In Memoriam: Remembering Derek Mahon

“I am going home by sea

For the first time in years.”

(‘Afterlives,’ Derek Mahon)

Geraldine Higgins specializes in Irish literature and culture, archival studies, and public exhibitions. She is the director of Emory’s Irish Studies program and the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature. Professor Higgins is the curator of the National Library of Ireland’s acclaimed exhibition, Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again, free and open to the public in Dublin until 2023.

Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Mahon, c. 1977

 Derek Mahon, one of Ireland’s greatest poets, died at his home in Cork on October 1st. 

I first read Mahon’s poetry when I was a student at Trinity College Dublin and he was appointed as the College’s first writer in residence. I joined a crowd of hopeful applicants for his first writing workshop in which he urged us all to read Beckett’s poetry. He then announced that we must each submit a haiku for inspection before being allowed to continue. I did not make the cut. But I did read Beckett’s “I would like my love to die/and the rain to be falling on the graveyard,” a poem deeply satisfying at that time in my life.

I could not know then that a decade later, I would be touring the 10th floor of Emory’s Woodruff Library as part of my job interview for an assistant professorship in Irish literature.  There, I was handed Lady Gregory’s vellum-bound copy of Yeats’s 1895 Poems with notes and lines in his own handwriting pasted inside. Next, from the efficiently labelled files, I was shown type-written drafts and blue airmail letters exchanged between Michael Longley and Derek Mahon as well as postcards from Seamus Heaney. There seemed to be a world of difference between the hushed reverence demanded by Yeats’s work and the fizz of excitement in reading drafts and letters by living writers.  From these boxes, nondescript as legal files, came tumbling the secret life of poems and a way of thinking about poetry that has held me captive ever since. The joy of such archives is not just in the intellectual satisfaction of tracing the progress of a writer’s work but in the pleasure of witnessing the friendships and connections that make that life and work in MacNeice’s words, “incorrigibly plural.” 

Derek Mahon’s papers were acquired for Emory’s contemporary Irish Literary archive in 1991. Comprising 95 boxes of material (just over 45 linear feet), the collection is a treasure trove of manuscripts, letters and photographs documenting Mahon’s own work and his lifelong friendships with Irish and international writers including Samuel Beckett, Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney, Edna and Michael Longley, W.S. Merwin and Harold Pinter. Particularly interesting to me were the connections between inter-generational poets from the North of Ireland including Heaney, Longley and Mahon as well as Medbh McGuckian, Ciaran Carson and Paul Muldoon.

Telegram from Mahon to Longley after they were announced as joint winners of the Eric Gregory poetry prize in 1965.

The story of these friendships take us behind and beyond the austerity of the printed poem. The poetic elders, Heaney, Longley and Mahon, came of age together as poets and were good-natured rivals as well as friends. One of the rare items in Emory’s collection is a telegram from Mahon to Longley after they were announced as joint winners of the Eric Gregory poetry prize – It says simply – CHECKMATE DEREK. These poets dedicated poems to each other, critiqued and endorsed each other’s work, and at times suggested specific line edits.[1] Before they each published their first collections in the mid 1960s, introductory volumes appeared — 10 Poems by Longley, 11 Poems by Heaney and 12 Poems by Mahon. Famously, they planned an outing to visit the grave of the poet Louis MacNeice and decided that they would each write a poem in his honor.  When Mahon read out his elegy, ‘In Carrowdore Churchyard,’ the other two poets abandoned their offerings.  Of the poets who at one time or another formed part of Philip Hobsbawn’s writing workshop known as “The Belfast Group,” Mahon most vehemently disavowed its importance and influence. He was not ‘clubbable’ or amenable to the relentless poetry circuit of readings and interviews.

Mahon’s pronouncements about Irish poetry were seldom wrong.  In his 1996 lecture for the W.B. Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, “The King and I,” he declared that for all contemporary Irish poets, “Yeats is Everest.” Reading this unpublished lecture in the Emory archive, I was delighted to discover his confession that having come up with the title, “The King and I,” he watched the 1956 movie starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr to see if it had anything to do with Yeats. “Nothing specific,” he said! However, in talking about Yeats as Everest, Mahon has this to say: “to the poets who came after him, he has left phrases like talismans, consolatory and inspiring, — a lonely impulse of delight, our proper dark; an ideal of audacity and empowerment, and a paradigm of transmutation, personal and historical.”

 Mahon came to Emory several times to give readings and to “visit himself” in the archives. On one occasion, Mahon, a notorious reviser of his own work, picked up a volume of his published poems and began changing lines as he stood in the library.  On hearing of his death, Emeritus professor, Ron Schuchard, said, “I went into our dining room to look upon the framed print of Vermeer’s “Woman Holding a Balance,” which Derek brought as a house gift when he stayed with us for a few days in January 1996. He had come from Washington and the Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery and wished us to have a print that he liked. At the bottom, he inscribed the last four lines of poem VIII in The Hudson Letter: “ . . . Never mind the hidden agenda, the sub-text; / it’s not really about male arrogance, ‘rough sex’ / or vengeful sisterhood, but about art / and the encoded mysteries of the human heart.” This last line prefigures the wonderful lines from ‘Everything is Going to Be All Right,’ his 1979 poem that has given comfort to so many during lockdown:

The poems flow from the hand unbidden

and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything

and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

Of the tributes to Mahon pouring in to the Irish Times in the wake of his death, the account by Michael Longley of their 60 plus year friendship movingly recalls their poetic apprenticeship together at Trinity College Dublin and later in Belfast.  After moving to America and subsequently from a long series of ‘no fixed abode’ addresses, Mahon wrote long, juicy letters to his old friends that Longley calls “the most entertaining letters I have ever received.”  I have kept a copy of one of them on my noticeboard for over twenty years.  In it, Mahon is looking forward to coming home to Ireland after a long stint abroad and he compares the quality of Irish sunlight to American light, “brassy, banal and without variety”:

 But ‘fresh and innocent’ are the words for Irish light, and far from being weary, the wonder of it is that it remains so vigorous and entertaining after so long.  I used to study it for hours on end, streaming dustily through the windows of O’Neill’s and Doheny and Nesbitt’s in Merrion Row.  Doheny and Nesbitt do the best shaft of sunlight in Dublin, and therefore the world.

Poetry in a dusty stream of sunlight – the perfect way to remember Derek Mahon.

[1] Drummond, Gavin. “The Difficulty of We: the epistolary poems of Michael Longley and Derek Mahon.” Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 35, 2005, p. 31+