Eamonn Grennan: Knowing your poems and knowing you, I imagine the proper place to hold this conversation might be some sort of terminal - an airport, a train station, a bus depot. Youve moved around rather a lot, and the issue of being in place and out of place crops up often in your work. Youve also spoken, however, of a homeward gravitation in Ulster poetry, and your own poems reverberate, initially, in the six counties of Northern Ireland.
Derek Mahon: Two of them, actually, Antrim and Down - Belfast and the seaside places.
EG: Can you give me a sense of that background?
DM: The poem Autobiographies is an attempt to do a little documentary on that. Courtyards in Delft, I think, adds more to it, because it bites off more and manages to chew what it bites off, although its highly aestheticized. One of the reasons I havent done much in that explicitly autobiographical line is that its not for me to do. Others have done it; others who have been content with a documentary mode have done it better than I would ever do it.
EG: What we get in your work, though, are glimpses of the child born during World War II, bombers, the sense of a city that was distinctly different in the island of Ireland, one on which the bombs fell. We have girls, the growth of sexual awareness, the bicycle - that epiphanic bike - and then in Courtyards in Delft that strange child with a taste for verse. Can you put those things together?
DM: They all have Joycean mnemonic contexts: the bike, the girls names, the war. When I think about the war, I think of a 1940s radio set, wireless set, and other objects with their inherent numina: a Japanese lacquered cigarette case brought back by an uncle in the Merchant Navy - the little things that you saw with a childs eye when you were a child and that will never go away. Thats what consciousness is all about. My Aunt Kathleens white shoes in a rented summer house in 1945. No, I was on the floor, it must have been 1942; I was on the carpet. Those white shoes! I imagine what I call that strange child with a taste for verse emerges from a slow consciousness of the numina inherent in these things. I think thats the beginning.
EG: Its a beginning particularly interesting because of the words mute phenomenathat appear much later in your work and become necessary anchorage for so much that you do. Anyway, this kid - this strange child with a taste for verse - also of course has parents, has a human environment.
DM: I think it was important that I was an only child, an only child whose best friends were the objects Ive been talking about. It was a quiet house. Usually my mother was doing this or that, practical things around the house; while my father was usually out at work, away a forty- or forty-eight-hour week perhaps. He worked in the shipyard. A quiet man. He did the same job (with some little promotions) for forty years. Belfast was his life. The shipyard was his life. My mother the same. She was from Belfast. Before she married, she worked in what used to be called the York Street Flax Spinning Company, Ltd., which was the other big Belfast industry: shipbuilding and linen. So they had what you might call blue-to-white-collar jobs in these two industries. The linen industry doesnt exist anymore. My mother stopped working when she got married. Thats what they did then. She became a housewife. She had only her husband and an infant to look after, but she became a housewife and very house-proud in the obsessive way that a woman in that position often is. Its almost a question of what else had she to do? Shed keep dusting and keep everything as bright as a new penny. Of course, this was a bit of a strain on the child, an irritant. In fact, with my mother, no harm to her, I think it was pathological. But since little boys are usually rougher than house-proud mothers, there were times I would deliberately do things to be infuriating - knock over a cup or something.
EG: Given that sense of enclosure, do you remember anything that suggested an outside?
DM: Since there wasnt any hurly-burly of siblings, I had time for the eye to dwell on things, for the brain to dream about things. I could spend an afternoon happily staring. In one of those poems, The Lost Girls section in Autobiographies, I remember (this is naughty) this little girl who used to dress very prettily: she, in her back garden, would be visible to me up in my parents bedroom at the top of our house, and I used to watch her down there. Id see other things besides, like a coal delivery, the sort of pictorial qualities of coal. That kind of thing - the running of cold water from a kitchen tap, the light. I had time to dwell on these things.
EG: Belfast in the forties: did you and your parents go to church?
