Tom Paulin" by Peter McDonald, in The Poet's Place: Ulster Literature and Society, edited by Gerald Dawe and John Wilson Foster, Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1991; "'Even Now There Are Places Where a Thought Might Grow': Place and Displacement in the Poetry of Derek Mahon" by Hugh Houghton, in The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland, edited by Neil Corcoran, Bridgend, Ireland, Seren, 1992; Derek Mahon issue of Irish University Review (Dublin), 24(1), spring-summer 1994; "A Residual Poetry: Heaney, Mahon and Hedgehog History" by Scott Brewster, in Irish University Review (Dublin), 28(1), spring-summer 1998.

*  *  *

What one initially notices in the poetry of Derek Mahon is a strong sense of place. On first reading, some of his best poems appear to be topographical. They have titles such as "Day Trip to Donegal," "April on Toronto Island," and "Teaching in Belfast." In poem after poem local properties are assiduously assembled. "A Garage in Co. Cork" speaks of "building materials, fruit boxes, scrap iron, /Dust-laden shrubs and coils of rusty wire …" Always clearly signaled, however, is the possibility of release, in this instance, "Beyond, a swoop of mountain where you heard, /Disconsolate in the haze, a single blackbird."

The idea of an individual gesture dissolving the present clutter is highly characteristic of Mahon. In the dawn after the late-night hubbub described in "Rock Music" the speaker hears "a single bird /Drown with a whistle that residual roar …" A similar signal suggests the positive quality Mahon finds in the work of a distinguished predecessor. "In Carrowdore Churchyard" is an elegy on Louis MacNeice: "Maguire, I believe, suggested a blackbird /And over your grave a phrase from Euripides …"

The quality Mahon admires in MacNeice is manifested in his own work by a characteristic so insistent as to justify employing the term "poetic touchstone":

From the pneumonia of the ditch, from the ague
Of the blind poet and the bombed-out town you bring
The all-clear to the empty holes of spring;
Rinsing the choked mud, keeping the colours new.

Detritus is associated with death, and death is represented as physical occlusion. Set against this is a sense of release evoked in a series of images that suggest an individual mode of claritas. In "Consolations of Philosophy" a few of the dead, immured in rotten boards and broken urns, "remember with delight /the dust gyrating in a shaft of light …" This contrast between detritus and release is found in "A Refusal to Mourn." An old man's house—"Cinders moved in the grate, /And a warm briar gurgled"—is set against the old man's deliverance. It is a deliverance not to a graveyard but to the oblivion conferred by the seasons: "In time the astringent rain /Of those parts will clean /The words from his gravestone …"

The imprisoned masses referred to in "A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford" wait for "light meter and relaxed itinerary." The exiled proprietor in "The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush" sees "the light /Of heaven upon the mountains of Donegal." Much of "The Poet in Residence" consists of a letter to the lover of the imprisoned Tristan Corbière that is written and then torn up. The words of the letter escape, as their author cannot: "The little bits of white /Looked, in the mist, like gulls in flight."

These touchstones all involve a sense of release and deploy a characteristic vocabulary: "the glittering west," "a swoop of mountains," "the all-clear, " "a shaft of light," "clean /The words," "the light of heaven," and this last, "gulls in flight." The examples could be multiplied, but the drift is clear and is subsumed in the poem called, punningly, "Light Music": "A land of cumulus /seen from above /is the life to come …"

The places that throng Mahon's poetry seem to have been created as a means of providing the launching pad for release. It could be said that he has been half in love with death and that death has not been, in Keats's phrase, "easeful." The mood of Mahon's late collection The Yellow Book is elegiac. It is dedicated to the memory of the poet's friend Eugene Lambe, and the elegy "To Eugene Lambe in Heaven" forms its centerpiece.

Here Mahon breaks all the rules. He has gone back to a mode of rambling meditation, familiar in the nineteenth century, with a discursive rhyme scheme that, though it hovers about the elegaic quatrain, rhymes, so to speak, where it touches:

It's after closing-time on a winter's night
in Smokey Joe's café a generation ago—
rain and smoke, and the table are packed tight
with drunken students kicking up a racket,
exchanging insults, looking for a fight
since there's nothing to do and nowhere else to go;
and the sad Italians (parents, daughter, son)
who own the place and serve these savages
>of the harsh north their chips and sausages
look up and grin with relief as you come in,
their baffled faces lighting up at once
at your quaint "whisker" and velvet smoking jacket...

The reader has to wait for the rhyme for "racket," evinced in line four, to be completed, in line twelve, with "jacket." The "racket"/"jacket" rhyme is a species of intruder, for without it we would have a straightforward "night"/"ago"/"tight"/"fight"/"go" scheme, that is to say, abaab.

This is typical of late Mahon, the rhythm slightly sprung, the rhyme scheme seemingly casual but, in fact, interfered with to release a flood of reminiscences emanating from a definite place. Here it is Smokey Joe's, the university café abutting on Queen's University. It proves, however, to be a base for taking off into what is at once an exploration of a period and of the places that make it up: University Road, Belfast, "Dublin in the '60s," "Covent Garden … living above the market." The destination is death, entered into with a quiet dignity—"philosophical with your dwindling flow of visitors"—somehow a consummation to be wished.

In the late poems of Mahon the wish for release is actualized in a manner more earthy than that previously entertained. The personae look back to "the treetops of Fitzwilliam Square," with its "famous Georgian doors"("Axel's Castle"), to the "nobler poetry" of the time "when the gutters bubbled, the drains stank" ("shiver in your tenement"), to "the big-game trophies and lion skins" ("The World of J.G. Farrell"). This last is yet another elegy, almost a companion piece to the grimmest poem of all, that in memory of the poet's mother: "Oh I can love you now that you're dead and gone /to the many mansions in your mother's house."

"The spirit unappeasable and peregrine"—Eliot's great invocation—might almost apply to Mahon. Whatever he holds and wherever he is, the spirit yearns to be somewhere else. The sense of place and the sense of occlusion assert themselves simultaneously, only to be dissolved into claritas. The linguistic mastery with which he seems to achieve the unachievable gathers this most restless of poets into the society of his masters.

—Philip Hobsbaum

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