Derek Mahon


Derek Mahon’s father and grandfather worked at Harland and Wolff while his mother worked at a local Flax Mill. Interested in literature from an early age, he attended Skegoneil Primary school and then the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. At the institute he encountered fellow students who shared his interest in literature and poetry. The school produced a magazine to which Mahon produced some of his early poems. According to the critic Hugh Haughton his early poems were highly fluent and extraordinary for a person so young.

Patrick Cotter writes: Derek Mahon was born in Belfast in 1941 and studied French literature at Trinity College Dublin and at the Sorbonne. He lived for many years in London, working variously as a reviewer, television adaptor of literary texts for British television and poetry editor of the New Statesman. More recently he has domiciled in Dublin and Kinsale. He is regarded as one of the most accomplished and influential of contemporary Irish poets. He has influenced not only a younger generation of British and Irish poets but has also been one of the influences on a new school of Scandinavian poets centred in Oslo and Gothenburg.

His poetry is remarkable for its combination of classical structure and tones with contemporary thematic concerns. A list of his precursors would have to include Samuel Beckett, Louis MacNeice, the poets of Classical Rome and Greece (through the prism of their Elizabethan and Restoration translators, notably Marlowe and Marston), Donald Justice and European poets as various as Rilke, Jaccottet, Valery, and Pasternak all of whom he has translated. He has been described as one of the most musical of poets now writing in English and has been reported as saying that much of the best of contemporary American poetry has been written by Rap artists: “At least it rhymes.”

The high regard in which his work is generally held can be gauged by the awarding to him of the lifetime achievement award, the €60,000 2007 David Cohen Prize for Literature, previously won by the poet Thom Gunn but usually awarded to Novelists. Judging by the brilliance of his recent work and his relative youth a lifetime achievement award may be considered a tad premature this “itinerant soul”, surrounded by both the literal and metaphoric “esurient sea” he writes so often about, has plenty of juice left in him yet.

“At that time, Protestants like James Simmons, Michael Longley and myself could think that this was not our quarrel – our peculiar upbringing as middle-class, grammar-school-educated, liberal, ironical Protestants allowed us to think of ourselves as somehow not implicated. I told myself that I had more important things to do. Which were going to London, getting on with my own literary career as I had now started to conceive of it, marrying Doreen, getting myself together, discovering a sense of purpose. And writing directly about those conditions in the North was not part of that purpose. One of the damnable things about it was that you couldn’t take sides. You couldn’t take sides. In a kind of way, I still can’t. It’s possible for me to write about the dead of Treblinka and Pompeii: included in that are the dead of Dungiven and Magherafelt. But I’ve never been able to write directly about it. In Crane Bag they’d call it “colonial aphasia”. Perhaps in fact that’s what it is. I was not prepared for what happened. What happened was that myself and all our generation (particularly in the North) were presented with a horror, something that demanded our serious grown-up attention. But, as I say, I was not able to deal with it directly.”
Derek Mahon
from In the Chair, Salmon Publishing 2002, interview conducted 1995

Selected Poems:
Twelve Poems. Festival Publications, Belfast 1965
Night-Crossing. Oxford University Press 1968
Ecclesiastes Phoenix Pamphlet Poets 1970
Beyond Howth Head. Dolmen Press 1970
Lives. Oxford University Press 1972
The Snow Party. Oxford University Press 1975
Light Music. Ulsterman Publications 1977
In Their Element. Arts Council of Northern Ireland 1977
Poems 1962-1978. Oxford University Press 1979
Courtyards in Delft. Gallery Press 1981
The Hunt By Night. Oxford University Press 1982
Antarctica. Gallery Press 1985
The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush: Selected Poems. Gallery Press 1990
Selected Poems. Viking 1991
The Yaddo Letter. Gallery Press 1992
The Hudson Letter. Gallery Press 1995
The Yellow Book. Gallery Press 1997
Collected Poems. Gallery Press 1999
Selected Poems. Penguin 2001
Harbour Lights. Gallery Press 2005
Somewhere the Wave. Gallery Press 2007
Life on Earth. Gallery Press 2008 (shortlisted for the 2009 International Griffin Poetry Prize
An Autumn Wind, Gallery Press, 2010

Other Works and Translations:
The Chimeras (a version of Les Chimères, by Nerval), Gallery Press 1982
High Time (a version of Molières A School for Husbands), Gallery Press 1985
The Selected Poems of Philippe Jaccottet, Viking, 1988.
The Bacchae of Euripedes, and Racines Phaedra, Gallery Press 1996
Birds (a version of Oiseaux, by Saint-John Perse), Gallery Press 2002
Cyrano de Bergerac. (A version of the play by Edmond Rostand), Gallery Press 2004
Oedipus (A conflation of Sophocles Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus), Gallery Press 2005
Adaptations (A collection of versions, rather than translations proper, from poets such as Pasolini, Juvenal, Bertolt Brecht, Paul Valéry, Baudelaire, Rilke and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill), Gallery Press 2006