Interviews

Derek Mahon, The Art of Poetry No. 82

Interviewed by Eamonn Grennan

The following conversation took place at Derek Mahon’s studio apartment in the West Village of New York City, not long after his Selected Poems (1991) had been published in America. Three more volumes of poetry have appeared since that conversation—The Hudson Letter (1995), The Yellow Book (1997), and his Collected Poems (1999)—as well as a volume of critical writing, Journalism (1996). The Hudson Letter takes homelessness as its theme: “I knew I had to take on the New York subject somehow, but couldn’t think how. Then someone said, You’ve just been homeless yourself, why don’t you write about the homeless?” I’d been teaching Whitman, Crane, Bishop, and Howl, among other things, all of which helped me set up my Hudson Letter topic, which turned out to be not just the homeless on the streets but the whole sexual-metaphysical homeless ache we live with as a species. I could see my boring little provincial home-fixation as, paradoxically, one of the big themes.” The Yellow Book, a more deliberately satirical book, takes up, notes Mahon, “where The Hudson Letter left off: back in Dublin, finding it changed, and reestablishing an Irish and European perspective. Both books are about the twentieth century really, the American century and the fin de siècle.”

The small white-walled space of Mahon’s New York apartment contained a long desk covered in neatly stacked books; a desk diary with its entries, day by day, heavily blacked out; the much revised handwritten pages of the poem Mahon was working on at that moment (its rhyming couplets crowded with local names); recent copies of the Irish Times and the TLS; and an electric typewriter. On the floor beside the desk were a couple of stacks of magazines. The bed—where the interviewer sat—was a futon resting on the floor. Mahon sat in the one armchair, and at intervals rose to make another pot of tea. White bookshelves contained a collection of Vintage paperbacks; a small television set was perched on a footlocker. On the white walls hung a few reproductions, picked up, I was told, at yardsales in Connecticut: a Monet over the bed, a Hopper lighthouse or two, a well-known photograph of Whitman, a Bonnard of an open window looking out on fields, a painting of a Nordic beach with two women walking near a wintry sea, and a print of the Irish artist William Leech’s Convent Garden, Brittany—nuns in sunlight, lots of flowers. Outside the window was a sunny street of brownstones and black railings; from the fenced-in patches of earth around still-leafless trees, dwarf crocuses were pushing up into one of the first truly warm spring days of the year. The impression indoors was of comfortable austerity—a room to work, relax, and sleep in. The conversations were punctuated by frequent bursts of laughter, which have been omitted from the printed version—this omission means that the quite lighthearted nature of the event is not as clear as it might be. In truth, while some demanding and painful areas were probed, the whole thing was, as they say at home, “great crack.” 

INTERVIEWER

Knowing your poems and knowing you, I imagine the proper place to hold this conversation might be some sort of terminal—an airport, a train station, a bus depot. You’ve moved around rather a lot, and the issue of being in place and out of place crops up often in your work. You’ve also spoken, however, of a “homeward gravitation in Ulster poetry,” and your own poems reverberate, initially, in the six counties of Northern Ireland.

DEREK MAHON

Two of them, actually, Antrim and Down—Belfast and the seaside places.

INTERVIEWER

Can you give me a sense of that background?

MAHON

The poem “Autobiographies” is an attempt to do a little documentary on that. “Courtyards in Delft,” I think, adds more to it, because it bites off more and manages to chew what it bites off, although it’s highly aestheticized. One of the reasons I haven’t done much in that explicitly autobiographical line is that it’s not for me to do. Others have done it; others who have been content with a documentary mode have done it better than I would ever do it.

INTERVIEWER

What we get in your work, though, are glimpses of the child born during World War II, bombers, the sense of a city that was distinctly different in the island of Ireland, one on which the bombs fell. We have girls, the growth of sexual awareness, the bicycle—that epiphanic bike—and then in “Courtyards in Delft” that “strange child with a taste for verse.” Can you put those things together?

MAHON

They all have Joycean mnemonic contexts: the bike, the girls’ names, the war. When I think about the war, I think of a 1940s radio set, wireless set, and other objects with their inherent numina: a Japanese lacquered cigarette case brought back by an uncle in the Merchant Navy—the little things that you saw with a child’s eye when you were a child and that will never go away. That’s what consciousness is all about. My Aunt Kathleen’s white shoes in a rented summer house in 1945. No, I was on the floor, it must have been 1942; I was on the carpet. Those white shoes! I imagine what I call that “strange child with a taste for verse” emerges from a slow consciousness of the numina inherent in these things. I think that’s the beginning.

