Derek Mahon struggled with an intellectual ambition unexcelled by his Ulster contemporaries, elevating the commonplace into grandeur and striking the contemporary notes of recognition that draw us in. It’s uncanny how that late poem “Everything is Going to All Right,” has shed light on darkness during the pandemic, just as it has been adopted to ease the first shock of suicide for the bereaved. In hands such as Mahon’s, the commonplace phrases are the hand holds that begin to pull us out despair.
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
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.
Uncanny too was how Mahon’s mentor Louis MacNeice used the cliche to evoke a whole attitude to life, as Shostakovtich did with his banal little march in his monumental Leningrad Symphony. The phrase sets the rhythm and tone for “Bagpipe Music.” From as far back as the 1930s, it strikes an echo than can be heard today.
It’s no go the picture palace, it’s no go to the stadium..
It’s no go the government grant, it’s no go the elections,
Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.
It’s hardly a surprise that as the poet Laureate Simon Armitage said the other day, poetry has been enjoying something of a boom during lockdown. So often poetry is about being alone in contemplation, giving form to where the mind ranges unbidden.
In “Montaigne” Mahon wrote:
.. If one book bores me I pick up another,
Skimming and skipping. I would rather
shit like a gent than trouble my digestion
tackling a merely rhetorical l question.
Some have withdrawn in hopes of a mystique ,
Others in horror at the great mistake
of this made century and its religious hate ..
Knowing yourself you know the human fate.
What do I know? Only immediate things.
I think and write as the bird sings;
For mine is a lazy, self amusing style
..Nor do we need computers to contemplate
That morphic resonance were swifts migrate
In close formation from a river mouth
Knowing by instinct when to travel south…*
The story goes that at MacNiece’s graveside at Carrowdore parish church graveyard in September 1963, the young Mahon, Longley and Heaney gathered to read their tribute poems. Heaney on hearing Mahon’s tore his own up and suggested Longley do the same.
*Quoted from “ Against The Clock”, poems by Derek Mahon, The Gallery Press, 2018
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London