88. (Derek Mahon)

Itching dissatisfaction; Mahon is harder to get a hold of than any one poem suggests. The same could be said, probably, of minor poets whose poems don’t add up to a sustained exploration, but instead a series of imitations, forays, and excursions. But Mahon really doesn’t seem one of these. A stable point of comparison is needed and, reading the long-poem “Harbour Lights,” one is suggested: W.H. Auden. Whether or not Mahon actively reads and admires Auden, it would make clearer sense of where is going and how he is getting there to compare and contrast him with that poet, whose influence on or at least anticipation of later poets  has been less than his more devoted champions would want. Auden begets or inaugurates what? That has been difficult to say. I think, now, though that it might be possible to give at least two names: Anthony Hecht and Derek Mahon, though of course neither is a “Son of Wystan” or anything as simple as that.

For purposes of a central comparison, nonetheless, Auden is helpful. To at least give the reason for the comparison seeming at all valid, I’ll give some lines from “Harbour Light”–but I will then likely move in generalities, unless a particular point seems entirely unsubstantiated by anything I’ve quoted here or in the last post.

From “Harbour Lights” (the first quoted line is italicized in the poem):


Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory

above the fancy golf-course, taking inventory

of vapour trails and nuclear submaries,

keep close watch on our flight paths and sea-lanes,

our tourist coaches and our slot machines,

the cash dynamic and the natural gas.

Your arbour stands there as it always has,

secret and shy above these baffling shores

and the white winged oceanic water table.

A short path and a tumbler of fresh flowers,

a cup of dusty water, bead and pebble,

the salt-whipped paster of your secrious head,

an azure radiance in your tiny shed

gazing out over the transatlantic cable 

with a chopped eye towards Galicia and the Azores.


I toy with cloud thoughts as an alternative 

to the global shit-storm that we know and love,

but unsustainable levels of aviation

have complicated this vague resolution;

for even clouds are gobbled up by the sun,

not even the ethereal clouds are quite immune:

these too will be marketed if it can be done.

I was here once before, though, at Kinsale

with the mad chiefs, and lived to tell the tale;

I too froze in the fills, first of the name

in Monaghan, great my pride and great my shame—

or was it a slander that we tipped them off,

old Hugh asking a quart of Power’s from Taaffe?

Does it matter now? Oh yes, it still matters;

strange currents circulate in these calm water

though we don’t mention them, we talk instead

of the new golf-course out at the Old Head.

What have I achieved? Oh, little enough, God knows:

some dubious verse and some ephemeral prose;

as for the re-enchantment of the sky,

that option was never really going to fly

but it’s too late to do much about it now

except to trust in the contumacious few

who aren’t afraid to point to an obvious truth,

and the frank state of unpredictable youth.


A buoy nods faintly in the harbour mouth

as I slope down to the front for a last walk

and watch trawlers disgorging at the dock

in the loud work-glow of a Romanian freighter,

dark oil-drums and fish boxes on the quay,

winches and ropes, intestines of the sea

alive with the strench of pre-historic water

I’ve noted codgers, when the day is done, 

sitting in easy rows in the evening sun

before the plate-faced rising moon creates

a sphere of influence where thought incubates

with midnight oil and those harbour lights,

‘the harbour lights that once brought you to me’.

White page, dark world; wave theory; moon and pines:

thin as an aspirin that vast surface shines

the pits and heights in intimate close-up,

her bowed head grave as through a telescope

as if aware of danger, for quite soon,

perhaps, we dump our rubbish on the moon.

The new dark ages have been fiercely lit

to banish shadow and the difficult spirit;

yet here, an hour from the night-shining-city

ablaze with its own structural electricity,

sporadic pinpoints star the archaic night

older and clearer than any glow we generate.


That should suffice for most of the points I wish to make, though there are two further verse-paragraphs, and several preceding ones.

The similarities are not just to Auden, but to Auden at his least successful: “New Year’s Letter.”  At the very least, the poem then is a testament to Mahon’s confidence, believing that he might try and get that sort of poem off the ground.

To get it off the ground, he does what Auden does not do; but for it to resemble Auden’s poem it has to do some of the same things, beyond the rhymed couplet.

Similar to Auden, above all, is the surveying tone, the assumption of a shared culture and shared world so that the rhetoric of public verse can accommodate the first-person plural: “We.”

But unlike Auden, or to a greater degree than Auden, Mahon balances the cognizance that we all do share the same world, that we (English speaking readers, at the very least) are, these days, more rapidly and immediately connected on the earth than before, and that we are all participants in and legatees of destructive consumption of its resources, with an exacting self-placement within a region (of Ireland) and culture that his readers do not all share; there is tension in the poem, as there was not in Auden’s, so that the global or universal is balanced against the local, the regional; so that we feel different forms of knowledge, some shared by many English speaking readers. Mahon can and does communicate his particularity abroad, but his doing so does not erase its local stamp.

