I like the poetry of Derek Mahon because of its visual impact, the sympathetic outlook it possesses, its interesting perspective on political and religious conflict, as well as the empathy and sympathy with the lives of others in his poetry. The poems in which this can be seen are Grandfather, Day Trip to Donegal, After the Titanic, Kinsale, Raithlin, Ecclesiastes and A disused Shed in County Wexford.
As said, one of the reasons I like the poetry of Derek Mahon is because of its visual impact. Imagery pervades Mahon’s poetry and each poem is detailed thoroughly, giving it a feeling of wholeness and completion. As a result each Mahon poem has a world of its own, complete to the finest detail; this gives his work as a whole an appealing quality, as it prevents monotony when reading through his different poems.
This is seen in Day Trip to Donegal. Here Mahon examines the relationship between man and nature, using imagery to display how man is harmfully intruding on the natural world. Donegal is initially idealized with imagery of the sublime, with Mahon declaring that its hills are ‘a deeper green/ Than anywhere in the world’, which has echoes of Kavanagh’s declaration with Shancoduff. While the statement is impossible to prove the image serves to show the beauty of nature, namely that even in such a basic and minute form, some hills in Donegal, extreme beauty can be found. However near the hills the threat facing nature is present, as Mahon speaks of ‘the grave/ Grey of the sea the grimmer in that enclave’, with the image of the depressing sea pointing to the threat that man poses to nature. In this grim sea is another image that shows this threat, as Mahon reveals the fish being caught by the fishermen who plan to sell these fish at market. Mahon uses personification to emphasize this threat, presenting the fish suffering in terms of human emotion; as they are caught and flop about the deck he speaks of their ‘attitudes of agony and heartbreak.’ The poet is clever here; showing fish being caught would not arouse much sympathy from the reader, as this is an everyday occurrence, but personifying the fish makes such an act seem more barbaric (and thus the threat is amplified) as it is presented as akin to assault or murder. Similar is seen in After the Titanic; while Mahon focuses mostly on the narrator, his escape from the ship as it sank and his resulting trauma caused by his guilt (the narrator reveals ‘I tell you/ I sank as far that night as any/ Hero’) he also focuses on the sinking of the ship itself. The poet uses vivid images when doing so, so as to emphasize that what is not important is the sinking of the ship; what is important is the many who passed away as a result, and those whose lives were affected by these deaths. Mention is made of ‘a pandemonium of/ Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches’ which is poignant when considering the significance of these items, as they represent those who have passed away in the sinking; the prams represent infants now deceased, while pianos represent those who passed away with a musical quality. Similarly, when the narrator speaks of ‘Where the tide leaves broken toys and hat boxes/ Silently at my door’ we are reminded of the infants passed away who would have played with such toys (which in turn were destroyed by the sinking) and the men who would wear hats that once inhabited the now empty boxes. Likewise, in Ecclesiastes Mahon uses contrasting images to show a reason for his disrespect of the Protestant culture, that its leaders, here the ‘God-fearing, God-/ chosen purist little puritan’ are hypocritical and thus that their repression is all the more sinful. He uses images associated with darkness and depression to tell the preacher how he should act, such as when he should ‘love the January rains when they darken the dark doors and sink hard/ into the Antrim hills, the bog meadows, the heaped/ graves of your fathers’. The reasoning for this is shown when he associates the preacher’s actions and life philosophy with vibrant colours to show how while the leaders of the Protestant culture instruct its members to live life according to restrictions (represented by the dark and depressing images which show life not being lived and experienced fully), they do not. The preacher is told to ‘Bury that red/ bandana and stick, that banjo’, as these items represent a wanderer (the bandana and stick hold the wanderer’s belongings); the banjo represents his carefree state, as he moves from place to place with no responsibility or care for any other. As a result Mahon tells the preacher ‘this is your/ country, close one eye and be king’, which refers to the saying ‘In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king’, which not only criticizes the preachers and other leaders of the Protestant culture for their poor leadership but also suggests they are leaders because those who they lead do not realise the hypocrisy of the Protestant culture.