DM: There was a certain amount of churchgoing, although they went for the look of the thing - it was expected that you would show your face in church once in a while. They were serious about being respectable and being seen to do the right thing, but they werent really serious church people. I mean, they were Protestants! Theres no such thing as a devout Protestant, is there? Protestants arent devout, theyre staunch. So it was all appearances. I tagged along, scrubbed and kempt. But this turned out to be very important because, after a while, my parents were approached by the minister (the Church of Ireland minister, I should say, not Presbyterian) who asked, Could young Derek hold a tune, would he be interested in having a go with the choir? We can arrange for Mr. Wood to audition him on Wednesday evening. So in no time at all I was in the choir, which meant two services on Sunday, one in the evening, as well as choir practice on Wednesday evening. The hymnology invaded the mind: Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.
EG: Did you (do you) respond to all this as a believer?
DM: I believe in the words, and in the tunes. Ive never seriously asked myself the question, Do you believe in God? I believe in the words and the tunes; thats quite enough for me. As a child, I suppose I brought the same kind of apprehension to these things as to other phenomena: we were singing from sheet music, hymnals, anthologies of hymns, with the music written out and the verses underneath. For example, lets take a verse like this (I wont try to sing, itd only be embarrassing): From Earths wide bounds, from oceans farthest coast, / Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, / Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost: / Hallelujah, Hallelujah!
Very imperialistic, From Earths wide bounds, from oceans farthest coast. But the way this was printed in the hymnal was important to me: it was under the music, far-thest, so somehow I created a whole geography of my own, around oceans far-thest, as it were far-flung, coasts. The words themselves became facts, objects; and I believed in those objects, those clumped printed objects.
EG: How did primary school open the world to you?
DM: All I see is sunlight, classrooms full of sunlight, or windows streaked with rain - as everybody does. I dont hear anything. I recently looked at an old school photograph of Skegoneill when I was six or so: all these wee old faces, thirty of them, and were all, each individual one, absolutely unique and crazy in some way, quite unbelievable.
EG: Was it ever a question of there is a child among us taking notes, a Stephen Dedalus at the edge of the circle?
DM: No, that wasnt me, not at all. I was like any other. I felt at home there. I started feeling not at home when I was at secondary school, at the beginning of adolescence. I started moping, brooding; I didnt go in for sport. Mine was a great rugby school, rugby and cricket. I played some rugby and cricket, but then after a certain point I wasnt interested anymore. I think I can trace this to something in the way I was treated in my family situation. My cousin Conacht and myself, who were the same age, lived just a few streets from each other, and we were quite like brothers a lot of the time. Conacht was a bit taller and he always was considered the more interesting and more manly, more able one. I was a bit of a dead loss in comparison. This was internalized, entirely, and gave me a lot of trouble at the time. And I think that knocked me off the straight (and even narrow) and turned me into an eccentric or, as my mother always said, an oddity. It created a sense of inadequacy, a sense of well to hell with that then, Ill opt for the place where I can succeed, for other forms of value. So I didnt compete. Although I enjoyed rugby and cricket, the competition didnt interest me. There were other boys in the school like this, a little group of us - oddities, weirdos - so I found a coterie, and there I was at home. Age fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen, we would go precociously to something that was just coming into existence in a place like Belfast in the late 1950s ... a coffee bar. And talk, and read Aldous Huxley.
EG: Was this where literature put down its conscious roots?
DM: I think there are two kinds of literary life: there was a real, affective literary life, in the sense of my appreciation of early Yeats, getting a thrill out of Dylan Thomas, things like that; and then there was a more pretentious coterie thing. Showy. But this offered me an identity, and an identity that stays with me to this day. It was the beginning, I suppose, of my life as (God spare us!) an intellectual.
EG: You once mentioned John Boyle, a history and English teacher in secondary school. Was he important to this life?
DM: Well, all this business of sitting in a coffee bar with a Penguin novel by Aldous Huxley, it was somehow disembodied, you know? We thought of everyone else as peasants. But Boyle enabled us somehow to embody the notion of not being cut off, not being outsiders in a society that itself was outside something. And the fact that Boyle was from Dublin was important, from some other or larger context. He was an articulate representative of the other part of the island. He was active in politics, a member of the old Northern Ireland Labour Party, chairman at one time, though he never sat in any parliament. His field was Irish labor. Boyle was also a teacher of literature, and one of the things he taught was Yeats. He taught Yeats as if Yeats were an historian of the time: Yeats as documentary. When Boyle himself was at Trinity he had gone to a debate where one of the speakers was Maud Gonne. So he was able to make it all real to us.
