The Early Poetry of Thomas Kinsella

thomas-kinsella (2)

The Early Poetry of Thomas Kinsella

(with particular focus on ‘Another September’ and ‘Mirror in February’)

In the years after Yeats there was a general change in the direction of Anglo-Irish poetry.  In his desire to establish an Irish poetic tradition, Yeats had confined himself, for the most part, to subjects of Irish interest, and poets who directly succeeded him were very influenced by his poetry and the underlying philosophy of cultural nationalism which he espoused.  Thus, an older poet like Austin Clarke is very obviously an imitator of Yeats both in his subject choice and in his treatment of it.  Indeed, Clarke’s subject matter is principally confined to three main areas and may be summarised as follows: his judgements on the old heroic Ireland of the past (‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’), his response to the general contemporary issue of Ireland itself (‘The Lost Heifer’), and his perceptive, lyrical treatment of the theme of love (‘The Planter’s Daughter’).

In the 1950’s, however, a new generation of Irish poets began to emerge.  Born in 1928, Thomas Kinsella belongs to this generation of writers; unlike Clarke, his main concern as a poet was not to limit himself to Irish topics but to explore a wider range of ideas and themes.  In 1892 Yeats had called for the creation of a national literature which would be distinct from all other literatures written in the English language.  Consequently, poets who succeeded Yeats found a constant need to express themselves as being fundamentally Irish, and the nature of their relationship with Ireland was one of their dominant concerns.  By 1950, however, Anglo-Irish poetry had found a permanent place for itself in modern English literature.  The new generation of writers were therefore not restricted to the old stances.  They did not feel it necessary to constantly assert allegiance to subjects of Irish interest, nor were they emotionally involved with dead leaders and causes as Yeats and Clarke had been.  Indeed, their most vivid memories were not of Wolfe Tone or the Fenian, John O’Leary, but of the contemporary holocaust in Europe, and the futile hero-worship of the modern world.  With Thomas Kinsella, therefore, we have one of the first to move into this different area of awareness and exploration.

Kinsella’s considerable talent as a poet has been well documented in many recent studies (e.g. Andrew Fitzsimons, The Sea of Disappointment: Thomas Kinsella’s Pursuit of the Real. UCD Press, 2008). His early work shows his skill at exploring states of feeling, especially feelings that are painful or acute.  His early poems also contain some moment of illumination, or epiphany, as he increases his awareness of some thought, idea, or reality he has previously overlooked.  This emphasis on reflection gives his poems many of the qualities of meditations: they are often, as he called them himself, ‘detailed explorations of private miseries’.  In these poems he usually begins with some simple situation which he advances towards complexity and which he attempts to incorporate into a coherent personal philosophy.

In both ‘Another September’ and ‘Mirror in February’ the speaker is presented as a solitary, humble figure who is confronted with an overwhelming significance in some simple aspect of life.  Though many of Kinsella’s poems deal explicitly with members of his own family he is essentially a poet of abstract ideas and concepts.  Also, throughout his early works nature always figures prominently.  He is conscious of the passing of time and of the seasons, the birth, death and decay of all life, even his own.

In ‘Mirror in February’ he connects his realisation of the decay inherent in modern man with his personal understanding of nature, while in ‘Another September’ he expresses his work as a poet in simple rural terms, ‘this … consciousness that plants its grammar in her yielding weather’.  Both these poems reveal certain similarities; each shares a common effort to find meaning and direction, and both are portraits of a defeated personality.  In ‘Another September’ the speaker is plunged into the bizarre, disorientated and isolated world of his wife’s past.  He is concerned with her immediate rural background, with the ways and customs of the people who still live there, with the culture they have formed from which he is excluded.  But beyond these reflections lie considerations about truth and justice, especially in the idea of a spectral woman who haunts him throughout the poem.  In ‘Mirror in February’ the poet’s self-portrait is made up of naturalistic and personal details through which he contemplates his muted, tragic story.  He experiences a sudden crisis of identity; there is a sense of loss in the feeling that his hold on youth is frail and tenuous.  In the end there is a gallant expression of hope as a faint optimism hesitantly breaks through.  Both poems succeed through a close attention to detail and through the use of natural images to expose the unpleasant and pitiful details of the poet’s life.

