Derek Mahon: 'It's a way of celebrating life'
Derek Mahon at home in Kinsale, Co. Cork in 2010. Photograph: John Minihan
The poet Derek Mahon is a superb recorder of loss and master of the elegy. He is also passionate about guarding against the crush of market forces in the arts – so what drove him to take part in a documentary about his work?
I AM ON my way towards Compass Hill in Kinsale where Derek Mahon has lived for the last 10 years, when by chance I happen to see the poet himself, wandering along with shopping bags on Pier Road. Time, it seems, is marvellously elastic in this lovely laid-back and sea-washed part of the world: the scheduled interview time has transformed into errand time. Thus I give him a lift, and we complete the errands en route to the atmospheric house overlooking the harbour, where he lives on the ground floor.
The Poetry Nonsenseis the title of a documentary about Mahon’s life and work, directed by Roger Greene, and which will be shown on Wednesday as part of the Kinsale Arts Week. It is not the first time the documentary has been screened – it was shown at the Galway Film Fleadh, for instance – but the fact that Mahon now lives and works in Kinsale will make Wednesday’s screening there a particularly special event.
Born in Belfast in 1941, he had lived an almost entirely city life prior to moving permanently to Cork: in Dublin, London, New York and Paris variously. “We tire of cities in the end: / the whirr and blur of it,” begins A Quiet Spotin Mahon’s most recent collection, An Autumn Wind. As in this and in previous collections, such as Harbour Lights, many of the poems refer both directly or obliquely to Kinsale, its characters, and the life Mahon has lived there for the last decade.
“The whole atmosphere here is very conducive,” he explains. The house he lives in was built for married officers quartered at Charles Fort in the 19th century. Both the house (divided into apartments) and its gardens feature several times in An Autumn Wind, which is dedicated to his landlady, who lives upstairs.
Mahon, a distinguished poet who has won a number of awards, including the David Cohen Prize for Literature in 2007, is known to be reserved in person, rarely giving interviews. So what made him agree to be the subject of a documentary that both he and the film-maker hope will soon air on either RTÉ or BBC, thus reaching a wide audience?
“I had always resisted the idea of doing a TV thing,” he explains. “I always said no, out of shyness. But I did agree to this one. All the others have done it; all the other Irish poets. It was probably the last chance I will have to do it. I’ll probably drop dead very soon,” he adds unsmilingly, repeating this assertion twice. Even though mortality – his own and other people’s – is a frequent subject in his work, it’s somehow still an odd, unsettling line to hear thrown out so deliberately.
The documentary takes its name from something his father once asked him: “When are you going to give up the poetry nonsense?” As it happened, Mahon never did.
He is a superb recorder of loss, and master of the elegy. His elegy for Louis MacNeice, In Carrowdore Churchyard, becomes a prism of revelation with each new reading; always “keeping the colours new”. As does his best-known poem, A Disused Shed in Co Wexford, where the lost and forgotten dead of wars and conflict strain towards our collective memory, as mushrooms in a shed will crowd a keyhole of light; “the one star in their firmament.”
Mahon works slowly, on one poem at a time, through many drafts. He writes every day, “Long-hand first and the typewriter. Not too quick to the typewriter, though.” The title poem of Harbour Lights, for instance, took “Weeks. Oh, weeks,” he sighs. The typewriter on the table in front of the window is a manual one: Mahon carefully eschews what he describes as “high-tech things”. He does not drive, does not have a mobile phone or a computer, and claims now to never have looked at anything on the internet, beyond “looking over someone’s shoulder occasionally.”
As a writer, is he not at least curious about the possibilities of accessing and researching all sorts of information, via the internet? He shakes his head and laughs, looking simultaneously appalled and amused.
“No, no, no,” he insists. “It’s something to do with being a mechanical klutz. I’m no good with things like that. And also there’s something sinister about the internet I just don’t like. Or so I imagine. Well, it originated of course as a military intelligence tool, and to my mind, it’s never quite lost that association.”