INTERVIEWER

It’s a beginning particularly interesting because of the words mute phenomena that appear much later in your work and become necessary anchorage for so much that you do. Anyway, this kid—this strange child with a taste for verse—also of course has parents, has a human environment.

MAHON

I think it was important that I was an only child, an only child whose best friends were the objects I’ve been talking about. It was a quiet house. Usually my mother was doing this or that, practical things around the house; while my father was usually out at work, away a forty- or forty-eight-hour week perhaps. He worked in the shipyard. A quiet man. He did the same job (with some little promotions) for forty years. Belfast was his life. The shipyard was his life. My mother the same. She was from Belfast. Before she married, she worked in what used to be called the York Street Flax Spinning Company, Ltd., which was the other big Belfast industry: shipbuilding and linen. So they had what you might call blue-to-white-collar jobs in these two industries. The linen industry doesn’t exist anymore. My mother stopped working when she got married. That’s what they did then. She became a housewife. She had only her husband and an infant to look after, but she became a housewife and very house-proud in the obsessive way that a woman in that position often is. It’s almost a question of what else had she to do? She’d keep dusting and keep everything as bright as a new penny. Of course, this was a bit of a strain on the child, an irritant. In fact, with my mother, no harm to her, I think it was pathological. But since little boys are usually rougher than house-proud mothers, there were times I would deliberately do things to be infuriating—knock over a cup or something.

INTERVIEWER

Given that sense of enclosure, do you remember anything that suggested an outside?

MAHON

Since there wasn’t any hurly-burly of siblings, I had time for the eye to dwell on things, for the brain to dream about things. I could spend an afternoon happily staring. In one of those poems, “The Lost Girls” section in “Autobiographies,” I remember (this is naughty) this little girl who used to dress very prettily: she, in her back garden, would be visible to me up in my parents’ bedroom at the top of our house, and I used to watch her down there. I’d see other things besides, like a coal delivery, the sort of pictorial qualities of coal. That kind of thing—the running of cold water from a kitchen tap, the light. I had time to dwell on these things.

INTERVIEWER

Belfast in the forties: did you and your parents go to church?

MAHON

There was a certain amount of churchgoing, although they went for the look of the thing—it was expected that you would show your face in church once in a while. They were serious about being respectable and being seen to do the right thing, but they weren’t really serious church people. I mean, they were Protestants! There’s no such thing as a devout Protestant, is there? Protestants aren’t devout, they’re staunch. So it was all appearances. I tagged along, scrubbed and kempt. But this turned out to be very important because, after a while, my parents were approached by the minister (the Church of Ireland minister, I should say, not Presbyterian) who asked, Could young Derek hold a tune, would he be interested in having a go with the choir? We can arrange for Mr. Wood to audition him on Wednesday evening. So in no time at all I was in the choir, which meant two services on Sunday, one in the evening, as well as choir practice on Wednesday evening. The hymnology invaded the mind: “Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.”

INTERVIEWER

Did you (do you) respond to all this as a believer?

MAHON

I believe in the words, and in the tunes. I’ve never seriously asked myself the question, Do you believe in God? I believe in the words and the tunes; that’s quite enough for me. As a child, I suppose I brought the same kind of apprehension to these things as to other phenomena: we were singing from sheet music, hymnals, anthologies of hymns, with the music written out and the verses underneath. For example, let’s take a verse like this (I won’t try to sing, it’d only be embarrassing): “From Earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, / Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, / Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost: / Hallelujah, Hallelujah!”

Very imperialistic, “From Earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast.” But the way this was printed in the hymnal was important to me: it was under the music, far-thest, so somehow I created a whole geography of my own, around ocean’s far-thest, as it were far-flung, coasts. The words themselves became facts, objects; and I believed in those objects, those clumped printed objects.

INTERVIEWER

How did primary school open the world to you?

MAHON

All I see is sunlight, classrooms full of sunlight, or windows streaked with rain—as everybody does. I don’t hear anything. I recently looked at an old school photograph of Skegoneill when I was six or so: all these wee old faces, thirty of them, and we’re all, each individual one, absolutely unique and crazy in some way, quite unbelievable.

INTERVIEWER

Was it ever a question of “there is a child among us taking notes,” a Stephen Dedalus at the edge of the circle?

