‘Witty, perceptive, provocative’: President leads tributes to poet Derek Mahon
Michael Longley, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Peter Fallon, Colm Tóibín, Vona Groarke, Colette Bryce and many more pay tribute
Derek Mahon at home in Kinsale, Co. Cork in 2010. Photograph: John Minihan
President Michael D Higgins has led tributes to the poet Derek Mahon, who died at his home in Kinsale last night, aged 78.
President Michael D Higgins
News of the death of Derek Mahon will be received with great sadness by his colleagues in Aosdána but also, and more widely, by those who understand what the loss of a great poet, with a body of work such as his, entails.
Not so long ago one of his poems ‘A disused Shed in County Wexford’ was in contention as Ireland’s favourite poem. Derek Mahon’s body of work revealed a poet that could draw on an easy familiarity with the classics, but which brought to them a wit and freshness that was both perceptive and provocative in equal measure.
He shared with his northern peers the capacity to link the classical and the contemporary but he brought also an edge that was unsparing of cruelty and wickedness.
What I recall as his greatest strength was his poetic instinct to continually dredge for what was human about us; what was contradictory as well as what was full of possibility. Such poetic work would sometimes conclude with a near manifesto statement, such as in the lines from his poem ‘Calypso’:
“Homer was right though about the important thing,
The redemptive power of women”
I will miss those short cryptic but hopeful messages I got from him from Kinsale. The loss of Derek Mahon, yet another artist gone from us in recent times, is like the falling of oak trees. We are left with hope from the fruit of the acorns in which the writing and its encouragement represents as legacy.
To his partner, family and many friends, Sabina and I send our deepest sympathy.
Derek Mahon and I went to the same school, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (Inst for short). But our friendship of more than 60 years really got underway at Trinity College Dublin, where we served our poetic apprenticeships together. I was dazzled by his precocity and brilliance. And I am still dazzled.
From the beginning he was a master of the singing line and the resonant stanza. He had what musicians would call ‘perfect pitch’. His finest work is monumental. Derek Mahon wrote great poems and that makes him a great poet. He wrote immortal poems and that makes him an immortal poet.
Almost exactly 52 years ago I reviewed his first collection Night-Crossing in the Irish Times (September 30th, 1968). I wrote: ‘This is poetry rejoicing in all its attributes, the aesthetic and the humane – unembarrassed by its richness and invention. Night-Crossing is a brilliant and moving collection, and I have no doubts at all that Derek Mahon is among the finest poets now writing anywhere.’
Today I stand by every word of that judgment. Derek could be wickedly hilarious company. He wrote the most entertaining letters I have ever received. He was best man at Edna’s and my wedding. The news of his death breaks my heart.
Michael Longley’s new collection, The Candlelight Master, was published in August.
He never did that thing Larkin called ‘going around impersonating yourself’. I admired that about Mahon. I met him only twice, once in London, once in Dun Laoghaire, a low-key figure in a suit and trainers, reluctantly present for some event, but friendly. To me he was a superstar, quite simply.
I love returning to his poems and savouring their intense clarity of imagery, each one of them set to its own music in a way that few poets achieve. The contemplative tone that infused his late work never completely displaced a righteous anger at the destructive times he was living through, even in the haven of Kinsale.
We had the privilege to publish a new poem, Quarantine, in the latest Poetry Ireland Review. It’s been a hard year within a hard year for Irish poetry: first Eavan Boland and now Derek Mahon, and we’re mindful too of Ciaran Carson’s anniversary this very week. We will value the gifts of their poetry all the more.
Colette Bryce is the editor of Poetry Ireland Review. Her Selected Poems is published by Picador.
Since 1979, counting new collections, books of translations, plays, essays, Collecteds, Selecteds and limited edition chapbooks and broadsides, The Gallery Press has issued more than 50 titles by Derek Mahon. Since 2006 we've published 26. They combine to reveal the success, indeed the triumph, of his 'rage for order'.
Thought and feeling found words and forms in truly sophisticated style as Derek grew from being the maker of exquisite poems to being - from his apparently detached perch - a conscience, a cultural commentator and critic, a guiding light.
That an often troubled soul found peace in Kinsale, in The Grove, with a loving partner, Sarah Iremonger, was right and proper, for it's easy now to remember what William Orpen said of Hugh Lane: he was hard to fathom but difficult not to adore.
Peter Fallon is the publisher of The Gallery Press
In 1975 I met the poet Gerard Fanning in UCD and he told me he had an early copy of the new book by Derek Mahon, ‘The Snow Party’ and if I came to his house on Foster Avenue that evening, I could look at it with him. It was just two dozen poems, thirty-eight pages. There was an extraordinary clarity and ease in the tone, a light metre; the voice that was wry and understated, but also careful that the emotion would not exceed its cause. It was strange how affecting lines like: ‘I am going home by sea/ For the first time in years’ could be, and how instantly memorable some phrases were, such as ‘The prisoners of infinite choice’ or ‘Even now there are places where a thought might grow.’ We knew that night that we were reading poems that would be there forever, relished by readers all over the world for as long as time lasts. We held the book like it was gold.
