Light Music – Brief Poems by Derek Mahon

derek-mahonDerek Mahon (born 23 November 1941) is an Irish poet from Belfast in Northern  Ireland, the only child of working-class, Church of Ireland, parents. After Skegoneill Primary School, he attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, where he started writing and publishing poems, was involved in amateur dramatics, and participated in debates. He matriculated in Trinity College Dublin to read English, French and Philosophy. In 1965, he won an Eric Gregory Award, and three years later published his first full collection, Night Crossing. During these years, he travelled a great deal: England, France, Belgium, Germany, Canada, and the USA. He worked for Vogue, the New Statesman, and the BBC, but could never really hold down a regular job.  Night Crossing (1968) was followed by numerous collections which include Lives (1972), The Snow Party (1975), Poems 1962–1978 (1979), The Hunt by Night (1982), Antarctica (1985), Selected Poems (1991), The Yaddo Letter (1992), and The Yellow Book (1997). Recent collections include Harbour Lights (2006) winner of the Irish Times Poetry Now Award, Somewhere the Wave (2007) and Life on Earth (2008), which won another Irish Times Poetry Now Award and was shortlisted for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. Mahon’s 2010 collection, An Autumn Wind was praised by Paul Batchelor in the Guardian for its sophistication, technical prowess and willingness to address contemporary themes, including environmental degradation.

He lived for many years in London, working variously as a reviewer, television adaptor of literary texts for British television and poetry editor of the New Statesman. More recently he has lived in Dublin and Kinsale,  a seaside town in County Cork.  A member of the Irish institution of artists, Aosdána, he has received numerous awards including the Irish Academy of Letters Award, the Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize, and Lannan and Guggenheim Fellowships. In 2007 he received the David Cohen prize for a lifetime’s achievement in literature. He is regarded as one of the most accomplished and influential of contemporary Irish poets.

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Derek Mahon is best known for his longer poems, in particular the verse letters he has been adept at composing throughout his long and exemplary career. One of these long poems, A Disused Shed in County Wexford, is, in my view, a masterpiece of twentieth century poetry. There are many other wonderful poems. I am particularly fond of the title poem of his best collection, The Snow Party.  He is a master of what has come to be known as the ekphrasis poem. Read his wonderful Courtyards in Delft. He  has always had a superb musical sense. While the light music of his shorter tweet-sized poems may not be as melodious or as mellifluous as his better, longer poems, they do repay re-reading. I hope you also enjoy them.


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Brief Poems by Derek Mahon



Twinkletoes in the ballroom
light music in space.



Gulls in a rain-dark cornfield,
crows on a sunlit sea.



I built my house
in a forest far
from the venal roar.

Somebody please
beat a path
to my door.



The Clarinet Concerto
in A. K.622;
the second movement.

Turn it up
so they can hear
on the other planets.


Come In

The steel regrets the lock,
a word will open the rock,
the wood awaits your knock.



The vast clouds migrate
above turf-stacks
and a dangling gate.

A tiny bike squeaks
into the wind.


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The Picture of Dorian Gray
Is still read today;
While other Victorian novels degenerate in the attic,
Its reputation remains static.


Maud Gonne
Was no fonne;
If her husband came home late she would call out:
“You drunken vainglorious lout.”


John Quinn
Preferred the Algonquin
To any other hotel –
Though he liked the Plaza as well.


“Strange Meeting”

Wilfred Own
And Elizabeth Bowen
Never met;
And yet…


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after Beckett

each day a great desire
one day to be alive
though not without despair
at being forced to live


determined tread
expecting what
he strides ahead
no end in sight


emerging from his hermit cell
he saw the calm after the gale


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Relaxing by the river Exe
Coleridge expelled all thoughts of sex,
Except to dream of Xanadu –
Which, of course has an x too.


Beside the Black Sea’s icy mud
The poet Ovid proudly stood:
Miserae mihi plura supersunt,” quoth he,
“Old sport, cam tibia felici.”

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Drugs, razors, cameras; Lucozade replaces 
lost energy, even in the strangest cases.


A Garden God

A bomber fly flits from the ruined mouth;
from the eye-socket an inquisitive moth.


Where to Hide

(Some derelict beach hut or abandoned wreck
as in that strange novel by Yann Queffélec.)


A Shabby Welcome

As you’d expect, we are too poor for wine
but somewhere I’ve a drop of old moonshine.


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The Poetry Foundation page on Derek Mahon.

Eamonn Grennan interviews Derek Mahon for the Paris Review.

A selection of poems by Derek Mahon.

Some more poems by Derek Mahon.




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