The material of each poem is different but the method is the same.  A theme is projected through the narrator, who alternates between apprehension of his immediate surroundings and memories or ideas that impinge upon his mind.  His recurring theme is the gulf between appearance and reality.  In ‘Mirror in February’ he regrets the loss of his youth: but the loss he is even more painfully aware of involves what he appears to be and what he actually is, ‘For they are not made whole that reach the age of Christ’.  The poem moves towards the acceptance of his condition even though his relationship with the world is one of steady and unavoidable decay.  Similarly, ‘Another September’ attempts to find some meaning in chaos.  This poem is also a projection of a state of feeling: the chaos is trivial in a wider sense, but is endowed with significance within the context of the poem.  The theme has possibly a wider application than ‘Mirror in February’, which deals with the poet’s immediate awareness of time.  In ‘Another September’, on the other hand, the initial meditation on his wife’s past gives rise to a meditation on women in general, and then to a consideration of the serious moral concepts that are usually represented as women, ‘Down the lampless darkness they came, moving like women: Justice, Truth, such figures’.  No firm conclusions are made in this poem: it is not ‘rounded off’ with a simple assertion as ‘Mirror in February’ is.  Indeed, the poem ends not with conclusions but with images, the meaning of which are not completely understood by the poet.  The theme of ‘Mirror in February’ is clear enough.  In ‘Another September’, however, the poet is presented with half-formed, shadowy ideas which trouble his consciousness and on which no firm judgements can be pronounced.

‘Another September’ describes an incident of particular importance in Kinsella’s life.  He has returned with his wife to the country house in which she grew up, and the opening stanza gives the poem a particular rural setting: ‘Dreams fled away, this country bedroom…’.  The time is early morning, just after dawn on a damp autumn day, and the poet wakes up in unfamiliar surroundings.  He first becomes conscious of the coldness (‘raw with the touch of dawn’), then of the silence (‘Nearer the river sleeps St. John’s’).  Nature, too, is still sleeping: the garden draws, ‘long pitch black breaths’, and the orchard exhales ‘rough sweetness’.  The poem is set in autumn, a time of ‘minor peace’; for the hard-working country people when the chores of summer are over and the fruits of their labour can be enjoyed.  The harvest is strongly suggested in this opening stanza, and the images provide a sense of simple rural abundance.  The trees are ripe with pears and apples, the rough soil is ‘windfall-sweetened’, the people are momentarily free from labour and secure from all intruders, ‘Locked fast inside a dream with iron gates’.  Being a Dubliner, it is as though Kinsella is experiencing these things for the first time.  This country scene is completely new to him, and he tends to see it in poetic terms.

The presence of autumn is strongly suggested in the images of the first stanza: in the second, it is personified as a domestic animal which, ‘rubs her kind hide against the bedroom wall’.  This sort of imagery is very common in modern poetry.  T.S. Eliot, in particular, specialised in far-fetched, arresting images, which have much of the impact of extended metaphysical conceits.  There is indeed a strong comparison between Kinsella’s description of autumn in this poem and Eliot’s description of the fog in the second section of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, ‘The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-pane’.  In Kinsella’s poem the image is meant to suggest friendliness and familiarity.  Country people live close to nature; they measure time not by the clock but by the seasons.  As such, autumn represents another aspect of their lives and is ‘long used to handling’ by them.  For Kinsella on the other hand – a city dweller for whom the seasons have no real significance – autumn is seen, prosaically, as ‘weather’.

The main topic of the poem is introduced here. The farm-house and the surrounding countryside are familiar features of his wife’s past; the life they represent belongs to his wife, not to him.  In the first stanza the farm is quiet and peaceful, safe from all intruders.  Here, however, Kinsella begins to realise that he himself is an intruder; he feels isolated and estranged in these new surroundings.  He is only ‘half-tolerated’ by the autumn morning, personified here as a friendly domestic animal which only ‘half-tolerates’ the caresses of a stranger.  The comparisons suggested here are difficult but comprehensible: it is as though a large domestic animal has entered the room sensing that an old forgotten friend has returned after many years’ absence.  Immediately, it is confronted by a stranger who tries to win favour by a vain display of friendship.  However, the poet’s overtures of friendship are ignored: it is not for his sake but for his wife’s, ‘this unspeaking daughter’ that the morning dawns so beautifully.  This use of personification in the poem is meant to suggest a sense of drama.  Indeed, what is difficult in the second stanza is not so much what the poet has to express, but the manner in which he expresses it.  He could just as easily have said that he felt out of place in the small rural community where his wife grew up, but this unremarkable statement would lack the strong sense of urgency that Kinsella wishes to suggest.  Also, by introducing characters in the second stanza Kinsella not only makes us see his personal situation in terms of drama – almost like a short scene from a play – but he also prepares for the important characterisations at the end of the poem.  He continues for the moment with simple poetic description:

                   Wakeful moth-wings blunder near a chair,

                   Toss their light shell at the glass, and go

                   To inhabit the living starlight.

At this point his attention is suddenly directed back to his wife who seems remote and unfamiliar in these strange surroundings.  Almost at once his image of her fades, ‘wanes’, and is replaced by other threatening images, ‘bearing daggers and balances’.