Derek Mahon reads from his final collection
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
Ironic, literate, alert, Mahon was the poet who most directly and fruitfully drew on the inheritance of Louis MacNeice. History and chance made his life very different, and his status as an Irish poet remains unambiguous. But the broad reach of his poetry is there from the beginning. When he is writing about Portrush or County Wexford the poems breathe a large atmosphere; when he looks at Goa or New York they keep an intimate grip. He was a great reviser, sometimes ditching lines that as a reader I was fond of, but his insistence on unshowy craft was exemplary. A poem like ‘The Globe in North Carolina’ (which I’ve just re-read), its scope and elegance, never fails to astonish me.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin was Ireland Professor of Poetry 2016-19.
For me the world is a darker place without my dear friend Derek Mahon, who I knew for nearly 40 years, in London, Dublin and Kinsale. He wrote the intro for my picture book, An Unweaving of Rainbows in 1998. Derek was a dear comrade who knew more about Minihan than most people. I feel for his children and Sarah. He will always be in my prayers.
Sparky, independent, aloof in his way, Derek was his own, private, man. I hardly knew him. He showed scant interest in younger poets, didn’t play the readings or interviews circuit, had the measure of the greasy career pole.
So why did we all revere him so, young poets that we were?
I have his 1991 Viking / Gallery ‘Selected’ -that still marks for me a highpoint of my poetry youth- beside me now. It’s all the answer I need to the question. Oh, but he wrote an elegant poem!
I think we all wanted to write like him - knowing, urbane, sophisticated, and yet with a nub of street-life, of the vernacular, at its heart. He knew better than anyone how to shift gears in a poem so one minute you’re on high ground, thinking of European philosophy, perhaps. Or art. Or history. The next, you’re somewhere with a name and a familiar, out-of-season mood, where the language seems to kick back a little, to loosen its aesthetic belt. It’s how he swerves, in ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ from ‘the expropriated mycologist’ to the next phrase, ‘He never came back’.
You’d know a Mahon poem anywhere by its tone and register. His poems were pitch-perfect, stitched (as it were) of finely-spun thread that later in life seemed to have been dipped in caustic soda, for an edge.
Mahon’s poems were an object lesson in how to be cool and impassioned at once. To keep the head and to polish the language to his customary sheen, but also to permit the (often sore and sorely-felt) heart. That’s a lesson needed more than ever, these poetry days.
He was, is, and will be a towering presence in Irish poetry.
Vona Groarke’s latest collection is Double Negative (Gallery Books, 2019).
There is an extraordinary moment at the end of Derek Mahon’s poem Courtyards in Delft, where the eponymous De Hooch painting gets superimposed upon the ’50s landscape of the poet’s Ulster childhood. “I lived there as a boy,” Mahon says of the Dutch 17th century, “...a strange child with a taste for verse.”
Anyone who found poetry in their teens will recognise that strangeness. This was Mahon’s great gift, to capture all history in a single glittering ephemeral shard. Time and again, in every poem, there are infinitesimal images which seem to contain whole universes and epochs within.
I too lived there as a child, where “there” is Derek Mahon’s poems. I met Paul Durcan when I was 14. I told him I wanted to write poetry. “Read Derek Mahon,” Paul Durcan said to me, “ then you’ll understand.” My copy of Mahon’s OUP Selected, with the Botticelli sketches on the cover, is dated from my 16th birthday. My copy of The Hunt by Night is dated from four days later. A strange child with a taste for verse? Yes.
We were all so in awe of him, here and in the UK. All the poets I grew up with wanted to be him. The offhand cosmopolitanism, the breadth of reference, the plangeant incandescent precision of the work.
Myself and Vona were so in awe of him that, as kids in the late ’80s and early ’90s, we used to follow him around the night-time streets of Dublin 2. We had a path worn in his wake between Doheny & Nesbitts and Fitzwilliam Square. We wanted to make sure he got home safe. I told this once to Justin Quinn and Justin admitted that he used to do exactly the same in the Trinity library. Justin used to tiptoe around the stacks in Mahon’s wake, trying to see what the writer in residence had just been perusing.
I’m sorry he has died, but I didn’t really know him. I met him maybe half a dozen times, and every time I had to introduce myself. One of those times he peered at me and said: “And what do you do?” The room fell silent. How do you tell Derek Mahon that you too are a poet? I could hear how hollow those words in my voice sounded before I said them. “Oh this and that,” says I eventually and laughed. And Derek Mahon laughed too.