MAHON

No, that wasn’t me, not at all. I was like any other. I felt at home there. I started feeling not at home when I was at secondary school, at the beginning of adolescence. I started moping, brooding; I didn’t go in for sport. Mine was a great rugby school, rugby and cricket. I played some rugby and cricket, but then after a certain point I wasn’t interested anymore. I think I can trace this to something in the way I was treated in my family situation. My cousin Conacht and myself, who were the same age, lived just a few streets from each other, and we were quite like brothers a lot of the time. Conacht was a bit taller and he always was considered the more interesting and more manly, more able one. I was a bit of a dead loss in comparison. This was internalized, entirely, and gave me a lot of trouble at the time. And I think that knocked me off the straight (and even narrow) and turned me into an eccentric or, as my mother always said, “an oddity.” It created a sense of inadequacy, a sense of “well to hell with that then, I’ll opt for the place where I can succeed, for other forms of value.” So I didn’t compete. Although I enjoyed rugby and cricket, the competition didn’t interest me. There were other boys in the school like this, a little group of us—oddities, weirdos—so I found a coterie, and there I was at home. Age fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen, we would go precociously to something that was just coming into existence in a place like Belfast in the late 1950s . . . a coffee bar. And talk, and read Aldous Huxley.

INTERVIEWER

Was this where literature put down its conscious roots?

MAHON

I think there are two kinds of literary life: there was a real, affective literary life, in the sense of my appreciation of early Yeats, getting a thrill out of Dylan Thomas, things like that; and then there was a more pretentious coterie thing. Showy. But this offered me an identity, and an identity that stays with me to this day. It was the beginning, I suppose, of my life as (God spare us!) an “intellectual.”

INTERVIEWER

You once mentioned John Boyle, a history and English teacher in secondary school. Was he important to this life?

MAHON

Well, all this business of sitting in a coffee bar with a Penguin novel by Aldous Huxley, it was somehow disembodied, you know? We thought of everyone else as peasants. But Boyle enabled us somehow to embody the notion of not being cut off, not being outsiders in a society that itself was outside something. And the fact that Boyle was from Dublin was important, from some “other” or larger context. He was an articulate representative of the other part of the island. He was active in politics, a member of the old Northern Ireland Labour Party, chairman at one time, though he never sat in any parliament. His field was Irish labor. Boyle was also a teacher of literature, and one of the things he taught was Yeats. He taught Yeats as if Yeats were an historian of the time: Yeats as documentary. When Boyle himself was at Trinity he had gone to a debate where one of the speakers was Maud Gonne. So he was able to make it all real to us.

INTERVIEWER

Was that your first awakening to the sense of Dublin, the sense of the two Irelands, of politics?

MAHON

Not quite. Because as I went through my teens I saw them with my own eyes. A part of my visual experience was Election Day in Belfast, those lorries full of Unionist supporters, the polling booths. This was part of the whole fabric. I didn’t look at these people as terrifying B-Specials and so on—they were my family. I had an uncle who was a sergeant in the B-Specials. My cousin Conacht and I used to play with his unloaded revolver in their house. The man who took the Unionist tally at Skegoneill school polling booth was the father of the little girl I sat beside in school. It was all part of the whole.

At secondary school, however, I first began in that teenage way to develop what you might call a political awareness. This was helped by, possibly prompted by, an uncle who was a rather peculiar character. He had been at sea in the Merchant Navy and he had worked in the Ministry of Transport office in Belfast for many years. He never married. He was a sort of bachelor-student, the kind of man who wanted to read literature, wanted to know about literature. In his room there would be a novel by Sinclair Lewis, War and Peace, issues of a French cinema magazine to which he subscribed. He was a self-taught man, a left-wing autodidact. He was the one who bought the Sunday papers that nobody else bought, that kind of thing. He had quite an effect on me at one point, prompting me to become conscious of the political situation. So I became critical of socialism rather than nationalism.

INTERVIEWER

You took such turnings while you were in secondary school. What were their consequences as you were about to leave Belfast? You had choices to make—some students went to England to go to university. You chose to go to Dublin, to Trinity.

MAHON

No, it was chosen for me. The way it happened was this: the best boys, those who had done best in the mock exams, were slated for Oxford and Cambridge. The next best were slated for Trinity. Those who had done well, but not exceptionally, were slated for Queen’s, Belfast. Tells you a bit about self-esteem in the North, doesn’t it?

INTERVIEWER

Would you describe Dublin as a watershed time?

MAHON

I was bewildered by the place at first, bewildered by Trinity. I thought that Dublin was beautiful. I remember going on a bus, in the sunlight, and thinking that it was a gorgeous place. It was a happy alternative to Belfast. In fact, some of us who went down together from the North developed anti-Northern jokes among ourselves.

INTERVIEWER

What about Trinity as a kind of literary awakening?