EG: Was that your first awakening to the sense of Dublin, the sense of the two Irelands, of politics?
DM: Not quite. Because as I went through my teens I saw them with my own eyes. A part of my visual experience was Election Day in Belfast, those lorries full of Unionist supporters, the polling booths. This was part of the whole fabric. I didnt look at these people as terrifying B-Specials and so on - they were my family. I had an uncle who was a sergeant in the B-Specials. My cousin Conacht and I used to play with his unloaded revolver in their house. The man who took the Unionist tally at Skegoneill school polling booth was the father of the little girl I sat beside in school. It was all part of the whole.
At secondary school, however, I first began in that teenage way to develop what you might call a political awareness. This was helped by, possibly prompted by, an uncle who was a rather peculiar character. He had been at sea in the Merchant Navy and he had worked in the Ministry of Transport office in Belfast for many years. He never married. He was a sort of bachelor-student, the kind of man who wanted to read literature, wanted to know about literature. In his room there would be a novel by Sinclair Lewis, War and Peace, issues of a French cinema magazine to which he subscribed. He was a self-taught man, a left-wing autodidact. He was the one who bought the Sunday papers that nobody else bought, that kind of thing. He had quite an effect on me at one point, prompting me to become conscious of the political situation. So I became critical of socialism rather than nationalism.
EG: You took such turnings while you were in secondary school. What were their consequences as you were about to leave Belfast? You had choices to make - some students went to England to go to university. You chose to go to Dublin, to Trinity.
DM: No, it was chosen for me. The way it happened was this: the best boys, those who had done best in the mock exams, were slated for Oxford and Cambridge. The next best were slated for Trinity. Those who had done well, but not exceptionally, were slated for Queens, Belfast. Tells you a bit about self-esteem in the North, doesnt it?
EG: Would you describe Dublin as a watershed time?
DM: I was bewildered by the place at first, bewildered by Trinity. I thought that Dublin was beautiful. I remember going on a bus, in the sunlight, and thinking that it was a gorgeous place. It was a happy alternative to Belfast. In fact, some of us who went down together from the North developed anti-Northern jokes among ourselves.
EG: What about Trinity as a kind of literary awakening?
DM: There was a particular kind of community there, a unique community involving certain very vivid characters: Alec Reid, Con Leventhal, Owen Sheehy Skeffington. These were both teachers and friends. The professor of English then was Phillip Edwards. Phillip was English, a nice man, but much more inspiring was a reprobate like Alec Reid or a humanly interesting person like Con Leventhal. We grew up in a very pleasant way. Physically the surroundings were extremely attractive. Beautiful college, beautiful trees, beautiful girls: wherever you fell there was something to please. At the same time, it was a place apart - golden days, golden moments.
EG: Did you ever start to think of yourself as an academic?
DM: No, I thought of myself as a surly étranger in a donkey jacket, with literary pretensions. The way to seem was careless of the academic demands. Some, of course, swotted up furiously at night. I didnt, and that was my mistake. So I drifted away from the academic but, like others, formed my own little university within. It was then that I had the notion that this poetry nonsense youve been tinkering at for the past couple of years at school, if youre going to take it seriously, you can do it here, and people will pay attention. It was a very fertile environment, very supportive. Alec Reid was part of it, in a very personal way; he was great fun, and so human. A liberal education, was Alec.
EG: To what degree is the sensibility in the poems from your first book, Night-Crossing, due to your education at Trinity? Wry, speculative, eloquent, debonair ...
DM: Its hard for me to say, but I suppose it must have a lot to do with it, because those words would describe the environment at Trinity when I was there; probably its how a contemporary undergraduate there would describe it today. That is the mode, not only the conversational mode, the mode of discourse, but its also the mode of composition, of imaginative discourse. Its the tone of voice. Of course, there was a struggle going on within myself at the time. It took me a long time to get hold of anything I could begin to think of as being my own voice, with the struggle going on between a surly Belfast working-class thing and something, to use your word, debonair. The flaneurs I couldnt help but admire and envy, also on the written page: the way that some of the students had that at their fingertips. So there was a clash in me between the one and the other, which Eavan Boland was very conscious of in her poem Belfast vs. Dublin. Those things more or less came together at a later stage, maybe ten years later - those two kinds of rhetoric were able to negotiate with each other and come together in a single voice. In putting together the Selected Poems I tried to manufacture belatedly a homogeneous voice, but, in fact, in those early poems thered be one man on one page and a totally different person on the next page. To my ear anyway.
