The Singing Line
First things first: If you care about poetry, you’ll want to acquire Michael Donaghy’s Collected Poems as soon as possible. Handsomely published by Picador, along with a companion volume of essays, this is the lifework of—to borrow the description of Simon Armitage—“a linguistic musician, a literary magician.”
Collected Poems, by Michael Donaghy.
The Shape of the Dance: Essays, Interviews and Digressions, by Michael Donaghy. Ed. by Adam O’Riordan and Maddy Paxman.
First things first: If you care about poetry, you’ll want to acquire Michael Donaghy’s Collected Poems as soon as possible. Handsomely published by Picador, along with a companion volume of essays, this is the lifework of—to borrow the description of Simon Armitage—“a linguistic musician, a literary magician.” Immediately ingratiating, Donaghy’s poems are both touching and good-humored, accessible to anyone yet full of learned allusion and metaphysical ingenuity. In particular, there’s “a lot of memory in them,” as the poet once said. “Memory and history and music and sex and drinking.” You can well understand why Michael Donaghy’s death at the age of fifty in 2004 provoked what his friend and Picador editor, Don Paterson, called “a carnival of mourning.”
Ever since Auden stepped off the boat in New York back in 1939, Ireland and Britain have regularly lost many of their best poetic minds to our sweet land of university professorships and well-endowed sinecures. Think of Donald Davie, Thom Gunn, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon. Our gain. But Donaghy reverts to the earlier Modernist pattern of the American who finds success abroad. In fact, “Mike” seems to have fitted into the London life of his time as readily as Henry James or T.S. Eliot did in theirs. It’s sometimes even a bit unclear whether he should be regarded as an American, an English, or even an Irish writer. Over the years, though, he won all of Britain’s major poetry prizes, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial and the Whitbread for Shibboleth (1988), and the Forward for Conjure (2000; this last accompanied by a £10,000 sweetener). None were published here. Our loss.
Michael Donaghy was born in 1954 in the South Bronx to Irish emigrant parents—his mother was a maid at the Statler Hilton hotel, his father worked in its boiler room. Donaghy’s neighborhood was New York tough, and he grew up in a world of drugs and violence. Some of his poems refer back to this time, though he was scrupulous not to play up his working-class roots or to put on “the poor mouth.” Still, for a few years he was employed as a doorman on New York’s Upper East Side, apparently while attending Fordham. A late poem, “Local 32b,” remembers that time and is full of playful humor about it. One of its lines—“An Irish doorman foresees his death”—alters a single word to leave Yeats changed, changed utterly:
Once I got a cab for Pavarotti. No kidding.
No tip either. I stared after him down Fifth
and caught him looking after me, then through me,
like Samson, eyeless, at the Philistine chorus—
Yessir, I put the tenor in the vehicle.
And a mighty tight squeeze it was.
ok, groan if you must. But some of us love clever wordplay, typical of Donaghy, though he’s seldom so obvious in his punning or allusions.
At readings Donaghy impressively recited all his own poems from memory. He once said that he’d worked on them so slowly and so long that they had simply impressed themselves permanently in his mind. They must have, since it was also Donaghy’s practice to substitute vodka for the water in the speaker’s carafe. “It wasn’t nerves. It was shame,” he once explained. In his funniest essay—“All Poets are Mad”—he sums up those days: “Up until the end of the war Pound thought humiliation meant having to work in a bank. I guess public readings have changed everything.” He goes on:
Name me three working-class male poets not already in aa who don’t routinely douse their brains out after every reading. And oh, afterwards! The waking up still drunk next to a strange woman, waking up next to a man, or an animal! Waking up beside a strange dead male animal in a pool of . . . well, in a pool.
This piece is too good not to keep quoting:
And teaching poetry! Coaching your students in the finer points of rhetoric and prosody so they too can experience the misspelled rejection slips, the personally inscribed copies of their books in the charity shops, the reading fee consisting of the festival souvenir mug and book token, the laid-on meal at McDonald’s, the floor spots who make up half the audience and who all leave before—no—during your first poem, and the mc who introduces you as Matthew Sweeney. Twice. And best of all, the waking up alone in the middle of the night biting and tearing at the sweaty hotel sheets whimpering no no no.
At this point, many readers, and not just fellow poets, will be tempted to sigh, “Mon semblable, mon frère.”
