Mahon’s poetry does not flinch from exposing human inadequacy, especially, but not exclusively, the pathology of the Northern Protestant people. Oates’s heroic gesture in ‘Antarctica’, the naked aggression in ‘As It Should Be’, the narrow bigotry in ‘Ecclesiastes’, and Bruce Ismay’s self-absorption in ‘After the Titanic’ – all are testament to human shortcomings. However, while Mahon deplores the ‘stiff rhetorical intransigence’ of his people (as Seamus Deane puts it), he also sympathises with them in their isolation and fading presence.
For Mahon poetry is essentially an artistic activity: it is more concerned with shape and form than with content or politics. Like the great modernist poets T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats, he takes pleasure in and is consoled by the order and formality of poetry – an order that is notably absent from many of the livers he describes. This might suggest that his poetry is removed from everyday concerns, and indeed he sometimes yearns for what he calls poetry’s ‘palace and porcelain’ – a place or state that is elegant, decorative, and decorous.
However, this desire is only one of the warring instincts within him. Mahon has also suggested that poetry is capable of improving humankind. He has invoked Shelley’s claim that poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination, which is ‘the great instrument of moral good.’ Looked at in this way, poetry is an unacknowledged legislator of the world, not isolated from it.
In the opinion of one critic, Gerald Dawe, Mahon’s primary concern is to understand the imagination and find a place for it in the modern world. Mahon himself maintains that poetry can contribute to the creation of a life that is nearer the ideal. ‘A good poem is a paradigm (model or example) of good politics,’ he has written – ‘of people talking to each other, with honest subtlety, at a profound level. It is a light to lighten the darkness.’
Seamus Deane remarks that Mahon’s poetry ‘expresses a longing to be free from history’; but his poems on civility and barbarity (the greatest of which is probably ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’) contradict that longing. He has had good reason to yearn to be ‘through with history,’ since he belongs to a country that has violently enacted its versions of history, with deadly effect. However, history is not his only preoccupation. His themes also include the age-old conflict between the individual and his community. In Mahon’s case, poetry is also especially a statement about what it means to be a poet today, distanced from, but implicated in, the historical world. So he does not escape from history; instead it is incorporated or woven into the oasis of peace and aesthetic order that is each poem.
What are the main characteristics of his style? He displays a combination of brevity and detail, and this is achieved with a cadenced precision. How effective and economical a description is ‘a writhing glimmer of fish’ in ‘Day Trip to Donegal’, for example! In addition, his elegant and playful rhymes and adroit control of assonance are impressive. He endorses traditional poetic forms, such as the sonnet and the villanelle, and yet subverts them. His pared-down vernacular idiom is combined with a prodigious learning, which Mahon wears lightly and which makes an oblique and understated appearance in the poems.
The voices of his poems – and they are many – are sophisticated yet possessed of a heartfelt, if weary, empathy with their subjects. They are often still, small voices, educated but understated, learned but not pedantic, always self-aware and often self-mocking. They are the voices of men of conscience who are implicated in the guilt of being human beings. (Women figure only in a small, marginal way in the selection of poems by Mahon on the modern Leaving Cert course, for example.) Their agonised intelligence is often close to despair, but they still go on. The critic Terence Brown uses the phrase ‘terminal pathos’ to describe this distinctive note in Mahon’s poetry, which can also be found, incidentally, in the work of Samuel Beckett. Brown is referring to that quality of poetic speech that can excite in the reader extreme pity or sorrow.
However, the poems are not all delivered in a tone of mortal sadness. Central to Mahon’s poetry is the use of irony. Often his meanings have a different or opposite tendency to that expressed by the words used. When he rails against bigotry and hatred in ‘Ecclesiastes’, and against violence in ‘Rathlin’, he is severely critical, but his gentle mockery in ‘Grandfather’ is impish and mischievous. He tempers the cruel precision of his observations with compassion, amusement, and pain. Witty and darkly humorous, he relishes the absurd and the lyrical simultaneously, as this extract from ‘After the Titanic’ illustrates:
a pandemonium of
Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,
Boilers, bursting and shredded ragtime.
The settings for his poems range from the readily identifiable Portrush and Belfast to the metaphorical sites of past political failures and violence, like Kinsale and Rathlin Island, and the psychic wasteland of Antarctica. Harshness predominates. Surfaces are unyielding, climates are bracing. Even cities may be empty, as in ‘Ecclesiastes’, or their citizens voluntarily withdraw into isolation, as in ‘Grandfather’. We sense that, although the poems are set ‘in one place only’, the feelings they evoke are universal. Always there is a consciousness of the vastness of the universe and the limitations of human struggle. The reader is aware that, whatever the setting of a particular poem, it engages in dialogue with or provides a foil to, that desperate, barren place, Belfast, which so informs Mahon’s imagination.
