Hostage to Mephistopheles

JOURNALISM by Derek Mahon, Gallery Press pounds 10.95
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"One has to give something of oneself to the Devil that one may live." Thus Yeats on his literary essays, throwing in a big name, as usual, to add ballast to the splendour and misery of his lot. The Irish poet Derek Mahon takes a less apocalyptic view, seeing his journalism rather as "an indispensable resource for the untenured ... to be a freelance, in hard fact as in spirit, is the optimal condition for any writer, and attaches one to a noble tradition" - stretching back from Connolly and Auden through Grub Street to the pamphleteers who squeaked around Shakespeare and Milton.

"It both pays and costs," adds Terence Brown, sagely, in his introduction to this excellent 25 years' worth of essays and reviews by "a poet of rare distinction". The selection opens with pieces on MacNeice and Beckett, both of whom have gone deep into Mahon's own bloodstream. He salutes the "empirical humanism at the heart" of the former, and his love of "the existential tangle of the passing minute". " `A tourist in his own country', it has been said ... but of what sensitive person is the same not true? The phrase might stand, indeed, as an epitaph for modern man, beside Camus's `He made love and read the newspapers'."

MacNeice gets quoted again on "the exquisite verdigris of cynicism" and on Auden's ability to "put the soul across in telegrams". Mahon himself puts it across in tones of voice, in juxtaposition ("from the burnt match to the farthest star" in his prose; "from the fly giving up in the coal- shed / to the Winged Victory of Samothrace" in his poetry), and in the tough-minded yet limpid syntax which informs his renewal of the singing line. The "chiliastic prig" who prowls through the poems more in sorrow than in anger - though he's on good terms with the destructive maenads too - is an acute guide to Irish and world literature. If he is a touch generous to contemporaries such as Hewitt, Montague, Durcan, Boland, he is properly impatient with cant. "There is a modern myth that the sicker the artist the greater the art; but one has only to look at the great healthy artists, present and past, to appreciate the absurdity of such a proposition."

Beckett's bad poems, such as "Whoroscope", are rightly dismissed, Eluard's "Every face shall have a right to kisses" welcomed. Baudelaire gets a keen look: "so much more poet he seems than man". Philippe Jaccottet, whom Mahon has translated, is filed as "a secular mystic", in a phrase that hovers over the poet's own impish tonsure. Holderlin proposes that we live "poetically on this earth", and "it follows", says Mahon, "that our poetry is a kind of politics, a politics of the soul." He probably wouldn't allow such explicit avowals as this into his own stanzas; all the better to meet them in the back bar of his prose.

He rather likes dandies, especially those who have paid a large price for their dandihood such as Wilde and Scott Fitzgerald; also drunks, dropouts and misfits, from Lowry and Donleavy to Jeffrey Bernard. He's also drawn to those novelists whose brows are not so steep as to deter them from serving up a good read (Elizabeth Bowen, J G Farrell, Brian Moore, Jennifer Johnstone), and indeed proposes Raymond Chandler's Marlowe as the Faustus of our day: "victim of some secret hurt ... who despises the rich in principle but is apt to be lenient in particular cases ... We take this guy to our hearts, and cherish whatever of Philip Marlowe there is in us."

Edmund Wilson on Fitzgerald is quoted more than once: "His message is despair, but his style sings of hope." Mahon too is more than half in love with easeful art, but properly scornful of "Mallarme's noxious belief that the world came into existence in order to finish up between the covers of a book". Then again Sartre's notion that art sets about "devaluing the real by realising the imaginary" is judged a second-rate aphorism, not up to the job of balancing on the tightrope between us and those terrifying spaces.

A final section offers us impressions of Ulster and Trinity College in the poet's salad days, and of New York and LA today. Forswearing all further teaching and reviewing, Mahon is currently devoting himself to the muse. This is good news for poetry and bad news for Grub Street. Let's hope some Mephistopheles from the Irish Times lures him out, in between verses, with those impending cases of high thinking and low cunning in the next batch of jiffy-bags.