After the Titanic: A Life of Derek Mahon, Stephen Enniss, Gill &
Macmillan, 2014, 304pp, £26.99 (hardback)
Derek Mahon is the youngest of the astonishing triumvirate of Irish poets
who made great reputations in their twenties in the 1960s and then maintained
and augmented them. Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley were
born in 1939; Derek Mahon in 1941. All three were Ulstermen. Heaney
came from the Catholic, or nationalist community; Longley and Mahon
from the Protestant, so-called loyalist community. Heaney ‘emigrated’ first,
to Dublin and Co. Wicklow. Mahon has lived a peripatetic life but is now
settled in the Republic, on the harbour of Kinsale near Cork. Longley lives
still within a few miles of his birthplace. He and Mahon attended Trinity
College, Dublin, the mainly Protestant, more precisely Anglican foundation
of Dublin’s two great universities. Heaney attended Queen’s University,
Belfast, a Protestant, effectively Presbyterian foundation but over the
last half-century evermore ecumenical and progressive.
The three poets were close friends. Heaney, who like Yeats and Beckett
won the Nobel Prize for literature, died in 2013. His parents had an agricultural
smallholding in Co. Derry. Part of the worldwide appeal of his
poetry is that it remains rooted in what French winemakers call terroir: a
soil, a culture from which something universal and edifying can be made.
Mahon’s Belfast suburban, lower middle class, industrial background is as
important for his poetry as Heaney’s ruralism. It is by definition more complex
and less rooted in a poetic tradition of its own. He has taken another
Ulsterman, Louis MacNeice, as a master but greatly extended his range.
Like MacNeice’s friend and contemporary, W. H. Auden, Mahon can rummage
through most of the forms of English verse and mould them to his
own voice and purpose.
Michael Longley read classics at Trinity. He writes self-contained poems
which do not, as is the case with Heaney and Mahon, require reference.
They have, of course, their own roots and resonances but are fashioned to
stand aloof from these. Thus Longley is a very ‘pure’ poet in the way we
use the term with respect to Robert Graves, say, or Elizabeth Bishop. All
three men are traditional, formalist poets. Tennis is played with the lines
on the court well drawn and a net of some kind in place. The game may
be played with, and against, life but it is also played against the whole
corpus of English and European verse. They engage with Eliot’s ‘present
moment of the past’. And all derive benefit as well as heartache from an
association, through age and background, with painful aspects of Ireland’s
second twentieth-century civil war, the recent Troubles. Indeed each has
been accused, from time to time, of insufficient activism, of too oblique
an approach to conflict. The charge is fading now and was never just. The
poetry could never lie only in the pity. It could not help but deal with obliquity,
ambiguity. A civil war, a war between close neighbours, is emotionally
ambiguous even as its murders and atrocities can never be.
Now Heaney has gone it seems to me that Mahon is the greatest poet writing
on this side of the Atlantic, his only rivals on the other side being Derek
Walcott and John Ashbery. This is a subjective view and betrays some bias.
I have met Longley a few times only but was a friend for thirty years of
Heaney and a friend for more than forty of Mahon. But it is not an especially
eccentric opinion. In 2007 Mahon’s poetry was the subject of a magnificent
full length study by Professor Hugh Haughton of Hull University
(OUP 2007). Now comes Stephen Enniss’s sad and exhilarating Life (Gill
& Macmillan 2014). During this seven year span Mahon’s dedicated publisher,
amanuensis really, Peter Fallon of Gallery Press in Meath, has issued
fourteen books and chapbooks of Mahon. These include a New Collected
Poems (2011); Raw Material (2011) a collection of very fine versions, or
adaptations, of ‘other men’s flowers’ and a Selected Prose (2012). Reviewing
these last two publications for the TLS, the poet and critic Bernard
O’Donoghue called Mahon ‘one of the indispensable writers of our time’.
I would add ‘compelling’ and ‘exciting’ to the indispensable. Indeed ever
since Mahon’s first significant collection, Night-Crossing, was published
by OUP in 1968, his have been the poems in English which I have most eagerly
awaited, been least disappointed by, re-read most often. Ezra Pound
said that poetry must be at least as well written as prose. I believe it should
also be as compelling, as page-turning, as great fiction.