Mahon’s disrespect of the Protestant culture in Ecclesiastes introduces another element of his poetry I found interesting, his unique perspective on political and religious conflict, as he rejected his roots and therefore the Planter culture because of its outlook and the self-possessed limits. Henceforth his poetry comments on his Northern Irish upbringing but this commentary is opinionated, criticizing the Protestant culture’s sectarianism and violent ways; I found this interesting as it provides a unique first-person view of the world of Northern Ireland during this time. In the poem Mahon speaks critically of the Protestant culture and details his reason for rejecting this culture. The Protestant culture is a repressive regime, represented with the ‘shipyard silence, the tied-up swings’, both of which indicate the lack of freedom for and restriction of members of this culture; shipyards would usually be full of noise, with various members of ships preparing their vessels for various voyages, while swings cannot carry out their function if they are tied up. Mahon later ridicules the notion of the Protestant culture, namely that despite suffering such repression the members of the culture receive comparatively little in return; he compares their repression to the need to ‘shelter your cold heart from the heat/ of the world, from woman-inquisition, from the bright eyes of children…. wear black, drink water’, yet the Protestant culture simply lures the members to do so ‘with rhetoric’, while ‘promising nothing under the sun.’ We see more of this in another poem, As It Should Be. The poem focuses on the paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, showing how such action breaks down all semblance of civilization and replaces this with barbarity. The narrator represents a deluded generation who believe murder and violence are necessary to enact order in life, and the poem begins with an ironic statement, as the narrator calls the person who he and a mob hunt ‘the mad bastard’. He presents the hunted as crazy and a threat, yet their attempts to kill the man show that they could be referred to this also, as they chase him through bogland and eventually corner him in a lorry yard where they kill him by gunshot. The speaker’s delusion is further shown as he attempts to justify the barbaric murder, as he tells the reader to abandon any idealistic notions such as what was just stated, that the murder is barbaric. He instead instructs the reader ‘Let us hear no idle talk/ Of the moon in the Yellow River’, as the speaker believes the world is better off without the man; ‘The air blows softer since his departure.’ He even makes mention of the children in the neighbourhood to further justify the murder, suggesting that the man is a threat to children also, and has made them feel unsafe, and hence ‘Since his tide burial during school hours/ Our kiddies have known no bad dreams’. The poet concludes with his belief that the children will agree with their murder, which either shows how deluded he and the others are; if the children have any concept of morals they will disagree, otherwise this illustrates how corrupt the world is, that further generations will agree with such barbarity, ‘This is as it should be./ They will thank us for it when they grow up/ To a world with method in it.’ Elsewhere, in Raithlin, Mahon explores the idea of barbarity by humankind, such as that shown in As It Should Be, and wonders whether it can be truly removed from humankind or whether it is always present, and is simply dormant at times, waiting to reappear when circumstances allow this. He uses the island of Rathlin to exemplify this, as there was once barbaric violence on the island, but it has now been uninhabited for 500 years and he hence begins by declaring ‘A long time since the last scream cut short -/ Then an unnatural silence; and then/ A natural silence’. While peacefulness was initially unnatural it has now become the accustomed way of being here, and when Mahon visits the island (this visit inspired the poem) he thus remarks that ‘we land/ As if we were the first visitors here’; such is the peacefulness of the setting it seems unbelievable that there was ever conflict in this place. When he departs the island he therefore declares ‘We leave here the infancy of the race,/ Unsure among the pitching surfaces/ Whether the future lies before us or behind’. Mahon cannot be anyway certain that his world, plagued with barbarity such as that present in As It Should Be, could ever undergo such a transformation as Rathlin; therefore he is uncertain as to whether his world in the future will be like the island he is leaving behind, or the place he is returning to.
In Raithlin Mahon empathizes with the lives of others, another characteristic of his poetry I admire. I feel that this quality shows Mahon and his work to be of the highest standard as the poet does not rely on his own experiences to create poetry; he can link his own experiences with the world and events around him to create and present messages to his audience. Here Mahon mirrors Somhairle Bui who is ‘powerless on the mainland’ as he watches the killings on the island of Raithlin. He comments on how Somhairle can only hear ‘the screams of the Rathlin women… seconds after, upon the wind’, which is similar to Mahon’s situation in two ways. Firstly, like Somhairle is unable to help the women due to his being on the mainland while they are on the island, Mahon cannot help the many being killed in Northern Ireland around him due to an inability to. However in his case this is because there is such a deeply founded belief that fighting and conflict is the best solution to the problems of the time. Secondly, like Somhairle only hears of the murders after they occur (as sound must travel to him), Mahon, like many inhabitants of Northern Ireland only hears of many of the murders some time after they have occurred, due to many of them taking place in hidden times, places and manners like the murder shown in As It Should Be. Elsewhere, in Grandfather, Mahon speaks of his grandfather and his devotion to his craft. The poet compares his grandfather to a child, remarking that ‘Even on cold/ Mornings he is up at six with a block of wood/ Or a box of nails, discreetly up to no good/ Or banging round the house like a four-year-old’. The comparison to a child shows the extent of his grandfather’s devotion, as he likens his grandparent’s commitment to his craft to the mannerisms of a four year old, who acts with no thought of curtailment, and when are in the middle of an action do so excessively, for children of such a young age mostly focus on just one thing. This comparison brings in the result of his grandfather’s commitment, that he was seldom present, ‘Never there when you call’, and rather only could be heard at the end of day, when ‘after dark/ You hear his great boots thumping in the hall’. Mahon could be linked to his grandfather through his role as poet, which led him to be somewhat isolated from all around him; the poet was traditionally isolated from society, and this may seen as necessary for Mahon to suitably write about the troubles in the world he lived in. Mahon says of his grandfather ‘Nothing escapes him; he escapes us all’, and it might be considered that while the poet sees all in his world, he must maintain a suitable distance from all so as to be able to comment in what he believed to be the most accurate and suitable manner. Remaining in the usual day-to-day world would make it difficult to glimpse a rounded viewpoint of the world; if Mahon did not distance himself he might not have been able to create such poems as After The Titanic, for criticism of Ismay would have been easy, or As It Should Be, as he might have found it difficult to attempt to justify a murder. More of the same is seen in Chinese Restaurant in Portrush. As the poem concludes Mahon shows the reader the owner of the Chinese restaurant, who the poet views as he eats his dinner, ‘with my paper and prawn chow mein’. The proprietor, we are told, looks out onto the ocean, standing at the door ‘as if the world were young’, which refers to a time when the owner was young, and thus his world was also. His looking out onto the ocean in such a manner implies that this resembles a time when the same man was in his homeland, gazing at the world he was soon going to explore. However now as he does so it makes him think of where he once departed from, and thus he ‘whistles a little tune, dreaming of home’. When considering Mahon’s life the presence of the proprietor becomes clear, as Mahon also spent much of his time away from home; he moved from his childhood home in Ulster to Trinity and later the Sorbonne in Paris for his third level-studies, and following this lived in Canada and the United States, where in 1967 he published Night Crossing, his first collection of poems. His thinking of home while away is evident when considering the poems that he wrote abroad, such as Ecclesiastes, which focuses on the Protestant culture of Northern Ireland, the place he grew up in.
