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The Many Truths of Michael Donaghy

Michael Donaghy (1954-2004)

As Reviewed By: Katy Evans-Bush

Imagine growing up in a society where one’s first and only experience of music occurred in a schoolroom, where the beauty of music was meticulously analysed and explained to you and where you were judged by your ability to explain it in turn. In one sense, of course, your appreciation of music would be exquisitely sophisticated because tunes wouldn’t be tinkling persistently out of lift speakers or commuter’s headphones. Music wouldn’t be an “on” switch away, so you’d be more alert to its nuances when you did hear it. But let’s face it, you wouldn’t be queuing round the corner for the experience. It would always be more “improving” than pleasurable.

This gently trenchant voice belongs to my friend and teacher Michael Donaghy, who died in London on September 16 this year. Michael was-as well as a generous spirit-both an important lyric poet and an original thinker who spent his life championing poetry as an essential (and essentially) human activity which is “hardwired into the brain.”
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Michael spread by talk and example a feeling for poetry as a vital dialogue with the world around us, with other poets, with the canon, with form. As he wrote, and read, and talked, a whole sweep of poetic-past-&-present was in view, like London seen from the heights of Parliament Hill. He used to say that every poem written changes the canon in some slight way, just a miniscule shift of its balance-that in writing a poem you have a duty to consider the ones that came before it. This makes sense; the reader has some of those other poems in his or her mind, after all; but it was also about keeping faith. In terms of his own work, this translates into a feeling that working within a form creates a “serendipity” via which the poem happens “by negotiation with a resistant medium.”

Well [he continues] that’s more or less our (urban, Anglophone) experience of poetry. Perhaps its low profile has to do with the way it’s taught. On the graduate level, modern pedagogues have long felt disinclined to lead tour groups around the gallery waving their pointing sticks at the sheer genius of the Old Masters. They want to be the main event. Literacy corrupts, they seem to be saying, and Literature, the common ground of writing agreed to be worthy of cultural survival, is the tool of the oppressor. If poetry depended on intellectuals for its survival it would be about as current as hieroglyphics.

Michael was born in 1954 to Irish Catholic parents; the Bronx he grew up in was full of immigrants of one kind or another. He became, and this is not unconnected to his poetry, an accomplished Irish musician, playing flute and bodhran with an assortment of different groups and also spontaneously, at the drop of a hat. He studied at Fordham University and then at the University of Chicago, where both his arts prospered: he became poetry editor of the Chicago Review and founded the Irish music ensemble Samradh Music. Over the years he played in various bands including Lammas, a jazz band led by his friend Don Paterson. (One gig, a source of great amusement among his friends, was the premier of the film Titanic in Leicester Square, where he and his fellow-musicians had to dress in rags-à la Leonardo di Caprio-and play haunting melodies in the foyer of the cinema as the film stars entered.)

He moved to London in 1985 (right after the publication of a pamphlet of his work, Slivers; and if anyone has a copy, I’ll buy it). The chronology of his career is short: his first collection, Shibboleth (1988) won the Whitbread Poetry Prize. The Geoffrey Faber Prize followed in 1990. Errata was published in 1993, and in 1994 was chosen for the New Generation poetry promotion-which famously re-branded poetry as “the new rock & roll,” and which Michael called “an attempt to actually manufacture a group of poets in the way that television tried to manufacture the Monkees as a pop group.” In 1999 he took part in the Poetry Society’s Poetry Places promotion, which resulted in his monograph Wallflowers-a lecture on poetry with misplaced notes and additional heckling from which the two quotes above are taken. His third collection, Conjure (2000) won the Forward Prize for best collection, as well as being shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. He was awarded a Cholmondeley Award in 2003 and was also made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

I can’t remember the first poem of Michael’s I read. But I remember reading it. I remember that tight feeling in my throat as I read, laughing almost with the excitement; and at the end it made me cry. It might have been “Not Knowing the Words,” in which his father mourns his mother’s death:

The last I saw of him alive, he pressed me to his coat.
It stinks in a sack in my attic like a drowned Alsatian.
It’s his silence…

Or it might have been “My Flu”:

…I’m curled up, shivering, fighting to wake,
but I can’t turn my face from the pit in the woods
-snow filling the broken suitcases, a boy curled up,
like me, as if asleep, except he has no eyes.
One of my father’s stories from the war
has got behind my eyes and filmed itself…

Or possibly “Needlework” (tattoos commissioned for the 1999 Last Words Poetry Festival, Salisbury), which goes like this:

i.
Copy this across your heart,
Whisper what your eyes have heard,
To summon me when we’re apart,
This word made flesh, this flesh made word.

ii.
The serpent sheds her skin and yet
The pattern she’d as soon forget
Recalls itself. By this I swear
I am the sentence that I bare.

Whichever one it was, I was slain by the combination of his direct, clear, calm voice, his dazzling technique, and the redemptive vision which makes his work essentially, to me, Mozartian.