MAHON

There was a particular kind of community there, a unique community involving certain very vivid characters: Alec Reid, Con Leventhal, Owen Sheehy Skeffington. These were both teachers and friends. The professor of English then was Phillip Edwards. Phillip was English, a nice man, but much more inspiring was a reprobate like Alec Reid or a humanly interesting person like Con Leventhal. We grew up in a very pleasant way. Physically the surroundings were extremely attractive. Beautiful college, beautiful trees, beautiful girls: wherever you fell there was something to please. At the same time, it was a place apart—golden days, golden moments.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever start to think of yourself as an academic?

MAHON

No, I thought of myself as a surly étranger in a donkey jacket, with literary pretensions. The way to seem was careless of the academic demands. Some, of course, swotted up furiously at night. I didn’t, and that was my mistake. So I drifted away from the academic but, like others, formed my own little university within. It was then that I had the notion that “this poetry nonsense you’ve been tinkering at for the past couple of years at school, if you’re going to take it seriously, you can do it here, and people will pay attention.” It was a very fertile environment, very supportive. Alec Reid was part of it, in a very personal way; he was great fun, and so human. A liberal education, was Alec.

INTERVIEWER

To what degree is the sensibility in the poems from your first book, Night-Crossing, due to your education at Trinity? Wry, speculative, eloquent, debonair . . .

MAHON

It’s hard for me to say, but I suppose it must have a lot to do with it, because those words would describe the environment at Trinity when I was there; probably it’s how a contemporary undergraduate there would describe it today. That is the mode, not only the conversational mode, the mode of discourse, but it’s also the mode of composition, of imaginative discourse. It’s the tone of voice. Of course, there was a struggle going on within myself at the time. It took me a long time to get hold of anything I could begin to think of as being my own voice, with the struggle going on between a surly Belfast working-class thing and something, to use your word, debonair. The flaneurs I couldn’t help but admire and envy, also on the written page: the way that some of the students had that at their fingertips. So there was a clash in me between the one and the other, which Eavan Boland was very conscious of in her poem “Belfast vs. Dublin.” Those things more or less came together at a later stage, maybe ten years later—those two kinds of rhetoric were able to negotiate with each other and come together in a single voice. In putting together the Selected Poems I tried to manufacture belatedly a homogeneous voice, but, in fact, in those early poems there’d be one man on one page and a totally different person on the next page. To my ear anyway.

INTERVIEWER

When you’d finished with Trinity, how would you say the Belfast boy had been altered?

MAHON

Well, he was grown up now, if he ever has been really. But I didn’t know where I was! I suppose, looking back on it, that I was in some kind of crisis. Had I been accustomed to a disciplined and purposeful way of life, I would have gone on to whatever I was going to do then—trainee journalism, the BBC, doing a Ph.D. at Oxford, whatever it might have been. I would have proceeded. But I came to a stop because I’d been living indolently, with literary notions, so I had no direction. On leaving Trinity, the only thing I knew I could do was get out of Dublin.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that the movement from Trinity out into the world was one in which you became more and more identifiable to yourself as a poet? or at least as someone who wasn’t anything else?

MAHON

That’s a better way of putting it. It wasn’t that of all the things I did poetry was the most interesting. In fact, poetry was the only thing I did. Anyway, I left Trinity in 1965 and came to the States, to Cambridge via Canada. There was this enormous poetic energy in America at that time, and I was very conscious of it around Harvard Square. First of all through Louis Asekoff, whom I’d known at Trinity. The sixties, the protests, the war. A lot of it was very strange to me, of course, and I couldn’t get it at all. I suppose my taste was very conservative, perhaps it still is. The other thing I was conscious of was the Harvard dimension—there were people about who had just a year or two previously been taking writing classes with Lowell. So there was a lot going on. The American poetic psyche was very active. But in a way I think I was lost. I was in a transitional phase. At the time it didn’t seem transitional, it seemed terminal; but I was in a phase between being a Trinity student and being whatever I was going to be next. The only constant was not being too far away from poetry and from a literary environment.

INTERVIEWER

How did the word home reverberate under these conditions?

MAHON

I felt very far from home in those years. (In fact, for a large part of my life I’ve been terrified of home.) I think that this has a great deal to do with what started happening in Northern Ireland in 1968, 1969—how it took me by surprise. I’d been away from it for a bit, not too long, but I was still close enough to it to get burned inside. (I’m thinking of the marches, of Burntollet, and so on.) I was horrified, and I didn’t go up there after a certain point. No, that’s not true. I would go up to Belfast from time to time, right up to 1970. In some sense (this may sound very phony) it was almost as if the things that were happening up there were happening literally to me. I felt “beaten-up.” I wonder if others felt the same. I felt that I had been guilty of something that I wasn’t aware of. Although I’ve never been a motorist, I felt as perhaps a hit-and-run driver must feel when he wakes up the next morning. It was extremely upsetting, especially when the death toll started mounting. I couldn’t deal with it. I could only develop a kind of contempt for what I felt was the barbarism, on both sides. But I knew the Protestant side; I knew them inside out. I was one of them, and perhaps I couldn’t bear to look at my own face among them. So I adopted a “plague on both your houses” attitude.

