Derek Mahon: Commentary

James Liddy
John Byrne
D.E.S. Maxwell
Declan Kiberd
John Willett
Brendan Kennelly
Eamon Grennan
Tom Paulin
Seamus Deane
Maurice Riordan
Seamus Heaney
Joris Dutyschaever
Edna Longley
John Hufstader
Hugh Haughton
Richard York
Terence Brown
Kathleen Shields
Kathleen Mullaney
Colin Graham
Jon Stallworthy
Alan Wall
Elmer Andrews
Patricia Craig
Richard Kearney
Dillon Johnston
Fintan O’Toole
Mark Ford
Jamie McKendrick
Oonagh Warke
Martin Mooney
Patrick Crotty
Des O’Rawe
Gerald Dawe
Hugh Haughton
John Redmond
J. W. McCormack
Alistair Elliot
Terence Brown
Vona Groarke
David Wheatley
Lucy Collins

The Mahon Archive
Records in this section comprise a series of separate files containing longer extracts than those excerpted in the above listings.
Scott Brewster
Eavan Boland
John Byrne
John Constable
Neil Corcoran
Gerald Dawe
Seamus Deane
C. J. Fauske
Michael Foley
J. W. Foster
Adrian Frazier
John Goodby
Seamus Heaney
Jefferson Holdridge
Edna Longley
Kathleen McCracken
Eilean Ní Chuilleanáin
Dennis O’Driscoll
Alan Peacock
John Redmond
Anthony Roche
Kathleen Shields
Andrew Waterman
William Wilson
Willie Kelly
James Murphy
William Scammell

Michael Longley, “Letter to Derek Mahon”, in An Exploded View (1973): ‘[we] traced in August sixty-nine / Our imaginary Peace Line / Around the burnt-out house of / The Catholics we’d scarcely loved ... Two poetic conservatives / In the city of guns and long knives.’

Irish University Review [Special Poetry Issue], ed. Peter Denman (Sept. 2009)
Lucy Collins on “A Disused Shed in Co Wexford”, Derek Mahon.

See John MacAuliffe, review of Stephen Ennis, After the Titanic: A Life of Derek Mahon, by Stephen Enniss in The Irish Times (6 Dec. 2014), Weekend, p.12.
‘What is missing in Enniss’s book is an emphasis on Mahon’s artfulness and inventiveness, the clarity of tone which has been so influential on subsequent generations of Irish and British poets, [...] By approaching Mahon as a “confessional” poet whose work originates in particular traumas, Enniss misses out on the broader post-war scepticism about civilised society which characterises so much of Mahon’s writing (and the existentialist perspective that Mahon recognised in Beckett, which chimed so productively with his experience of growing up in a northern European city). [...] After the Titanic is not definitive for many reasons, but it is also notably scant on the Indian summer Mahon’s work has enjoyed over the past decade, perhaps because this would not fit with the trajectory Enniss envisions for a confessional poet. A future biographer might look on the bright side of the poems’ wild faith that, in spite of the vicissitudes, everything is going to be alright.’ [End; see full-text version in RICORSO, Library, “Reviews” - via index or attached.]

James Liddy, ‘Irish Poets and the Protestant Muse’, in Eire-Ireland: A Journal of Irish studies, 14, 2 (Summer 1979), pp.118-[28]. Quotes Kavanagh on Ulster poets: ‘As for the “Ulster” writers who comprise only the Six Counties writers, they seem to be insipid, colourless and with no particular regional flavour.’ (“Diary”, Envoy, 1, 2, Jan. 1950, p.85; here p.121.); also quotes MacNeice, ‘This land may seem a dreamland, an escape, / But to her sons and even more her daughters / A dream from which they yearn to wake; the liner / Outhoots the owls of the past.’ (Brown and Reid, Time Was Away, Dublin 1974, p.2; here p.121.) Bibl., John Montague, ‘Regionalism into Reconciliation: The Poetry of John Hewitt’, in Poetry Ireland, 3 (Spring 1964), p.113; also Cahal Daly, Violence in Ireland (Dublin 1973), p.155 [‘The Ulster myth ... ignored the existence within its own State and territory of nearly half a million people, more than a third of its population, whose home had always been Ulster, but an Ulster totally differently understood, totally otherwise loved.’]; here p.124.).

John Byrne, ‘Derek Mahon: A Commitment to Change’, Crane Bag, 6, 1 (1982), pp.62-72: ‘Heaney staked out the boundaries of his poetic, devoting himself (thus far, at least) to even deeper excavations of his chosen land’ (p.63.) Bibl. cites Edna Longley, ‘The Universal Warning: Ulster Poetry and the Troubles’, Planet, 33 (Aug. 1976), [q.p.]; Derek Mahon, ’Poetry in Northern Ireland’, 20th Century Studies, 4 (Nov. 1970); Serge Fauchereau, ‘Derek Mahon: Écrire en Ulster’ [interview], Les Lettres Nouvelles (March 1973), [q.p.]; Harriet Cooke, ‘An Interview with Derek Mahon’, Irish Times (17 Jan. 1973), [q.p.].

D. E. S. Maxwell, ‘Contemporary Poetry in Northern Ireland’, in Douglas Dunn, ed., Two Decades of Irish Writing (Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire: Carcanet 1975): ‘The life of Mahon’s poems is endlessly mobile, annexing points d’appui from teasing essence into some endurable form: “An eddy of semantic scruple / In an unstructurable sea”. Water - the sea, rivers, coastlines - the flight of birds, refractions of light, cities giving upon country views: all represent the mutability which defies, yet with its [181] rhythmical patterns provokes, the human urge for an equilibrium, like a climate, into unpredictable elements.’ (pp.181-82.)

Declan Kiberd, review of Poems 1962-1978, in Irish University Review, 12, 1 (1982), p.109: calls “A Disused Shed” ‘arguably the finest poem to come out of Ireland in the past twenty years’. Note also, review of Poems 1962-1978, in Irish University Review, 12, 1 (1982), p.109, calling “A Disused Shed” ‘arguably the finest poem to come out of Ireland in the past twenty years’ (p.109).

John Willett [letter to the Editor], Times Literary Supplement (13 May 1983), p.489: vehemently disagrees that Mahon’s version of “Brecht in Svendorg” as inadequate to the original poet. (; cited in Peter McDonald, ‘Louis MacNeice’s Posterity’, Princeton University Library Chronicle, LIX, 3, Spring 1998, pp.376-97, p.97, ftn. 5 [p.101]).

