Derek Mahon through an Acmeist lens

If Gumilev had somehow survived the Bolshevik firing squad, and lived another 90 years, I think he might have accepted this poem by Derek Mahon (in the current New Yorker) into an Acmeist canon.

How would he evaluate it? As I'm scribbling this at the office, it will have to be a quick sketch. How would Gumilev read & appraise "The Thunder Shower"?

First of all, it's clearly a poem, with rhymes & stanzas, not prose chopped up into lines. The Russians were (& often have continued to be) more conservative in this area. Gumilev wrote that "poetry wants to distinguish itself from prose." (I'm not making a judgement of my own here : I recognize & value some free verse. Nevertheless I agree with the general idea. Poetry is distinct from prose.)

Secondly, the diction & syntax displays some clarity and simplicity. Poetry, for Acmeism, is "the art of the Word." Language, speech - in its natural, everyday, vernacular, contemporary formations, its common usages - is to be engaged & built upon, not shattered & destroyed. In other words, the given language we speak is to be respected in its integrity. The integrity & wholeness of the word itself is the living ground out of which poetry emerges & effloresces.

Thirdly, poetry is organic - a living whole, in an Aristotelian sense. Gumilev (again, following Aristotle somewhat) conceptualized four basic elements of the living organism of the poem : phonetics, style, composition, and what he called "eidolology" (or what we might term "thematics" or "argument", though it means more than that). Gumilev even analogized these elements to complementary, interactive physiological systems (flesh, bone structure, circulation, nerves).

How does Mahon's poem reflect such an organic whole? First, the entire poem describes a single "action" : the coming & passing-away of a heavy thunderstorm. This is the unifying (compositional) plot which undergirds both the underlying theme, and the flights of wit & fantasy elaborated in the individual stanzas. The calm elegance of the everyday syntax, combined with images of a multitude everyday things (sirens, trucks, honks, beeps, muggy air, world economy, etc.) - equivalent to the Acmeist doctrine of accepting & celebrating the things of this world - are wrought, up, caught up, in the waves of wet & stormy sound. & suddenly the unity of recurrent sounds, images, figures & form begins to gather into the specific gravity of a strictly poetic magic : we begin to recognize the equivalence of the natural phenomenon (the storm) with the verbal action of the work of art. As the poem states : "all human life is there". We are caught up in a unity of natural/artifical life, that is, a creative fusion. The rain becomes a sort of fountain : the faint & subtle Scriptural allusions (Baal, the creche) reinforce a vague feeling of being in the presence of new Making itself. "...a thrush sings..."

The phenomenon I am describing here is an example of Gumilev's concept of "chasteness" : we recognize the integrity and independence of the strictly poetic event - the artwork's inherent value - in the very process of the poem's celebration of the "chaste" integrity of both everyday communication (speech) and everyday natural events.

Then the storm, that "angry downpour" (or Biblical deluge) fades away. "A few last drops drip from a broken gutter". It was only a rainstorm. Yet the concluding lines acknowledge, in a sort of backhanded undertone, the sense that, by way of this poetic/natural process, we have been swooshed into a dimension slightly beyond the ordinary everyday, to apprehend a subtle sort of creative consciousness :

"but the storm that created so much fuss
has lost interest in us."

The poem thus diminishes to a close with this sly understatement.

I would hazard to guess that Gumilev would not only approve this poem, but enjoy it a good deal. & I find it fitting to come upon this work by an Irish poet, so soon after reading that other Irish writer's edifying book (Justin Doherty, The Acmeist movement in Russian poetry). Maybe the ghost of that master guild-poet Yeats (whose work displays both Symbolist & Acmeist dimensions) hovers somewhere nearby.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


Mahon is a poet I respect, too, his "The Hudson Letter", a series of New York poems, perched a foot or two away from me on my bookshelf. Very traditionalist, very Yeatsian: and grounded in the Michael Longley school of contemporary lyrical poetry.

I only want to say that 'acmeist', in the case of your fine reading of Mahon's poem "The Thunder Shower", sounds awfully much like 'formalist', poetry analysis & appreciation not really looking too far afield of the poem itself. Perhaps it's in that sense you speak of its 'organic wholeness", with "chasteness" really a reference to its lyrical purity, the poem's propensity to retain only the most lyrically definitive (as you say "magical")moments of the storm itself.

And funny you should chide the Russian formalists for doing what it seems to me Mahon's doing pretty much throughout the whole piece: somehow, almost mystically, too, giving the storm event in terms of musical crescendo and diminuendo ("the Symbolists subsumed poetic speech under the "higher" dimension of music"). I'd say the repeated allusions to music, and the almost equally numerous references to the musicality of cars, horns, etc., try to hard to reveal the sense-sound "fusion" on which the "poetic magic" relies. I'd make the same sort of point about the religious imagery.

Two things I do like (and greatly appreciated) are its nicely cadenced line and almost flawless rhymes: oh, Professor Steele would be delighted, indeed! Here's poetry Ron Silliman would be incapable of matching on its own terms: no purposeful (and at time reckless) denaturalization of those features of language to which the lyrical voice is wonderfull attuned.

Henry Gould said...

Gumilev's notion of "chaste" is quite idiosyncratic - "lyrical purity" is really NOT what it's about.

Nor does the fact that there may be some particular poetic qualities here that the New Formalists marshalled for their own polemic, make me any more interested in that particular polemic.

Mahon doesn't try to imitate car horns (like a Futurist), nor does he propose his imagery as a kind of allegory regarding a supernal realm beyond all that noise (like a Symbolist). The "word magic" here is not based on "sense-sound fusion" (as with Futurists & Symbolists) but rather on an equilibrium between two clear & distinct realms (nature, poetry). This is what Gumilev means by "chasteness" : that is, the "chasteness is in the eye of the beholder, not in the purity of the things observed. What the "chaste" (or just, or clear) eye beholds is the inherent dignity & wholeness of each & every thing, high or low, in nature or in art.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I think I've reached my limit of understanding with the concept of "chasteness". I've ordered Mandelstam: let me read him first and then I'll try again later.

Thanks for the clarifications.

Henry Gould said...

OK, Conrad. Sorry if this all seems murky. As I see it, in a nutshell :

the chaste sensibility recognizes the integrity of distinct things, & their dignity as such.

It's close to Joyce's concept of the artist beholding the "quidditas" in ordinary things - their beauty. Which in turn comes by way of Aquinas' famous determination : Ad pulcritudinem tria requiruntur: integritas, consonantia, claritas. Ie. integrity (wholeness), proportion, and clarity (or brilliance).