LITERATURE IS ALWAYS NOW

Gerald Dawe

Selected Prose, by Derek Mahon, Gallery Press, 280 pp, €15.95, ISBN 978-185235528-9

It seems that in comparison to Yeats, contemporary Irish poets have been less given to prose writing. Yet when one looks at the record things are actually quite different. Seamus Heaney, for instance, has published several volumes of essays, a selection of which is gathered in Finders Keepers, while his Stepping Stones: Interviews with Dennis O’Driscoll is, in effect, an autobiography in disguise. Mention of which brings other prose memoirs to mind ‑ from Patrick Kavanagh’s wonderful Self-Portrait, Anthony Cronin’s Dead as Doornails, George Buchanan’s Morning Papers and Green Seacoast, to the autobiographical writing of Austin Clarke, Cecil Day Lewis, John Montague, Richard Murphy, Robert Greacen and Eavan Boland.

Derek Mahon’s Selected Prose, which has superseded his previous volume of such writing, Journalism (Gallery Press 1996), is as close to an undisclosed autobiography as the reader is likely to get. In fact Mahon says as much in an author’s note:

The present selection is not about writing only; photography, art and travel are here too. It could even be read as random fragments of autobiography. As it took shape I realized it was starting to look like a book of memoirs.

The new volume (of which the current writer is one of the two dedicatees) is Mahon unplugged, meditating on all things that have mattered to him over the stretch of his writing life to date. The volume, under the discrete narrative of individual essays and reviews, merges into a composite picture of the poet himself and the world he imagines, as much as the one in which he lives, or has lived in: “we salvage what we can”, as he remarks in the author’s note and throughout Selected Prose there is a clear sense of tracking what he sees as cultural decline, things “on the way out”.

This somewhat fatalistic tone masks a deeper countering feeling for the achievement of writing to withstand the trivialising pressures of the celebrity culture and the cheery self-importance of the publicity racket. But for every questionable cultural practice of today Mahon’s dismissive view is strengthened by significant figures of critical value whose influence is literally ahistorical. In Mahon’s book literature is always now ‑ Swift, Coleridge, Dylan Thomas, Elizabeth Bowen rub shoulders in several more extended readings with Louis MacNeice, Aidan Higgins, Samuel Beckett and Patrick MacDonogh.

In “Wind and Limb” on MacDonogh (1902-1961) he remarks:

…obsessed with youth and novelty, we sometimes patronize previous generations, imagining them to have been more naïve than they were; for everything had been done or thought before in one form or another, though our historical provincialism tends to ignore the fact. We patronize, too, their difficult achievements.

Selected Prose is in praise of “difficult achievements”, Coleridge’s, for instance, in whose poetry Mahon identifies not just the philosophical ambition (even saying so seems a thing of the past) but also the (almost) paradoxical counterweight, its “naturalness”: “On the analogy of plant life and other natural growth (but more intimately than analogy) he wished for poetry that was itself perfectly natural: ‘The art itself is natural’ (The Winter’s Tale).” Mahon concludes his Coleridgean reflection with a neat reflection of his own “position”:

Second only to the poems are the Notebooks, fragmentary and substantial both – his best resource, animated as they are by the spirit of chance, the flash of illumination, the unsought epiphany.

In keeping with his general read on the decline of literary art, Mahon asks whether or not Coleridge “set another example here”:

Now that the literary novel is marginalized, the theatre too often a time-serving charade, and poetry increasingly like a children’s party game, perhaps it’s time once more for the considered observation, the aphorism, the intimate journal and the reflective diary.

The idea of retrenchment in the face of the “marginalization” of the literary novel, theatre as “charade” and poetry becoming “a children’s party game” might well surprise those who see nothing but good in the present, with its ceaselessly productive “creative arts”. Mahon’s Selected Prose will have none of it and assumes, in various disguises, an oppositional voice, which in itself is refreshingly adept while speaking through earlier periods of literary history, such as Swift’s, Mahon’s contemporary:

[A]mused scribbler rather than dedicated artist (or so he would have us believe) [Swift] set out his view of poetic vocation in the cynical rap “On Poetry: A Rapsody” (sic), that the whole thing, in the circumstances pertaining, is a lot of trivial nonsense, in Grub Street or at Court. Given the intolerable, self-pleasing cant of the age, he found it hard, like Juvenal, “not to write satire”.

Satire may well be the last refuge for one who cares so much (too much?) for something and cannot bear to see or imagine it fall into disrepute. Cue Beckett: the mischievous dark laughter, the punishing playfulness, the sudden un-self-regarding epiphany and the unexpected illumination of natural light or bliss:

… it would be futile to try to “place” Beckett; for his verse, like his prose, is finally sui generis. Not inexpressive, as its author might have wished, but expressive of a rare vision, like the “brief scattered lights” in Malone Dies: “They were things that scarcely were, on the confines of silence and dark, and soon ceased.”

What makes Selected Prose good to read is that it is full of people and the writing is curious about the world, even when the writer is himself clearly disaffected with what he sees. Aphoristic liveliness, a comical twist and satirical edge underscores the heftier matter of “worldview” and the serious conclusiveness that is present throughout, even in its, at times, tender, somewhat tentative form of address. “Everyone likes MacNeice. I met him twice, if you can call it meeting – and found him, as I’d expected, saturnine. Both times he was in rugby mode.” “Samuel Beckett once told the present writer how much he was enjoying old age, the loss of memory and vocabulary … and the loss or stripping away of a once photographic memory and a once sumptuous speech.”

This isn’t name-dropping but dropping his reader in the unexpected surroundings of MacNeice the rugby fan and next to Beckett, who Buddhist-like is laying down his duty of care.

Leafing through Dublin in the sixties, Coleraine and Portrush in the seventies, London since the 1720s to fin de siècle New York, Selected Prose culminates in twenty-first century India as Mahon, while amazed by the sheer variousness of the exotic life about him, is nevertheless “particular” about it all too. Maybe this is a “good place” to conclude, with Mahon on his time-travels:

I’m staying in a house of holiday flats belonging to friends; mine gives on to the back garden. Dusty lanes lead inland, sandy lanes to the shore where I “swim” daily. Between village and sea, in its own sixty acres, stands the elaborate, pricey and gated Intercontinental Hotel “Resort” with a James Bond poolside and a simple nine-hole golf-course – not a “links” by any means, despite the brochure. Theory: the name of the game was originally golfes (gulfs: water hazards), a French idea imported to Scotland by Mary Stuart, who wielded a mean wood.

Gerald Dawe is a poet and professor in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. His Selected Poems was published by The Gallery Press in 2012.