Nicholas Wroe – Saturday July 22, 2006 – The Guardian
A life in poetry
Derek Mahon’s work is often linked with that of his Northern Irish peers, Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley. But he argues that Belfast’s literary tradition has deeper roots
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the introduction to a selection of MacNeice’s poems, recalled that as they “dawdled between the graves” all three then-unpublished poets were silently “contemplating an elegy”.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.”
In the years since, Mahon’s poems, – most famously “A Disused Shed in Co Wexford” and “Courtyards in Delft” – have become staples of anthologies and school curricula. Heaney, writing about Mahon’s 1982 collection The Hunt By Night, said “there is a copiousness and excitement about these poems found only in work of the highest order”. Another critic called him “a Belfast Keats with a Popean sting”.
The late 60s emergence of Mahon, Heaney and Longley as major new voices is popularly seen as a remarkable eruption of creativity that somehow broke out of the rubble of a collapsing civil society. Mahon casts a cooler eye on this legend and instead points to the continuity of a long-established literary heritage. “While Belfast might have had a reputation for philistinism,” he explains, “there has always been a literary life there. It was quite active in the 30s and 40s, and was still in place by the time we came along.” In particular, he is dismissive of one of the foundation myths about their ascent – the story of “The Group” of young poets who would meet at the home of a Queen’s University lecturer, the Englishman Philip Hobsbaum, for guidance and mutual support. “The way that story is told, we were terrified provincial ignoramuses who needed someone from Cambridge to get us going. But we were already going. Philip was a nice guy and he could afford whiskey, which we sometimes drank, but his programme was Leavisite in a way that just didn’t make sense in an Irish context, and I suspect he learnt more from us than we did from him. The Group is an invented story that suited English journalism at a time when English poetry wasn’t up to much. It was really a kind of colonialism in asserting English hegemony over Northern Irish poetry. And,” he sighs, “even to say that it was not important is to give it too much importance. Although I know I’m probably on a losing wicket with all this.”
Mahon was born and raised in the Protestant inner suburbs of Belfast – “real Brian Moore territory” – where he attended the local primary school and then the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. He describes the teaching there as “excellent in that old-fashioned grammar school way” but remembers one teacher cramming the whole of English literature, including Shakespeare, into a single term so as to leave two terms free for Yeats: “Or at least it seemed like that at the time.” But the school was not without high-profile English literary connections – Faber’s Charles Monteith was an old boy who would get TS Eliot to sign new editions of his books “for the boys of Inst” before donating them to the school library – and there was enough exposure to the canon for Mahon already to think of himself as a Coleridge man. “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.”
In 1960 Mahon went to Trinity College, Dublin. There he “caught up” with Longley, who had been two years ahead of him at “Inst”, at a time when they both began to take poetry seriously. Mahon says he prefers to remember their long and intense conversations about each other’s poetry as “sparring” rather than “competition”, but acknowledges they both spoke “very frankly. And it was helpful that we did. It kept you on your toes.”
He read French and English, having been impressed by a young French master at school who was a “big Sartre and Camus man. He found a very responsive audience in us boys and we were all existentialist for a few years.” Mahon studied for a year at the Sorbonne – “in fact I spent more time in the caffs” – and has gone on to translate Molière, Jaccottet and others, as well as citing French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s study of the lived experience of architecture, The Poetics of Space, as a text that has informed his poetry. “It’s just my kind of thing. All about resonance and situation, who you are, rooms and houses and spaces and how they relate to place.”
He says there was little sense of a poetry career at Trinity; it was more a case of thinking “from poem to poem. We weren’t looking here and there to send poems out. Everything went to the college magazine, Icarus. Which was just as well because most of them are now safely hidden. Although a few also made it into the Irish Times and in due course some other Dublin magazines.”
In 1965 his first collection, 12 Poems, won the Gregory award and he used the prize money to travel in north America. “There was a bit of wanderlust, but I was more interested in the popular culture as well as the poetry. Hart Crane was my favourite at the time and I was also keen on the Beats, although I never wrote like them.” In the early 90s Mahon returned to the US and lived five years in New York. On his first trip it was “Lowell, Lowell, Lowell, everywhere I went. But in New York I started to read Elizabeth Bishop and wondered why I hadn’t found her before. They are wonderful poems.”
Soon after returning from his first US trip in 1966, Mahon was contacted by Jon Stallworthy at Oxford University Press, who had seen some of his work in magazines. “He asked if I had anything else and so, by return of post, I sent him everything.” The resulting book was Night-Crossing (1968), which was well received – although Mahon now thinks it was published too soon. “And I think I even had a sense of that at the time. Obviously it is very difficult to turn down a chance like that, but I should have had the sense to at least postpone a little bit.”
Over the years Mahon has revised individual poems and reshaped collections. (He shows “scant respect for the artist as a young Mahon”, quipped one critic.) A new Selected Poems, published by Penguin this month, takes in work from Night-Crossing up to last year’s Harbour Lights, which won Mahon the Irish Times poetry prize and was acclaimed for its “wonderful flexibility and tonal command, drawing on a range of literary cultures in its commentary on the present and its imagination of the future”.
Mahon says the new selection has been an “opportunity to have a clear-out. There are a few things in there from the very early days that are still of interest to me and which I’ve reworked. But I see the earliest stuff fading a bit. People say my things are not as good as ‘A Disused Shed’. I know it means a lot to many people. But I really do think of it as a rather manufactured piece of work now.”
By the early 70s Mahon was teaching English as a foreign language in Dublin and writing reviews for the Irish Times for £3 a go. When he was offered £30 a review by the Listener, it was difficult to refuse. “But it was all very Enemies of Promise. At first I reviewed really interesting books I cared about and I had a whole page. But soon enough they asked would I mind doing a batch fiction review, and that’s how it carried on.”
He went on to work for the BBC, the New Statesman and, perhaps most unlikely, as features editor of Vogue. “My agent bumped into Beatrix Miller, the then editor, just when she was looking for a features editor. So I was sent, wearing a sweater and jeans as always, to this flat in Eaton Square, where she asked me what I thought would be the next big thing. For some reason I said ‘dirigibles’. You know, airships. I said they’ll come back. Beatrix Miller looked at me very strangely, but it obviously appealed to some Voguey sense of elegance and I got the job. It was a big mistake, but I did it for a year.”
A collection of his literary journalism was published in 1996 – “a terrible shambles with about 245 typos and misspellings” – but he says that, despite fearing he might be fatally diverted from poetry, during the 70s “I did write quite a lot, and so I suppose it worked in terms of providing an income that allowed me to write poetry”.
The collections Lives (1972), The Snow Party (1975), Courtyards in Delft (1981) and Antarctica (1985) were followed by a period of silence until the chapbook The Yaddo Letter in 1992, then the long verse sequences The Hudson Letter (1995) and The Yellow Book (1997). His work has been described as moving over time from “the lyric and dramatic towards the contemplative and discursive”, and because of Mahon’s time away from Belfast, many critics have used the concept of exile as a way to interrogate his writing. It is not one he has much sympathy for.
“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 is equally unwilling to be typecast into providing a political commentary on recent Irish history. “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.”