After graduating from Fordham, the young Donaghy enrolled in graduate school in English at the University of Chicago, but soon rebelled against the growing cult of theory in academic studies. “Gradually I became aware that professing English because I loved poems was like practicing vivisection because I loved dogs.” Once our hero was actually ordered from the room by no less an eminence than Paul de Man, not yet defrocked as Yale’s minister of deconstruction. Instead of mulling over the subtleties of Derridean absence and “differance,” Donaghy began to spend more and more time playing flute with a traditional Irish band and working as poetry editor of the Chicago Review. He also fell in love, and when Maddy Paxman returned to England, he followed her. The year was 1985.
There, Donaghy’s poem “Shibboleth” came in second in the National Poetry Competition—apparently they have such things in England—and his career was launched. In 1994 he was selected to be one of the lucky twenty dubbed “New Generation” poets. (Others included Armitage, Paterson, and Sean O’Brien, who contributes the introduction to the Collected Poems.) Donaghy eventually took a job teaching creative writing while also turning out the occasional review or essay. He proved to be an excellent critic and polemicist, with a passion and waspish style that William Logan might envy:
The last person you’d expect to find at a campus poetry reading would be an English professor.
It has been pointed out that the education system in America fabricates as many graduate painters and sculptors every five years as there were people in Florence in the fifteenth century.
The audience for avant-garde art is a middle-class audience that pays to be shocked, or bored or insulted, in much the same way that Mistress Wanda’s clients pay to be horsewhipped. It’s an audience that knows what it wants and is comfortable with its rituals and cliches.
The poetry readings I attend are sometimes like in-house performances at the magic circle. An audience of fellow professionals sits back taking notes or wondering where the performer bought his rabbit.
“Mainstream,” like “middlebrow,” is more often than not a dismissive term used by avant-garde artists to describe more famous rivals.
As some of these remarks suggest, Donaghy can’t see the point of deliberately hieratic poetry. While he hardly ever refers to Philip Larkin, he would agree with him that poems should be enjoyable to the intelligent, common reader. “Memorizable” is Donaghy’s own word. “I’m exclusively interested in a poetry that takes its direction and rhythm—like all traditional poetry—from the voice.” Little surprise, then, that he sums up the “asyntactical verse” of the l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poets as “daring experimental arrangements of words which to our untrained eyes look like meaningless drivel.” He adds, dryly, that this is “because we haven’t read the sophisticated post-structuralist essays written by its apologists. We’re like those Philistines who didn’t appreciate Op Art because they didn’t subscribe to Arts Review.” Utterly merciless, Donaghy goes on to note that certain poets “are very vocal about challenging ‘the bourgeois monad of the lyric “I,”’ but just try spelling their names wrong.”
Donaghy’s own favorites among modern American poets tend to be the post-war formalists: Richard Wilbur (who possesses “the most flawless command of musical phrase”), Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, Anthony Hecht. But he’s no kneejerk partisan of rhyme or meter: he dismisses—somewhat unfairly, I think—most of Updike’s verse as “bijouterie.” He admires, albeit with cavils and hesitations, Timothy Steele and the New Formalists. In a review of Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter? Donaghy clearly agrees that poems should offer pleasure to a general audience and, as he says elsewhere, “clarity, daring, a sense of line, and a willingness to meet the reader halfway.” He himself found such a public in Britain, where “poets never quite renounced traditional form to the extent they did in America.”
While revering the older American formalists, Donaghy claimed that the work of Derek Mahon actually kept him from giving up poetry: “That urbanity, that humor. It was so liberating to discover that you could do this, write beautiful, memorable language and yet still be funny and ironic.” In Louis MacNeice he is similarly drawn to
a voice that engaged the whole of one’s consciousness without resorting to any theories or manifestos. It used a richly varied diction and syntax. It could be witty and ride a razor edge of irony, and in the next line break your heart or fill you with wonder.”
In both, Donaghy finds what he values most: “the singing line.”
So much for theory, what of Donaghy’s actual practice? As he says, in one of his best-known lines, “the machinery of grace is always simple.” His poems tend to describe events or people—there’s not much in the way of nature here, thank God—and his early work, while ingenious, is always clear and direct. In “Machines,” the opening poem of Shibboleth, he compares “This harpsichord pavane by Purcell / And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.” In “Pentecost” he likens two lovers’ ecstatic cries and moans to the confusion of tongues at Babel and the gift of tongues at Pentecost. He raises this conceit to a universal erotic truth worthy of Donne: “Though we command the language of desire, / The voice of ecstasy is not our own.”