Conor O'Callaghan is a poet and novelist. His novel We Are Not in the World will be published in 2021.
All of us who love poetry in Ireland and around the world will be desolated to learn of the death of Derek Mahon, one of our great writers. It comes home particularly to us in Trinity where Mahon was a student in the 1960s and awarded an honorary degree in 1995.
I knew Derek from his student days, and have stayed in touch with him on and off ever since: just this week I had a card from him to give his blessing to an event we were planning here in College to celebrate what would have been his 80th birthday on 23 November 2021. Sadly, this will now have to be a memorial, but will certainly go ahead.
Mahon was formed by his childhood in North Belfast, schooling in Inst, and above all by his time in Trinity in the company of his lifelong friends Michael and Edna Longley to whom his first collection Night Crossing (1968) was dedicated. Already in that book his characteristic gifts were obvious: his wry wit, his ranging imagination and his dazzling sense of lyric form. All are apparent in that early signature poem ‘In Carrowdore Churchyard’, his tribute to Louis MacNeice.
Mahon lived for many years abroad, in the US and Canada, in London, Paris and Rome, with latterly highly productive visits to India. He is a major world poet not just because of the ways in which he absorbed all he saw and read, the pictures he so admired and appreciated, turning them into magnificent poems such as ‘Courtyards at Delft’ and ‘The Hunt by Night’. It is because of his capacity to go out to ‘everything that is the case imaginatively’ as he puts it in ‘Tractatus’. He is a wonderful poet of inanimate things, as in his amazing poem ‘Lives’ dedicated to Seamus Heaney, where he imagines a whole set of transmigrations from a ‘torc of gold’ to ‘a stone in Tibet’.
Mahon’s was in many ways a troubled life, vulnerable to depression, heartbreakingly caught in his four-line ‘Dejection Ode’. And that is what makes all the more moving his extraordinarily affirmative poem, ‘Everything is Going to Be All Right’, which has offered many of us consolation this year.
In the 1990s Mahon produced a remarkable set of satiric verse epistles, including The Hudson Letter (1995) and The Yellow Book (1997). But in the new century he turned back to the lyric form with the fine volume Harbour Lights (2006). The animating force in his later work was a sense of anger and indignation at all we are doing to destroy the planet, voiced in Life ón Earth (2008). His most recent book Against the Clock (2018) continued to express this concern for the despoiled environment, but there was there also a new and touching sense of personal serenity and happiness. One more book, Washing Up, is due out shortly from his long-term publisher Gallery Press.
His great gifts as a writer were recognised in many awards. His poetry will be read and re-read for generations to come. For those who knew him, what we will miss is his presence and the sheer pleasure of his company.
He has vanished where the lane turns, the last of the fire kings. Every time I see buckled tar on a Belfast street, the remains of a conflagration, I think of him, the great poet of the Northern Protestant, though unacknowledged as such, for he was provoked into poetry by the “fierce zeal” and the “bleak afflatus” to which we are so susceptible. I used to quote his poems in news reports from the North. I never drive through a suburb without smiling at his listing among the wonders of man the taming of the terrier, for he was also hilarious, in the bleak tradition of Beckett. The title of my next book, A Thought Might Grow, is taken from his magnificent A Disused Shed in County Wexford. Now, as he wrote in his wonderful elegy to MacNeice: “All we may ask of you we have.” Mahon too, kept the colours new, and I will keep on going back to him.
Susan McKay’s A Thought Might Grow, a sequel to Northern Protestants - An Unsettled People, will be published in 2021. She is writing a book about borders for which she received an Arts Council NI major individual award.
Derek Mahon’s poems changed my life. I still remember the sunny day I bought his 1993 Selected Poems in Kenny’s Bookshop, and how I fell for it, sitting in the Claddagh with the Corrib roaring by as I read, “I must be lying low in a room there,/ a strange child with a taste for verse, / while my hard-nosed companions dream of war/ on parched veldt and fields of rainswept gorse.”
The poems are a wonder, conjuring unforgettable lines and images, and such sweeping panoramas. Was it Edna Longley, who does not use the adjective lightly, who first remarked on the ambition and achievement of his big stanzas as Yeatsian? (Who else could tangle with Yeats like him in a poem like “Lapis Lazuli”? “A whole night-sky that serves as a paperweight, / this azure block blown in from the universe”…)
No more new Derek Mahon poems is the glummest of thoughts. How exciting it has been to follow his work, to talk with friends about it, this past twenty-seven years. The good prospect, last month, of seeing “Quarantine”, a new Derek Mahon poem in the latest Poetry Ireland Review! He writes, wrote!, about so much of life, his life and the life of our time, but also, crucially, inspirationally, he set the poems against such new horizons and backdrops and always, from line to line, so quick, mercurial, light-footed, breath-takingly daring.
