Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

In Memoriam Derek Mahon

By Henry Weinfield

Derek Mahon, the Irish poet who died last week, was one of the finest poets of his generation. He wrote a kind of free verse that makes asymmetrical use of rhyme and meter (if that’s not too much of an oxymoron), and it was this that gave him his signature style. I call it free verse because Mahon’s lines are generated by the movement of thought alone and not by the recursiveness of rhyme and meter. Rhyme and meter give thought its ballast and serve to delineate and as a test of truthfulness.

Take “Everything Is Going to Be All Right,” a poem of 1978 that has recently—though I think mistakenly—been taken up by some as kind of poetic anthem of response to the Coronavirus:

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.

Mahon wore his considerable learning lightly, but there are depths here that give the poem an undertow that, in an odd way, makes possible its optimistic, almost over-the-top concluding statement. First of all, there is Dante’s argument against the sin of sullenness (the medieval sin of accidia) and his awareness of how it ruins life (“‘We had been sullen / in the sweet air that’s gladdened by the sun’” [Inferno 121-22]; Mandelbaum translation). “The sun rises in spite of everything” counters Ecclesiastes (the title of an early poem by Mahon), which nevertheless hovers in the background. And that final, astonishing line—astonishing because so simple—actually says something very different from what it seems to say. It’s not that we’re all going to get better; on the contrary, sooner or later we’re all going to die, and that’s the end of it; but in Mahon’s scrupulously Epicurean vision, Nature will always reconstitute itself (“There will be dying, there will be dying, / but there is no need to go into that . . . The sun rises in spite of everything”). There are no gods here and nothing to exalt, but the poet can nevertheless exult in the fact that he too is a part of the process: “The poems flow from the hand unbidden / and the hidden source is the watchful heart.”

Post by Henry Weinfield on 10/5/2020 at 1:00 PM