And that’s not even the only Donaghy tattoo poem; there’s another one (“Liverpool”):

…Like Tracy, who confessed she’d had hers done
one legless weekend with her ex.
Heart. Arrow. Even the bastard’s initials, R.J.L.,
somewhere where it hurt, she said,
and when I asked her where, snapped “Liverpool.”…

Herein, come to think of it, lies part of the paradox that is Michael’s gift (aside from his love of paradox, which is equally beguiling). His gorgeous lyrical voice (and I do mean voice, not “voice.” Once you’ve ever heard him read, you’ll never forget his intonations: check it out here) speaks of the world we actually live in, with its tawdry or poisonous, or trivial or embarrassing, realities. His work is full of humour – black of course, but expressed in lush rhetorical tropes full of layered meaning. “Black Ice and Rain” tells the story (Ancient Mariner-like) of a party guest who strays into an out-of-control relationship complete with bad sex, religious fetishism, and car crash:

Lighting a meltdown of Paschal candles
she watched me. He poured out the drinks rasping
we’re seriously into cultural detritus. At which, at last,
she smiled. Ice cubes cracked. The worm sank in my glass.

In “Timing” a reminiscence about the narrator’s war horrors-

Yes I know it’s not funny. A prisoner told me
When I was an orderly during the war,
Exactly the way that I told it, the whores and the mice.
I say told though I should say he gargled or grunted –
We’d built him a jaw out of one of his ribs
So it took him some time…

-is suddenly revealed to be your most-feared cab driver (Michael had great anecdotes about cab drivers); and the surreal tall-tale “Signifyin’ Monkey” (a sneaky sestina) begins like this:

Okay, I’ll tell it, but only if you buy lunch.
One summer I worked nights for Vigil-Guard,
the Chicago security firm. The work was easy:
sitting. And close to home. Ten minutes on the train.
and every night I passed the same fluorescent sign
somewhere in Chinatown: FIGHTER MONKEY.

Like Mozart’s music, Michael’s poetry can switch emotional register with a flicker, from line to line, pulling you with it through “mandarin” to “earthy demotic” diction to a conclusion you hadn’t seen coming.

Religious imagery is everywhere in Michael’s work. Though he wasn’t a religious man in any orthodox or identifiable sense, his belief in the importance of even tiny things, his obsession with patterns (mnemonics, music, dance steps, mechanicals, cultural traditions, poetic form), seem somehow almost sacerdotal. Of course, these tendencies were amply furnished with the tasseled clutter of a Catholic upbringing. This said, with his humane vision, wide reading and rare logical beauty he is also a poet of the Enlightenment (and one who can write about Curtis Mayfield).

“Okay,” you’re saying, “but the Enlightenment’s over-I read that in the TLS-and I’m an atheist, so why is he important?”

Well. Importance, as we learn in “The Classics” (from his “O’Ryan’s Belt” sequence), is a small matter; it’s a small thing that gets big, and these poems get big. Read one, read two, and they stay with you. The internal logic, the solid frames within which they operate, the cool baroque vision, are unique.

Michael Donaghy’s influences reflect his amazingly wide frame of reference and also the level of his engagement. Marvell, Donne and Herbert, with their elegant logical and formal constructs, are there in poems like “The Present,” “Machines,” and “Glass,” which is a quatrain version of a sestina-a sort of tetrina:

This is a cheapjack gift at the year’s end.
This is a double-glazing hymn for wind.
This is a palm frond held out to a friend
Who holds her lifeline lightly in her hand.

As fine sand filaments the unclenched hand
Or leaves the palm grit-filmed but crazed, lines end
Across prismatic windscreens. Every friend
A meteorologist’s diagram of wind…

Browning and Coleridge are there with their shocking unreliable narrators in rich, arid situations; the American “old formalists” Hecht, Wilbur, and Merrill (whose Ouija-generated Changing Light at Sandover Michael highlighted as another example of “negotiation with a resistant medium”); MacNeice; Bishop (“The knife there on the shelf- / it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix”); Derek Mahon, whom he claimed always as one of the poets who gave him a kind of “permission.” And of course the lush and concentrated Keats: Michael would conversationally break into a perfect recitation of “Ode to Melancholy.”

References to other poems often crop up in his work, and whole poems are modelled on works by other poets. He has given at least one interview on how “The Drop” was based structurally on Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” which in turn contained at least one line which had been lifted from Pound. (He also wrote a series of poems as if translated from the old Welsh; although they have been mistaken for real translations, he said he was just practicing the form.) And it is the opinion of this author that Patrick Kavanagh’s “Epic”-

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided: who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel-
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was most important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

-was the model for Michael’s “The Classics.” This latter poem reproduces the internal structure of declarative statement (“I have lived…” / “I remember it…”), moves on to the confrontation-and here the Donaghy train echoes Kavanagh’s blue cast-steel-and finishes with a flourish, even using the same caesura to create the transformative rhetoric of the final line. The difference lies there, where Donaghy takes the argument one step further, in the manner of Cavalcanti to Dante.

I remember it like it was last night,
Chicago, the back room of Flanagan’s
Malignant with accordions and cigarettes,
Joe Cooley bent above his Paolo Soprani,
Its asthmatic bellows pumping as if to revive
The half-corpse strapped about it.
It’s five a.m. Everyone’s packed up.
His brother Seamus grabs Joe’s elbow mid-arpeggio.
“Wake up, man. We have to catch a train.”
His eyelids fluttering, opening. The astonishment…

I saw this happen. Or heard it told so well
I’ve staged the whole drunk memory:
What does it matter now? It’s ancient history.
Who can name them? Where lie their bones and armour?

