After The Titanic
A Life of Derek Mahon
By Stephen Enniss
This first comprehensive biography boasts that Mahon is Ireland’s greatest living poet, which is disputatious, as I believe Paul Muldoon has the stronger claim.
What is indisputable, however, is that irrespective of his undoubted merit as a poet, with greatness scattered throughout his Collected Poems, Mahon, the enfant terrible of the Northern poets in the 1960s, emerges throughout the 260 pages as both a bad drunk and a bad egg.
Though devoid of the electrical hum of connection with those he wreaked emotional damage on, something about him earns the steadfast support of fellow poets, like Longley Seamus Heaney and the saint-like Peter Fallon.
And yet, for one who took more than he gave, his tendency was to bite the hand that fed him. Generosity of spirit is not always reciprocated. Heaney is unswerving in his endeavours to keep Mahon in funds by writing testimonials and letters of recommendation.
But when Heaney wins the Nobel Prize, a small-minded peevishness surfaces in Mahon: he is quick to put space between himself and Heaney, at the receiving end of a post-Nobel backlash in literary Dublin, because he is the anthesis of Mahon’s poete maudit.
Baudelaire, an early hero of Mahon, defined the poet maudit as untouched by the suffering he experiences, but Mahon could be untouched by the suffering he caused, and much of it avoidable. Enniss diligently records Mahon’s quarrelling over trivialities, often conducted when he is off the wagon, though it wears thin as an excuse when he is sober.
Petulantly cruel in his treatment of his elderly and widowed mother, which amounts to disdain, only after her death does Mahon manage to acknowledge any feelings for her. He has no hesitation, however, spending her generous legacy.
For many who grew up with his poems, the Mahon who emerges from this biography, a seer and visionary to his admirers, is short of the milk of human kindness and, when it is needed most, charitable empathy. After The Titanic was not, I imagine, a labour of love to write.