John McAuliffe’s fifth book The Kabul Olympics (Gallery) came out this year.
Exemplary in craft, learned, cosmopolitan and with a deadly sense of humour shrewdly concealed behind that Ulster demeanour; Derek Mahon was one of a kind. “Well it must be just great to be famous,” he said to me, laughing, as we sat in the Long Valley bar drinking a pot of tea. I was holding a copy of his The Hunt by Night when someone came over with a copy of my early collection that Derek had reviewed, praising me in the last line for 'at least having a vocabulary.’ Son of hard-working Belfast Protestant parents, he settled as far south as you can go, in beautiful Kinsale. He tried hard to get Desmond O’Grady onto the Oxford poetry list, he helped many local writers and many blow-ins. He was the first man to put in a discreet good word for any young poet. Like polished marble, his couplets and quatrains will last a thousand years.
Thomas McCarthy is a Co Waterford poet whose latest collection is Prophecy (Carcanet, 2019)
It was a kind of shock to see the cover of Derek Mahon's second collection, Lives, displayed on a table of Belfast's famous Mullan's bookstore in 1972. For Lives carried the 'iconic' photograph of Titanic emerging from behind its scaffolded housing. That this most sophisticated and learned of poets had authorised, with subtlety and critical distance, a tradition which for decades has remained in the shadows, was liberating. From that point on Derek's poems blazed a trail many of my generation in Ireland and around the globe followed, in various states of awe and sheer delight. His books, benchmarks each and every one, will live on for as long as people are interested in the art and force of poetry. He was Maestro.
Gerald Dawe is a poet and Fellow Emeritus, Trinity College.
Bad and all as things have become in this threatened and uncertain world, the news of Derek's death this morning made the cold day here and this dark time even darker.
An American poet Derek admired wrote once "in a dark time the eye begins to see." Throughout his poetic life - from his precocious beginnings as a student poet in Trinity to the magisterial late volumes of profound, witty, poetically light-footed-as-ever meditations - Derek saw into and saw through many dark times, both private and public.
We met first one day in the National Library in the '60s. Derek hadn't come in to study there, no, but to invite me to join himself and Eavan Boland for a drink in Rice's on Molesworth Street. Fast forward then to Cambridge Mass., and Derek coming for a weekend, and still there six months later when I left to return to Dublin. Or later when he lived in New York's West Village, as I did, and we'd meet in The White Horse Tavern.
During that time, too, I did an interview with him for the Paris Review in which he spoke of being in a church choir (an influence on his verse, he said, even singing a few bars to illustrate that unlikely fact). Or much later still, a time in Poughkeepsie, where I was teaching, when we took a walk on the nearby Campus Farm, with Derek - dapper as ever in tweed overcoat and hat - wheeling Rachel's and my daughter, Kira, in her blue stroller. I remember his infectious laughter at the child's chatter, and unlikelhood of it all.
Beyond all that there were meetings in London (Observatory Lane seemed a good address for a poet who took such a wide, "panoptic" view of the world), where happily for all of us he continued writing poems among the best written - in Ireland or anywhere else - since Yeats. In more recent years, there have been phone calls to keep the thread of connection more or less intact, but alas no meetings. But, in spite of that, it was always good knowing Derek had found in Kinsale his port after storms, his safe window on the world.
And now, though Derek himself has gone beyond words, we have his poems, the bounty, the gift, of their words. Years ago, I dedicated a poem to him, called In the National Gallery, London. It was a celebration of Dutch art, about which Derek himself had written some lovely poems. It was also a celebration of his own clear-sighted tenacity of spirit. It ends in a description of ice skaters, how they know "the enclosing sky / like the back of their hands: at home/ In the cold, making no bones of it." Derek had something of such balance and such stoicism.
And as cold, sad and grief-struck as we have to be at his going, I feel sure, indeed I know for certain that the peerless poise, wit, articulate intelligence, and sheer heart of his marvellous poems will go on making their own kind of Mahon-warmth in the cold.
Eamon Grennan's recent collections include There Now and Out of Sight: New & Selected Poems
Ciarán Benson, chair of Poetry Ireland
In the loss of Derek Mahon, Ireland, and the world of poetry, has lost an outstanding voice, one that ranged over the wide territories of contemporary life, both personal and natural. He effortlessly framed and clarified centrally important ideas and longings and gifted them back to us in a beautiful and rich body of work. His influence will continue to grow.
Niamh O’Donnell, Director of Poetry Ireland
Derek was an extraordinarily brilliant poet. A gifted and noble observer of our world and one of that generation of outstanding poets from Northern Ireland who rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. His legacy to us is an incredible body of work, full of hard-earned insight and wisdom, including so many touchstone poems that will continue to resonate with people all over the world for generations to come.