INTERVIEWER

Did it provoke, in its anguish, any digging for roots?

MAHON

Should have. There are various researches that I should have undertaken at that point and that I didn’t, that I avoided. Seamus Heaney, for example, did a lot more digging than I did.

INTERVIEWER

In “Afterlives” you put it like this: “Perhaps if I’d stayed behind / And lived it bomb by bomb / I might have grown up at last / And learnt what is meant by home.”

MAHON

I think probably there were things that I should have come to terms with, researched, looked into, looked at, but I didn’t. At that time, Protestants like James Simmons, Michael Longley, 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 of 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.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve noticed that whenever you talk about your poems in public you usually talk about form; what you never talk about is the self making the poems. You never let us into the workshop with you. What would be your take on yourself as an actual maker of the poem?

MAHON

Well, there’s no point in beating about the bush. After many years of beating about the bush, the fact is, I am an out-and-out traditionalist. That’s the way it is, and that’s the way it’s going to stay. I find that certain poets want to express certain things, want to be truthful about their emotions, about the nature of the world as they understand it, about the changing nature of society, about their instincts and their opinions. They are full of liberal intentions, they are admirable people; but they are not poets, not to me they’re not. They’re writing free verse (I suppose you would still call it)—without any specific talent for poetry—to express themselves, to deliver narrative, to state opinions. But they are not doing the thing that poetry does, as far as I’m concerned. Formally, that is. I remember talking to Richard Pevear about this, and the three principles that we found ourselves agreeing on were soul, song, and formal necessity—the Coleridgean sense of formal necessity that the poem should “contain within itself the reason why it is thus and not otherwise.”

INTERVIEWER

The quotation, of course, allows for free verse.

MAHON

Of course it does. But it’s my own experience that writing is a visual experience as well as an aural one. It’s important to me what a poem looks like on the page. I’m interested in organization. I’m interested in at least the appearance of control, orchestration, forceful activity; something intense happening, something being intended and achieved—purposefulness instead of randomness.

I find very little worthwhile in the magazines now. I don’t read column-fillers—it’s been a long time since I’ve done that. If I pick up a copy of The New York Review of Books, the TLS, or whatever it might be, I don’t find much in the poems anymore. They’re not interesting, they’re little wisps of words. I like to be arrested.

INTERVIEWER

Formally? Materially?

MAHON

I’d like to think that being formally arrested promises the material arrest. And formal arrest has to do with the appearance of the thing on the page; it has to do with the sound of the thing, some kind of authority. These are dangerous waters, come to think of it—the use of authority reminds me of that. There are contemporary theoreticians who will be tapping at the scaffold for my use of authority. At the same time, I am as liable as any—and perhaps indeed more than most—to the lures of negative capability and anarchy and all those things. But what I miss in contemporary poetry is the sense of “here’s somebody doing something that he or she knows how to do”—the sense of control. It doesn’t have to be a bullying thing; it can be a gentle, gradual, tentative thing, like Elizabeth Bishop in the “Moose” poem, for example. Or it can be the rather ludicrously authoritative note of something like “The Quaker Graveyard,” which is a parody of what I’m talking about. But I like to be spoken to in the tone of voice of Lowell’s “Waking Early Sunday Morning”: “Pity the planet, all joy gone / From this sweet volcanic cone.” Then I’m hearing music loud and clear. I like the tenor of it. Here is a voice that has committed itself to words without hesitation, without irony, without fear. It’s a form of giving yourself to life. It’s the ability to surrender; to walk into the water without a lifebelt; to do the big thing.

INTERVIEWER

From time to time you’ve made articulate your suspicion of language, and even of verse itself. Would you say that this is a kind of trouble to you, as well as a kind of pose? The very thing that you admire is something that you oppose some of the time.

MAHON

I think of it in dramatic terms: if you surround yourself with hesitation and constraint and so on, and yet manage to sing through, then you somehow earn the sound you make. Perhaps something like that is going on. But I suppose that you have to be able to speak without thinking all the time how it sounds—those peculiar moments when you are saying something and even as you are saying it, the objections, the laughter, all these things are going on simultaneously, and yet you are able to say it, without shame or horror or embarrassment. It’s all a matter of artistic tact. Let’s just say that you must, in order not to go mad, be able to speak.

