Boyd Tonkin: Breaking the ice for poetry and pop

The Week in Books

Always accessible, never predictable, Derek Mahon has run long and well as the dark horse of Irish poetry. Born in Belfast, a contemporary of Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, an avid traveller but now settled in the dinky foodie port of Kinsale in Co Cork, he likes to keep a surprise or two up his ever-shapely literary sleeve.

Last year, when I helped to judge the David Cohen prize for career achievement in British or Irish literature, almost nobody seemed to notice just how strongly Mahon was performing until – to general delight – he won the thing. Now he has published another of his (rare) volumes, Life on Earth, with his old comrades at the Gallery Press in Co Meath.

Irish landscapes, glimpses of Goa, memoirs of Belfast, versions of Ovid, homages to Chekhov and Brian Moore, art pieces prompted by Braque, Hopper and Matisse: the Mahon palette looks as eclectic, and richly textured, as ever, especially when we swing into a "Homage to Gaia" sequence that picks up the green themes that have coursed through his verse long before fashion demanded them. Then, halfway through this lyric daisy chain, what do we find? "Ode to Björk", as the bard of Kinsale invokes the elfin diva who must now count as one of Iceland's few tradeable assets: "Dark bird of ice, dark swan/ Of snow, your bright gamine/ teardrop Inuit eyes/ peep from a magazine/ as if to say 'Fuck off/ and get my new release;/ you don't know me...'"

Björk to Mahon is a bewitching bird of ill omen, one "that pipes/ from quickly thawing ice", and who sings seductive songs of doom as warnings from the imperilled north. If this seems a striking instance of a pop icon taking root in a major poet's imagination, it's also a scarce one. Half a century ago, Thom Gunn hailed Elvis Presley as the voice of his cool and sexy times. "He turns revolt into a style," ran Gunn's epoch-defining lines, "prolongs/ The impulse to a habit of the time."

Since then, you might have expected poets of weight and wit to spin endless memorable lyrics out of the parade of living gods and goddesses – from Lennon and Dylan to Morrissey and Winehouse – who have warbled their way into the panting souls of millions of devotees around the world. Yet the cupboard of pop poems looks – not bare exactly, but stocked with far too much mediocre, reach-me-down material.

As those names and others prove, one reason for this misfire of the muse is that the giants of pop and rock have done too well as lyricists themselves. We can leave it to professors to wrangle over the exact future status of Dylan, or Leonard Cohen, or Tom Waits, or Nick Cave, in the pantheon of modern verse. But it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that the lavish verbal gifts of such superstars, and their proud claims to a place at the proper poets' table (Cohen began as, and remains, a disciple of Federico García Lorca), has muffled the voices of many tuneless versifiers who revere their work.

Homages to the magic of the music still figure in some British poets' work. In Gig, his deliciously rueful memoir of a failed rock-star youth, Simon Armitage pinpointed the uneasy clash of envy and affinity that strikes many poets when they gaze in wonder on the amp-filled stage. Performance poetry has tried to eliminate the gap between bard and band entirely, most successfully in the dub sounds of Linton Kwesi Johnson and his heirs. Perhaps the heart of the problem lies in the yearning of too many younger poets to be monsters of rock rather than simply to capture their aura and appeal – as Mahon does – with skills that only the long-polished crafts of verse can bring.

Senior figures such as him, with no secret hankering to wow Wembley or gladden Glastonbury, may fashion more enduring pop poems than those writer-performers who feel that they should be sharing the spotlight themselves. Yes, great poets can access all areas of life and art – but that doesn't mean they need to swap their jobs.

P.S. Jonathan Ross has just published a book. Its title is Why Do I Say These Things? Don't look for the answer within. Bantam (owned by Random House) shelled out the usual vast advance. Ross shares with us the discomfort of interviewing famous guests with threadbare talents, and admits that "the hardest people to avoid being honest with are ones who've written a book". Quite. So, in the interests of Rossian candour, let's say at once that this ill-edited sprawl of mirthless witterings and warmed-over smutty anecdotes adds up to what we professional critics like to call "a heap of dreck". But Ross still has his fans, and may well pick up more among teenage rebels (of whatever age) if the potty-mouthed plutocrat begins to look like a victim of Establishment spite. LOL, indeed. Meanwhile, young and old alike can relish the Sophoclean irony of his smug ain't-life-grand? coda: "I admit I've never had a really bad day." He has now.

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