The Poems (1961–2020)
by derek mahon
the gallery, 536 pages, £22.50
Longtime fans of the Irish poet Derek Mahon had to laugh when, in the spring of 2020, he unexpectedly went viral. As part of an Instagram series organized by the Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke to provide “poetry for the heart and soul” during the pandemic, another superstar, Andrew Scott, read aloud Mahon’s poem “Everything is Going to Be All Right.” Always an anomaly in Mahon’s grumpy, enigmatic oeuvre, the poem’s bland reassurances earned more than four million views. And perhaps some of the viewers, searching for further uplift, ordered Mahon’s The Poems (1961–2020). There, in “Against the Clock,” they would have found a more typical sentiment:
There are those grim moments when you think
contemporary paper games too daft for you,
not serious, and real values on the brink—
a naff culture not worth contributing to,
time to go back on the drink.
The last line is grimly startling, given the frankness with which Mahon has recorded his struggles with alcoholism.
At their best, Mahon’s poems have a Mozartian equilibrium and elegance. “Against the Clock” is more of an unmetrical rant. Yet a rant can be clarifying: The poem is one of Mahon’s more direct indictments of modern civilization, which his poetry generally regards as frivolous, semiliterate, cruel, politically idiotic, economically disgusting, ecologically criminal, and inimical to most forms of creativity. Not quite so Instagrammable. And there is more to Mahon’s work than well-phrased cultural criticism. He applies to his subjects an ironic, long-range vision, which occasionally rises into mystical hope.
Mahon was born in Belfast in 1941, part of a generation of gifted Irish poets including Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland. Even among that crowd, Mahon stands out for his combination of formal exactness and conversational style. Over the last hundred years poets have been offered an unenviable choice: either rhyme and meter that constrain the verse, against its will, into stiffness and artificiality; or a natural, freer style that loses the concentrated force of poetic structure. Mahon shows that you don’t have to choose, as long as you happen to be a genius. Here he is in “Afterlives” (1975), contemplating a return to his home city after years away in London:
. . . I step ashore in a fine rain
To a city so changed
By five years of war
I scarcely recognize
The places I grew up in,
The faces that try to explain.
But the hills are still the same
Grey-blue above Belfast.
Perhaps if I’d stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home.
That last stanza has a way of crowbarring its way into your memory and not leaving. Yet it is made of the simplest building blocks: Most of the words are monosyllablic, one important exception being “behind”—a little speed-bump on the poem’s smooth surface. It implies that Ireland is “behind,” backward, out of the cultural swim that Mahon has found in fashionable London. At the same time, the poem pulls in the opposite direction: It is only by staying in one place, by ignoring fashion and refusing to push on with one’s career, that one can acquire the vital knowledge of a place as one’s home. You have to stay behind if you want to grow up. Mahon is describing the division between what the British writer David Goodhart calls Anywheres and Somewheres—between the smart, ambitious, well educated, and mobile, and those who stay put. Mahon is an Anywhere who pines, if only briefly, to be a Somewhere.
As the rest of the poem makes clear, an even more significant contrast disturbs Mahon: the modern and the premodern. What could seem more appallingly old-fashioned than a war on the streets of Belfast between Protestants and Catholics? What could seem more enlightened and sensible than London’s “nonsectarian schools” teaching poetry and contemporary values? And yet, Mahon insists in uncharacteristically crude language, the world of religious passions and warmaking is also part of the human story, however much people like . . . well, like Derek Mahon insist otherwise:
What middle-class shits we are
To imagine for one second
That our privileged ideals
Are divine wisdom . . .
In the never-ending argument between the progressive who shudders at everything before the Enlightenment as barbarism and ignorance, and the reactionary who sees everything since the French Revolution as the insane destruction of Western society’s very foundations, Mahon’s sympathies are divided. He likes living in the modern world, but he gives himself permission to regret.
In another poem, Mahon records waking up in a mental health unit during the Christmas season, recovering from an alcohol-induced breakdown, estranged from his family, who “don’t know where I am today.” A scene of great pathos, it prompts him to a mischievous reflection. If Mahon, an “educated man,” a serious and acclaimed poet, can end up like this, that rather undermines the world’s definitions of sanity and success. And then comes one of those historical twists that Mahon enjoys: The mental health unit was originally founded by the eighteenth-century satirist, poet, and clergyman Jonathan Swift. There have been some ironic architectural developments since:
for “fools and mad” has become
the administrative block.
So who has lost their senses, really—the poets with chaos in their heads, or the bureaucrats and managers who try to make sense of it?
Skeptical about Enlightened reason, Mahon is also respectful—at a distance—of religious belief. In an early poem, “A Portrait of the Artist,” he imagines himself as a miner—“and the light on my forehead / Is the dying light of faith.” The poet depends on a spiritual tradition he may be unable to pass on. A glancing aside in one of Mahon’s book reviews, concerning Philip Larkin, puts it more straightforwardly: “Perhaps like his beloved Hardy he was a religious poet deprived of religion (perhaps most poets are).”
As a craftsman, Mahon tries to keep one foot in the past. “Maybe I’m finally turning into an old fart / But I do prefer the traditional kinds of art, / respect for materials, draughtsmanship and so on,” he writes (ironically, in one of his clunkier, lazier poems). Yet his writing hums with modern technology, dwells on contemporary cityscapes, refuses all the easy warmth of nostalgia. His goal, in poetry as elsewhere, is to “achieve a synthesis / Of the archaic and the entirely new.”