EG: When youd finished with Trinity, how would you say the Belfast boy had been altered?
DM: Well, he was grown up now, if he ever has been really. But I didnt know where I was! I suppose, looking back on it, that I was in some kind of crisis. Had I been accustomed to a disciplined and purposeful way of life, I would have gone on to whatever I was going to do then - trainee journalism, the BBC, doing a Ph.D. at Oxford, whatever it might have been. I would have proceeded. But I came to a stop because Id been living indolently, with literary notions, so I had no direction. On leaving Trinity, the only thing I knew I could do was get out of Dublin.
EG: Would you say that the movement from Trinity out into the world was one in which you became more and more identifiable to yourself as a poet? or at least as someone who wasnt anything else?
DM: Thats a better way of putting it. It wasnt that of all the things I did poetry was the most interesting. In fact, poetry was the only thing I did. Anyway, I left Trinity in 1965 and came to the States, to Cambridge via Canada. There was this enormous poetic energy in America at that time, and I was very conscious of it around Harvard Square. First of all through Louis Asekoff, whom Id known at Trinity. The sixties, the protests, the war. A lot of it was very strange to me, of course, and I couldnt get it at all. I suppose my taste was very conservative, perhaps it still is. The other thing I was conscious of was the Harvard dimension - there were people about who had just a year or two previously been taking writing classes with Lowell. So there was a lot going on. The American poetic psyche was very active. But in a way I think I was lost. I was in a transitional phase. At the time it didnt seem transitional, it seemed terminal; but I was in a phase between being a Trinity student and being whatever I was going to be next. The only constant was not being too far away from poetry and from a literary environment.
EG: How did the word home reverberate under these conditions?
DM: I felt very far from home in those years. (In fact, for a large part of my life Ive been terrified of home.) I think that this has a great deal to do with what started happening in Northern Ireland in 1968, 1969 - how it took me by surprise. Id been away from it for a bit, not too long, but I was still close enough to it to get burned inside. (Im thinking of the marches, of Burntollet, and so on.) I was horrified, and I didnt go up there after a certain point. No, thats not true. I would go up to Belfast from time to time, right up to 1970. In some sense (this may sound very phony) it was almost as if the things that were happening up there were happening literally to me. I felt beaten-up. I wonder if others felt the same. I felt that I had been guilty of something that I wasnt aware of. Although Ive never been a motorist, I felt as perhaps a hit-and-run driver must feel when he wakes up the next morning. It was extremely upsetting, especially when the death toll started mounting. I couldnt deal with it. I could only develop a kind of contempt for what I felt was the barbarism, on both sides. But I knew the Protestant side; I knew them inside out. I was one of them, and perhaps I couldnt bear to look at my own face among them. So I adopted a plague on both your houses attitude.
EG: Did it provoke, in its anguish, any digging for roots?
DM: Should have. There are various researches that I should have undertaken at that point and that I didnt, that I avoided. Seamus Heaney, for example, did a lot more digging than I did.
EG: In Afterlives you put it like this: Perhaps if Id stayed behind / And lived it bomb by bomb / I might have grown up at last / And learnt what is meant by home.
DM: I think probably there were things that I should have come to terms with, researched, looked into, looked at, but I didnt. At that time, Protestants like James Simmons, Michael Longley, myself could think that this was not our quarrel - our peculiar upbringing as middle-class, grammar-school-educated, liberal, ironical Protestants allowed us to think of ourselves as somehow not implicated. I told myself that I had more important things to do. Which were going to London, getting on with my own literary career as I had now started to conceive of it, marrying Doreen, getting myself together, discovering a sense of purpose. And writing directly about those conditions in the North was not part of that purpose. One of the damnable things about it was that you couldnt take sides. You couldnt take sides. In a kind of way, I still cant. Its possible for me to write about the dead of Treblinka and Pompeii - included in that are the dead of Dungiven and Magherafelt. But Ive never been able to write directly about it. In Crane Bag theyd call it colonial aphasia. Perhaps, in fact, thats what it is. I was not prepared for what happened. What happened was that myself and all of our generation (particularly in the North) were presented with a horror, something that demanded our serious, grown-up attention. But, as I say, I was not able to deal with it directly.