Another way of saying this would be that Mahon’s poem contemplates rather than assumes the global, but does so in a form and voice that assumes that the global is a condition of his communicating, that there is a global or at least broadly public arena of communication in which a lyric might speak (in that, he differs from many contemporary poets, whose poetry seems to be written in ignorance of or sequestration from that arena).

As Auden’s poetry does, Mahon’s poetry, here and elsewhere (everything I write is intended to apply more broadly) not only includes proper names, commercial brands, contemporary technologies and incidents, terms drawn from the lexicon of business, industry, and trade, but it does so by way of a similar rhetoric. Or rather, both Mahon and Auden invite us to consider that these categories of words (and objects) participate in or are integral to the formation of something “rhetorical” in their verse. “Rhetorical” and “rhetoric” are obviously sloppy terms, but they point to something, and are probably better characterized by principles of orientation towards language, audience, and world, than by definition. Yeats is helpful: arguing with another rather than with oneself. Rhetoric fixes the reader as an audience to be argued against and persuaded, so that the world around the speaker becomes enlisted in the pursuit of that goal: its objects are addressed and included not for the poet’s behalf, but for our behalf. As a matter of technique, rhetorical poetry realigns the proportions between and semantic weight of “you,” “I,” and “we” such that “we” is permitted, “you” addresses a public party, public symbol, public object, or public figure, and “I” bears not just the trace of the “you” reading the poetry, but is saturated with the consciousness of the “you” as a performer might be, and shadowed always by the possibility that the “I” might transform into “we.”

Within the field of the pronouns, the objects and language of the world are brought, both to be altered by it and to sustain it; they are treated as points of reference by which the “you” might be a public entity, or else they are addressed in the consciousness that the “I” of the poem understands his audience to know what about them is really significant in the address (they do not possess, as a feather in a poem by Montale might, a hermetically private significance), and the common access to and apprehension of these objects and words is what permits and justifies the “we” of the poem: provided you understand what these are, that “we” feels earned. Even where Mahon addresses regional objects and particulars, they are felt to be public to that region; they have correspondences across modern life in the more developed world; they would be known if we were to visit that region, as we very well could.

This is not the only way to write public or rhetorical poetry; other poets (Geoffrey Hill, for instance), generate effects from and are more concerned with the gap between what is a common inheritance and common object of cultural amnesia: history, for Hill, is both the foundation for public poetry and that which holds the public at bay from his verse; there are also poets who, more than Mahon (though he does it somewhat), balance the hermetically private with the public, who might leave us in doubt which we are encountering. But all would I think take on the tones of rhetorical poetry.

The famous statement on Rhetoric belongs to Yeats: rhetoric is a quarrel with others; poetry a quarrel with oneself. On these grounds, late Auden, the Auden from “New Years Letter” onward, might be accused of rhetoric, whereas the early Auden might be said to have set rhetoric in the service of poetry (see further my earlier post on Auden). But whether in comparison with early or late Auden, the fundamental attitude towards the speaking self’s perception and articulation of the world is something different for Mahon.

Early Auden is characterized by dread, by bafflement, by perplexity and paranoia; the doubts turn inwards; in that poetry, the public rhetoric is balanced against a recognition that the proper significance, or the impending purposes, of these common objects of the world are inaccessible, even to the poet. The poetry does not quarrel with itself, but it queries rather than quarrels with the world: and it queries to no avail, obliquely, suspicious even that questions will be returned. The early poetry can write “we” and “you” in the assumption of a public, but its public is assumed to be the enclave in which Auden resides, commonly under siege, commonly hidden from view in plain sight of the rest of the world, the rest of the public; there is an us in the poetry, but it is an us in a wide world where there are more of them. The later Auden writes from the comfort of acceptance in that wide world; even in the time of war, he imagines anxiety rather than feels it; the querying has diminished entirely. There is not much quarreling with himself, even when there is some (“Shield of Achilles”) with the outer world; there is little querying with either. The late Auden believed poets should write when they had the answers already.

Mahon can be distinguished from Auden in his greater willingness to quarrel with himself; even the early Auden does not do this much, but it is felt less a shortcoming of his verse than of Yeats’ principle, since Auden is able to compensate for the lack of self-quarrel by the enforcement of a sense of persecution; the poems record a man under siege from other voices, and are efforts at subterfuge and sabotage.