INTERVIEWER

Many of the neo-formalists see the formalist stance as having implicit moral and political implications. What’s your attitude?

MAHON

Well, I think there might be something in that. The habitual choice of a certain kind of form does describe a sensibility, so that a formalist poet’s politics will also be formalist, in the sense that they will respect abstract notions of . . . I’m trying to avoid the words “law and order.” I don’t consider myself a right-wing person. Robert Hughes’s book Culture of Complaint, about the forfeiting of individual responsibility endemic in American culture, says things with which my own thinking about contemporary poetry chimes. He has a chapter, for example, called “Art and the Therapeutic Fallacy.”

INTERVIEWER

One of the things for which you are valued as a poet is a formal elegance without exhibitionism—form has been digested by content, and content by form. How do these elements relate to one another as you work?

MAHON

It’s almost impossible to describe. It’s the sense in which one finds a tone of voice. I want always to bear in mind what I was saying about soul, song, and formal necessity. The best way I can put it is that I like there to be a certain gravity somewhere in the offing, some residual echo of traditional form. The suggestion should always be there, even in the most talky poem—like “Ovid in Tomis,” for example—that once upon a time this stuff was sung, not spoken. I’d call it music. And I like there to be an external side to formal organization. I like to see a form on the page, or listen to a poem and be able to measure the page as an organized object, as an authoritative-looking object, as a thing that looks like something interesting—not like one of the thousands of therapeutic poems that you don’t want to read because they look so boring on the page. There’s nothing putting it together, there’s no reason for it.

INTERVIEWER

Your manners as a poet suggest a view of the world that is coherent and continuous, which can be traced from early poems like “Lives” and “Afterlives” all the way up through “The Sea in Winter,” the Camus poem, and “The Yaddo Letter.” Camus, in fact, says in The Myth of Sisyphus that “the world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes the human heart.” Your poems seem very often to register that wild longing for clarity as a kind of ground note.

MAHON

Yes, I like that. I like the wild longing for clarity. I like that phrase. That strikes a chord. It’s an interesting use of wild, isn’t it?

INTERVIEWER

We talked one time about the Dionysian and the Apollonian in these terms: the Apollonian as your sense of shape and form; the Dionysian as the manner in which you collide with the “stuff,” with the “wild.” Does this combination make sense to you?

MAHON

Yes. That’s the combination that has the greatest potency, I think. The hissing chemicals inside the well-wrought urn; an urnful of explosives. That’s what’s so great about Yeats, after all: the Dionysian contained within the Apollonian form, and bursting at the seams—shaking at the bars, but the bars have to be there to be shaken.

INTERVIEWER

So you understand poetry as a cage, with a wild animal inside it?

MAHON

This is where we quote Robert Frost and Clarke and Henry James. Raymond Chandler too: “No art without the resistance of the medium.” But the resistance mustn’t be gratuitously imported for tactical purposes. It must be organic. I guess that’s worked for me in a few poems, sometimes only in a few lines at a stretch. Take “A Garage in Co. Cork,” for example. There’s a lot of banging the bars and banging at the windows in that poem—windows being broken, in fact—but it’s all very formally contained. I suppose that the same is true of the “Shed.” Bringing together those two elements makes me hear orchestras and see fireworks. Childish things like that.

INTERVIEWER

You say that there have to be bars there to be rattled. So what are the bars?

MAHON

I suppose they are what’s usually called “the human condition.” The constraints, the fact that we can’t fly, the fact that we can only be at one place at a time. The constraints that enable us to live, and prevent us from living. In artistic terms, I’d say that when the poems feel as if they’re working there’s nothing quite so . . . like the gates being flung open and . . . trumpets sounding. A kind of liberation.

INTERVIEWER

Is love a word you would use in this connection?

MAHON

Well, it’s all about love, really. This also connects with something that I’m not allowed to do anymore, which is drink. I used to drink a lot. There was a certain kind of consciousness—false consciousness, no doubt, especially the morning-after lucidity, which I thought of as being a kind of revelation. I think there are various points in the Selected Poems where that moment is touched upon. I suppose it must be, it must have been, akin to what is considered to be a religious experience—I’m talking about the apparent suspension of time, the transcendence of bother and the quotidian, the sense that life is long and life is full, the sense that if we are here to perceive anything it is this kind of perception that is particularly intended. The surrounding chaos is the stuff that keeps you awake at night in lower Manhattan. For me, the revelation that came the morning after came as a formal thing—the morning after, mind you, since the clarity of drunkenness itself, as is well known, is a complete chimera. A “systematic derangement of the senses.” I think Rimbaud was well acquainted with what we’re talking about, and gave it the kind of weight that I’m giving it here. For me it has a great deal to do, it had a great deal to do, with a certain bohemian way of being—living at a certain angle to life, spending quite a lot of time having the brain active, having the senses active at certain times of day and night when other people are asleep or out at work. I think that way of life can help the creative. I don’t think that’s bohemian sensibility; I think there’s truth to it. Before the bohemian clichés, there were bohemians who were originals. There is an original bohemian idea to which I still have an attachment, despite all the nonsense that has been said and done in its name.