EG: Ive noticed that whenever you talk about your poems in public you usually talk about form; what you never talk about is the self making the poems. You never let us into the workshop with you. What would be your take on yourself as an actual maker of the poem?
DM: Well, theres no point in beating about the bush. After many years of beating about the bush, the fact is, I am an out-and-out traditionalist. Thats the way it is, and thats the way its going to stay. I find that certain poets want to express certain things, want to be truthful about their emotions, about the nature of the world as they understand it, about the changing nature of society, about their instincts and their opinions. They are full of liberal intentions, they are admirable people; but they are not poets, not to me theyre not. Theyre writing free verse (I suppose you would still call it) - without any specific talent for poetry - to express themselves, to deliver narrative, to state opinions. But they are not doing the thing that poetry does, as far as Im concerned. Formally, that is. I remember talking to Richard Pevear about this, and the three principles that we found ourselves agreeing on were soul, song, and formal necessity - the Coleridgean sense of formal necessity that the poem should contain within itself the reason why it is thus and not otherwise.
EG: The quotation, of course, allows for free verse.
DM: Of course it does. But its my own experience that writing is a visual experience as well as an aural one. Its important to me what a poem looks like on the page. Im interested in organization. Im interested in at least the appearance of control, orchestration, forceful activity; something intense happening, something being intended and achieved - purposefulness instead of randomness.
I find very little worthwhile in the magazines now. I dont read column-fillers - its been a long time since Ive done that. If I pick up a copy of The New York Review of Books, the TLS, or whatever it might be, I dont find much in the poems anymore. Theyre not interesting, theyre little wisps of words. I like to be arrested.
EG: Formally? Materially?
DM: Id like to think that being formally arrested promises the material arrest. And formal arrest has to do with the appearance of the thing on the page; it has to do with the sound of the thing, some kind of authority. These are dangerous waters, come to think of it - the use of authority reminds me of that. There are contemporary theoreticians who will be tapping at the scaffold for my use of authority. At the same time, I am as liable as any - and perhaps indeed more than most - to the lures of negative capability and anarchy and all those things. But what I miss in contemporary poetry is the sense of heres somebody doing something that he or she knows how to do - the sense of control. It doesnt have to be a bullying thing; it can be a gentle, gradual, tentative thing, like Elizabeth Bishop in the Moose poem, for example. Or it can be the rather ludicrously authoritative note of something like The Quaker Graveyard, which is a parody of what Im talking about. But I like to be spoken to in the tone of voice of Lowells Waking Early Sunday Morning: Pity the planet, all joy gone / From this sweet volcanic cone. Then Im hearing music loud and clear. I like the tenor of it. Here is a voice that has committed itself to words without hesitation, without irony, without fear. Its a form of giving yourself to life. Its the ability to surrender; to walk into the water without a lifebelt; to do the big thing.
EG: From time to time youve made articulate your suspicion of language, and even of verse itself. Would you say that this is a kind of trouble to you, as well as a kind of pose? The very thing that you admire is something that you oppose some of the time.
DM: I think of it in dramatic terms: if you surround yourself with hesitation and constraint and so on, and yet manage to sing through, then you somehow earn the sound you make. Perhaps something like that is going on. But I suppose that you have to be able to speak without thinking all the time how it sounds - those peculiar moments when you are saying something and even as you are saying it, the objections, the laughter, all these things are going on simultaneously, and yet you are able to say it, without shame or horror or embarrassment. Its all a matter of artistic tact. Lets just say that you must, in order not to go mad, be able to speak.
EG: Many of the neo-formalists see the formalist stance as having implicit moral and political implications. Whats your attitude?
DM: Well, I think there might be something in that. The habitual choice of a certain kind of form does describe a sensibility, so that a formalist poets politics will also be formalist, in the sense that they will respect abstract notions of ... Im trying to avoid the words law and order. I dont consider myself a right-wing person. Robert Hughess book Culture of Complaint, about the forfeiting of individual responsibility endemic in American culture, says things with which my own thinking about contemporary poetry chimes. He has a chapter, for example, called Art and the Therapeutic Fallacy.