In the current postmodern climate there is always debate around the lyric “I” in poetry. At the same time the New Formalists are largely in retreat from mid-century confessional excesses. Michael, who sometimes did write autobiographically, distrusted it, and said no one should assume that the word “I” meant that anything in a poem was based on fact. “We are constantly deluding ourselves about our pasts,” he told Magma (issue 2, “Presiding Spirits,” see link above);

No matter how hard we “tell the truth” we’re fictionalizing. So I just do the same more consciously. Which is not to say I’m not aiming at the truth. I am certainly aiming at an emotional truth. And at a philosophical truth. Also, a musical, and a mathematical truth-however short I may fall. But not at a documentary truth. I’m never aiming at a documentary truth…

There is a slight temptation to talk instead about the lyric “who?”-but if one reads Michael’s three collections (published in 2000 by Picador, UK, as two books: Dances Learned Last Night, incorporating Shibboleth and Errata, and Conjure) it becomes pretty clear that this is more smoke-and-mirrors. There may be access here to a level of identity anxiety usually only seen in Woody Allen, in the kid who realized in confession that it was a sin of arrogance to presume that one’s sins had been committed by one’s own self-in the kid “Smith” looks back on, whose signature at seven was

unreadably ornate
and only one of five that I’d developed,
but try as I might I couldn’t recall
the signature I’d been born with

-and while “the brother I never had” in “The Brother” is:

thumbing cool oil on our mother’s forehead
in the darkened room, the bells and frankincense…
while the prodigal sweats in the strip-lit corridor.

Even Michael’s Sion ap Brydydd (d. 1360) in “Seven Poems From the Welsh,” having been lent the fees to be educated as a medieval court bard, “held that post for less than a year when he was dismissed for neglecting to repay the loan and he spent his remaining years among the criminal element of Aberystwyth.” It’s also worth noting that practically the only other information we’re given on Sion ap Brydydd is that:

…recent computer analysis of Y Hiraeth, his 30,000-word description of the interior of a heron’s egg, has revealed two columns of slant rhyme weaving through the text line by line in a perfect double helix pattern. [...] How such a poem could have been written under such exacting formal constraints is a puzzle. Why it was written is a positive enigma.

But! This mathematical truth (emotional precision) of Michael’s-the opposite of the poetry as self-expression which fills so many workshops, schools and little magazines-was the reason why Michael was so special and, yes, important. He knew what he was about. He was never willing to be aligned with any Movement or School. Asked about the New Formalists (with whom surely he had a poetic if not a political affinity) he would reply, “the old formalists never went away.” He distrusted the manifesto, the treatise, the club-in fact, everything but the poem and the response to it.

Writing “only three a year,” as he said, he was nevertheless a very busy man. He taught four famous classes a week, undertook commissions, appeared repeatedly on the BBC educational series Arrows of Desire, gave generously of readings and interviews and appeared in poetry festivals in the UK and the US.

His workshops were legendary (or in Epic fashion they soon will be)-they were the starting-places for several successful UK poets, as well as some still (we hope) to rise. He was unfaltering in his demonstration of how each poem should be evaluated in terms of what it was trying to be-its own truth-and read as itself, not against a template of someone else’s Ideal Poem. This meant that everyone left his classes encouraged and also braced by his standards. By simply putting knowledge in front of people, he made it available to those who could see it, and those who couldn’t went away happy and none the wiser.

In a recent tribute to him in the Independent on Sunday (October 3, 2004), many people said the same thing: he could never say no. He was everywhere. He wrote blurbs, intros, critiques, chapters, you name it, and now we’re incredibly lucky he did.

Michael’s sudden death two months ago from a cerebral hemorrhage has shocked the whole poetry world; he was a colleague, mentor, or friend to everyone who knew him. He wished he’d been better published in the US, but his appearances at the West Chester Poetry Festival and other places have gathered a small, devoted following in his native country. Michael leaves his wife, Maddy, and eight-year-old son, Ruairi.

I’ll finish with a true story-emailed in his usual way to everyone, some time last year. Michael writes:

I was driving through Islington one night a few weeks ago when I saw a man kneeling on the pavement outside Get Stuffed, my favourite taxidermists. “Call an Ambulance” he said when I wound down the window. So I did. When I got out and approached him, though, I could smell the booze from ten feet away. Too late. I had to wait forever with him for the ambulance to turn up while he insulted me and spat at me and told me he was Brendan Behan’s cousin! I know he wasn’t just bullshitting me because I know Dominic Behan and this guy had all the details. And of course, he bore (excuse me) THE UNBEARABLE LIKENESS OF BEHAN. So it must be true.

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- who has written 2 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Katy Evans-Bush was born in New York City and has lived in London since she was 19. Her poetry and criticism have appeared in journals and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic. She is one of six poets featured in The Like of It, published in 2005 by Baring and Rogerson (London).

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