Derek Mahon

b. 1941
Derek Mahon is widely regarded as one of the most talented and innovative Irish poets of the twentieth century. Affiliated with the generation of young poets from Northern Ireland who rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, Mahon is best known for illuminating the ordinary aspects of daily life through his skillfully crafted verse. Often working in received forms, Mahon’s lucid, sculpted lines incorporate both classical allusion and contemporary life. Critics have compared his poetry to that of such masters as W.H. Auden, the poet and classical scholar Louis MacNeice, and Samuel Beckett. A voluntary exile from his native Belfast, Mahon explores themes of isolation, loneliness, and alienation in his poetry. After studying French at Trinity College, Dublin, Mahon spent a year in France at the Sorbonne; he subsequently lived and worked in cities across the United States and Canada before moving to London to become a journalist. His sixth collection, The Snow Party (1975) offers a pensive look at the lives of outcasts. In "A Refusal to Mourn," Mahon evokes through the use of minute detail the lonely existence of an old man who lives his life on the periphery of society. The most celebrated piece in The Snow Party, "A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford," animates the world of a huge cluster of mushrooms locked in an abandoned country hotel shed. With detached and unsentimental language Mahon symbolizes what Blake Morrison in the Times Literary Supplement called "past human aspirations…striving to be remembered and redeemed."

Mahon’s work throughout the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s was widely praised for the intensity and grimness of its gaze. Focusing on the artist’s alienation from society, Mahon continually seemed to question the role of art in a corrupt and modern world. The Hunt by Night (1982), published three years after the release of Mahon's first volume of collected works, focuses in part on the dark, uncivilized side of human nature. The title poem, inspired by fifteenth-century Florentine artist Paolo Uccello's painting of the same name, emphasizes "the connection between killing and living" in an "unembarrassedly clear-eyed context," describing the "vivid riot of men, dogs and horses" pictured on Uccello's canvas, noted Neil Corcoran in the Times Literary Supplement. Other poems in The Hunt by Night depict humanity as insignificant in the face of time and history, powerless against the inevitable forces and experiences that shape human life. Mahon’s series of epistolary verse-novels, The Hudson Letter (1995) and its follow-up The Yellow Book (1997), gather the detritus of a decadent contemporary culture and submit it to the formal pressures of art. Meditations on the often-conflicting realms of nature and art, the books are firmly in the tradition of Louis MacNeice’s masterpieces Autumn Journal and Autumn Sequel.

Some critics have faulted Mahon for his tightly controlled poetry, suggesting that his adherence to a highly structured verse form diminishes the power of his words. Morrison proposed that Mahon, at times, has sacrificed "vigour" for the achievement "of greater technical competence." Despite this, the poet's keen eye for detail and honest approach to his subjects have earned him a reputation as a significant figure in twentieth-century English literature. As Donnelly asserted, "Mahon is restoring to English poetry qualities which are rare at the present time—conversational narrative combined with wit, intelligence and humour capable of realising a deep seriousness." Mahon offered his own ironic thoughts on the merits of a poet in "The Sea in Winter," an excerpt of which appeared in the Observer: "I . . . know nothing / Scribbling on the off-chance, / Darkening the white page, / Cultivating my ignorance."

Mahon experienced something of a late flowering, publishing four collections in just five years in the first decade of the twenty-first century. These books, including Harbour Lights (2006) winner of the Irish Times Poetry Now Award, Somewhere the Wave (2007) and Life on Earth (2008), which won another Irish Times Poetry Now Award and was shortlisted for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize, have received a series of accolades and commendations. Mahon’s 2010 collection, An Autumn Wind was praised by Paul Batchelor in the Guardian for its sophistication, technical prowess and willingness to address contemporary themes, including environmental degradation. Batchelor maintained that the book “confirms the triumphant late flowering that began with Harbour Lights and continued in Life on Earth. This body of work forms one of the most significant developments in poetry this century.”
 
Early on, Mahon was perhaps too often praised as a “scrupulous craftsman.” Philip Hobsbaum declared in Contemporary Poets that Mahon’s is "a poetry that represents a decisive adaptation of [W. H.] Auden and [Louis] MacNeice, Mahon's two acknowledged masters." He added, "it may well in the end form an oeuvre fit to stand beside theirs in literary history."
 