EG: One of the things for which you are valued as a poet is a formal elegance without exhibitionism - form has been digested by content, and content by form. How do these elements relate to one another as you work?
DM: Its almost impossible to describe. Its the sense in which one finds a tone of voice. I want always to bear in mind what I was saying about soul, song, and formal necessity. The best way I can put it is that I like there to be a certain gravity somewhere in the offing, some residual echo of traditional form. The suggestion should always be there, even in the most talky poem - like Ovid in Tomis, for example - that once upon a time this stuff was sung, not spoken. Id call it music. And I like there to be an external side to formal organization. I like to see a form on the page, or listen to a poem and be able to measure the page as an organized object, as an authoritative-looking object, as a thing that looks like something interesting - not like one of the thousands of therapeutic poems that you dont want to read because they look so boring on the page. Theres nothing putting it together, theres no reason for it.
EG: Your manners as a poet suggest a view of the world that is coherent and continuous, which can be traced from early poems like Lives and Afterlives all the way up through The Sea in Winter, the Camus poem, and The Yaddo Letter. Camus, in fact, says in The Myth of Sisyphus that the world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes the human heart. Your poems seem very often to register that wild longing for clarity as a kind of ground note.
DM: Yes, I like that. I like the wild longing for clarity. I like that phrase. That strikes a chord. Its an interesting use of wild, isnt it?
EG: We talked one time about the Dionysian and the Apollonian in these terms: the Apollonian as your sense of shape and form; the Dionysian as the manner in which you collide with the stuff, with the wild. Does this combination make sense to you?
DM: Yes. Thats the combination that has the greatest potency, I think. The hissing chemicals inside the well-wrought urn; an urnful of explosives. Thats whats so great about Yeats, after all: the Dionysian contained within the Apollonian form, and bursting at the seams - shaking at the bars, but the bars have to be there to be shaken.
EG: So you understand poetry as a cage, with a wild animal inside it?
DM: This is where we quote Robert Frost and Clarke and Henry James. Raymond Chandler too: No art without the resistance of the medium. But the resistance mustnt be gratuitously imported for tactical purposes. It must be organic. I guess thats worked for me in a few poems, sometimes only in a few lines at a stretch. Take A Garage in Co. Cork, for example. Theres a lot of banging the bars and banging at the windows in that poem - windows being broken, in fact - but its all very formally contained. I suppose that the same is true of the Shed. Bringing together those two elements makes me hear orchestras and see fireworks. Childish things like that.
EG: You say that there have to be bars there to be rattled. So what are the bars?
DM: I suppose they are whats usually called the human condition. The constraints, the fact that we cant fly, the fact that we can only be at one place at a time. The constraints that enable us to live, and prevent us from living. In artistic terms, Id say that when the poems feel as if theyre working theres nothing quite so ... like the gates being flung open and ... trumpets sounding. A kind of liberation.
EG: Is love a word you would use in this connection?
DM: Well, its all about love, really. This also connects with something that Im not allowed to do anymore, which is drink. I used to drink a lot. There was a certain kind of consciousness - false consciousness, no doubt, especially the morning-after lucidity, which I thought of as being a kind of revelation. I think there are various points in the Selected Poems where that moment is touched upon. I suppose it must be, it must have been, akin to what is considered to be a religious experience - Im talking about the apparent suspension of time, the transcendence of bother and the quotidian, the sense that life is long and life is full, the sense that if we are here to perceive anything it is this kind of perception that is particularly intended. The surrounding chaos is the stuff that keeps you awake at night in lower Manhattan. For me, the revelation that came the morning after came as a formal thing - the morning after, mind you, since the clarity of drunkenness itself, as is well known, is a complete chimera. A systematic derangement of the senses. I think Rimbaud was well acquainted with what were talking about, and gave it the kind of weight that Im giving it here. For me it has a great deal to do, it had a great deal to do, with a certain bohemian way of being - living at a certain angle to life, spending quite a lot of time having the brain active, having the senses active at certain times of day and night when other people are asleep or out at work. I think that way of life can help the creative. I dont think thats bohemian sensibility; I think theres truth to it. Before the bohemian clichés, there were bohemians who were originals. There is an original bohemian idea to which I still have an attachment, despite all the nonsense that has been said and done in its name.