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Brendan Kennelly, ‘Derek Mahon’s Humane Perspective’, in Tradition and Influence in Anglo-Irish Poetry, ed. Terence Brown & Nicholas Grene, Macmillan 1989, pp.143-52; rep. in Journey into Joy: Selected Prose, ed. Äke Persson (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe 1994): ‘Mahon is a true wit. There is an element of cruelty in his perception and in his precision but there is no lack of compassion. It is a complex wit: sceptical, ironic, nostalgic, funny, philosophical, micky-taking, impudent, lonely, relishing the absurd and the lyrical simultaneously.’ (p.133.) Further: ‘But one of the problems for this kind of writer, for an ironic, romantic, sceptical, witty, nostalgic humanist is what I shall call the problem of yourself. What are you to do with yourself? Where does “self” stand in the poem? Where is Mahon in his poetry? I said he is a poet of the perimeter, meditating on the centre, with a mixture of amusement and pain. He is not, or he is very rarely, at the centre of his poems. He has a modesty, a kind of good manners of the imagination which nearly always prevents him from indulging in any form of Whitmanesque self-exhibitionism. So how then does he actually say things? How does the peripheral stance convey a central statement?’ (p.133.). Kennelly answers that he ‘invokes the help of other poets, other poems’, a device called ‘imaginative indirectness ... not being candid, not being totally direct to anyone’; quotes “The Poet in Residence (after Corbière)”, calling it ‘Mahon’s best poem’ (p.134.)

Eamon Grennan: ‘The strangest impression made on me when I read any poem by Derek Mahon is the sense that I have been spoken to: that the poem has established its presence in the world as a kind of speech. In addition, [113] I am aware that its status as speech is an important value in itself, carrying and confirming those other, more explicit values which the poem endorses as part of its overt ‘meaning’. What I hear in these poems is a firm commitment to the act of civil communication enlivened, in this case, by poetic craft.’ (‘“To the Point of Speech”: The Poetry of Derek Mahon, in ed. James D. Brophy and Raymond J. Porter, eds., Contemporary Irish Writing, Boston: Iona College Press, 1983, p.15; cited in Racz, op. cit., 1993, pp.113-14.)

Tom Paulin, ‘A Terminal Ironist’, in Ireland and the English Crisis (Bloodaxe 1984), pp.55-59. ’Mahon identifies with the unreconciled and the damned, and often there is a quality of still anguish in the bitter clarity and detachment of his work. Against and again he returns to motifs of silence, exile, utter clear-eyed despair, and version of the artistic life. What he celebrates - and it’s a celebration conducted in a temperature of absolute zero - is the perfection of art, the intense quidditas which exists outside history. […] And he rejects any insistence that art should be socially relevant or politically committed’ (p.57.) ‘In order to arrive at his vision of art - “Our afterlives a comeing true/Of perfect worlds we never knew” - Mahon takes the negative way ... rejection of sense experience’ [quotes ‘... the voice is audible only to those/whose hearts are emptied of property and desire.’(”The Voice”, Three Poems after Jaccottet; here p.57). ‘And in some ways Mahon resembles George Herbet who characteristically creates a perfect poem which also abolishes itself in the last line ... Herbert’s poems set themselves aside in order to merge with the absolute reality of God, whole Mahon’s slip into the utter perfection of Art. Paradoxically, therefore, Mahon’s work possesses an extraordinary humility - at the last moment hisnon serviam modulates into the finest idea of service. And perhaps his aestheticism has parallels with the dedicated fanaticism of a hunger striker […]’ (p.57.) Notes that in dropping the ded. of “Glengormley” to Padraic Fiacc in Night-crossing, Mahon eludes the ‘complex historical and personal bitterness’ of the other poet. (Ftn., p.57.) ‘From his early poem “Unbron Child”, to the great masterpiece, “A Disused Shded in Co. Wexford”, Mahon is fascinated by a place of pure being which exists outside history. ... death and art are virtually identical in his work and his mockery in “Poets of the Nineties” stems not from any moral criticism, but from an aesthetic position even more extreme than Dowson’s and Lionel Johnson’s.’ (p.58.) Paulin holds that the new collection has a terrifying wholeness but that the latest poems ‘tend to whine without much distinction’, with some exceptions. (p.59.)

Tom Paulin (on Mahon): ‘intransigent aesthete who rejects life almost completely and considers only the flotsam and jetsam along its fringes’ (cited by Istvan Racz in Morse, A Small Nation’s Contribution to the World, Gerrards Cross: Smythe, 1993, q.p.)

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Seamus Deane, Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature (London: Faber 1984): ‘Many Irish writers, sensitive to the threat of provincialism, have tried to compensate for it by being as cosmopolitan as possible. In consequence, they become citizens of the world by profession. Denis Devlin and Sean O’Faolain are two outstanding examples. For them, the cultivation of the intellect is not only a goal in itself but also a means of escape from besieged and rancorous origins. Others - Joyce, Beckett, Francis Stuart, Louis MacNeice - although they also seek in the world beyond an alternative to their native culture, have come to regard their exile from it as a generic feature of the artist’s rootless plight rather than a specifically Irish form of alienation. / Derek Mahon occupies a middle ground between these choices.’ (p.156; quoted by Istvan D. Racz, ‘Mask Lyrics in the Poetry of Paul Muldoon and Derek Mahon’, in Donald E. Morse, et al., eds., A Small Nation’s Contribution to the World, Gerrards Cross: Smythe, 1993, pp.107-18, p.113.) [Cont.]

Seamus Deane, Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature (London: Faber 1984) - cont.: ‘Mahon has here [in ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’] inverted his usual procedure. The lost lives are not lived beyond history, but before it. Their fulfilment is in history. This is a conceit and a figure in which he captures the central significance of his opening poem, “Afterlives”. In one sense, he is saying that the only life which can produce art is one that is engaged with history, even (especially?) if it is the history of the victims, the lost, the forgotten.’ (Deane, p.163; Racz, p.116).

Seamus Deane, ‘The Artist and the Troubles’, in Ireland and the Arts, ed. T. P. Coogan [Special Issue of Literary Review] (London: Namara Press 1984), pp.43-50: ‘[...] Derek Mahon, a natural cosmopolitan, adopted a pose of such mandarin disengagement in his work that it seemed to some he had deliberately chosen stylishness as a defence against the risks of commitment. But Mahon’s work has refuted this notion. In his poetry we hear the note of rather weary disaffection which had been so prominent in the work of one of his mentors, Louis MacNeice, blended with grief at the prospect of the wasteland of lost causes which the North and so much else had become. Mahon transposes the customary inspection of the roots of the past into an [47] inspection of the debris of the future - which is itself the past in its completed form.’ (pp.46-47.)

Maurice Riordan, ‘An Urbane Perspective: The Poetry of Derek Mahon’, in The Irish Writer and the City, ed. Maurice Harmon [IASIL Conf. Papers] (Gerrard’s Cross: Smythe 1984): ‘The disused shed is also a version of Plato’s cave, and the loss expressed is metaphorical: “Let the god not abandon us / Who have come so far in darkness and in pain”. Ultimately, the poem speaks perhaps for all that is supressed in consciousness, for those impulses, desires, instincts, which, denied the light of actuality for whatever historical reasons, maintain their own weird and secret life. The poem, then, would seem to suggest a confrontation between the civilised self, the “we” of the poem (“You with your light meter and relaxed intinerary”) and the repressed self, what the civilised mind has denied.’ (p.173; styled ‘the correct analysis’ in comparison with Deane, 1984, supra; Racz, op. cit., 1993, p.117.)

