Grey Gowrie

The higher slopes of Parnassus

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District and Circle

Seamus Heaney

Faber, pp. 76, £

Selected Poems

Derek Mahon

Penguin, pp. 186, £


Derek Mahon

The Gallery Press, pp. , £

The Gallery Press, Loughcrew, Oldcastle, Co. Meath, Ireland,

‘August for the people and their favourite islands,’ wrote W. H. Auden in a poem from his early Marxist phase. This holiday season brings from our adjoining island a parcel of poetry better suited to Christmas or some elate private festival, a salvation of riches. Literary beachwear is usually marketed as undemanding: thrill- ers, Aga sagas, bonkbusters and the like.  The secret is to stick to good poems. Reading them requires fierce brief sensual attention akin to lovemaking itself. Afterwards you can doze again in the sun or over a novel. 

Seamus Heaney’s previous collection, Electric Light, disappointed some of his large readership (though not this member). He treated his boyhood in wartime Co. Derry directly, not obliquely, flattening his usual tone in order to relax and make it prosier. It was as if he glanced at New York poets like Frank O’Hara or Kenneth Koch and decided, in effect, to tell the reader, ‘Look, I know you like the early poems I fashioned from childhood. This is how it felt before I started shading.’ In spite of the Londony, Betjemanic title of the title poem — the work itself turns an incident on the Underground into something rich, deep and simple like Dante, or the Eliot of Little Gidding — District and Circle covers old boyhood ground. Moyola, Castledawson, Anahorish School, the Lagans Road, poor wetlands beneath the Sperrin Hills where the Scots Plantation halted are here restored to that resonant music people expect from Heaney. As he wrote more than 30 years back, ‘I have always listened for poems; they come sometimes like bodies come out of a bog, almost complete, seeming to have been laid down a long time ago, surfacing with a touch of mystery.’

War is scored in appropriately minor key. A Heaney hero of the first war, Edward Thomas, is recalled in the context of his admirer’s early youth in the second: ‘Like one of the Evans brothers out of Leitrim,/Demobbed, “not much changed”, sandy moustached and freckled/From being, they said, with Monty in the desert.’ Delicately, the Evans boy reminds us that a neutral Free State supplied more soldiers voluntarily to Britain than Northern Ireland, where conscription could not be imposed. Military noises off in the 1940s are echoed in civil war key as the Troubles of recent decades stutter to their end; footfalls of family carrying a sister’s bier are silenced for a while by a passing helicopter. There are a couple of plums, ‘Nonce Words’ and the title poem and, difficult to bring off, a beautiful unembarrassing poem of sexual love within marriage, ‘Tate’s Avenue’. Heaney continues to push the local slyly but inexorably towards the universal. Try reading Electric Light and this volume together, like two parts of a good concert.

One of Heaney’s best ‘literary’ poems (there are several in District and Circle, including a fine elegy for Czeslaw Milosz) is ‘Chekhov on Sakhalin’, which he dedicated to Derek Mahon. Mahon, Michael Longley and Heaney himself created Belfast in the 1960s for poetry as the Beatles created Liverpool for music. Like Heaney, Michael Longley exports well to this island. He won the Hawthornden Prize, which is not restricted to poetry, in 2000. Mahon is less celebrated here, a mystery to me as I would rather read a new poem by him than by anyone else writing in English. This is a subjective, even a selfish comment, not an evaluative one. I read Heaney and our own Geoffrey Hill with disinterested admiration, Mahon with naked jealousy. Auden felt that Marianne Moore sometimes wrote poems just for him; a few of us sherpas on Parnassus feel the same way about Mahon. He himself seems to abhor promotion; the Spectator had to buy Adaptations, a wonderful anthology of Mahon versions from Sophocles to Jaccottet and Ni Dhomhnaill, in order to get it noticed even. It is therefore a high holiday event for Penguin to have now brought out this indispensable and pocketable Selected Poems.

One of a fine new series, the Penguin selection includes ‘In Carrowdore Church- yard’ (at the grave of Louis MacNeice). The story goes that the three striplings competed to memorialise their fellow Ulsterman, but Heaney and Longley folded their cards when Mahon recited his opening stanza. And included also is ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ which (I have read) he believes may be overrated. It is not. It is one of a handful of great poems written in English in the last 60 years. Whenever I have said it aloud to people who do not know it the silence that follows is, in the right way, dazed. The selection does not include ‘After the Titanic’, another bulls’eye, written in the voice of the vessel’s disgraced owner Lord Ismay. He got off with the women and children and died, disgraced still, on his estate in Sligo in the 1930s. (‘Include me in your lamentations’). Another omitted historical piece is an adept villanelle about Captain Oates, so it is well worth the exchange rate hassle to obtain the longer Collected Poems from The Gallery Press in Oldcastle, Co. Meath, who also publish Adaptations.

To make up for these defects, the selection shows a fine weighting towards Mahon’s neo-Augustan, Byronic rather, rhyming epistles (he rhymes easily and unfashionably) and a funny intense poem about giving a late-sired daughter her bath. This matches, in different idiom, what you might think was a matchless Lowell poem on the same theme:

I who, though soft-hearted, always admired

granite and blackthorn and the verse hard-wired,

tingle and flow like January thaw-water

in contemplation of this rosy daughter.

Be patient with an old bloke; remember later

one who, in his own strange, distracted youth

awake to the cold stars for the harsh truth,

now tilts a bottle to your open mouth.

So drench the nappies; fluff, bubble and burp:

I probably won’t be here when you’ve grown up.

This is the Ireland of Swift and Flann O’Brien rather than Yeats or Heaney: wisecracking, sour and sad but shot through with ‘visionary desolation’, the phrase Heaney used to describe Mahon in the late 1970s. Not that you need to be a visionary to find the desolation now. Always one of Europe’s most beautiful countries, once one of her poorest, the Republic, at least, is at present spending the immense wealth good governance has brought her by spattering each sacral landscape with Europe’s worst domestic architecture. Mahon, not Heaney, is the laureate of things that go wrong.