The more crucial distinction between Auden and Mahon comes from vantage point by which their quarrels and queries proceed. Here I refer back to something I wrote in my last post: Mahon’s poems are surrounded by the possibility, and sometimes yearning, for arrival and departure, or else they include within themselves the events of arrival and departure; those forms of movement feel always available to the poet, so that he is felt to be encountering, directly, first-hand the varied terrains, objects, locales that the verse becomes; the poetry is about that encounter, about what it means to encounter, then depart; and how such arriving, encountering, and departing, is often itself an example of the Heraclitean flux of the world that is encountered; how the poet is himself changed by a changing world, in an Ovidian sense; how each encounter both proliferates particulars (as scenes in a nineteenth-century realist novel) and also establishes a fundamental unity or commerce between particulars (as in the vision of Whitman). But arrival and departure and encounter are also the situation of Mahon’s querying and quarreling, with the world as well as with himself; in each situation, that is, he is thrown into the middle of an environment or place that is not his own; he must query to survive or comprehend; if he quarrels, he must do so knowing that he might be wrong in his assumptions, that he cannot assume what is local to be universal, or what universal to be local; and what he encounters is as much himself, to be queries or quarreled with, anew, and altered, with each arrival.

By contrast, Auden’s early poetry is in flight, or else traveling under cover and in secrecy; the events of arrival and departure and encounter are entirely different from Mahon who is often felt to be a, without intending a derogatory connotation, tourist or guest (and whose poetry is thoughtful about what shortcomings and responsibilities are entailed thereby). In the late Auden, the poetry is written from a high-rise lost; it surveys; it constructs models; it does not arrive or depart much at all. As a consequence, the coloring of the poetry is entirely different; early Auden, the secret agent; late Auden, the comfortable commentator; Mahon, the uneasy wanderer and restless, doubting tourist.

The same difference between Mahon and Auden is seen when comparing another common trait: their extraordinary learnedness, lightly worn. Neither hesitate to make their wide reading easily known, and not just by allusion, but by explicit citation and reference, as a reviewer of books might. At its worst, the effect can be grating, a variation of a book-blurb wherein authors are constellated without any additional illumination. But Auden, at his best, digests his reading into the texture of the verse so that it is doing real supporting work; and Mahon does something different entirely: he inhabits it, lives within it, either in imaginative recreations (the Chekhov poem; or another poem, “Biographia Literaria,” in which he narrates Coleridge’s life in seven stanzas), or else in translations; here too, he adopts something like wandering and tourism, briefly dwelling in the imaginations of other eras and authors as he might in foreign cities; they too make up destinations, points of arrival and departure.

Much of what I have written has been critical to the late Auden, but Auden late and early does see a way forward for poetry that not many other saw, and even if he does not demonstrate, in all of his poetry, the soundness of that way, he did enough to inspire others; Mahon follows him, whether he knows it or not, and following has improved on Auden in some respects (even if not living up to him in others). I would mention only one more: many of Mahon’s best translations are from French poets of the later nineteenth century. They enter into his poetry powerfully.

Another way of viewing what both Mahon and Auden do is in terms of a risk: both risk writing simply didactic poetry; in early Auden, the risk is averted by his not understanding entirely what lesson is needed or else by now knowing entirely whether the means of instruction can be trusted (hence code-speaking); in Mahon, the risk is averted by his seeming to contemplate what lesson could be had in a given situation, or else by seeming to try to teach himself, or to learn rather than teach; the striving to learn in the poetry is autodidactic, most often.

But through the nineteenth-century French poets, Mahon infuses even the most didactic poetry with a faith in the precise, densely compounded image that Auden never possessed; that Eliot learned, that Pound came to from other means; but even more than Eliot and Pound, Mahon’s images are molecules of abstraction and concretion, of vivid overlaying of color and shape, of light and texture, which can be found in that French tradition. It refuses to teach or instruct or exemplify as we expect didactic verse to do. It instead condemns explication to come up short, even if explication is demanded. The final lines of “Harbour Lights”—watch the shift after the parenthetical citation of Quasimodo, as Eliot scuttles briefly in the background:


Will the long voyage end here among friends

and swimming with a loved one from white strands,

the sea loud in our veins? It never ends

of ends before we know it, for everyone

‘stands at the heart of life, pierced by the sun,

and suddenly it’s evening’ (Quasimodo);

suddenly we’re throwing a longer shadow.

The hermit crab crawls to its holiday home;

dim souls wriggle in seething chaos, body

language and new thought forming there already

in hidden depths and exposed rock oases,

those secret cultures where the sky pauses,

sand flats, a whispery fringe discharging gases,

a white dish drained by the receding sea

and trailing tunic whips of tangled hair

brushed and combed by the tide, exhaling air.

No, this is Galapagos and the old life-force

rides Daz and Exxon to the blinding surface.

Down there a drenching of the wilful sperm,

congenital sea-fight of the shrimp and worm

with somewhere the soft impulse of a lover,

the millions swarming into pond and river

to find the right place, find it and live for ever…?


A final rhetorical question, on the ballast of the symbolist imagination, alive in, and giving life to, the descendent of “New Year’s Letter”; who would think?



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