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Seamus Heaney, ‘Place and Displacement: Recent Poetry of Northern Ireland’ [Peter Laver Grasmere Lect., Aug. 1984], rep. in Andrews, ed., Contemporary Irish Poetry: A Collection of Critical Essays (London: Macmillan 1996), pp.124-44 [rep. in Finders Keepers, 2001, pp.114-33]: Heaney comments on Mahon’s ‘beautifully orchestrated’ poem “Disused Shed [...; &c.]” ‘where it is not just a single life that is given voice, but a whole Lethe full of doomed generations and tribes, whispering their unfulfilment and perplexed hopes in a trickle of masonry, pleading for a hearing in the great soft gestures of mushroom growths that strain from the dark towards a guiding start of light in a keyhole. [Quotes the last two stanzas.] This could be called visionary or symbolic: it is about the need to live and be known, the need for selfhood, recognition in the eye of God and the eye of the world, and its music is cello and homesick. A great sense of historical cycles, of injustice and catastrophe, looms at the back of the poem’s mind.’ (p.131.) [Cont.]

Seamus Heaney, ‘Place and Displacement: Recent Poetry of Northern Ireland’, rep. in Finders Keepers, 2001, pp.114-33]d by Penshurts Place is only one part of the [123] poem’s life. Its underlife, its shadow elsewhere, is the Ulster of hillforts, cattle-raids, and rain-sodden gallowglasses where Hugh O’Neill was born [...] “Penshurst Place”, then, contains Mahon’s sense of bilocation, culturally in love with the Surrey countryside where he was living with his family when this poem was wrwitten, but domestically and politically entangled with the country of his first nurture.’ (FK, pp.122-23.)

Note: the phrase ‘could be called visionary or symbolic’ (Andrews, op. cit., p.131) is deleted from the version reprinted in Finders Keepers, 2002 (p.120), and the phrase ‘political and ethnic glamour’ is replaced by (‘political and ethnic solidarity’ (Ibid., p.123) [my itals.] while the rest of the sentence remaining the same.) [For longer extracts, see attached.) Note also that Mahon is the dedicatee of several poems by Heaney incl. “Cheknove on Sakhalin” in Station Island, 1984; rep. Opened Ground, 1998, pp.215-16.)

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Gerald Dawe, ‘Icons and Lares: Derek Mahon and Michael Longley’, in Dawe and Edna Longley, eds., Across a Roaring Hill (Belfast: Blackstaff 1985): ‘[Michael] Longley, I would suggest, has accepted his past (the Protestant city, the cultural “duality”, the shaky identity), whereas Mahon rejected his. MacNeice’s spiritual sons have gone their different ways: one has remained at home, the other has left.’ (op. cit., p.227; cited in Istvan D. Racz, ‘Mask Lyrics in the Poetry of Paul Muldoon and Derek Mahon’, in Donald E. Morse, et al., eds., A Small Nation’s Contribution to the World, Gerrards Cross: Smythe, 1993, pp.107-18, p.113.)

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Joris Duytschaever, ‘History in the Poetry of Derek Mahon’, in Duytschaever & Geert Lernout, eds., History and Violence in Anglo-Irish Literature [Conference of 9 April 1986; Costerus Ser. Vol. 71] (Amsterdam: Rodopi 1988), pp.97-109, challenges Stan Smith’s rubbishing of the Ulster poem and especially his critique of Derek Mahon’s supposed refusal of Benjamin’s perception of the concept of history. Of Benjamin, Duytschaever says, ‘The “Thesis” are a desperate attempt to reconcile materialism and Jewish mysticism by discovering in the latter enough messianic drive to sustain the flawed spirit of the former in a period of danger and impending doom.’ (p.100). He continues: ‘In other words, Benjamin reactions agaisn the ideoalogy of linear progress which is not equipped to deal with throwbacks: he implies that it would be preferable to take the catastrophe as a historical norm instead. On the other hand, however, Benjamin and Mahon share a basic desire to rescue and redeem whatever is worth saving in the world and in history, albeit often unrecognised by the “compact majority” as vitally 100] important for the survival of mankind or even entirely abandonded as a lost cause.’ (pp.100-01.) Quotes amply from “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford”.

Edna Longley, ‘Poetry and Politics in Northern Ireland’, in Crane Bag, 9, 1 (1985), pp.26-40; rep. as Do., in Poetry in the Wars (Bloodaxe 1986), pp.185-210, here p.33.), [Offers comparison with the nationalist politics of Seamus Heaney’s poetry.] ‘Mahon insists on the poet serving humanity in his own terms. He should feel, but resist, the contrary pressure that would make him in the image of the people ... Since poetry cannot be the “creature” of politics, Unionist and Republican ideologies are equally off the map. Mahon also sloughs off the liberal-humanist socialism that MacNeice could espouse, without undue artistic compromise, during the thirties: ‘What middle-class cunts we are / [... &c.] (”Afterlives”).’ Further, ‘[P]oets make their long-term contribution by refusing to betray ‘semantic scruple’ in a country of unscrupulous rhetoricians, where names break bones, where careless talk costs lives.’ (p.39.)

Edna Longley, ‘“When Did You Last See Your Father?”: Perceptions of the Past in Northern Irish Writing 1965-1985’, in The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe 1994): ‘Mahon’s historical consciousness, as guilty and punitive as Beckett’s, not only turns biblical Protestantism inside out, but contradicts Whig history and deplores Belfast’s industrial history. His poetry denies progress, views the rise of the bourgeoisie as a descent into “barbarism”, and cries woe to a houseproud “civilisation”’. (p.161).

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John Hufstader, ‘Derek Mahon: Tongues of Water, Teeth of Stones’[, in] Northern Irish Poetry and Social Violence (Kentucky UP 1999), pp.111-37: ‘Mahon thus bears witness to a split, in Kohut’s terms, between the grandiose escapist self and the idealizing conformist self, such that the former can only conceive of itself in archaic terms, the world of the present having been fully occupied by a repressive culture of parental standards. ... Mahon will play Stephen [Dedalus]’s car, attempting to transcend Ulster paradoxes by flight into a more liberal environment, but will discover that he cannot so easily escape the fundamental problem of social hostility. / Many of Mahon’s best poems may be read as artistic strategies for resolving this problem of identity.’ (p.113.)

Hugh Haughton, ‘“Even now there are places where a thought might grow”: Places and Displacement in the Poetry of Derek Mahon’, in Neil Corcoran, ed., The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland (Brigend, Mid Glamorgan: Seren Books; Dufour 1992), pp.87-122, takes issue with the insistence that Mahon is absorbed in a debate over nation and ‘place’. Considers Deane to overstate the importance of the Belfast urbs on Mahon’s urbanity in the light of his own insistence on the importance of background, and reads Mahon’ line, ‘one part of my mind should know its place’ with a new emphasis on ‘one part’. Coins or uses the phrase ‘theoptic’. (p.87.) Further, ‘he [Mahon] suggests that Northern poets from Protestant backgrounds are not primarily concerned with Ireland as “a distinct cultural entity” but aware instead of “a diffuse and fortuitous assembly of Irish, British and American models” [Twentieth Century Studies]. “In this”, he says, quoting a displaced and Anglicised American, they are “true to their dissociated sensibilities”. Where Eliot, “disociated sensibility”, a legacy in part of the English Civil War, was a pathological condition, for Mahon caught in a political situation approaching that of civil war, it is a stimulus and even, I suspect, a vocation. […] Being caught between cultures is the common predicament of the modern intellectual - and perhaps almost everybody else too. Mahon’s intense awareness of that has helped make him one of the most bracing and original poets now writing in English.’ (p.91.) [Note Haughton review, infra.]

Richard York, ‘Derek Mahon as Translator’, in Rivista Alicantian de Estudios Ingleses, 5 (1992), pp.163-81: ‘The major feature of the recreative translations is their comic exuberance, [white] playfulness. The point is especially obvious in “The Mute Phenomena”, which reads almost like a parody of the original, which itself is far from comic, and shows little concern for word-for-word loyalty to the original, or even loyality to its overall tone.’ Quotes: ‘Homme, libre penseur! Te crois-tu seul pensant / Dans ce monde où la vie éclate en toute chose?’, and cf., ‘Your great mistake is to disregard the satire / Bandied among the mute phenomena.’ [p.167] Bibl., George Watson, ‘The Narrow Ground’, in Masaru Sekine, ed, Irish Writers and Society at Large, 1985, pp.207-24; A. E. Guinness, ‘Cast[e] a Wary Eye: Derek Mahon’s Classical Perspective’, in Yearbook of English Studies (1987), pp.124-142; see also Richard York, ‘Louis MacNeice and Derek Mahon’, in Louis MacNeice and his Influence (Colin Smythe 1998), pp.85-98.

Terence Brown, ‘Derek Mahon: The Poet and Painting’, in Irish University Review, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 1994), pp. 38-50. ‘Light plays a crucial part in the imaginative world of Derek Mahon’s poetry. He is, in fact, a markedly visual poet, one who attends patiently, even contemplatively, to the look of things and especially to the way light falls on them.’ (Opening sentence [p.i]). ... He is moved too by the moment when light breaks in darkness, when shadow suddenly releases its hold on the mind. Dawn is his prime time, particularly in the washed light after the storm at sea as a northern coast awakens to a transfigured world.’ [ibid.; ...] ‘Mahon is attentive also to the act of seeing. There is visual self-consciousness in much of his poetry as if he is intent on watching himself and others watching the world through eyes that know light is a kind of artist which composes landscapes and city scapes, still life interiors, as it falls on sea and light on street and table.’ [p.ii.]. Moved as he is by light and its effects, conscious of seeing as a mode of ordering ordinary reality, art and painting plays a more important role in Mahon’s oeuvre than simply offering occasional subject matter (and fairly frequently passing allusion).’ [p.iii]. For Mahon too is absorbed by the way light falls on the visible world to invest it with numinous presence and an impression of inherent relationships. [p.iv.] Accordingly it is in his poems on paintings that he confronts in a direct way an issue that troubles him throughout all his work - that is whether the composed achievement of art may be an illusory misrepresentation of the real for all its beauty.’ [p.v]. In Mahon’s world it is human suffering and violence that offer the most disturbing challenges to the aesthetic.’ [p.viii.] See remarks in Northern Voices, Poets From Ulster (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1975): ‘[The poetry of Derek Mahon has developed] out of a sense of complex aesthetically uninspiring tensions of Northern Ireland middle-class Protestant identity’. (p.192.)

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Kathleen Shields, ‘Derek Mahon’s Nerval’, in Translation as Literature, 2, 1 (1995), pp.60-73: [Discussion of “Anteros”:] ‘Many of Mahon’s most powerful poems present a speaker who can feel imaginatively, but not morally, at ease among his own people. They represent a supreme balancing act between their own form and the history which goes on outside them. But in “Anteros” there is a situation where the speaker is neither imaginatively, nor morally, at ease. Translating allow him to relax formal control and to make such statements as: I know what it like to feel grief with the other, I know what it is like to wish revenge on him. [ / .. / ] By translating Nerval and using him as his other, or as an alter ego, Mahon can refer to Irish history without being ethnocentric. The Chimeras reveal that what attracts Mahon to translating is not the linguistic, cultural, and historical analysis of the source-text. Indeed ... [72] in simplifying Nerval, Mahon at times appears to resemble the self-effacing and ethnocentric English-speaking translator whose aim is transparency and fluency in the target-text. But on the other hand he deliberately makes his translation read as strange and foreign in English. This is in order that he can quote himself into the other, using the other as a trusted friend. He is drawn to translating on ethical grounds because translating ought to be an encounter with something other, rather than an act of appropriation or reduction. [... &c.] (p.72-73.)

Kathleen Mullaney, ‘Derek Mahon’s Poetry’, in Tjebbe A. Westendrop & Jane Mallinson, eds., Politics and the Rhetoric of Poetry: Perspectives on Modern Anglo-Irish Poetry [The Literature of Politics, The Politics of Literature, Vol. 5] (Amstersdam: Rodopi 1995), pp.47-55. Bibl., Peter McDonald, ‘Louis MacNeice’s Posterity’, in Princeton University Library Chronicle, LIX, No. 3 (Spring 1998), pp.376-97; James McElroy, ‘Derek Mahon’s “Rage for Order”, in Northwest Review, Vol. 24, Pt. 1, 1986, pp.93-101; also, a letter of John Willett, Times Literary Supplement (13 May, 1983, p.489), vehemently disagreeing that Mahon’s version of “Brecht in Svendorg” as inadequate to the original poet. (Cited here, p.97, ftn. 5 [p.101]).

Colin Graham, ‘Derek Mahon’s Cultural Marginalia’, in Eve Patten, ed., Returning to Ourselves: Second Volume from the John Hewitt International Summer School (Lagan 1995), pp.240-48: ‘Mahon’s poetry can be placed at the intersection of what [Homi] Bhabha calls “the middle years” and the fin de siècle - not specific points in history but states of ideology, understanding and culture. The perceptible movement in Mahon’s poetry from centrality to marginality, played out on the imagined and real borders and the seashores is rehearse in “The Last Resort” (the title itself an Arnoldian stand against time) [... &c.] (p.246.)

