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New Collected Poems by Derek Mahon (Gallery Press, 2011)

November's Poetry Library Book Club had us looking at the poetry of Derek Mahon in honour of his 70th birthday.  Mahon was born on 23 November 1941 in Belfast and is one of Northern Ireland's most significant contemporary poets, though his time away from his homeland has resulted in a stance much more international and cosmopolitan than his peers.

His first full collection Night Crossing was published in 1968 when Mahon was 27, the year The Troubles began in Northern Ireland.  His most recent collection was An Autumn Wind published in 2010.  He has published over 20 individual collections, pamphlets and works of translation.  His Selected Poems first appeared in 1990 and has been republished several times.  His New Collected Poems appeared in 2011 from Gallery Press.  His work has won numerous awards, including the £40,000 David Cohen Prize in 2007 (2 years before Seamus Heaney) which is awarded to a British writer for a lifetime's body of work.

Mahon often uses ekphrasis in his work, writing poems based on works of art, and we started by looking at one of those poems.

Courtyards in Delft

The Delft School is a category of mid-17th century Dutch Golden Age painting named after its main base, Delft. It is best known for genre painting: images of domestic life, views of households, church interiors, courtyards, squares and the streets of that city.
The painting Mahon is writing about is by Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684). Critic Hugh Haughton (The poetry of Derek Mahon) describes how there are a whole series of these pictures by De Hooch, and says that he is referring to this in his "Everywhere that / Water tap".
The second stanza refers to other paintings of the same period - interiors with more morally suspect scenes.
Connections include the clean-living Protestantism, but also the influence of William of Orange in Northern Irish culture.

After reading the poem out loud we were very surprised to discover that the last two lines of the poem in the Selected Poems (Penguin, 2006) were different to the last two lines of the poem in the New Collected Poems (Gallery Press, 2011).  The lines "While my hard-nosed companions dream of fire / And sword upon veldt and fields of rain-swept gorse" had become "While my hard-nosed companions dream of war / On parched veldt and fields of rainswept gorse".  We spent a bit of time discussing this change and decided that we preferred the new version.

1. Can we identify the 'I' in the poem with the poet? If so, how can he say "I lived there as a boy"?

2. How does the poet show that he is not simply speaking about a historical character, but referring also to his own childhood? ("For her man to come home for his tea")

3. Have you ever had this experience of recognising your own situation in a representation of another time and place? What can we learn from such experiences? How does literature in general allow us to learn from what we share with others?

4. The poem approaches time in different ways. There is timelessness as well as the idea of decay. What do you come away with?

5. Does anyone have any comments about the language used in the poem? The words "esurient" and "lambency" were new to me. How do you feel about poets using words not often used in everyday language? Do you prefer to expand your vocabulary or do you feel poetry should reflect how we speak and think?

6. The poet looks at the image and sees a reflection of his own childhood. Do you feel that he sees this order and simplicity as having been positive or confining?

A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford

Poem is dedicated to J. G. Farrell, author of the novel Troubles (1970) an account of the last days of an Anglo-Irish hotel burnt down in the summer of 1919 during the Anglo-Irish war.
The epigraph is from a poetic sequence by the Greek poet Giorgos Seferis (1900-1971, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature), "Mythistorema" which is set amongst ruined buildings and is a "distillation of Odyssean materials for the twentieth-century" and is a poem of exile and return, about remembering and forgetting. (Hugh Haughton).

This poem was the final poem in Mahon's collection The Snow Party which was published in 1975.  A few years ago Anne-Marie Fyfe, who organises readings and workshops at The Troubadour in London, held a poll for The Troubadour called 'Poem Laureate' as an alternative to 'Poet Laureate' looking for the best poem of all time.  The poll received a huge response in votes and "A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford" took the prize reflecting its status as one of the most highly regarded poems of the 20th century.

1. Is this poem just about some mushrooms growing in an abandoned shed?

2. What/who do the mushrooms represent?

3. How do you feel towards the mushrooms?  Do you feel sorry for them?  Do you find them amusing?  Disturbing?

4. Quite a few poets have written about mushrooms.  What do you think it is about mushrooms that poets would find inspiring?

5. Who do you think the mushrooms are addressing at the end of the poem?  ("You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary" could be a pun which also refers to poet.)

6. Does this poem offer hope?  (Opening line is hopeful)

Dawn at St. Patrick's

We didn't have time to look at this poem but this is what we had prepared to lead the discussion.

Mahon was staying in a Dublin sanatorium, following a diagnosis of alcoholism.
St Patrick's was founded by money bequeathed by Jonathan Swift in 1747.
Bowditch Hall is the wing of the psychiatric hospital Robert Lowell was in, and it's alluded to in his poem "Waking in the Blue".
Niobe was turned to stone, and wept for her children, who were killed by Artemis and Apollo after she had taunted their mother.
Aubade form expresses the regret of parting lovers at daybreak.

1. How would you describe the way the poem is structured? (The first five stanzas home in from a broad perspective and the last six focus on the speaker's situation).

2. So the poem leads us in for five stanzas then, for six stanzas meditates on the speaker himself, his situation and his plans. He comes to the conclusion that the world is "a fiction and a show". How does the poem get to that point?

3. The poem is in quite an unusual form. What do you feel about the form? Does it add something to the meaning?

4. Mahon has spoken about his lack of rootedness as a Protestant in Ireland. How is this discussed or used in the poem?

5. How does the climactic "mad fools wherever we are" help us read the poem?

Everything is Going to be All Right

1. Can you picture where the narrator of this poem is?

2. Opening line has a negative "not" ? "How should I not be glad?".  What does this negative "not" suggest?  (Critic Hugh Haughton says this poem is about "the impulse to find comfort against the odds, despite the facts".)

3. I think this poem could also be referring to The Troubles.  Does anyone else think that?

4. What do you think the lines "The lines flow from the hand unbidden / and the hidden source is the watchful heart" are referring to?

5. The final line of the poem repeats the title.  Why do you think Mahon has done this?

6. Does this poem convince you that everything is going to be all right?

Seamus Heaney has cited Mahon as an influence on his own work and over the course of our discussion we came to appreciate that although on the surface these poems appear very accessible, the more we talked about them, the more complex the ideas behind the poems became.
During the Book Club we played recordings of Mahon reading some of the poems from the record Derek Mahon reads his poetry -- Baile Atha Cliath : Ceirnini Cladaig, 1973.  All of the records in the Poetry Library collection have been copied on to CD and are available to listen to in the library.

We also found the book The poetry of Derek Mahon by Hugh Haughton. -- Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2007, extremely useful in preparing the poems for the Book Club.  A copy is available for reference in the Poetry Library:
The poetry of Derek Mahon / Mahon, Derek (criticism of) ; Haughton, Hugh. -- Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2007. (Book) Criticism

Other works of criticism in the Poetry Library on Derek Mahon include:

Poetry and translation in Northern Ireland : dislocations in contemporary writing / Rui Carvalho Homem -- Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. (Book) Criticism

Self into song / Carol Rumens (Lectures given at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne) -- Tarset : Bloodaxe Books, 2007. (Book) Criticism; Poets on poetry

Writing home : poetry and place in Northern Ireland, 1968-2008 / Elmer Kennedy-Andrews -- Woodbridge : D. S. Brewer, 2008. (Book) Criticism

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