Frequently places are viewed from elsewhere, from a distance that may be historical, geographical, or ironic. The titles of the first and last books from which the poems on the Leaving Cert course are taken, Night-Crossing and Antarctica testify to his shifting ground. Frequently too the speaker is a traveller, a tourist or a reporter, traversing difficult country. The unyielding terrain becomes a metaphor for the existential, regional or global anxieties from which he suffers.
In certain poems there is an inkling of an ‘elsewhere’ that is nearer the ideal state than that now inhabited. That place or state is suggested by, for example, post-historical Rathlin Island, now a bird sanctuary, or by the glimpse of Co. Donegal beyond the shores from Portrush, or by those faraway places where a thought might grow. It is beyond reach, and the speaker is often aware of its fictional nature, as he is in ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’.
Estranged loners crowd the poems. In works such as ‘After the Titanic’ and ‘Rathlin’ their distance from other humans, whether temporal or spatial, gives some idea of the extent of their isolation. Sometimes, as in ‘Day Trip to Donegal’ and ‘A Disused Shed’, their alienation is suggested by his comparing them to fish or fungi.
Mahon holds a special affection for scapegoats and failures, such as the murdered dreamer in ‘As It Should Be’, or Bruce Ismay in ‘After the Titanic’, seeing in their particular brand of failure a kind of successful avoidance of the mundane. As he writes in a 1997 poem, ‘The greatest men fail, or seem to have failed.’
A distinctively Mahon outsider is the detached observer, at one remove from reality yet part of it. He is to be found, for instance, in ‘A Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’, ‘Day Trip to Donegal’, and ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’. His role is to interpret and comment on the poem’s action, as would the chorus of a classic Greek play, or to lament man’s inhumanity, as did Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah. Unlike a Greek chorus, however, Mahon’s outsider is implicated in the conditions and predicaments the poems express. His watchful presence also ignites an inquiry into the relationship between the poet and the historical world around him.
Mahon has a special gift for selecting telling images of the commonplace, material world and investing them with resonance. Tied-up swings, Peruvian mines, burnt-out hotels, a red bandana – the images are acutely visual and activate a series of associations in our minds. Mahon is at pains to catch the quality of light that falls on his landscapes and has a visual artist’s awareness of shape and colour. ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’, for example, is replete with precise visual detail – such as open doors, the girl swinging her bag, the chow mein, the photograph of Hongkong, the yacht – which he then invests with significance.
Derek Mahon is one of the most important poets writing in Ireland today. His poetry is memorable because his technical excellence, contemporary idiom and serious subject matter combine with an urbane yet passionate sensitivity.
DEREK MAHON – A MODERN DAY ENIGMA?
‘There must be three things in combination, I suggest, before the poetry can happen: soul, song and formal necessity’ writes Mahon, and his own work most surely meets these requirements. Mahon’s poetry has the sensibility of a thinking, feeling self, a music and a mastery of construction; ‘Grandfather’ is a sonnet, ‘Antarctica’ a villanelle and, in general, his organisation of his stanzas, his line length and rhyme are very impressive. He is a formalist, he believes in pattern and structure and has said: ‘Look at rap – that’s the best poetry being written in America at the moment; at least it rhymes.’
Derek Mahon writes about landscape, seascape; he writes about what Edna Longley calls the ‘conflict between poetry and the ethos of Protestant Ulster’ (this is very evident in ‘Ecclesiastes’). He is very much a poet of place (Donegal, Co. Wexford, Portrush, Rathlin, Antarctica, Kinsale), he is also a philosophical poet, a poet of ideas and a poet with a broad literary background. The literary, philosophical aspect of his work can be seen in his poem ‘Heraclitus on Rivers’, when he writes:
The very language in which the poem
Was written, and the idea of language,
All these will pass away in time.
‘For Mahon, the past is significantly present’ says Thomas Kinsella and this can be seen particularly in ‘Rathlin’ and ‘A Disused Shed in Co, Wexford’. His sympathetic nature is evident in ‘After the Titanic’, ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’, and ‘Antarctica’. In these three poems Mahon demonstrates his ability to enter into the lives of others. In one he speaks in the voice of Bruce Ismay; in another he imagines what the owner of the restaurant is thinking, feeling, dreaming and in ‘Antarctica’ he recreates a scene from an Antarctic expedition where an individual makes an extraordinary choice for the benefit of others. He is drawn to solitary, forgotten figures and in his poetry Mahon often reveals himself to be a solitary, observing figure.
