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Derek Mahon, the poet

Magdalena Kay writes: “The sun rises in spite of everything.” Mahon’s luminous poem “Everything Is Going to be All Right” is being quoted all over the world during this painful year of illness, isolation and uncertainty. The need for such life-affirming verse is now strong. No singular quotation sufficiently captures Mahon’s movement between vision and doubt, between scepticism and acceptance, between the seductive grip of despair and the recognition of radiance.

Mahon is a poet who has always inhabited the darkness, with an acute sense of fragility and possible loss. He has never cast himself as a hero to do battle with the forces of evil; on the contrary, he has always let us feel his vulnerability. He has not concealed flaws and contradictions. To read his work throughout the years is to feel the raw material of human life, including all the convolutions of human thought, transmuted into a more vivid element, but not to see it falsified and smoothed over. The beauty of his poetry scintillates, hiding its gleam one minute, then shining forth its full brilliance the next. It is not easy. It does not always comfort; indeed, it is not a comfortable poetry. Mahon allows jagged edges to be seen and felt, and this is quite deliberate. “No art without the resistance of the medium,” he famously stated, quoting Raymond Chandler.

Resistance and acceptance are not easy terms to use when speaking of this poetry. I came to Mahon as a graduate student steeped in a culture of resistance. Everything was to be questioned, suspected, examined. Everyone might be complicit in a vast, nefarious system. Mystifications of all kinds were to be avoided. There was little tolerance for naive readers. And then I (a naive reader getting well-schooled) read Mahon, starting with poems written when he was about my age: “I should rather praise / A worldly time under this worldly sky,” wrote the disaffected speaker of “Glengormley”. Yes, this chimed with my experience, both the ironic tone and the acute sense of inhabiting a diminished world. “No saint or hero” will come to all of us inhabiting this “new era.”

But what were we to make of the nostalgia for such creatures, and such motivations? What were we to make of the distaste for “humorous formulae” in other poems, such as “Spring in Belfast”, in which the speaker tells himself: “One part of my mind must learn to know its place”? The line could be read seriously or ironically, flippantly or chastisingly. Mahon’s metre is almost always loose enough to allow for variations in stress. The young poet clearly longs for a reality that he does not inhabit, but the way forward is confoundingly unclear. Although part of a group of writers responsible for the so-called Northern Irish Renaissance (including Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane, and Mahon’s close friend Michael Longley), he does not have a defined programme ‑ nor does the group. Mahon remains Mahon.

All of this filled me with great excitement: here was a poet speaking words that immediately echoed in my own mind, yet the words were multi-faceted enough to allow for many readings. The thrill of encountering a first-person speaker who seemed so much like a flesh-and-blood human being, not a persona or a rhetorical construction, was heightened by the thrill of being taken in hand by his use of the plural “we”. We are here together in this imperfect place and time, Mahon seemed to be saying, and you may share my critical attitude. That did it. I sought out everything he had written.

From the beginning, Mahon has defied easy categorisation: his use of rhyme and metre cannot be called traditional, yet the use of codified verse forms enacts a dialogue with literary tradition that he is happy to take up. His early dialogue with Yeats ‑ the Yeats who bemoaned the philistinism of modern urban Ireland ‑ is followed by verse conversations with Beckett, Swift, MacNeice, Heaney, Auden and many others, especially if we consider Mahon’s astounding number of references to create dialogues themselves. There are no footnotes here, yet it is always possible to read a Mahon poem without them. This poetry does not close itself off in a library of intertexts but always gives us a way in. Likewise, its verse forms always seem contemporary, never anachronistic: Mahon is expert at manipulating rhythm and rhyme to create identifiable patterns that are never overly strict (he is a master of slant rhyme), but always contain elements of surprise. His poetic texture refuses polish, but is full of words bumping against each other, creating patches of roughness and incongruity. His work offers an invaluable example to poets wondering how to use the resistance of the medium to expand rather than shrink their expressive possibilities. Verse forms offer Mahon more, not less, to say.

Although I consider Mahon a maximalist poet whose poems fill themselves to the brim, especially his recent work, he has always wondered how little we really need. It is a moral question as well as an aesthetic one: is “the mere fact of existence” enough to sustain human life? How much do we need to be happy? Unsurprisingly, Mahon admires Beckett, the modern master of minimalism, but also considers traditions of meditative thought that encourage us to shut out the vast clamour of the world. In “The Snow Party”, the Japanese haiku master Basho attends a party to watch the snow falling in silence. “Ovid in Tomis” uses a modified haiku form to inhabit an exile’s position far from the world of telegrams and anger. The poet himself inclines to windswept vistas at the water’s edge or, sometimes, forests alive with a life of their own. Mahon’s poems of dereliction and abandonment, such as “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” or a personal favourite, “A Garage in Co. Cork”, are justly famous. Few poets have shown us the ethical and aesthetic consequences of abandonment in such textured detail, so we can not only see but hear, feel, even smell the “places where a thought might grow”.

Although he is the last poet one would accuse of naivety, he has always been attracted to an ideal of simplicity. It correlates with a tacit conviction that feelings of insignificance can bring ecstasy: “Such tiny houses, such enormous skies!” But Mahon also proposes his own form of Platonism, proposing that the world holds ideas of things as well as the things themselves. We cannot banish the world of the mind in the name of minimalism or hard-edged realism ‑ who would question the titanic force of the imagination, he asks in “Tractatus”? This is as much a part of reality as the view from a window or the dispiriting daily news.

Mahon is one of our great defenders of the imagination. This is especially true of his twenty-first-century work, written after a decade-long silence that ended with Harbour Lights (2005). This volume heralded a late flowering that was remarkable in every sense of the word ‑ hoped for yet not foreseen, magnificent, full of new material, enacting and eliciting conversation. It is tempting to call these poems opulent, yet the word implies a decorative quality that is untrue to Mahon’s achievement.

Mahon’s poems think. They will not rest in a single attitude for long, but restlessly circle about their main concerns, sometimes striking far out from their original locus of attention but always coming back again. They demand slow reading. It is easy to quote from Mahon, but he is not a poet of apothegms. Politically, he insisted in 2015 that he never put a name to his own position and was happy not to. Let us heed that warning. Mahon is a poet of thinking rather than settled thought. The openness to wonder and beauty in his most recent work does not signal that he has found all the answers. Rather, he confirms the poet’s vocation to resist superficiality and philistinism, to think in complex ways even while valuing “that first-day-of-creation point of view”. Mahon is a poet of our times, and his joys are hard-won. Despite the temptation to end this tribute with despair, I will allow Mahon’s own words to show us a way forward from grief: “Crocuses, yellow and white, / have sprung up overnight under the pines. / It just keeps happening; life always finds // somewhere to whisper, thought a place to grow.”

25/10/2020

Magdalena Kay teaches British and Irish literature at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, where she is an associate professor of English. She has written extensively for the drb on the works of Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon.