Derek Mahon: a walk through his life and work

Derek Mahon

A walk through Derek Mahon’s life and work. “I lie here in a riot of sunlight watching the day break and the clouds flying. Everything is going to be all right.” (Everything Is Going to Be All Right”, 1978) This message of positivism is actually a sigh after an endpoint in the poem, a self-reminder of Mahon, for himself and for the world. Also, very appropriate in the context in which we find ourselves today. 

Derek Mahon, born in Belfast on Nov. 23, 1941, was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and graduated with degrees in modern languages and philosophy from Trinity College, Dublin. What to say about his life? He has done many jobs related to culture and literature. All these experiences have helped to build his personality as a writer and have determined the rhythm and tone of his poems. After graduating in 1965 he worked as a reviewer, translator and scriptwriter, as well as a drama critic at the Listener and editor for Vogue. After studying French at Trinity College, he spent a year in France, at Sorbonne. He also lived and worked in cities across the United States and Canada before moving to London to become a journalist.

Related to his love and family life, he married Doreen Douglas in 1972, from whom he separated in 1980. From his relationship with Jane Desmarais he has a daughter called Maisie Mahon. Until his death his partner was Sarah Iremonger, with whom he had two children: Rory and Katherine Jane Mahon. 

As for his best known work, during his years in America he wrote a regular column for the Irish Times called “Letter From New York”. Later a dry spell came, but his motivation was reactivated by the composition of the poems for the book The Hudson Letter”. He also wrote “The Yellow Book”, listed as “one of the most impressive poetic sequences to emerge from Ireland in recent years”, according to The Boston Globe. His latest work is called “Against the Clock”, and was published in 2018, although his publisher announced that a new volume called “Washing Up” was to be published imminently. 

Derek Mahon was regarded as one of the most talented and innovative Irish poets of the late 20th century. His life was full of ups and downs, which led him to cultivate deep, detailed, raw and witty verses. In them, we can see his experiences reflected in the different crises related to alcoholism and their failed love relationships. “As a poet, he found consolation in poetic forms, in rhyme, and his body of work can be read as an attempt to impose form on the otherwise formlessness of his own life” says Stephen Enniss, the writer of his biography “After the Titanic: A Life of Derek Mahon”. 

He was affiliated to the generation of young poets from Northern Ireland who rose to prominence in 1960s and 1970. Critics have compared his poetry to that of great authors such as W.H. Aauden, Louis MacNeice and even Samuel Beckett. His verses revolve, most of the time, on the same great topics: 

  • His Hometown: Belfast

Afterlives

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.

  • Everyday details

Dawn at St.Patrick’s

but the real

hospital is a cheerful

modern extension at the back

hung with restful reproductions of Dufy, Klee and Braque.

Television, Russian fiction, snooker with the staff,

a sifter of Lucozade, a paragraph

of Newsweek or the Daily Mail 

are my daily routine

during the festive season.

They don’t lock the razors here

as in Bowditch Hall. We have remained upright —

though, to be frank, the Christmas dinner scene,

with grown men in their festive gear,

was a sobering sight.

  • Loneliness

Chinatown

We are all lost boys, or so we like to imagine

each sprung, like Gatsby, from his own self-conception;

whereas, of course, there’s not much you can do

about the odd parents who conceived of you

and being young. I remember it well, is tough:

will the last bus be gone, her light be on or off? 

  • Agile rhyme and rhythm

Death and the Sun

Meanwhile in the night of Europe, the winter of faces

Sex and opinion, a deft hand removes

The Just Judges from their rightful places

And hangs them behind a bar in Amsterdam –

A desert of fog and water, a cloudy dream

Where an antique Indonesian god grimaces

And relativity dawns like a host of doves;

Where the artist who refused suicide

Trades solidarity for solitude,

A night watch, a self-portrait, supper at Emmaus.

  • Appeal to the reader

Chinatown 

Cheer up, son; oh, and above all disbelieve

the cynic who tries to tell you how to behave

for, as Confucius said, fine words are seldom humane. 

  • References to characters in literature

Death and the sun

Night falls on Belfast, on the just and the unjust,

On its Augustinian austerities of sand and stone –

While Sisyphus’ descendants, briefly content,

Pause at their factory gates to light a Gitane.

Malraux described these preterite to you

As no longer historically significant;

And certainly they are shrouded in white dust.

 

One of the most notable characteristics of his work was the repeated use of Ireland places as title names: Chinatown, Dawn at St. Patrick’s, A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford, A Garage in Co. Cork, Noon at St. Michael’s, Spring in Belfast… As Sean O’Brien writes in The Guardian: “His poems were lyrical, witty, ironic, succinct, cosmopolitan, rich in phrase and image”. Mahon leaves a huge body of work: 12 individual collections of poetry, translations of poetry and verses from drama’s from several European languages, autobiographical pieces about his upbringing and education, plus non-academic pages of criticism. Although Derek Mahon died at the age of 78, his work will always remain a very important pillar in contemporary Irish poetry. 

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Judit Sadurni

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