Derek Mahon obituary: One of the great poets of his generation
Truculent character who preferred to write about society from position of the outsider
Derek Mahon published over twenty volumes of poetry. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Born: November 23rd, 1941
Died: October 1st, 2020
Derek Mahon, who has died, was one of the great poets of his generation. His most celebrated poem, A Disused Shed in Co Wexford, was described by John Banville as “the best single poem written in Ireland since the death of Yeats”. An Irish Times review called his New Collected Poems (2012) “a massive poetic achievement”.
His poem, Everything is Going to be All Right, a short lyric of solace and determined optimism, captured for many the national mood in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mahon was an arch formalist; he disparaged what he saw as the artless exhibitionism of much modern “free verse”. He was associated with the flourishing of poetry from Ulster in the 20th century, along with his lifelong friends Séamus Heaney and Michael Longley – the three were described as “the tight-assed trio” by reviewer Michael Foley because of their conservative approach to poetic form.
Known as a truculent character, Mahon struggled with alcoholism and a difficult personal life, gaining a reputation as Ireland’s chief poète maudit. Yet he did not spurn society, but preferred to write about it from the position of the outsider. Heaney saw in his work a “dominant mood of being on the outside [. . .] looking back nostalgically at what one knows are well-nigh intolerable conditions on the inside.” Mahon himself identified “solitude and community” as his “subject [and] theme”, and explained: “it is important for me to be on the edge looking in”.
Norman Derek Mahon was born in Belfast on November 23rd, 1941. His family were working-class Protestants who lived on Salisbury Avenue in the north of the city, and later in Glengormley. His father was a shipping engineer. He attended secondary school at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution.
Growing up, he desired to escape the confines of family and community. He found release in the life of the mind. A teacher introduced him to French Existentialism, and he began frequenting cafes to discuss literature with likeminded “oddities [and] weirdos”. He won his first poetry award, the Forrest Reid Memorial Prize, aged 17.
In 1960, he entered Trinity College, Dublin on a scholarship, later recalling: “I had rumbled Belfast for the bigoted corrupt dump that it was and I was delighted to get out of it.”
He read English and French and met other poets, including Michael Longley, Eavan Boland and Brendan Kennelly. He edited the literary periodical Icarus, and was noted for the confidence and fluency of his early writing.
He was not a dedicated student. He was sent down from Trinity twice, for “unsatisfactory attendance” and for causing a disturbance during an examination, and twice readmitted. After his first expulsion he went to Paris with the intention of studying at the Sorbonne, but spent more time in cafes than lecture halls. He failed to attend his own commencement (graduation) ceremony and didn’t formally receive his degree until 1986. He would later be awarded two honorary doctorates, by Trinity and NUI Galway.
On return trips to Belfast he became associated with a writing circle known as The Group, which included Heaney. Competitiveness and jealousy were features of this world: when Heaney enjoyed early success, he encountered hostility from some supporters of Mahon. A school of thought that Mahon was the superior poet persisted after Heaney won the 1995 Nobel Prize. Mahon later played down the importance to his early development of The Group.
After leaving Trinity in 1965 he published a pamphlet, 12 Poems, which won the Gregory prize. Some of those poems were republished in his first full book, Night-Crossing in 1968. It was a Poetry Book Society Choice. The Times wrote that it displayed “skill, wit and offhand arrogance”.
For much of his life Mahon changed address frequently, living in various parts of England and Ireland as well as North America, before settling in Kinsale in 2003
In 1972 he married Doreen Douglas, a Trinity classmate and UTV news announcer. They had two children together, but the relationship did not last; Mahon’s alcoholism and infidelity were contributing factors. They were still married when Doreen died in 2010.
The several collections he published in the 1970s earned Mahon a reputation as one of the most gifted poets writing in English. The London Review of Books (LRB) would later recall that his early collections “were seen as bringing a fresh idiom into Irish poetry”.
The selection Poems 1962-1978 included some revised versions of earlier works. Writing in the LRB, Douglas Dunn welcomed it as “a landmark in contemporary verse”; but he suspected that Mahon was “compensating for a lack of productivity by going over earlier work”. Following 1982’s The Hunt By Night, just a single volume of original work appeared over the next decade, during which time his drinking problem worsened.
He did, however, publish well-received translations during this time, of French writers including Nerval and Molière. In 1988 he won the CK Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize for his translation of a selection of poems by Philippe Jaccottet.
Translations and adaptions
In 1992 Mahon’s Selected Poems won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Poetry Prize. The following year he became a father for the third time. He finally overcame his addiction, and creative recovery followed. A volume of new work, The Hudson Letter was published in 1995, along with his first Collected Poems; that same year he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.
Further success followed in the early twenty-first century. Harbor Lights (2005) won the Irish Times Poetry Now prize, as did Life on Earth (2008). He was awarded the David Cohen prize in 2007. Reviewing 2010’s An Autumn Wind collection, The Guardian celebrated Mahon’s “triumphant late flowering”.
In all, Derek Mahon published over twenty volumes of poetry. An accomplished dramatist, he translated and adapted for stage and television works by writers including Racine, Turgenev and Euripides. He was also a prolific broadcaster and journalist, and served on the editorial staff of The New Statesman and Vogue magazines.
For much of his life Mahon changed address frequently, living in various parts of England and Ireland as well as North America, before settling in Kinsale in 2003. A feeling of displacement was a theme of his poetry. When it came to Northern Irish politics, Mahon acknowledged that he had “never been able to write directly about [The Troubles]”.
His itinerant lifestyle meant he lacked first-hand experience of the conflict, which deepened his sense of alienation from his homeland. In Afterlives he wrote:
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.
The decay of cultural values was a preoccupation of his work. Reviewing The Yellow Book (1997), Gerald Dawe wrote, “what these poems rail against is a spiritual vacuity and cultural hype of self-astonishment”. Edna Longley noted that “his poetry denies progress”, while Hugh Haughton saw in his work “a continuous protest against modern culture”.
Yet if he was conservative, his writing was not anachronistic: Boland called him “a dark, witty, and adventurous formalist”.
Mistrust of progress is also evident where his poems consider environmental matters. With typical ironic humour, he wrote in The Great Wave: “ ‘If waste is the new raw material’ ” as they say / our resources are infinite”. His sympathy was often with “waste”: obsolete or discarded objects, old sheds and garages. He raised the status of such objects by considering them in his poetry, as in A Kind of People:
Umbrellas and parasols,
Like old navy raincoats,
Sewing machines, bird-baths,
Shovels and violins,
Are really a kind of people.
Derek Mahon was a member of Aosdána. He declined to be considered for both an OBE and the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry.
He is survived by his partner Sarah Iremonger and his three children, Rory, Katy and Maisie.