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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Encyclopaedia Mahoniana

Whiling away the wait for the megabucks Derek Mahon limited edition Somewhere the Wave (due any day now) with a chapter a day of Hugh Haughton’s Encyclopaedia Mahoniana.

Derek Mahon, then. The Irish say Mahon, the British say ‘Mann’ and Americans say Mahone, as in the Irish for ‘my arse’. Unfortunate, that. Even his name has to come in a variorum edition. I’ve written very little about him, over the years, and feel like I'm making a nuisance of myself even just formulating these thoughts. This particular god does not need interruptions from me. Many years ago now a friend of mine who spotted Mahon in the street around Dublin found himself following DM around, at a suitable distance, perhaps in the hope of a discarded spondee or surplus anapaest falling out of his pocket, but couldn't bring himself to say hello. I sympathize entirely.

When I finally met him myself and asked him to sign a copy of Night Crossing (still a much cheaper purchase than books two or three, Lives and The Snow Party – look them all up on abebooks and see for yourself) he somewhat theatrically averted his gaze as he signed his name. This would have been in the post-Yaddo Letter period when rumours of a proper comeback volume had the gold-dust quality of Thomas Pynchon sightings. And that book would be The Hudson Letter.

For some reason the thoughts on Mahon that bubble to the top of my brain seem to form themselves into questions as much as statements or opinions. Such as:

Why, for all Mahon's fascination with Ezra Pound, his Poundian (or is it Poundian?) weddedness to poetry in translation, does his Pound stop with Mauberley – as very publically signalled by the Mauberley redux of ‘A Kensington Notebook’? What would a Mahon Cantos look like? Don’t say The Yellow Book.

Introducing his translations from Jaccottet he briefly mentions Michaux and the cult of the ‘illisible’ in French poetry from mid-century or so onwards, and not approvingly either. Is this Mahon’s version of Larkin’s intro to All What Jazz, perhaps, and the beginnings of an answer to my first question?

If an early Mahon poem falls over and out of the Collected, or gets revised out of existence, is it still making a noise somewhere? Does he instruct his current publisher to veto republication of poems this publisher never published in the first place, or like babies in Limbo, might there be an occasional dispensation?

How, when Mahon is on record as preferring the amiable enough minor poet and talisman-to-the-Irish-post-avant (no sniggering there) Thomas MacGreevy to all the poets of the Movement – not just some, all – can his reception among very-much-pro- and very-much-anti-critics in the never-ending Irish modernist debate have worked out the way it did? What are they missing? (For an example of anti-Mahon pro-modernist response, take a look at Donal Moriarty’s disparaging of Mahon’s translations from Nerval in favour of Brian Coffey’s dried biscuit and soda water versions, in his UCD Press study of that estimable old duffer.)

What was going on in The Yellow Book? Really, what was going on to make critics think that Oscar Wilde and 90s decadence was a useful template for denouncing the ‘fake in contemporary culture’ (that’s from an essay by Gerald Dawe, collected in his recent volume The Proper Word)? Denounce the ‘fake’ (fax machines, I remember, come in for his particular ire) by staging a love-in with Oscar Wilde?!

Connoisseurs of Irish Studies racial consciousness will have long cherished Declan Kiberd’s declaration in the Field Day Anthology that Mahon and Michael Longley ‘represent a strand of Ulster that identifies itself as British and asserts its rights to the English lyric.’ Perhaps his sour poem about going back to the Wee Six for his mother’s funeral in The Yellow Book helped move him another step up the ladder towards eventual assumption into the paradise of born-again Irishness (and Collected Poems does end with a poem called ‘St Patrick’s Day’ after all). Forty or so years ago Mahon remarked on how the time was coming, if it wasn’t already here, when discussions of whether so-and-so was an ‘Irish’ writer could clear a room in seconds. That’s one prediction that didn’t come off then.

Which of the following does Derek Mahon have most in common with: Richard Wilbur, Seamus Heaney, Paul Durcan, Thomas Kinsella, Geoffrey Hill? Award each one marks out of ten on a likeness scale. Your answers should tell you a lot about which Mahon it is you’re reading, of the many available Mahons of the mind. (My answer to this one, at least is: 6, 2, 3, 1, 3).

And that’s enough Mahon questions for now.


Hermagoras said...

6 Richard Wilbur
5 Seamus Heaney
3 Paul Durcan
1 Thomas Kinsella
1 Geoffrey Hill

Anonymous said...

3 Wilbur
5 Heaney
1 Durcan
1 Heaney
1 Hill