A sad and exhilarating life. Heaney and Longley were – are – almost annoyingly
exemplary in the management of their lives and careers. Both
have enjoyed long, stable, fruitful marriages; continuities of place; sufficient
praise and fame (extreme in Heaney’s case) which have yet failed to
deflect the drive of good poetry. Both have been able to make a living as
poets or derive one from the fact of their writing. Mahon’s husbandry of his
talent has been every bit as successful. He is, in my view, the most modern,
in the sense of urbane, varied, wide-ranging, of the three. This is the source
of the excitement I mentioned. But Eliot’s searing lines, in Little Gidding,
about ‘the rending pain of re-enactment…the awareness/Of things ill done
and done to others’ harm’ apply acutely to Mahon. He seems now to have
found harbour both literally and figuratively. He is writing better than ever.
A recent pamphlet in memory of Seamus Heaney, The Flying Boats, contains
a small masterpiece: Montaigne. But throughout his career dragons of
drink, penury, divorce and sloughs of despond and despair illuminate, as in
a medieval map, the course of his exploration.
Use of a term like ‘modern’ should not be confused with the historical, the
early 20th century cult of modernism, nor with that period’s post-modern
grandchildren. Mahon’s work, not least his adaptations from French poems,
tells us that he is at home with these literary forbears but in no way
indebted to them formally. From an Irish perspective, he is heir to Swift
as well as to the kindlier MacNeice. He cuts through to the heart of things
(Ismay’s cowardice, for example) and his own indignation can be directed
towards himself as well as aspects of our time and its culture. Enniss’s Life
is very useful here. Mahon is a sayer as well as a maker; a more polemical
writer then is fashionable at present, when so many people judge life
by Keats, say, rather than by Dryden, Pope or Byron. Nothing to be said
against Keats except that you lose out in a contemplation of life if Keats is
your only touchstone.
Like so many who came of age in the early 1960s, Mahon married young
and became responsible for children. His gift ensured the offer, as is usual,
of teaching posts. But he does not like teaching. His temperament is
moody; he needs to be in the right mood to project his formidable intelligence
and reading at all well. The right mood came in bouts only. So did
the wrong mood. Convivial Irish life, convivial intellectual Irish life, takes
place in pubs. The Mahon bio-chemistry is unsuited to social drinking. He
is a fluent writer but not a facile one. Spells writing advertising copy or bits
of journalism were too sporadic to sustain the professional-class life marriage
and children seek to conjure. Forty years back, when I suffered minor
celebrity for publishing a book of poems at the same time as being appointed
to the government, Derek wrote a profile for Vogue. I was acutely
embarrassed; an apprentice puffed by a master.
Reading the Enniss Life from the perspective of personal acquaintance,
I kept half recalling, half hearing another writer, another voice. I could
not identify the writer and the voice nagged at me for days. Then the connection
came. It was the character X. Trapnel in Anthony Powell’s great
sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. Clive James thinks this may be
the English rival to Ulysses and I agree with him. Trapnel, loosely based
on J. MacLaren-Ross, is a gifted writer whose career is undone by drink,
penury and a demonic love affair. Mahon is a gifted writer whose career
has survived, even triumphed over, alcoholism and the loss of a great love.
His wife, who died in 2010, was a true muse, as magical an Irishwoman
as you could conjure. She was the only woman who reminded me of Greta
Garbo, whom I used to meet in Co. Donegal in my teens. And following
the final parting of Doreen and Derek, Mahon endured a decade of relative
silence. This makes the second wind of the last twenty years all the more
remarkable. And throughout Mahon has, like Trapnel, endured financial
blows as well.
Although Mahon admires, and has been lightly influenced by, Robert Lowell
– both poets find their own voice within the classic conventional metres
and rhymes of our tradition – he is in no sense a ‘confessional’ poet. His
own demons and struggles are touched on lightly in the verse. They are not
the motive. They are the weather. The motive, the driving excitement is existential
investigation, and not just of the ego. Auden opens a poem by imagining
the shade of Plato dropping by to find out how Anthropos is doing.
There is no better millennial account than Mahon’s. He is a man of his time
in the way of his most admired writers, Camus and Beckett among them.
Towards the end of the Enniss biography, its author makes an appearance.