Sean O’Brien points out that, ‘For the most part Mahon’s world exists outdoors’ and the, ‘wide-open spaces are, naturally enough, rather thinly populated, but even when Mahon writes about the city … it is somewhere whose population is hardly to be seen.’ Belfast, for example, in ‘Ecclesiastes’, is ‘the / dank churches, the empty streets, / the shipyard silence. The tied-up swings’. There is also, however, a sense of beauty and celebration in Mahon’s response to the physical world, as in his description of Donegal, (‘the nearby hills were a deeper green / Than anywhere in the world’) or Kinsale (‘sky-blue slates are steaming in the sun’).
He is a very visual poet, as captured in such details as
- ‘the grave / Grey of the sea’,
- ‘the empty streets, / The shipyard silence, the tied-up swings’,
- ‘a pandemonium of /Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches / Boilers bursting’,
- ‘Between ten sleeping lorries / And an electricity generator’,
- ‘a flutter / Of wild flowers in the lift-shaft’,
- ‘one / By one the gulls go window shopping’,
- ‘The whole island a sanctuary where amazed / Oneiric species whistle and chatter’,
- ‘The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime’,
- ‘yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay’.
‘The strongest impression made on me when I read any poem by Derek Mahon’ says Eamon Grennan, ‘is the sense that I have been spoken to; that the poem has established its presence in the world as a kind of speech … What I hear in these poems is a firm commitment to speech itself, to the act of civil communication enlivened, in this case, by poetic craft’. The poems on our course speak to us in a voice that is calm, reflective, self-aware and never self-important. The speaker sometimes uses ‘I’, sometimes ‘we’ or ‘us’, and all the time the reader is invited into the poem. Mahon’s poems ask us to reflect on a range of themes:
- the dispossessed and neglected in ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’,
- loneliness and longing in ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’,
- history’s legacy in ‘Rathlin’,
- the solitary selflessness in ‘Antarctica’,
- changing times viewed optimistically in ‘Kinsale’,
- from an individual’s mystery and elusiveness in ‘Grandfather’,
- uncertainty and failure in ‘Day Trip to Donegal’,
- guilt and suffering in ‘After the Titanic’,
- cultural inheritance and community in ‘Ecclesiastes’,
- threat and violence in ‘As it Should Be’.
His best known poem, seen by many as his greatest masterpiece, is ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’. There the mushrooms become a symbol of lost voices struggling to be saved and the poems references to Peru, India, Treblinka and Pompeii allow the poem a huge historical and cultural framework and create what Hugh Haughton calls ‘a wonderful long perspective of historical time’. When Declan Kiberd says that Mahon ‘has the mind of a conscience-stricken anthropologist’, we can see what he means when we read this particular poem.
In his recent poetry (not on the course!), especially in The Yellow Book, Mahon casts a cold eye on our consumer driven society and our image-obsessed world. He writes of how now ‘Everywhere aspires to the condition of pop music, / the whole noise of late-century consumerism’ and of how our lives are affected by ‘road rage / spy cameras, radio heads, McDonalds, rowdytum, / laser louts and bouncers, chat shows, paparazzi, / stand up comedians and thug journalists’. But the same poet can also write a poem called ‘Everything Is Going To Be Alright’ where he offers the following heartening lines:
The sun rises in spite of everything
And the far cities are beautiful and bright.
In the 1991 Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Declan Kiberd describes Derek Mahon as ‘the most underrated Irish poet of the century’ and Michael Schmidt, in his Lives of the Poets, says that Mahon’s work has been ‘consistently undervalued for fifty years, not that neglect has seemed to bother or inhibit him.’ Derek Mahon is more interested in his poetry than in his reputation. He knows that,
The lines flow from the hand unbidden
And the hidden source is the watchful heart.
‘Derek Mahon’s imagery is vivid, evocative and striking.’
Discuss this statement using some of the poetry you have studied to support or refute this viewpoint.
In his poetry, Derek Mahon engages with the ordinary, sometimes the unique, always the actual experiences of life. His observations are of real places and real people; he refers to real events in an outdoor world of shorelines, rocks, hills, moorland, and island.
Mahon is a very imaginative and perceptive poet. He responds to objects and landscapes in ways that are surprising and at times remarkable. Usually he communicates his very personal observations in imagery that is vivid, evocative and striking. In his poems, however, the use of landscape transcends the mere descriptive. Landscape and seascape frequently reflect the poet’s insight, his hope, his frustration and his despair. Much of this deeper resonance is achieved through imagery.
