Derek Mahon, a leading Irish poet whose verses could be lyrical or pessimistic, somber or witty, classically structured but full of contemporary themes, died on Friday at his home in Kinsale, on Ireland’s southern coast. He was 78.
Stephen Ennis, whose biography, “After the Titanic: A Life of Derek Mahon,” was published in 2015, confirmed the death. The Belfast Telegraph in Northern Ireland said he died after a short illness.
Mr. Mahon, who also translated poems and works for the stage, drew on personal demons as well as the demons of modern history in composing poetry that, in contrast to much modern poetry, often favored rhymed verses.
“Derek Mahon’s life was one of repeated crises, an early suicide attempt while a student at Trinity, a broken marriage, alcoholism, and all of it set against the violent bloodletting of the Troubles,” Dr. Ennis said by email. “As a poet, he found consolation in poetic forms, in rhyme, which he once called ‘the prelinguistic drumbeat,’ and his body of work can be read as an attempt to impose form on the otherwise formlessness of his own life.”
But, Dr. Ennis said, renewal was a frequent theme, as in his best-known poem, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” which used mushrooms bending toward the light as a symbol. It was written in 1973, with the 1972 clash known as Bloody Sunday still fresh in memory. The poem ends this way:
They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
“Save us, save us,” they seem to say,
“Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naïve labours have been in vain!”
Another leading Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, compared Mr. Mahon to a renowned American writer.
“A technician to rival Richard Wilbur, by whom he was deeply influenced both as a poet and translator,” Mr. Muldoon said by email, “Derek Mahon was the unlikely laureate of the Protestant working class of North Belfast, whose lives he got down with the warmth and precision of a Dutch master.”
Norman Derek Mahon was born in Belfast on Nov. 23, 1941. His father, Norman, was an inspector of engines at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, and his mother, Maise Harrison Mahon, had worked at the York Street Flax Spinning Company before her marriage.
Mr. Mahon grew up in Belfast and graduated from Trinity College in Dublin in 1965. He first drew wide attention with “Night Crossing,” a 1968 collection. At various times he worked as a journalist and as a screenwriter in Dublin and London, and also taught for a time in Manhattan at Barnard College and New York University before settling in Ireland. The wanderings were reflected in his verses.
“In Derek Mahon’s exemplary poems displacement is all,” Edward Hirsch wrote in The New York Times in 1992, reviewing “Selected Poems,” works drawn from six earlier volumes by Mr. Mahon. “History lurks in every shadow. And home is an elusive concept, a region of dark reckonings, a ghostly, alien domain.”
During his years in the United States Mr. Mahon wrote a regular column, “Letter From New York,” for The Irish Times. In 1995 he ended a dry spell in his poetry writing with “The Hudson Letter,” an ambitious volume whose lengthy title poem is a series of meditations on his life in Manhattan. The work, John Boland wrote in The Irish Times, “manages to be both technically dazzling and deeply felt.”
“It’s also accessible to the common reader,” he added. “I think it’s no accident that as Mahon’s poetry has become more profound, it has also achieved a new clarity, without losing any of its allusiveness or elegance.”
Mr. Mahon was back on European soil for “The Yellow Book” (1997), which Robert Taylor, writing in The Boston Globe, called “one of the most impressive poetic sequences to emerge from Ireland in recent years.”
A productive late career continued with “Harbour Lights” (2005), “Life on Earth” (2008) and “Against the Clock” (2018), among other collections. His publisher, the Gallery Press, said a new volume, “Washing Up,” is imminent.
The poet and author Richard Tillinghast, writing in the literary magazine The New Criterion in 1999, expressed admiration for Mr. Mahon’s plainspokenness.
“Mahon’s work is reticent, witty, and bracingly hard-edged,” he wrote. “Most refreshingly he does not attempt the de rigueur transcendental moment at the end of a poem, where most American writers feel called upon to hit high C.”
By way of example, Mr. Tillinghast cited the ending of Mr. Mahon’s poem “A Lighthouse in Maine,” which was inspired by the Edward Hopper painting “The Lighthouse at Two Lights”:
You make a left beyond the town, a right,
you turn a corner and there, ivory-white,
it shines in modest glory above a bay.
Out you get and walk the rest of the way.
Mr. Mahon married Doreen Douglas in 1972. They separated in the 1980s, and she died in 2010. He is survived by his partner, Sarah Iremonger; two children from his marriage, Rory and Katherine Jane Mahon; a daughter from a relationship with Jane Desmarais, Maisie Mahon; and a grandson.
If many of Mr. Mahon’s poems had an edge, one of his most popular, a work often cited amid the current pandemic, took a different tone. It is called “Everything Is Going to Be All Right,” from 1978:
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
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