Jon Stallworthy, ‘Fathers and Sons’ [on McNeice with Mahon, Longley, and Muldoon], in Bullán, 2, 1 (Summer 1995), pp1-15, espec., 11ff.: I think of Mahon’s “In Carrowdore Churchyard” as initiating the turn in MacNeice’s reputation. Long before his death he seemed an Irish poet to English readers, while for too many Irish readers he didn’t really belong to Ireland. Here, however, was a Irish poet [Mahon, following MacNeice] of the next generation claiming kinship not with the imperial Yeats or the rooted Kavanagh, but with a poet who seemed to take his text from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: […] “I will try to fly those nets”’ (p.11.)

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Alan Wall, ‘Derek Mahon’s Emblem Books’, in Agenda, 33, No.3-4 (1996), pp.165-75: ‘By drawing attention to its emblematic quality, I want only to point briefly to a certain charged iconic intensity, a quality reare enough in ontemporary verse to be celebrated when it occurs. There is in Mahon’s work an instructive imagery, an emblematics of the “topography” o the contemporary world - its politics, its slaughters and its relentless self-presentation.’ (p.165.) Further, ‘Mahon has the same fascination for the detritus of modernity as Baudelaire. They are both keen-eyed about what we dispose of and how articulate it can be about what we are. In negative images we often find the turh: there is a common ancestry to the words refuse and refusal. The poem about Ovid is Baudelairean in another sense too: for the French oet, antiquity and modernity are complementary. Antiquity is thus defined to give a percetible edge to our moderinty and one day our modernity may progress to antiquity too.’ (p.166); ‘There is a remarkable combination of lightness of touch and lapidary definitiveness too in the little edges of rhyme used whenever appropriate ... This is a sequence of metamorphoses (Ovidian in strength) between modernity and antiquity and it is carried out with remarkable skill and learning. (p.168); ‘[…] We come back near the end of the poem to Baudelaire and to Pascal [quotes: ‘... The cry at the heart / Of the artichoke, / The gaiety of atoms.’] Cf. Baudelaire, “Le Gouffre”: ‘En haut, en bas, partout, la profondeur, la grève, / Le silence, l’espace affreux et captivant ...’ (p.169).

Elmer Andrews, ‘The Poetry of Derek Mahon: “Places where a thought might grow”’, in Andrews, ed., Contemporary Irish Poetry: A Collection of Critical Essays (London: Macmillan 1996), pp.235-309: ‘Lives is dedicated to Heaney, and may be read as a reply to the religious intensity with which Heaney pursues his self-identifications. Mahon’s secular, ironic intelligence dispel awe, forces the imagination to come up against practical necessity and mocks the notion of direction communion with the past. His anthropological habit of mind does not discover a landscape instinct with meaningful signs, but one littered with meaningless rubble [... &c.]’ (p.244.)

Patricia Craig, ‘History and its Retrieval in Contemporary Northern Irish Poetry: Paulin, Montague and Others’, in Contemporary Irish Poetry, ed. Elmer Andrews (London: Macmillan 1996), pp.107-23. Heaney, Station Island (voice of Carleton:) ‘I who learned to read in the reek of flax / and smelled hange dbodies rotting on their gibbets / and saw their booped slime gleaming from the sacks - / ard-mouthed Ribbonmen and Orange bigots / made me into the old fork-tongued turncoat / who mucked the byre of their politics.’ (here 115). ‘[W]ith Tom Paulin ... the demotic can foster some unexepected qualities, such as complexity, allusiveness, a kind of opaque street-stylishness, an Ulster insouciance ... even a philological creativeity. It is one of Paulin’s aims to reinstate dialect: from Liberty Tree onwards, words such as “keeks”, “boul”, “sheugh”, “clabbery”, “jeuked”, “slegging”, “jap”, and “dwam” keep turning up in his poems. A way of enriching one’s diction, of claiming due recognition for local singularity, or a practice smacking of the dead end, the last ditch (or sheugh)?’ (p.117). ‘Poems such as “Desertmartin” ... look backwards and forwards at the same time: backwards in response to the “local stir”, the consciousness of being special, and forward (implicitly) to a recovery of something desperately missed, such as the democratic drive that went out with the eighteenth century. ... What Paulin is deploring, here and elsewhere, is one kind of discontinuity: the “snapped connection” which occurred in the wake of quelled rebellion, and opened a way for the development of sectarian intolerance. (p.119.) [See also under James Simmons, infra.]

Richard Kearney, ‘Myth and Modernity in Irish Poetry’, in Elmer Andrews, ed., Contemporary Irish Poetry: A Collection of Critical Essays (London: Macmillan 1996), pp.41-62. Myth has played a crucial and often controversial role in modern Irish poetry. [... / ] The revivalists frequently deployed myth as an ideological weapon. It’s negeries, it was believed, would mobilise theminds of the Irish people. Cutting across differences of class, religion and [41] party. A revived national mythology would provide a Unity of Culture which would in turn galvanise a Politics of Unity. But many modern Irish poets have invoked myth in quite a different matter. Instead of interpreting it as an agency of integirty, continuity and unbroken heritage, they have treated it as an agency of critique. In stead of seeing it as a means of restoring the nation to its proper place therefore fulfilling its ancestry destiny - they have rewritten it as a subversion of origins and identities, a catalyst of disruption and difference, a joker in the pack inviting us to a free variation of meanings. [... &c.].’ (pp.41-42.) Quotes Seamus Deane on Kavanagh: [H]e is at odds with the spiritual heroics of the foundation period of the State and is perfectly in accord with the general desire to climb down from the dizzy heights of mythology, the glories of battle, elaborate readings of tradition and labyrinthine pursuits of Irishness and to concentrate instead on the stony grey soil of his native Monaghan and the actualities of living in the here and now.’ (A Short History of Irish Literature, 1986, p.233; here p.45.)

Dillon Johnston, ‘MacNeice and Mahon’, in Irish Poetry after Joyce (Syracuse UP 1997), pp.204-335 [orig. Notre Dame UP 1985]: ‘Characteristically, Mahon establishes a “theoptic” view in which human endeavour dwindles before the vastness of hsitory and the heavens. The particular conditions of exile may matter only to us; however, that they matter nevertheless is Mahon’s new note [in “A Lighthouse in Maine”, The Hunt by Night]. / To the relativist generalisation of “A Garage in Co. Cork” that “we might be almost anywhere”, he responds, “But we are in one place and one place only ...”. In the volume’s concluding poem, “The Globe in North Carolina”, the fact that the poet abides in one place, his wife in another, recalls him from his “theoptic” revery [quotes last stanza, MHN, p.63]. / To my mind this metaphysical valediction is Mahon’s most successful love poem […] The effect ... is characteristic Mahon: to juxtapose the enormous perspective of the “merely human” view, to address a restrited audience, and to establish thought slant rhyme, lines from popular siongs, and direct colloquial address - a tone as appropriate to correspondence as to art.’ (pp.242-43.)

Fintan O’Toole, (Culture Shock [column], in The Irish Times, 4 June 2011, Weekend Review: ‘[...] One of the few contemporary artists who has been able to draw on Titanic’s power while retaining a sense of artistic discretion is Derek Mahon, whose grandfather worked as a boilermaker at Harland and Wolff. Mahon has contemplated the disaster in a series of poems, including the haunting “After the Titanic”. But the most potent is surely “A Refusal to Mourn”, about his grandfather’s last days on “a small farmhouse / At the edge of a new estate”. The poem is a meticulous evocation of boredom, loneliness and displacement. Mahon imagines the man’s very name being erased in time from his gravestone by the “astringent” Irish rain. And then, almost unnoticed, he evokes [the] Titanic: “And his boilers lie like tombs / In the mud of the sea bed / Till the next ice age comes.” Subtle, quiet and profound, Mahon’s image is everything that artistic uses of Titanic tend not to be.’ (See full version of the poem under Anthology - as attached.)

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Mark Ford
: ‘I can’t bear poems about grandfathers, or fishing expeditions, or what it’s like to move into a new house, unless their very, very good poems … I start off prejudiced against them because I find the subject matter so boring … I guess basically I’m always looking for gaps, little fissures where “a thought might grow”, to use Derek Mahon’s phrase.’ (Interview with Graham Bradshaw in Robert Crawford et al., eds., Talking Verse (St. Andrews: Verse 1995); quoted in Helen Vendler, ‘Scoop from the tide pools: The allegories and mimicries of Mark Ford’, Times Literary Supplement (1 Jan. 1999), p.11-12; quoting Times Literary Supplement review of 1 March 1996 [here p.12].[ top ]

Jamie McKendrick, ‘Earth-residence’, review of The Hudson Letter (Oldcastle, Co. Meath: Gallery Press [1995]), 79pp., in Times Literary Supplement (12 April 1996), p.25; discounts Yaddo Letter, celebrates The Hudson Letter, and notes systematic use of literary quotation, so characteristic of Mahon’s ‘relentlessly literary nature (or culture)’, including clear allusions to Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Hart Crane, whose lines about ‘drinking Bacardi and talking USA’ are echoed in Mahon’s ending: ‘and sat in Pepe’s/drinking (rum and) Coke with retired hippies/who long ago gave up on the land and settled on the rocks’; reviewer refers particularly to the mock-guilty parenthesis in this sardonic last line; Mahon’s use of the word ‘home’ is noted in the context of his ‘bleak gift of fending off any tribal loyalty while not deceiving himself that that sets him free - a difficult Ulster heritage’; the poem ‘IV Waterfront’ is here called a ‘down-beat Second Coming’.

Oonagh Warke reviews The Hudson Letter (1995), departing from extended quotation from Mahon’s rendering therein of Ovid’s tale of the revenge of Procne upon her husband King Tereus in serving up his own son, in which the concluding lines, ‘Never mind the hidden agenda, the sub-text / it’s not really about male arrogance, “rough sex” / or vengeful sisterhood, but about art / and the encoded mysteries of the human heart.’ [q. source; prob. Books Ireland.]

Martin Mooney, ‘Nice Little Earners’, in Fortnight Review (Oct. 1996), p.35 [review of Derek Mahon, Journalism, Gallery 1996, and Gregory A. Schirmer, ed., Reviews and Essays of Austin Clarke, Smythe 1996)]: quotes remark that Edna and Michael Longley tend ‘to over-emphasise the Ulster aspect of [MacNeice’s] personality’, and further: ‘to make him out as an “Ulster poet” is to circumscribe not only his interests but his achievements’; further [on Hewitt’s concern with ‘Planter’s stock’:] ‘stock means nothing unless you want it to’. Also quotes Mahon on Hewitt’s insistence that the artist be ‘rooted man’: ‘This is a bit tough on thistledown; and, speaking as a twig in a stream, I feel there’s a certain harshness, a dogmatism, at work there’. Also quotes ‘The Coleraine Triangle’ [essay], reflecting on the ‘strange combination of its derivative hedonism and sabbatarian grimness’ and further: ‘a hypothetical future in which everyone has departed. The Catholics have all moved South or gone to the States; the Protestants have gone to England, or Canada, or Australia. A stiff breeze through the broken windows scatters antique Newsletters across the carpets of the northern Counties Hotel ... Nothing happens here, and maybe nothing ever happened ... .’ (Mahon, op. cit., Mooney, op. cit., p.35.)

Des O’Rawe, Mahon’s Phaedra reviewed with Brendan Kennelly, Antigone, in Irish Review (Winter 1997), p.143ff, notes: ‘Mahon [took] an opportunity to mingle his knowledge of classical tragedy with his love of French literature […] accentuates certain structural and metaphorical elements […] gestures towards Euripides rather than Racine, who sought to minimise the role of the gods in his tragedy […] dispensed with the Neo-classical convention of referring to the Gods by their Roman names and has edited out a number of references - “des cruels Pallantides”, for example - which might mean little to a contemporary audience’; notes use of “psycho-analysed” vocabulary, e.g.,‘anorexic ghost’, ‘sadistic whim’, ‘uncontrollable libido’; remarks on ‘sound understanding of theatrical practice but also a healthy scepticism towards the use of these plays as propaganda.’

Patrick Crotty, ‘Letters from - and to - Portrush’, review of Journalism, in Times Literary Supplement (29 Nov. 1997), p.26; notes that his sensibility appear wholly engaged in the Vogue piece he wrote on J. G. Farrell, to whom “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” is dedicated, and considers the recorded meeting with Anthony Burgess “hampered by the glossiness of its origins”.

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Gerald Dawe, ‘Floating free of the Here and Now’, review of The Yellow Book, in Irish Times (20 Dec. 1997), [q.p.]: ‘A sequence of twenty sections, following on from part two of The Hudson Letter (1995), make this long poem epic in its desire to portray our fin de siècle […] What these poems rail against is a spiritual vacuity and cultural hype of self-astonishment […] Mahon’s poems are haunted by the good old bad old times. The embattled stoicism of The Yellow Book includes as hero Austin Clarke, unlike Sixties Belfast, Dublin and London, and a Swiftian misanthropy at full throttle’; ’Behind the rage there is an order, though, as Mahon tries, from his observation dug-out, his “Axel’s Castle” overlooking the world, to reason with the declining value of Capitol Art. The Yellow Book lambasts current fakery, elaborates the brave hearts of the past and what remains for the solitary ones in Yeatsian afterglow’; ‘Mahon is a priceless poet […] refuses to lapse into the requisite consolations of some much contemporary poetry while being able to write eloquently of loss, ironically of nostalgia, and robustly of his writing self […] This, as they say, is the business: an essential buy.’