INTERVIEWER

What sense do you have that other ways of living—living without drink, for example—can still provide a “derangement of the senses”? What in the ordinary, the quotidian . . .

MAHON

Well, this is my current creative problem. I think one writes a different kind of thing, which is where I am now. I think that I’ve probably entered that middle-age stretch in which, so they say, you have the choice between falling silent or rambling on. Now, I won’t ramble on, I know that. I think the pattern that’s emerging is a general sort of silence punctuated by sudden bursts of noisiness. Aside from translation, I haven’t produced a lot of verse in recent years. For some fairly obvious reasons, I think—all kinds of displacements, an inability to concentrate, distractions.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s get back to composition itself, which you’ve described as a shaking of the bars, a link moment between the human condition and the song.

MAHON

Something like that. There’s a certain moment in which that happens, but that’s a very rare occurrence, of course. Although every poem, I suppose, is an attempt. I suppose it’s religious—the notion of art as consolation, the belief that “everything will be all right.” I suppose I can’t finally seriously believe that we’re not immortal. So yes, in some sense everything is going to be all right. That seems a really crass thing to say. But it would be pernicious to insist that this was the be-all and end-all; it’s not. It’s only one of the poetic experiences—although it has a kind of privileged status, I think. For example, in “The Sea in Winter,” writing to O’Grady below in Paros, I assign such a moment to him:

            You too have known the curious sense

            of working on the circumference—

            the midnight oil, familiar sea,

            elusive dawn epiphany,

            faith that the trivia doodled here

            will bear their fruit sometime, somewhere.

            That reflects on it.

INTERVIEWER

Would you call the poem, then, any poem, a secular act of faith?

MAHON

I suppose it is. If we’re going to start from religion, yes, “a secular act of faith” would do. A faith in meaningfulness, a defiance of nihilism—to which one is rather prone, of course. I mean, we do know it’s all a lot of nonsense, really, just as Mr. Camus knew, but it doesn’t do to say so, even to oneself. Isn’t that right?

INTERVIEWER

Although, if you’re a poet you have to say it to yourself, I guess; but you also have to say the other thing—what Yeats would call holding reality and justice in a single thought. You’re after that too?

MAHON

Yes, of course. “Derry Morning” has something of what we’re talking about: the glimpse of the streets on that morning. As to poems as secular acts of faith . . . well, everything is an act of faith: getting up in the morning is an act of faith. I like the idea of a defiance of nihilism, that’s certainly true in my own case. It’s very easy to have said at some point, even to say still, It’s all a lot of nonsense, it’s not to be taken seriously. But that attitude never produces anything.

INTERVIEWER

When you say “act of faith,” does faith have an object, or is it there for its own sake?

MAHON

The object is life, I think. The object is to make life possible, and to make life continue. That sounds rather utilitarian. But I think that it is for its own sake in the first instance, to say yes rather than no. The happy incidental outcome of that is that the side of life is strengthened—one can go on.

INTERVIEWER

In a lot of your poems the final image is of somebody going on “in spite of.” Do you think that the poem itself is a journey towards going on?

MAHON

Yes. Heaney quotes a Coventry Patmore phrase, “the end of art is peace.” Peace in the sense of contributing to the world, to life, which is finally all we have, I suppose. That sort of “going on.” Though perhaps we shouldn’t be talking about peace, but only about faith—the poem, as you said, as an act of faith. So let’s forget peace; let’s stick with the faith.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a generosity about your poetry vis-à-vis the ordinary world, as if the poems were some sort of ministration into the world.

MAHON

Well, that sounds very nice. Ministration. It also sounds a little patronizing. I mean, they are themselves products of a broken world.

INTERVIEWER

But products of a broken world that you want whole. You have a sense of wholeness that you’re trying to minister into the world.

MAHON

Yes, but all one can do is minister to that sense. I don’t think poetry makes anything happen. No, scratch that, because it educates the imagination, so you get more imaginative people, a higher quality of civilization, people behave better toward one another. I’m more inclined to Shelley than to Auden on this: “The great instrument of moral good is the imagination . . . Poetry contributes to the effect by acting upon the cause.” So no, I don’t think Auden is right. It was a very half-hearted declaration of Auden’s anyway. It’s my observation that not just poetry, but art in any shape or form can tutor the imagination—the imagination can feed and strengthen itself on art, on poetry, in such a way that the sum of goodness and wisdom in the world is infinitesimally increased. I think that is so.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the connection between the formal element in your verse and the act of faith?

