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
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album