Bibliography

POETRY
  • Twelve Poems, Festival Publications, 1967.
  • Design for a Grecian Urn, Erato Press, 1967.
  • Night-Crossing, Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Ecclesiastes, Phoenix Pamphlet Poets, 1969.
  • Beyond Howth Head, Dolmen, 1970.
  • Lives, Oxford University Press, 1972.
  • The Man Who Built His City in the Snow, Poem-of-the-Month Club, 1972.
  • (Editor) Modern Irish Poetry, Sphere, 1972.
  • The Snow Party, Oxford University Press, 1975.
  • (With Seamus Heaney) In Their Element: A Selection of Poems, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, 1977.
  • Light Music, Ulsterman Publications, 1977.
  • The Sea in Winter, illustrations by Timothy Engelland, Deerfield Press, 1979.
  • Poems: 1962-1978, Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Courtyards in Delft, Gallery Books, 1981.
  • The Hunt by Night, Oxford University Press, 1982.
  • A Kensington Notebook, Anvil Press, 1984.
  • Antarctica, Gallery Press, 1986.
  • Selected Poems, Gallery Press, 1990, Viking (New York City), 1991.
  • The Yaddo Letter, Gallery Press, 1992.
  • The Hudson Letter, Wake Forest University Press (Winston-Salem, NC), 1996.
  • The Yellow Book, Gallery Press, 1997.
  • Roman Script, Gallery Press, 1999.
  • Collected Poems, Gallery Press, 1999.
  • The Seaside Cemetary, with drawings by Fionnuala Nå Chiosain, Gallery Press, 2001.
  • (Editor) Patrick MacDonogh, Poems, Gallery Press, 2001.
  • Resistance Days, Gallery Press, 2001.
  • Harbour Lights, Gallery Press, 2005.
  • Somewhere the Wave, Gallery Press, 2007.
  • Life on Earth, Gallery Press, 2008.
  • An Autumn Wind, Gallery Press, 2010.
OTHER
  • (Editor) Modern Irish Poetry, Sphere (London), 1972.
  • (Translator) Gerard de Nerval, The Chimeras, Gallery Books, 1982.
  • High Time (one-act play based on Moliere's comedy The School for Husbands; first produced in Belfast at the Lyric Theatre, October, 1984), Gallery Books, 1985.
  • The School for Wives (two-act play based on Moliere's comedy of the same name), Gallery Books, 1986.
  • (Translator) Raphaele Billetdoux, Night without Day, Viking, 1987.
  • (Translator) Philippe Jaccottet, Selected Poems, Penguin, 1988.
  • (Editor with Peter Fallon) The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, Penguin, 1990.
  • The Bacchae: After Euripides (play), Gallery Books (Oldcastle, Co. Meath, Ireland), 1991.
  • Journalism: Selected Prose 1970-1995, edited by Terence Brown, Gallery Press, 1996.
  • (Translator) Racine's Phaedra, Gallery Books, 1996.
  • (Translator with others) When Tunnels Meet: Contemporary Romanian Poetry, edited by John Fairleigh, Bloodaxe, 1996.
  • (Author of foreword) John Minihan, An Unweaving of Rainbows: Images of Irish Writers, Souveniar Press (London), 1998.
  • Saint-John Perse, Birds, Gallery Press, 2002.
  • Cyrano de Bergerac: A New Version of Edmund Roston's "Heroic Comedy," Gallery Press, 2004.
Also author of adaptations of novels for television, including Shadows of Our Skin, How Many Miles to Babylon?, The Temptation of Eileen Hughes, and First Love. Contributor to periodicals, including Encounter, Listener, Theatre Critic, and Twentieth Century Studies.

Further Reading

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

BOOKS

  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 27, Gale (Detroit), 1984.
  • Contemporary Poets, sixth edition, St. James Press (Detroit), 1996.
  • Dictionary of Irish Literature, Greenwood Press, 1979.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 40: Poets of Great Britain and Ireland since 1960, Gale, 1985.

PERIODICALS

  • Booklist, November 1, 1996, p. 476.
  • English Studies, February, 1979.
  • Nation, September 20, 1980.
  • New Statesman, May 22, 1981.
  • Observer (London), January 27, 1980.
  • Poetry, January, 1993, pp. 226-29.
  • Publishers Weekly, March 2, 1992, pp. 52-3; January 27, 1997, pp. 92-3.
  • Times Literary Supplement, November 7, 1975; February 15, 1980; July 31, 1981; February 18, 1983; October 19, 1984; May 30, 1986; November 25, 1988.*

Discover this poet’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poems by Derek Mahon

Poems By DEREK MAHON

Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION Ireland

LIFE SPAN 1941–

Biography

Derek Mahon is widely regarded as one of the most talented and innovative Irish poets of the twentieth century. Affiliated with the generation of young poets from Northern Ireland who rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, Mahon is best known for illuminating the ordinary aspects of daily life through his skillfully crafted verse. Often working in received forms, Mahon’s lucid, sculpted lines incorporate both classical . . .

Report a problem with this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.