MAHON

If a thing is worth saying, it’s worth going to some trouble to say it in a presentable and memorable fashion. Something like that. But even that’s too much of a rationalization. It’s more that that’s the way I like to do it. It’s almost as simple as that: that’s what I like to do on the page. I’ve often filled a page with free verse, and I’ve thought, Now that’s not a bad piece of free verse, and it’s hung around for a while. But eventually I throw it out, because it’s not interesting to me. A thing has to have shape, profile, it has to clear its throat, make its presence felt, make itself visually interesting and so on. That is simply the way that I understand poetry.

INTERVIEWER

Is that also the way you understand poetry as making something happen?

MAHON

I don’t think that far ahead. In writing, my thinking is on the level of “this will interest so-and-so” or “so-and-so will like this.” Or maybe not even that; maybe just that “this is going to be fun when I’m putting the finishing touches to it, when it’s actually taking its final form.”

INTERVIEWER

Although the self-portrait that comes through your poems is often that of the solitary, a lot of your poems are dedicated to specific people.

MAHON

I invoke a circle of friends, a reading society. I didn’t realize that at the beginning, but I was creating a circle of readers.

Of course, this introduces other issues. If we’re going to talk about solitude and community, we’re going to have to talk about nonbelonging, about marriage, about homelessness. All these themes are subject matter for me just at the moment, which have as their origin the way I shut myself off from my family, from my family origins. Not entirely: I still see my mother once a year. But, at the age of eighteen or so, when I left home to go to Trinity, I wasn’t just going on to college; I actually was leaving one life altogether and stepping into another. Throughout my teens I had a sense of the immediate community—extended family, the neighborhood and so on—but I felt that there was something terribly amiss and lacking and skewed about this whole carryon. It seems a very insufficient community. The question in the back of my mind all the time was, Is this all? Is this it? Is this life? These people, this place? In fact, of course, looking back on it now, there’s a lot more vividness in actuality about both the people and the place than, at the time, in my intolerance, I was able to appreciate. A mistake Heaney has never made. But I was an odd fish. Heaney was part of his community growing up—part of the extended family and society—but I found the nature of that society intensely repressive, neurotic.

You might say that my first model of community was tainted, so I opted out of community. But, to quote Adrienne Rich, “the danger of reacting against coldness is that one becomes oneself cold.” I think that happened to me. I’m still a pretty cold fish in some ways—it becomes second nature, first nature, even, to get out of all community, and to turn into an antinomian, nasty character. The dangers are solipsism, inhumanity, intolerance. It’s the first step towards, on the one hand, Rimbaud, and on the other hand, the serial killer. Really it’s a psychological risk to deracinate from your given community. Heaney asks this question somewhere: How dangerous is it to reject the world we’re shown? And it is dangerous. A more obvious and easier danger, of course, is to be absorbed by it. So what I did was to reject the world I was shown, though I later came back to it in various ways. But I went off on this solipsistic trip, on which I in some sense still am. So all of those dedications amount to the creation of a new family.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve also been married and have a family of your own. Now you’re separated. Do you see that as another community from which you finally isolated yourself?

MAHON

I suppose the answer is that I’m not very good at community except in a tentative fashion. Just as I don’t like parties unless I’m standing near the door talking to people I know well, and able to get away fast. That’s my idea of parties—and also of communities. To be essentially solitary (this is all very selfish, I realize that)—not without community, exactly, but a slight distance all around, so that one is dealing with community on one’s own terms. And that’s the way I live today.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the connection between that and the kind of poems you write?

MAHON

It’s practically my subject, my theme: solitude and community; the weirdness and terrors of solitude; the stifling and the consolations of community. Also, the consolations of solitude. But it is important for me to be on the edge looking in. I’ve been inside, I’ve spent lots of time inside. Now again, I appear to be outside; perhaps I’ll be inside once again. I don’t know. On the formal side . . . I was talking recently to a very nice young woman who seemed to be coming from the current literary orthodoxy; she used two phrases of her students—one was about “giving them permission to write” and the other was about “creating a warm space for them to write.” Now, poetry written with permission in warm spaces, there’s far too much of that—and that is the voice of community. What interests me is forbidden poetry written by solitaires in the cold, written by solitaires in the open, which is where the human soul really is. That for me is where poetry really is.