EG: What sense do you have that other ways of living - living without drink, for example - can still provide a derangement of the senses? What in the ordinary, the quotidian ...
DM: Well, this is my current creative problem. I think one writes a different kind of thing, which is where I am now. I think that Ive probably entered that middle-age stretch in which, so they say, you have the choice between falling silent or rambling on. Now, I wont ramble on, I know that. I think the pattern thats emerging is a general sort of silence punctuated by sudden bursts of noisiness. Aside from translation, I havent produced a lot of verse in recent years. For some fairly obvious reasons, I think - all kinds of displacements, an inability to concentrate, distractions.
EG: Lets get back to composition itself, which youve described as a shaking of the bars, a link moment between the human condition and the song.
DM: Something like that. Theres a certain moment in which that happens, but thats a very rare occurrence, of course. Although every poem, I suppose, is an attempt. I suppose its religious - the notion of art as consolation, the belief that everything will be all right. I suppose I cant finally seriously believe that were not immortal. So yes, in some sense everything is going to be all right. That seems a really crass thing to say. But it would be pernicious to insist that this was the be-all and end-all; its not. Its only one of the poetic experiences - although it has a kind of privileged status, I think. For example, in The Sea in Winter, writing to OGrady below in Paros, I assign such a moment to him:
EG: Would you call the poem, then, any poem, a secular act of faith?
DM: I suppose it is. If were going to start from religion, yes, a secular act of faith would do. A faith in meaningfulness, a defiance of nihilism - to which one is rather prone, of course. I mean, we do know its all a lot of nonsense, really, just as Mr. Camus knew, but it doesnt do to say so, even to oneself. Isnt that right?
EG: Although, if youre a poet you have to say it to yourself, I guess; but you also have to say the other thing - what Yeats would call holding reality and justice in a single thought. Youre after that too?
DM: Yes, of course. Derry Morning has something of what were talking about: the glimpse of the streets on that morning. As to poems as secular acts of faith ... well, everything is an act of faith: getting up in the morning is an act of faith. I like the idea of a defiance of nihilism, thats certainly true in my own case. Its very easy to have said at some point, even to say still, Its all a lot of nonsense, its not to be taken seriously. But that attitude never produces anything.
EG: When you say act of faith, does faith have an object, or is it there for its own sake?
DM: The object is life, I think. The object is to make life possible, and to make life continue. That sounds rather utilitarian. But I think that it is for its own sake in the first instance, to say yes rather than no. The happy incidental outcome of that is that the side of life is strengthened - one can go on.
EG: In a lot of your poems the final image is of somebody going on in spite of. Do you think that the poem itself is a journey towards going on?
DM: Yes. Heaney quotes a Coventry Patmore phrase, the end of art is peace. Peacein the sense of contributing to the world, to life, which is finally all we have, I suppose. That sort of going on. Though perhaps we shouldnt be talking about peace, but only about faith - the poem, as you said, as an act of faith. So lets forget peace; lets stick with the faith.
EG: Theres a generosity about your poetry vis-à-vis the ordinary world, as if the poems were some sort of ministration into the world.
DM: Well, that sounds very nice. Ministration. It also sounds a little patronizing. I mean, they are themselves products of a broken world.
EG: But products of a broken world that you want whole. You have a sense of wholeness that youre trying to minister into the world.
DM: Yes, but all one can do is minister to that sense. I dont think poetry makes anything happen. No, scratch that, because it educates the imagination, so you get more imaginative people, a higher quality of civilization, people behave better toward one another. Im more inclined to Shelley than to Auden on this: The great instrument of moral good is the imagination ... Poetry contributes to the effect by acting upon the cause. So no, I dont think Auden is right. It was a very half-hearted declaration of Audens anyway. Its my observation that not just poetry, but art in any shape or form can tutor the imagination - the imagination can feed and strengthen itself on art, on poetry, in such a way that the sum of goodness and wisdom in the world is infinitesimally increased. I think that is so.