Gerald Dawe, ‘So much going on it could make a soul dizzy’, review of New Collected Poems, in The Irish Times (2 July 2011), Weekend Review, p.11: ‘[...] Grand absolutes, though, fall away in the simple pleasures of reading Mahon. If you want “big” Yeatsian stanzas, they are here in abundance; jewels of haiku, go no farther; lyrical languor, sparking irony, wry humour, demotically discursive derring-do, Zen-like epiphany, the art of poetry is displayed in all its teeming variousness on every page. Not as a manual of affectation and demonstrative style but as a craftsman who sees language as the raw material that has to be properly used; as a consequence, the work is phenomenal. If Joyce really did think that Dublin could be reconstructed from Ulysses, Mahon’s New Collected Poems will similarly provide time-capsule proof of late-20th- and early-21st-century transatlantic life. / Although in New Collected Poems the reader discovers the physical and natural landscape alongside a creaturely life, the overwhelming sound is of a voice dramatically portraying the odds on the planet surviving, the aesthetic mismatch between the market and art values, the vacuity of much that is being pushed at us as “popular”, a critical dialogue between past and present, between the western world and the east (like Louis MacNeice, Mahon has found an India of the mind), between Swiftian misanthropy and Wildean playfulness, the freedom of the visual arts and the dedicated antiheroic figures of literature. The cultural wars are zipping like lightning through this poet’s world as never before. There is so much going on in New Collected Poems it could make a soul dizzy. / Some may grumble about poems that have been cut adrift from the mother ship A Kensington Notebook, for one but 370 or so pages of Mahon’s poetry contained within this New Collected Poems  is a revelation. As a book of convergences, detached from its separate roots in individual volumes, New Collected Poems shows Mahon as sprightly and as engaging as he was at the very beginning of his writing life, in the 1960s. Dreams of a Summer Night, the concluding poem, finishes on: “I await the daylight we were born to love: / birds at a window, boats on a rising wave, / light dancing on dawn water, the lives we live.” These last four words of New Collected Poems , “the lives we live”, recall what the great American poet Wallace Stevens said about how poetry “helps us to live our lives”. New Collected Poems helps too; it is a massive poetic achievement, no mistake.’

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Hugh Haughton, ‘Le spleen in Dublin’, review of The Yellow Book in Times Literary Supplement (14 April 1998), remarks that Mahon dried up when he dried out; calls Hudson Letter a collection of Audenesque bagatelles and occasional pieces, with a loquacious, improvisatory eighteen-part letter from America recording “an exile and a stranger’s” impressions of glitzy alien Manhattan; opens with miraculously atmospheric translation of Baudelaire’s ‘Paysage’; with the possible exception of Ciaran Carson, no other Irish poet is so much at home in our complex urban culture’. (TLS, p.24.)

John Redmond, ‘Perish the Thought’, review of Selected Poems, in London Review of Books (8 Feb. 2001): ‘At heart, Mahon’s poetry is about a literary consciousness profoundly turned in on itself; its deepest feeling is for the state of desire which the widening horizons of literature make possible, a desire for desire. Because of it’s self-reflexiveness, however, the true subject and feeling of his work is sometimes obscured. Most of the early writing about Mahon emphasised how glamorously well-travelled the poems were. Night-Crossing and Lives, his first collections, with their versions and translations of Villon, Breton, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, were seen as bringing a fresh idiom into Irish poetry. Here were poems of the Existentialist outsider, of anonymous points of departure, of endless lonely railway stations and hotel rooms. […]’ (pp.30-31.)

W. J. McCormack, reviewing of Fran Brearton, The Great War in Irish Poetry: W. B. Yeats to Michael Longley (OUP 2000), calls Derek Mahon ‘a defector to the South’.

Alistair Eliot, reviewing Stephen Romer, ed., Twentieth-Century French Poems (Faber & Faber [2002]), which includes a translation of Jaccottet by Derek Mahon of which Eliot remarks: ‘Derek Mahon cannot make Jaccottet sound as good in English as he is in French’.

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Terence Brown, ‘Absorbing, insightful’ [review of The Poetry of Derek Mahon, ed. Elmer Kennedy-Andrews [here Kennedy-Jones], in The Irish Times (24 Aug. 2002): ‘Poetry may alert us to the anguish of the human condition, but it cannot redeem us. / By contrast, some critics in this book hint that the source of poetry in work as mesmeric in its music as Mahon’s can be, may be something in human consciousness that transcends “the mute phenomena” and the flux of time and history, something poetry helps us to experience as the ground of our being (to deploy Paul Tillich’s famous phrase). Among these contributions is Bruce Stewart’s moving investigation of the term “secular mysticism”, which he carefully unpacks to see if it contains anything substantial. He leaves us with the tantalising possibility that it might, which he implies is just what Mahon’s poetry does: “The contrasting spheres of spirituality and semiotics, mysticism and scepticism, metaphysics and cultural relativity are conventionally opposed, yet Mahon succeeds in making them mesh like gears in poem after poem. Is this what is meant by secular mysticism? If so, it might be the right name for his intellectual temper.” Also discusses contribs. by Stan Smith, Jerzy Jarivicz and Edna Longley. [See full text].

Note: In an essay prefaced to the Selected Poems of Philippe Jaccottet ([Harmonsworth:] Penguin 1988), Mahon writes: ‘he is a secular mystic, an explorer of le vrai lieu (“the real place”)’ - a remark which Terence Brown quotes in his Introduction to Mahon’s critical prose, compiled as Journalism (1996), adding that ‘his [Mahon’s] own secular mysticism finds expression’ in poems such as such as “Light Music” sequence and “A Garage in Co. Cork”. Journalism , Oldcastle: Gallery Press 1996, p.19). Mahon makes oblique reference to his own edition of Jaccottet in a review of Selected Poems of Paul Eluard , translated by Gilbert Bowen, and Une Transaction Sècrete by Jaccottet in The Irish Times during in 1988, where he speaks of Jaccottet as ‘appearing soon in a new Penguin series’. (Ibid., p.135.) A bilingual edition of Jaccottet was afterwards issued by Gallery Press in 1996.

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Vona Groarke, ‘majestic reminders aid the ennui’, review of Harbour Lights, in The Irish Times (7 Jan. 2006), Weekend, p.10: ‘One of Derek Mahon’s greatest skills as a poet has always been to know how to slip himself into a poem. […] This deftness is not always in evidence in recent collections, where the lesser poems skirt with soap-box poetics and read, at times, like journal entries that do little more than showcase the poet’s habits and opinions. […] “New Wave” is surely this collection’s high-water mark. Its capacious sweep recalls the ambitious and aching beauty of such touchstone poems as “A Disused Shed in Co Wexford”, “The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush” and “The Globe in North Carolina”. Part film-noir, part narrative photography in the style of Robert Doisneau, the poem plays with light and shadow in a sequence of crepuscular, sea-side scenes in which the narrative voiceover is withheld so that the images are given to us without the judgment of the giver. / ‘The sky, its racing stripes and ice-cream colours, / thin cries of children from the beach below, / and the hurtling gulls, are too heartbreaking; / they shut the shutters and return to the dark.’ / This rivals the most memorable achievements of his long career and reminds us, happily, just how majestic a poet Mahon can be.’ [End; see full text in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, infra.]