But what happens when the new simply abolishes the old? That brings us to yet another of Mahon’s ambivalences, this one toward Ireland, where he moved in 1995 after his years in London and New York. He had been very much an exile, a product of the universities, a citizen of the international literary world. He was, for a brief and admittedly unsuccessful time, features editor of Vogue. A child of 1968, he writes of relishing the sexual freedom of the era. However, as he records in “St Patrick’s Day,” the rapid modernization of Ireland, its abrupt conversion from a rural Catholic outpost to an international financial hub, has involved a great loss. And the heady 1960s, the time of Mahon’s own coming-of-age, feel like
. . . a weird transition
before we opted to be slaves of fashion —
for now, whatever the ancestral dream,
we give ourselves to a vast corporate scheme
where our true wit is devalued once again,
our solitude known only to the rain.
Two more little speed-bumps there: “corporate”—which could mean “collective, communitarian” but obviously means something rather bleaker—and “devalued,” with its hint of Oscar Wilde’s definition of the cynic as one “who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” In signing up to the modern world and forgetting the “ancestral dream” (to which Mahon has no particular allegiance), Ireland has joined a scheme of devaluation. Elsewhere Mahon complains of Ireland’s surrender to “the post-Cold War, global-warming age / of corporate rule, McPeace and Mickey Mao,” abandoning its traditions of dissent, anarchic humor, and spiritual resistance.
As Mahon shrewdly reminds himself and us, grouchiness is no answer, nor is brooding over the dramas of previous centuries (“middle age and misanthropy, / like famine and religion, make poor copy”). And so his poetry sometimes moves from irritation to a kind of equanimity: a way of seeing, a style of thought that can find its way through a disenchanted world. In “The Terminal Bar,” he sits among the “fluorescent beers” at an airport bar, acknowledging that history has ended rather anticlimactically. The TV in the corner
is fetish and icon
providing all we want
of magic and redemption,
routine and sentiment.
. . .
Nobody found the Grail
or conquered outer space . . .
Mahon’s characteristic pose is that of the observer who sees everything, not necessarily with a forgiving eye, but with a steady one. Occasionally he rises from his seat to denounce some present injustice—“The Bush gang are doing it to Iraq”—or to lament the superficiality of culture, as in the superb couplet
The new dark ages have been fiercely lit
To banish shadow and the difficult spirit.
Even so, Mahon implies, the effort has failed: Somewhere, shadow and the difficult spirit live on. Much of his poetry searches for the hidden places where the present state of things is quietly subverted; where creativity and beauty can still be found, a parallel universe sealed off from hyper-capitalism and spared from fluorescent lighting. Mahon’s most celebrated poem (at least before his fifteen minutes of Instagram fame), “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” begins in the most out-of-the-way place possible, a forgotten shed on “the grounds of a burnt-out hotel.” Yet even there, a group of mushrooms are growing, rising toward the sunlight that still streams through the keyhole.
The poem’s first line serves as something of a Mahon manifesto: “Even now there are places where a thought might grow.” They are probably those places that have escaped the brightness and the noise, the searchlight of commerce looking for things to repackage and sell. Images like this, a surrealism of hope, recur in Mahon’s poetry: the “dark lane at the back of beyond”; the nondescript housing estate where “some immigrant teenager / will write the unknown poetry of the future”; the “lost hub-cap” in which “is conceived / the ideal society which will replace our own”; the forest clearing, the bird that has left a “claw-print in concrete,” the lingering presence of the dead. (Mahon’s elegy for his ex-wife, “Monochrome,” is his most affecting poem.) Mahon hears the world around him speaking, not in a pantheistic ecstasy as the romantic poets heard it, but with a freshness and purity that puts him in an optimistic mood: Does history, exhausted, come full circle?. . . Time now to watch for the dawn of a new age . . .time to create a future from the past . . .perhaps, in some oblique future / only dreamers ever dreamt before . . .
At such moments, Mahon even allows himself to hope that the normal rules of death are suspended—the death of individuals or of God:
Today in a freak of thought I wondered if
the conservation-of-energy law applies
to souls and promises us eternal life.
At times like this we let ourselves imagine
some substance in the old claim of religion
that we don’t die, not really.
More usually, Mahon’s optimism is subtler, more—to use a word he always deploys with approval—subversive. A 2017 poem, “Rising Late,” has Mahon looking out at Ireland’s Atlantic coast:
Such tiny houses, such enormous skies!
The vast sea-breath reminds us, even these days
as even more oil and junk slosh in the waves,
the future remains open to alternatives.
A stretch in the evenings as returning light
slowly expands. Crocuses, mauve and white,
have sprung up overnight under the pines.
It just keeps happening; life always finds
somewhere to whisper, thought a place to grow
even while the poets fade . . .
If there is a better world to build, it will begin in the forgotten places. It will speak a language unavailable to mass media, incomprehensible to the cynics who can speak only in tones of “irony and slick depreciation.” It may, indeed, be intelligible only to those who have turned away from sensation and PR and toward the contemplation of beauty. Mahon’s poetry remains an unusually compelling articulation of how to live in the twenty-first century without losing one’s capacity for hope—which is perhaps why, although he died in October 2020, I have unconsciously written this entire review in the present tense.
Dan Hitchens is a senior editor at First Things.