The Poetry of Derek Mahon
21.6 x 13.8 cm. viii, 361 pp. 2002 Ulster Editions and Monographs series (ISSN 0954-3392) Volume 11
As the first major book-length study of the poetry of Derek Mahon, this volume of fourteen essays represents a long overdue account and assessment of one of the foremost living English-language poets not only in Irish poetry but world-wide.
The essays demonstrate the variety and complexity of Mahon’s work. It is a poetry of the ‘ironic conscience’, sceptical, sophisticated, urbane; a poetry of transit between centres and margins. It breaks with a nationalist or regionalist thematics yet remains engaged with questions of identity, ‘belonging’, tradition and history. It identifies with outsiders, mavericks, ‘the unreconciled, in their metaphysical pain’. It includes some of the best poems of the Troubles, yet reflects a basically metaphysical, universal frame of reference. It ranges widely in time and space, yet excels in the minute particularising of human experience and the phenomenal world. We are in ‘one place only’ but ‘We might be anywhere’. The poet moves from the formal intensities of the ‘well-made’ poem to experiment with mixed styles and more open, confessional and epistolary-style forms which incorporate more of the detritus of everyday life.
In considering the central issues of Mahon’s poetry – the relation between poetry and politics, the conflicting claims of art and nature, the representation of gender, the importance of place, the poet’s response to violence, despair and decadence, his characteristic techniques of displacement, ambiguity and intertextuality – these essays also represent a variety of critical approaches to the poetry. Some of this criticism is rooted in Mahon’s own critical and aesthetic vocabulary, which is largely reflective of canonical values and the New Critical ideal of the ‘well-made poem’ – an orthodoxy which his recent poetry challenges and enlarges. Other essayists construct their own critical terms and read ‘against the grain’ of the poetry to expose new possibilities of meaning. Thus, the volume includes New Critical ‘close reading’ of individual poems, examination of social, historical and literary contexts, consideration of Mahon as a translator, and the mobilisation of new critical paradigms such as ‘Men’s Studies’ and post-modernism.
The contributors are (in the order of the essays) Elmer Kennedy-Andrews, Edna Longley, Gerald Dawe, Bruce Stewart, Jerzy Jarniewicz, Eamonn Hughes, Michael Allen, Richard York, Hugh Haughton, Frank Sewell, John Goodby, Neil Corcoran, Stan Smith, and Patrick Crotty. A number of these essays were originally delivered as lectures at the fourth Ulster Symposium at the University of Ulster at Coleraine in 1998.
Elmer Kennedy-Andrews is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Ulster at Coleraine. His books include The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: All the Realms of Whisper (1988); (editor) Seamus Heaney: A Collection of Critical Essays (1992); (editor) Contemporary Irish Poetry: A Collection of Critical Essays (1992); The Art of Brian Friel: Neither Dreams nor Reality (1995); The Poetry of Seamus Heaney; Icon Critical Guides (1998), (editor) Irish Fiction Since 1960 (2004), Fiction and the Northern Ireland Troubles: (De-) Constructing the North (2003), and Writing Home: Poetry and Place in Northern Ireland 1968-2008 (2009).
Front cover photograph: Derek Mahon, by John Minihan, courtesy of the photographer.