EG: Whats the connection between the formal element in your verse and the act of faith?
DM: If a thing is worth saying, its worth going to some trouble to say it in a presentable and memorable fashion. Something like that. But even thats too much of a rationalization. Its more that thats the way I like to do it. Its almost as simple as that: thats what I like to do on the page. Ive often filled a page with free verse, and Ive thought, Now thats not a bad piece of free verse, and its hung around for a while. But eventually I throw it out, because its not interesting to me. A thing has to have shape, profile, it has to clear its throat, make its presence felt, make itself visually interesting and so on. That is simply the way that I understand poetry.
EG: Is that also the way you understand poetry as making something happen?
DM: I dont think that far ahead. In writing, my thinking is on the level of this will interest so-and-so or so-and-so will like this. Or maybe not even that; maybe just that this is going to be fun when Im putting the finishing touches to it, when its actually taking its final form.
EG: Although the self-portrait that comes through your poems is often that of the solitary, a lot of your poems are dedicated to specific people.
DM: I invoke a circle of friends, a reading society. I didnt realize that at the beginning, but I was creating a circle of readers.
Of course, this introduces other issues. If were going to talk about solitude and community, were going to have to talk about non-belonging, about marriage, about homelessness. All these themes are subject matter for me just at the moment, which have as their origin the way I shut myself off from my family, from my family origins. Not entirely: I still see my mother once a year. But, at the age of eighteen or so, when I left home to go to Trinity, I wasnt just going on to college; I actually was leaving one life altogether and stepping into another. Throughout my teens I had a sense of the immediate community - extended family, the neighborhood and so on - but I felt that there was something terribly amiss and lacking and skewed about this whole carry-on. It seems a very insufficient community. The question in the back of my mind all the time was, Is this all? Is this it? Is this life? These people, this place? In fact, of course, looking back on it now, theres a lot more vividness in actuality about both the people and the place than, at the time, in my intolerance, I was able to appreciate. A mistake Heaney has never made. But I was an odd fish. Heaney was part of his community growing up - part of the extended family and society - but I found the nature of that society intensely repressive, neurotic.
You might say that my first model of community was tainted, so I opted out of community. But, to quote Adrienne Rich, the danger of reacting against coldness is that one becomes oneself cold. I think that happened to me. Im still a pretty cold fish in some ways - it becomes second nature, first nature, even, to get out of all community, and to turn into an antinomian, nasty character. The dangers are solipsism, inhumanity, intolerance. Its the first step towards, on the one hand, Rimbaud, and on the other hand, the serial killer. Really its a psychological risk to deracinate from your given community. Heaney asks this question somewhere: How dangerous is it to reject the world were shown? And it is dangerous. A more obvious and easier danger, of course, is to be absorbed by it. So what I did was to reject the world I was shown, though I later came back to it in various ways. But I went off on this solipsistic trip, on which I in some sense still am. So all of those dedications amount to the creation of a new family.
EG: Youve also been married and have a family of your own. Now youre separated. Do you see that as another community from which you finally isolated yourself?
DM: I suppose the answer is that Im not very good at community except in a tentative fashion. Just as I dont like parties unless Im standing near the door talking to people I know well, and able to get away fast. Thats my idea of parties - and also of communities. To be essentially solitary (this is all very selfish, I realize that) - not without community, exactly, but a slight distance all around, so that one is dealing with community on ones own terms. And thats the way I live today.
EG: Whats the connection between that and the kind of poems you write?
DM: Its practically my subject, my theme: solitude and community; the weirdness and terrors of solitude; the stifling and the consolations of community. Also, the consolations of solitude. But it is important for me to be on the edge looking in. Ive been inside, Ive spent lots of time inside. Now again, I appear to be outside; perhaps Ill be inside once again. I dont know. On the formal side ... I was talking recently to a very nice young woman who seemed to be coming from the current literary orthodoxy; she used two phrases of her students - one was about giving them permission to write and the other was about creating a warm space for them to write. Now, poetry written with permission in warm spaces, theres far too much of that - and that is the voice of community. What interests me is forbidden poetry written by solitaires in the cold, written by solitaires in the open, which is where the human soul really is. That for me is where poetry really is.