Stephen Enniss is an eminent Librarian, a former head at the Folger Shakespeare
Library. He has been a director of Emory University’s MS and archive
centre. He now runs the Harry Ransom centre at Austin University
in Texas. These institutions are highly relevant for the Enniss approach; he
is an archivist of the letters and manuscripts which he is also responsible
for acquiring and curating. His Mahon book has been criticised for leaning
too heavily on drafts and jottings rather than the finished, canonized work.
He appears on stage at the end because it becomes clear that while Mahon
has helped and cooperated, no doubt grateful for the immense interest and
purchasing power of institutions like Emory and Austin, the poet’s feet are
now getting very cold indeed at the prospect of reading the sad life that
underlies the exhilarating poetry.
Mahon’s writing does not duck his ups and downs. But he is overwhelmingly
a poet of the city, a civilised man. His, and Ezra Pound’s, Kensington
is laid out in The Yellow Book and sojourns in New York, emblematic
twentieth-century city, are the inspiration for The Hudson Letter. I suspect
that Mahon would much rather restrict the blue notes in his writing to its
own music. All lives know sadness. How marvellous to turn this into music,
which is always celebration. It is also questionable whether lives are
best written while they are still being lived. Given the strength of a recent
poem, like Montaigne, Mahon is starting to resemble Yeats through the
quality of his work in old age.
All this said, if you know and admire Mahon’s work, the Enniss life is an
invaluable reader’s guide. It maps the country. Heaney, with a much wider
readership, dodged, or at least postponed, the biographical question. A fine
younger Irish poet, Dennis O’Driscoll, whose death at fifty-four was an ir103
reparable loss, interviewed the poet over nearly 500 pages. Stepping Stones
has pertinent references to Mahon also, especially his ability, in Heaney’s
words, to ‘rise to a magniloquence that has high canonical sanction.’ T. S.
Eliot’s widow, Valerie, resisted a life for the more than forty years she survived
her husband. This makes Peter Ackroyd’s unauthorised, even handicapped
version all the more interesting and remarkable. As one who knows
and loves Mahon and his work I would try to cheer him up by pointing to
the many occasions when Dr. Enniss has got the rifle sights of ‘one life, one
writing’, in Lowell’s phrase, accurately in line.
Mahon’s work has earned him high honours. He has become a pan-Irishman
rather than an Ulster poet from a loyalist background and so has refused
the British ones. He has a devoted readership, not least because he is
so unsolipsistic and outward looking, so witty. A current aesthetic among
younger poets, including exceptionally gifted ones like Lavinia Greenlaw,
Kathleen Jamie and Alice Oswald (to name only the women), and Jorie
Graham in the USA, is for the poem to be, as it were, a carved, a sculptural
object; something that would, metaphorically, clang should you drop it on
the floor. Mahon is an old-fashioned master of discourse. Like the Byron of
Don Juan he can gossip and chat in elevated, formal verse. He can be colloquial
but his colloquialisms are always those of a well-read man whose
inner life is not confined to the vagaries of direct experience.
Mahon is a romantic-agony individual who writes with neo-classical cheerfulness
and objectivity. He casts a cold eye, but also a resolutely humane
one, on our little systems. Like another gifted, less productive poet, James
Fenton, he has been a chorister. He does not, like Fenton, read his own
work aloud especially well – with the vanity of human wishes, I often long
to take over – but the mind’s ear is always delighted. The choice of three
poems from different periods of his life to illustrate this review aims to
demonstrate this. After the Titanic is written in the voice of Lord Ismay,
the doomed ship’s owner, disgraced for escaping with the women and children.
The Cloud Ceiling is a late and altogether unanticipated prayer for a
surprise daughter, who arrived quite late in the poet’s life. Antrim Road,
prompted by rather than rendered from Baudelaire, conjures in few lines
the whole of the Belfast suburban milieu. It is as full, in its way, as Brian
Moore’s Belfast novel The Emperor of Ice Cream, and demonstrates the
extraordinary efficiency, in mechanical terms, of fine verse.
In his elegy on the early death of his friend Louis MacNeice, W. H. Auden
wrote that even a limerick should be something a man of honour, facing
death by firing squad, might be proud to compose. Derek Mahon has
mounted, and in a cliff-hanging way again descended, the steps to the scaffold
many times in his life. Since he is a writer who shares Auden’s technical
skill with like concern for the health of our city, we may be sure that
on such an occasion the Mahon limerick would be executed cleanly and be
both funny and graceful.