The ending to the poem presents some difficulty of interpretation but its meaning is usually explained as follows: Kinsella’s visit to the house where his wife grew up makes him conscious of those aspects of her life that had previously been ignored.  The poem represents, as it were, a moment of insight into her past which he had never before considered.  Following this epiphany he realises how women’s achievements in general, and their contribution to history, have also frequently been ignored.  Throughout the poem his wife is presented in quiet, placid descriptions: ‘a fragrant child’, ‘unspeaking daughter’, ‘stranded hair stirs on the still linen’.  The final feminine images, however, suggest vigour and movement, representing that part of womanhood which is characterised by energy and endurance.  Down through history, ‘down the lampless darkness’, the deeds of women have been unknown and unrecognised.  Kinsella therefore sees the images as threatening him with retribution, ‘bearing daggers and balances’, and seeking recognition for their personal deeds and achievements.

The situation described at the start of ‘Mirror in February’ is somewhat similar to that of ‘Another September’.  Indeed, both poems are composed of certain personal details and are in some sense autobiographical.  Again Kinsella relies on simple rural description in an effort to create a sense of atmosphere.  It is a damp spring morning; outside the upturned soil is ready for the seed; the trees are dark and still leafless.  The poet is going about the familiar morning chore of dressing and shaving, his mind occupied ‘by some compulsive fantasy’, when suddenly he notices his reflection in the mirror.  In the cold light of morning he is brought back to reality and he considers his advancing years.  His features reveal the relentless progress of time: his eyes are dark and exhausted; his mouth is dry and down-turned.

This moment of revelation, this epiphany, is extended into the second stanza.  The poem is set in springtime, the start of another year.  It is time to look to the future, to take stock, a time to ‘learn’.  In the second line of this stanza the cyclical nature of life is represented in an interesting paradox, ‘this untiring, crumbling place of growth’.  Life and death, he realises, are part of the great system of creation.  Things mature and die in an endless process of death and destruction.  Within the context of the poem, however, this realisation is the cause of some concern for the poet.  The slow, relentless progress of time has not brought him to perfection as it has in the case of Christ.  Instead he has achieved little, apart from a comfortable mediocrity.  The phrase ‘and little more’ is deliberately ambiguous.  The obvious meaning is that he is a ‘little more’ than the age of Christ, and the poem describes a moment of painful revelation for a person who suddenly realises that the best years of his life have slipped away and middle-age is approaching.  Another possible meaning to the phrase is suggested by Maurice Harmon.  What this critic suggests is not so much the idea of time passing, but of time lost: the poet laments that he has merely ‘looked’ his last on youth, almost like an observer, and done ‘little more’ to accomplish anything of importance.  This interpretation certainly fits in with the general tone of the second and third stanzas where the idea of worthwhile achievement is suggested in the extreme comparison with Christ’s life.  In contrast to Christ’s supreme achievements the poet has accomplished little, and he strays into the middle years of his life with little hope of attaining anything of note.  At this point he generalises about life: ‘they are not made whole / That reach the age of Christ’.  In the second stanza life is visualised in terms of sacrifice, and the idea implied is that it only becomes meaningful when seen in goal-directed terms.

In the third stanza this idea is repeated and is made more explicit in the striking references to nature.  Looking through the window the poet sees that the fruit trees have been severely pruned.  He uses this simple observation from nature as the occasion for an important comment on life.  The trees in the garden have withstood these brutal attacks upon them so that they may bear more and better fruit.  The basic idea expressed here is that nothing worthwhile is accomplished  without sacrifice, and that suffering contributes in a mysterious way to the perfection of a person’s character.  Just as Christ attained his destiny through suffering, and just as trees are pruned to make them more productive, so men too must suffer ‘mutilations’ if they wish their lives to be meaningful and enriched.  Unlike Christ, however, man does not submit to suffering willingly: he avoids hardships at each opportunity and cowers, ‘quails’, under every blow of fortune.

One aspect of the kind of suffering Kinsella imagines is described in this poem.  In his moment of anguish he tries to make light of the serious thoughts that weigh upon his mind.  He folds his towel with as much grace as he can manage.  He is no longer young, and unlike the trees he is not ‘renewable’, but he takes comfort in the fact that everybody shares in the same fate.  Life is continuous and irreversible: in the last line, therefore, he attempts to face up to his predicament with courage and conviction.

Kinsella (1)

Derek Mahon – An Overview

d mahon

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.

At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime...
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime…


‘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 by Anthony Palliser from Portraits d'Irlande
Derek Mahon by Anthony Palliser from Portraits d’Irlande


‘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’.



  • 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 placesAlienation 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.