The Books: The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry: Derek Mahon

Daily Book Excerpt: Poetry

Next book on the shelf is The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, edited by Peter Fallon & Derek Mahon.

“[Seamus] Heaney is a Wordsworth man and I’m a Coleridge man. I love the poetry, and the trajectory of his life has always fascinated me. His Biographia is a complete mess, but is still full of the most wonderful stuff.” – Derek Mahon

Born in Belfast, great Irish poet Derek Mahon “came up” at the same time as other great Irish poets Seamus Heaney (one of my many posts about him here) and Michael Longley (post about him here). They all burst onto the literary scene in the late 60s, making it seem like something once again was “going on” in Ireland to support and nourish such creativity, especially at such a difficult time. Mahon rejects that interpretation, insisting that Belfast has always had a great literary tradition, even in the 30s and 40s, and he is part of that. But you often hear these three poets’ names mentioned in the same breath (and often by one another). They were good friends, from way back. Here is a story told in The Guardian in 2006, that I really like:

In September 1963 Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley visited the County Down grave of the great Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice, who had died a short time before. Longley, writing recently in the introduction to a selection of MacNeice’s poems, recalled that as they “dawdled between the graves” all three then-unpublished poets were silently “contemplating an elegy”. When they next met, Mahon read them “In Carrowdore Churchyard”: “Your ashes will not stir, even on this high ground / However the wind tugs, the headstones shake”. Seamus Heaney started to read his poem but “then crumpled it up”. Longley says he decided not even to attempt the task. “Mahon had produced the definitive elegy.”


Heaney, Longley and Mahon saw themselves as part of a strong tradition – they often dedicate their poems to poets from the Irish past, Patrick Kavanagh (post about him here) or Louis MacNeice (post about him here). Hugely influential on them, perhaps even more so than Yeats, the granddaddy of Irish poetry.

Mahon’s long friendship with Longley and Heaney has helped keep them in the game. They talk to one another, they compete, they compare notes, they help one another be better.

Derek Mahon grew up in an Ulster Protestant family, and then went down to Dublin to go to college at Trinity. He was already interested in poetry, but his viewpoint was never purely local. He loved French literature so much that he then went on to study at the Sorbonne, and has translated many great French authors into English. He published a collection of poetry in the mid-60s which won a prize. He traveled quite a bit, wandering around America. Hart Crane (my post about him here) was a huge influence, as was Elizabeth Bishop (post about her here). He’s had a peripatetic life. He was a book reviewer, and also a teacher. His sensibility divorced him from the upheavals of the political process in Northern Ireland, although he was of course very interested in all of it. But that is not the wellspring of his art. He said:

“When growing up, my bunch of friends would have thought of ourselves as anti-unionist because we were anti-establishment. We would have been vaguely all-Ireland republican socialists. But then, when theory turned into practice, we had to decide where we stood and I never did resolve it for myself. Marching for civil rights was terrific, but bombs and killing people? I never put a name to my own position and I still can’t, which suits me fine. From time to time you get a kick from some critic for not being sufficiently political, or for being a closet unionist or a closet republican. There was a time when people – much more English people than Irish – would ask, ‘Why don’t these Ulster poets come out more explicitly and say what they are for?’ But there is all this ambiguity. That is poetry. It is the other thing that is the other thing.”

You can see his plain-speaking here. His poems can be quite formal, with rigorous structures, giving some of them a haunting feel. For example, here’s this short one called “DEJECTION”:

Bone-idle, I lie listening to the rain,
Not tragic now nor yet to frenzy bold.
Must I stand out in thunderstorms again
Who have twice come in from the cold?

It’s simple bald language. He’s not “fancy”. The poem is called DEJECTION, after all. But there’s a real courage in expressing yourself that plainly, yet with that much surrounding structure. It’s old-fashioned. Newer poets pooh-pooh structure sometimes. Mahon is all about structure.

After years of traveling around, he now lives in Kinsale. I think he feels perpetually outside of things. An exile even in his own country, something that is quite common with the Irish. He said once:

“What’s the difference between an exile and an expatriate? It seems to me that an Englishman in France is an expat, but an Irishman is an exile.”

He has not returned to live in Belfast. He is criticized for that. (shaking my head at the things people get upset about). He is Irish, but doesn’t seem to be of Ireland. He looks in on it from the outside. It gives his work a strength that it wouldn’t otherwise have. You can’t say he doesn’t have a “sense of place”. That is the thing with exiles: they often can see their home in a clearer way than those who live there and don’t question it.

I struggled with what poem to put up today. His poem ANTARCTICA is amazing, with, again, a very strict structure and repetitive phrases throughout: “At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime”. But I thought instead that I would go with his beautiful poem “ACHILL”. Achill Island is a big island off the west coast of Ireland. We spent some time there as a family years ago, when we went to Ireland. I was 13 years old, so my memories of the place are often mortifying to read now (we were there for Easter, and I was mainly upset that I hadn’t brought my curling iron to Ireland), but despite what I wrote down in my journal, Achill Island remains vivid to me in my mind: the windy wildness of it, the smell of the peat fires, the impromptu soccer games among the sheep, and the beautiful bleakness of the landscape. I would love to go back there.

im chaonaí uaigneach nach mór go bhfeicim an lá1

I lie and imagine a first light gleam in the bay
After one more night of erosion and nearer the grave,
Then stand and gaze from the window at break of day
As a shearwater skims the ridge of an incoming wave;
And I think of my son a dolphin in the Aegean,
A sprite among sails knife-bright in a seasonal wind,
And wish he were here where currachs walk on the ocean
To ease with his talk the solitude locked in my mind.

I sit on a stone after lunch and consider the glow
Of the sun through mist, a pearl bulb containèdly fierce;
A rain-shower darkens the schist for a minute or so
Then it drifts away and the sloe-black patches disperse.
Croagh Patrick towers like Naxos over the water
And I think of my daughter at work on her difficult art
And wish she were with me now between thrush and plover,
Wild thyme and sea-thrift, to lift the weight from my heart.

The young sit smoking and laughing on the bridge at evening
Like birds on a telephone pole or notes on a score.
A tin whistle squeals in the parlour, once more it is raining,
Turf-smoke inclines and a wind whines under the door;
And I lie and imagine the lights going on in the harbor
Of white-housed Náousa, your clear definition at night,
And wish you were here to upstage my disconsolate labour
As I glance through a few thin pages and switch off the light.

1 A desolate waif scarce seeing the light of day (from a poem by Piaras Feritéar, 1600-1653, as translated by Thomas Kinsella).

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