Mahon is very particular about whom he reads. “I tend not to read young poets. I tend to wait until they’re a bit older and writing better. I tend not to read young novelists either. Same thing.” Unusually for a poet, Mahon claims he has no interest in growing his own readership. “I want somereaders. I don’t want global readership. I don’t want just anyone accessing my work,” he declares grandly.
What does he mean by ‘just anyone’? “There’s too much ‘Po-Biz’ as they call it in the United States,” he says with distaste, spelling out the word letter by letter, his lip curling. “The whole globalised creative writing racket. Poetry as a business. What I’m really trying to say is that you shouldn’t be writing for a global audience.
“There should be a privacy and a measure of mystique to the work. Because it’s a special activity, poetry. There are things we don’t understand, philosophical things. I think of poetry as connecting with those things. Ideally. Maybe. Which implies a kind of inaccessibility or maybe inscrutability, ineffability, on the part of the readers. Some word like that.
“There is a dimension which not only needs to be treated with respect but almost with fear, really. I’m talking about poetry as a secular religion.”
He talks gleefully about poet Harry Clifton’s recent acceptance speech on becoming the new Ireland Professor of Poetry. “I thoroughly enjoyed Harry’s rebuke to the Taoiseach,” he chuckles. He is referring to when Taoiseach Brian Cowen stated that the arts had a large role to play in getting Ireland “back on track.” The Taoiseach had declared that “we must connect with that brand now and use it to give us the competitive advantage in a globalised world that is increasingly the same.”
In reply, Clifton warned against the arts being in danger of becoming “no more than a crush of market forces where the human mind becomes a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.”
“Poetry has become too much of a business,” Mahon repeats. “We have to guard against the commodification of the arts, and particularly the commodification of poetry. To me, the idea of using the arts to build ‘brand Ireland’ is very dense and philistine.”
It is striking in the documentary that virtually nothing about Mahon’s private life is recounted: it’s very much an edited version of a life and work. He doesn’t even take the cameras to see the house where he grew up in Belfast, merely waving a hand vaguely towards the direction of the street instead. Neither are we told the names of the two children who appear in a single still, or the name of his ex-wife, pictured on their wedding day.
In his work, however, he writes frequently, and movingly, about his children, and their various absences from his life. The best known of these is The Yadoo Letter, addressed directly to the two children by his marriage, where he describes himself as “your lost father.” He also in recent years has had a third child, the “rosy daughter” of Cloud Ceiling;a joyous and exhuberant lyric about his late fatherhood.
“Reticence,” he says now quietly, by way of explanation for the many gaps in the documentary. It may also be embarrassment. Mahon was a very public alcoholic for many years. In The Poetry Nonsense, he stands at the entrance to the flat in Fitzwilliam Square he rented for many years, and incants, “Four and a half minutes to Doheny Nesbitts. Eight minutes to the Shelbourne Bar.”
Dawn at St Patrick’sis a poignant and visceral poem about the long process of drying out:
I chew my thumb
and try to figure out
what brought me to my present state –
an “educated man”, a man of consequence, no bum
but one who has hardly grasped what life is about.
“Alcoholism hindered the work,” he admits frankly. “I can write about these things and deal with them in verse, but I’m reluctant to talk about them in a documentary or in a newspaper. I don’t want to be constantly banging on about booze, and there are other people involved when it comes to late fatherhood.”
What does he consider to be the function of poetry in 2010? He thinks for a while. “I suppose the function of poetry for me is the celebration of the English language,” he answers eventually. “To celebrate language, which is a way of celebrating life.”
The kind of rain we knew is a thing of the past –
deep-delving, dark, deliberate you would say,
browsing on spire and bogland; but today
our sky-blue slates are steaming in the sun,
our yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay
like racehorses. We contemplate at last
shining windows, a future forbidden to no one.
The Poetry Nonsensewill be screened as part of the Kinsale Arts Week at the Municipal Hall on Wednesday at 6pm, followed by a post-screening Q & A with Derek Mahon and director Roger Greene. Kinsaleartsweek.com