Rage for Order: Derek Mahon

I’ve just opened a package from Amazon in the kitchen and taken out Derek Mahon’s Life on Earth. The first poem I glanced at was “Paolo and Lighea”. It’s a little six-liner with a wry throwaway feel, a slight piece in a way, but it gave me an instant shock of pleasure and a strong sense of coming home which contrasted quite markedly with the kind of pleasure I’ve had from other very good new books of poetry I’ve read recently. Admittedly, I’ve been reading  Mahon for many years now and I’m sure that a great deal of the sensation I’m talking about came from reliving familiar themes braided together in new ways, and from hearing different notes sounded by a loved and familiar voice. However, I think another element is the sureness of touch with which Mahon can give a feeling of graceful rightness and finality of form to even apparently casual utterances. It’s the element I miss in books like Fiona Sampson’s Common Prayer and Sarah Maguire’s The Pomegranates of Kandahar, full as they are of brilliant images and beautiful phrases. I’m sure it’s partly that I’m just not familiar enough with these poets’ voices or attuned enough to their cadences to appreciate the shaping of their poems  as much as I’ll come to on further readings. However, I do think that what Michael Longley and Derek Mahon share is an extraordinary perfectionist integrity and sureness of touch in working at their poems until they have achieved a sense of finality and inevitability, without its feeling as if the form is an imposed or constraining element.


What a gift this ability to combine form with openness to reality is! I think of all the haiku I’ve read that seem slight, trivial and artificial, and then I think of the lovely “Basho in Kinsale” sequence from Harbour Lights, with all its firmly shaped but unforced wit and humour, its shifting emotion and physical evocativeness.  In Mahon’s case the reconciliation seems to emerge from a stringent dialectic between commitment to the formal and linguistic perfecting of expression and scepticism about poetry’s ability to do justice to reality, whether of the inner or outer kind. Both the commitment and the self-mocking scepticism are evident in the last lines of “The Mayo Tao”:


I have been working for years

                                                   on a four line poem

                                                      about the life of a leaf.

                                                I think it may come out right this winter.


They are expressed more self-excoriatingly, with multiple despairing ironies and ambiguities, in “Rage for Order”, when he talks about the poet fine-tuning his art as “indulging / his wretched rage for order” and poetry itself as “an eddy of semantic scruple / in an unstructurable sea”.

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