Lucy Collins on “A Disused Shed in Co Wexford” [review-article], in Irish University Review [Special Poetry Issue] (Autumn 2009): ‘[...] In the context of its original publication the poem speaks to the act of bearing witness to significant historical events. To become aware of events, it seems, is to be obliged to offer testimony to what one has seen - an issue that Mahon has struggled with throughout his career in such poems as “Afterlives”, “The Last of the Fire Kings”, and “The Apotheosis of Tins”. Yet the openness of “A Disused Shed” to later developments in Mahon’s poetic practice means that this work could be read with entirely different significance against recent writing that engages directly with ecological themes. In earlier poems, such as “Consolations of Philosophy” the spectre of the city collapsing into its natural environment is evoked, and though at that stage Mahon’s concern is primarily with the limitation of human possibility, it is a subject that takes on a new cast when considered alongside the poems of Life on Earth (2008). Within such a context, “A Disused Shed in Co Wexford” also reveals new meanings. In this poem, the ability of nature to take over from human habitation, to mature and die and be renewed while the world of human objects crumbles to insignificance, offers a different emphasis on the speaker’s discovery. In such a scheme, the dynamic between the mushrooms and their human observer loses metaphorical ground in favour of a more actualized  account; likewise the questioning of the value of a human-orientated, mechanized life against the organic persistence of a world of nature grows in prominence.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Journals> IUR”, via index, or direct.)

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David Wheatley, reviewing The Literature of Ireland: Culture and Criticism by Terence Brown, in The Irish Times (21 Aug. 2010), Weekend Review, writes parenthetically: ‘It would be interesting, in passing, to know whether Derek Mahon stands by his statement to Brown in a 1985 interview, and quoted here, that MacNeice “had no place in the intellectual history of modern Ireland”.’

David Wheatley, ‘Lyrics of crystalline wonder: A diptych of early and late work displays a consistency of skill and wit across 40 years’, review of New Selected Poems by Derek Mahon, in The Guardian (17 Jun 2016):

“Your ashes will not stir, even on this high ground,” wrote the young Derek Mahon in “In Carrowdore Churchyard”, his elegy for Louis MacNeice, “all we may ask of you we have.” Ashes may not stir, but poems can and do: Mahon’s elegy is now titled “Carrowdore” and the elegant summation of the dead poet’s work has become “Soon the biographies / and buried poems will begin to appear.” Mahon’s first selected poems was in 1979, since when he has published two further selected poems and two collected poems, revising and deleting work as he goes. A biography has appeared too, Stephen Enniss’s After the Titanic, with its share of “buried poems”. “A great disorder is an order,” writes Wallace Stevens in “Connoisseur of Chaos”. For the sake of the reader trying to steer a course through Mahon’s work, one can only hope so.

More than 40 years since their first publication, Mahon lyrics such as those of “Glengormley”, “An Image from Beckett” and “Lives” retain their crystalline wonder. Marvellian cadence and existential menace are thrillingly conjoined. Where Seamus Heaney used his bog bodies to enter the mind of the tribe, “Lives” issues stark warnings to us to revise our “insolent ontology”. “Courtyards in Delft” is Vermeeresque in its capturing of the poet’s childhood, and of the eerie calm of art in the midst of social turmoil. “A Disused Shed in Co Wexford”, that hymn of distress in the face of historical atrocity, is truly Yeatsian in scope and ambition.

After a mid-career silence, a dominant theme of Mahon’s work in the last two decades has been the vindication of the everyday, as against the overwrought and the apocalyptic. Someone else who trained himself to credit the quotidian was WH Auden, whose “Under Which Lyre” ends “Read the New Yorker, trust in God; / And take short views”. Yet there are only so many anti-vatic exhortations we can read without feeling the everyday has become a dogma in its own right and an enemy of promise. A kitchen knife “signifies more in human life / than our aesthetics ever can”, Mahon argues, but this is still a statement of aesthetics, however dressed up (or down).

Another aspect of recent Mahon is his distrust of technocratic modernity. “Computer talks to computer, machine to answering machine”, we read in “Axel’s Castle”. Yet this attack on soullessness comes in, of all things, a poem devoted to J-K Huysmans and Oscar Wilde, the same Oscar Wilde who wrote that inauthenticity is “merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities”. It marks a strange and unresolved contradiction. There is more to humanism than old fogeydom.

Further turbulence can be found in the cross-border drama of Ireland north and south, inspired by Mahon’s move to Kinsale, County Cork. The north bears the savage intensity of origins, as explored in “Ecclesiastes” (not included here) and the celebrated rejections and guilty revisitings of “Rage for Order”, “The Last of the Fire Kings” and “Derry Morning”. The south is a space of reconciliation, as in “Bangor Requiem”, but not a reconciliation that has prompted poems of comparable power. “A Quiet Spot”, with its boast of the “perfect work-life balancing act” and light-green editorialising is pastoral of stubbornly low intensity.

Art and atrocity have always existed in a state of uncomfortable proximity in Mahon, but the terms of their stand-off can become schematic. The “genocidal corporate imperative” is fighting talk, but a musical comparison involving “discordant thirds” and a “concert / on the subdominant” misuses technical terms meaninglessly. The uncertainty of the artistic vocabulary makes us doubt the seriousness of the politics too. The poems become ritual gestures, chitchat reaching for higher significance. It is hard to know where satirised and genuine cliche begin and end. The “beautiful and the damned” spend their time in Rome at “sexy dives / and parties”, but only a very unglamorous partygoer or very amateur satirist could use these phrases with a straight face.

The fresh revisions in New Selected Poems are thankfully few, though “Lapis Lazuli” has been sliced in half. The main revisionist drama taking place here is the wholesale reorientation of Mahon’s oeuvre towards the late work. After “Dawn at St Patrick’s”, a 1991 lyric of breakdown and recovery, roughly half of this book is devoted to poems from The Hudson Letter and The Yellow Book onward, or New York Time and Decadence as those sequences are now called. The best of these include “A Country Kitchen” and “The Widow of Kinsale”, whose vividly realised speaker marks a contrast with the somewhat generic “nymphs” and “crones” of the earlier work.

Read as a diptych of early and late, however, New Selected Poems suggests Mahon has achieved a holding pattern of graceful skill and wit, while falling some distance short of RF Langley, Allen Curnow and other writers who produced their best work past mid-career. “Rain” inverts “A Disused Shed” by ending “We have been too long in the cold. – Take us in; take us in!” The desire to trade edgy alienation for at-homeness is entirely understandable, nor is the alienation any guarantee of artistic virtue. But Mahon’s visions of art as a “still living whole / to heal the heart and cure the soul” are a reduced thing, trading challenge for reassurance.

Available online; accessed 28.12.2017.

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