Mahon is a very visual writer. His images vary from the domestic, where his grandfather bangs ‘around the house like a four-year old’, to the sublime where ‘A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole. / This is the one star in their firmament’. One of the principal functions of his imagery is to evoke moments of private and public suffering that have been ignored or forgotten. On of the most striking images in his poems is that in ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ where mushrooms wait ‘in a foetor / Of vegetable sweat since civil war days’. For those who have not yet shed their ‘pale flesh’ into the earth, their long, tortuous existence, has almost destroyed their hope of ever being heard, ‘so long / Expectant that there is left only the posture’. The extended image encompasses words such as ‘nightmares’, ‘prisoners’, ‘rached by drought’, to portray the chilling misery and despair of thousands who have died or survived in squalor. These vivid images also evoke the terrible realisation that the poet is speaking of human suffering and torment, displacing their lives and their hurt on to the mushrooms in a striking association of men and object. The power of the image is unquestionable, for it leaves us with diverse feelings of revulsion and of guilt for what has occurred in our history, the history of humankind, and for the unforgivable way in which the plight of the innocents has been forgotten.
This ability to use natural objects, such as mushrooms, to represent the human experiences and the poet’s own feelings and perspectives on those experiences, is also evident where Mahon evokes the elements of the Irish landscape. In ‘Rathlin’, the poet once again recalls historical violence on an island that is now a ‘sanctuary’ of peace and ‘through with history’. However, this refuge also witnessed ‘unspeakable violence’ and ‘screams of the Rathlin women’ when blood was shed in territorial battles. Mahon connects the past with the present, and Rathlin with Belfast in the image of the bombs that ‘doze in the housing estates’. It is a chilling reminder that violence has shattered the ‘dream-time’, the lives of men, women and children.
Mahon’s concern for the future helps us to understand his frustration in ‘Ecclesiastes’ when he witnesses ‘tied-up swings’, and listens to Godspeak from people who ‘love the January rains’ when people ‘darken the dark doors’ of ‘dank churches’. Mahon deplores those who can ‘promise nothing under the sun’. These vivid images of a bleak, oppressive urban landscape reflect the poet’s desolation, and his anger that ‘people still await’ understanding, forgiveness, and encouragement to embrace the ‘heat of the world’. Sadly, the elemental rain beats down relentlessly.
Or does it? In one of his later poems, ‘Kinsale’, there is a welcome and long-awaited moment of light and hope. The poet himself seems to savour the parting of clouds in the opening lines when he says, ‘The kind of rain we knew is a thing of the past – / Deep-delving, dark, deliberate.’ The image of the yachts ‘tinkling and dancing’ is not only striking in its beauty but it is also positively uplifting. There is a renewal of energy, of possibility. It has come as a welcome respite, and not just to the reader, for the poet too utters his relief in the phrase ‘at last’. The sun, that eternal image of hope, promises ‘a future forbidden to no-one’.
Derek Mahon is, therefore, a poet with a precise and imaginative eye. He is capable of creating imagery that is vivid, evocative and striking. His images reveal for us the bleak condition of society and of man yet the final note is more hopeful. Like his mushrooms, perhaps, Mahon’s poems ‘have come so far in darkness’; but ‘contemplate at last / shining windows, a future forbidden to no one’.
FINAL WORDS ON MAHON’S POETRY
- His Themes include the darker side of life where Mahon reveals private and public suffering, pain, and violence. He also examines landscapes and seascapes and the way people interact with such places. Alienation is another recurring theme. Some poems also explore the area of personal sacrifice while in ‘Kinsale’ a belief in the future concludes the selection on a more hopeful note.
- Mahon can explore subjects that are not usually considered material for poetry, such as mushrooms, a derelict shed and a Chinese restaurant. His observations are very precise without being pretentious. He also delves into the mindset of those who suffer, those who fail, and those who are fanatical in their politics or their religion.
- Mahon employs a range of poetic forms. He can create very precise short stanza forms or longer, quite formal stanzas. In the poems on our course he uses the couplet, tercet, quatrain, sonnet and villanelle. Many of his longer stanzas are written in blank verse.
- Rhyme is often internal although end-rhyme is also used. Mahon can make very effective use of alliteration and assonance.
- The atmosphere that emerges from his poems is threatening, violent, and intimidating but there is also a definite feeling of love, sincerity and hope in other poems.
- Mahon’s imagery shows his precise observations and gives a painterly quality to his poetry. Images are frequently related to the poet’s own experiences. Colloquial language is another feature of his style.