The final feature of Mahon’s poetry I love is its sympathetic element. His works are not only critical, as has been shown in such parts of this essay as the paragraph on political and religious conflict; when necessary Mahon can sympathize with the problems and strife of various individuals. This presents the poet as a man of compassion who uses his poetry to not only comment on far-reaching and mainstream issues such as politics, but also issues of a smaller scale, which he presents as equally important.This is seen in Grandfather. As mentioned previously, this poem focuses in part on the detail that Mahon’s grandfather was frequently absent, and was not present when needed, ‘Never there when you call’. It would thus be understandable if Mahon was someway resentful towards his grandfather, yet in this poem Mahon explores why his grandfather maintained such a distance. He begins with the revelation that his grandfather suffered an injury, and thus is shown as people ‘brought him in on a stretcher from the world’, with the phrase ‘from the world’ suggesting the injury forced him to retire, as it prevented him from partaking in the role he had held outside of the family home up until the injury (the line implies a divide between the outside ‘world’ and the family home). As a result, Mahon suggests that when his grandfather ‘soon recovered’ (but could not return to work) he resumed a rigid routine that resembled his working life, so as to offer him some return to normality, working from home, where ‘row upon row of gantries rolled/ Away to reveal the landscape of a childhood/ Only he can recapture.’ This attempt at a return to the past meant that Mahon’s grandfather was as distant in retirement as he was while working, working from early in the morning when ‘Even on cold Mornings he is up at six with a block of wood/ Or a box of nails’ till late at night, when only ‘after dark/ You hear his great boots thumping in the hall/ And in he comes’. More of the same is seen in After The Titanic. Mahon shows his sympathetic nature in the poem with his treatment of Ismay. As said, it would be easy for Mahon to criticize Ismay for his fleeing of the ship (Ismay criticizes himself, declaring ‘I sank as far that night as any/ Hero’, but Mahon instead pities Ismay because he is burdened with shame and depression for escaping the Titanic as it sunk. His life is defined by this shame and depression despite his act being a natural humane reaction for survival and therefore Mahon poignantly chronicles the remainder of his life following the sinking of the Titanic in twenty lines. Such is Ismay’s depression that he cuts himself off from all others, such is his shame for his previous action; he admits ‘Now I hide/ In a lonely house behind the sea’. Tragically, Ismay wastes his life cut off from all others; Mahon chronicles the passing of his life with the passing of the months (‘The showers of April/, flowers of May mean nothing to me, nor the/ Late lights of June’), and eventually presents Ismay as an old man who has wasted his life due to such shame, as his gardener speaks of him, as he ‘Describes to strangers how the old man stays in bed/ On seaward mornings after nights of/ Wind, takes his cocaine, and will see no one.’ Mahon’s sympathy extends beyond the human realm in Kinsale as he looks with sadness at the transformation of the landscape of this place. In the past, many years ago, the countryside was uninfluenced by humankind, unexplored, and, like the rain Mahon speaks of, ‘deep-delving, dark’. The poet’s mention of bogland suggests similar, as bogs are known for being fine preservers as the items that inhabit bogs are not found for long periods after their original existence, which presents bogs as perfect examples of nature in Mahon’s eyes as they are unexplored and possess an enigmatic state. However ‘today’, in the present, the natural world is no longer unexplored or uninfluenced as it is exploited by humankind for various uses, represented by ‘yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay/ like race-horses’. Such is the exploitation of the natural realm that Mahon suggests there is no mystery left in the world; as humankind has exploited the natural world future generations will have no hesitation in doing so again, in ‘a future forbidden to no-one.’
As said, I like the poetry of Derek Mahon. It is impossible not to with its empathy for others, the poet’s sympathetic outlook, his interesting perspective on political and religious conflict mingled together with an impressive array of images. As a result, he is my favourite poet.