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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

13 November 2020

Malcolm Guite remembers Derek Mahon, the laureate of the overlooked

“THEY are all gone into the world of light, And I alone sit ling’ring here.”

These haunting lines of Henry Vaughan’s have been echoing in my mind of late, especially in this season of Remembrance, as I reflected on all the good people who have slipped out of this world in the course of this strange, dark year; so many of them kindling lights here, before they left us for “the world of light itself”.

Among them, leaving us just this last month, was the poet Derek Mahon. I first discovered him, alongside Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, when I was in the sixth form: all poets from Northern Ireland, from different sides of the religious divide, but transcending it completely and united in the poetry through which, between them, they “purify the dialect of the tribe and urged the mind to aftersight and foresight”, as Eliot had earlier put it.

What initially attracted me to Mahon was his sheer mastery of form and metre, something that I was struggling to achieve myself; but there was also a brilliance of detailed observation: a close attention to the faces, the places, the images, the moments, that everyone else was neglecting. He was the laureate of the overlooked, and his famous poem “A Disused Shed in County Wexford” summed up his vision. Leaving other poets to their roses and nightingales, he could find beauty, mystery, and food for thought among the mushrooms in a disused shed.

Though he had been on my shelves since the sixth form, he swam back vividly into view when I was working on Faith, Hope and Poetry, my defence of the imagination as a truth-bearing faculty. I was attempting to push back against the bleak reductionism of Wittgenstein’s dictum in his Tractatus that “the world is all that is the case,” that the world is entirely accounted for by being “divided into facts”.

I knew that there was something more, and then I remembered Mahon’s wonderful poem “Tractatus”, with its reply to Wittgenstein: “The world, though, is also so much more, Everything that is the case imaginatively. . .”

But, when Mahon died, it was not that poem, good as it is, for which his readers reached both to commend him to “the world of light” and to take comfort from. Rather, it was his courageous poem of recovery from darkness, simply titled “Everything Is Going To Be All Right”: a poem that rung all the more truly because Mahon had also been so honest in his poetry about depression and darkness. But, in this poem, he gave us some lines to cling to in our own dark times.

It opens as the poet contemplates the clouds clearing beyond a dormer window, and “the high tide reflected on the ceiling”. How should he not be glad, he asks; and then he says:

There will be dying, there will be dying,

but there is no need to go into that.
The lines flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

Those lines are the fruit of a lifetime of watchfulness for hidden sources. And then “The sun rises in spite of everything,” and the poem lifts to a conclusion that we need to hear as much now as he did when he wrote it:

I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

A Heaven in Ordinary: A Poet’s Corner collection by Malcolm Guite is published by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-78622-262-2.

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