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.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...