Sometimes Donaghy really struts his stuff, as in the opening of “A Miracle”:
This will never do. Get the bird
Of gold enamelling out of the den.
Here each sentence is pointedly an allusion, the first to the Edinburgh Review’s infamous dismissal of Keats’s poetry, the second to Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” and the third, and here I’m guessing, to the opening paragraph of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel. . . . Tell the others right away, ‘No, I don’t want to watch tv!’ Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise—‘I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!’”) One also periodically finds a nod to Pound (“And then went down to the ship”), echoes of Yeats and Frost, even a bit of Beckett (“Nothing slowly happens”). Auden maintained that the true sign of a poetic vocation is a passion for playing with language. Certainly Donaghy is linguistically playful, clearly tickled with his own wayward virtuosity. “Riddle,” for instance, could be a translation of an old Anglo-Saxon riddle (though its dour solution is too easy), while Nabokov would admire Donaghy’s scholarly-sounding introduction to a made-up Welsh poet named Sion ap Brydydd.
In fact, I often seem to hear, ever so faintly, the music of other poems behind Donaghy’s. “Partisans”—starting with its title—might be early Auden: “The seconds tick by in the small cell. / The fluorescent bulb whines like a dentist’s drill.” “Erratum” opens “I touch the cold flesh of a god in the v and a,” a line that surely harkens back to William Empson’s “Homage to the British Museum”: “There is a Supreme God in the ethnological section.” (I think there’s actually quite a bit of Empson in Donaghy.) The brilliant hook to “The Bacchae”—“Look out, Slim, these girls are trouble”—possesses the kind of swagger one finds in modern imitations of ancient poetry, like Hecht’s Guccied-up version of Horace’s Pyrrha ode, while it ends with a line that is echt Roethke: “the how they move is the what they are.”
Does this mean that Donaghy’s poetry is—dread word—derivative? By no means. As the driving instructor tells Donaghy in “l”: “It’s all a matter of giving—proper—signals.”All literature tends to be intertextual, and twentieth-century literature in particular. To allude, to quote, to echo, to parody—these are modes that appeal to the well read and well educated. “For me,” Donaghy once said, “all information is fair game. And Western civilization is a posh shop with the security cameras turned off.” This is also, of course, what we mean when we talk about literary tradition. Paradise Lost echoes the Bible and Virgil; Wordsworth’s Prelude keeps Milton’s epic in mind; Coleridge’s “Dejection” carries on a conversation with Wordsworth’s “Immortality Ode.” You don’t need to pick up all the various correspondent breezes that waft through Donaghy’s poems to appreciate them, but when you do, there’s an extra fillip of pleasure.
Sometimes tradition can work in reverse. In “Kafka and His Precursors,” Borges noted that a strong writer may influence those who came before him: Kleist and Gogol now seem Kafkaesque. The weary-voiced narrator of Donaghy’s “The Chamber of Errors” probably derives from Browning, Frost, or Hecht, but to anyone who has read “The Barnum Museum” or “In the Penny Arcade,” the speaker is pure Steven Millhauser: “It never gets as crowded as Tussaud’s,/But every day we draw the curious few/Who’ve seen our sticker on the underground.” In fact, Donaghy’s poetry aspires to the anecdotal—he knows that people love stories. Take “The Age of Criticism,” one of two poems included under the generic title “Lives of the Artists”:
The clergy, who are prone to vertigo,
Dictate to heaven with a megaphone.
And those addressing Michelangelo
As he was freeing David from the stone
As much as said they thought the nose too big.
He waited till he got them on their own,
Scooped some marble dust up with his tools,
And climbing loftily atop his rig,
He tapped his chisel for those squinting fools
And let a little dust fall on their faces.
He tapped and tapped. And nothing slowly changed
Except for the opinion of Their Graces.
While this is a formal poem, the rhyme scheme isn’t wholly regular: ababcbdcdefe. That word “changed” stands alone, without an echo, the culmination and turning point of this little parable about critics. But note how easily it all flows: this is someone who has learned to write with the speaking voice.
Donaghy’s early poems are his most widely known, but I’d like to end by briefly examining “Haunts,” the final poem in Conjure, the last collection published during his lifetime. Here’s the poem:
Don’t be afraid, old son, it’s only me,
though not as I’ve appeared before,
on the battlements of your signature,
or margin of a book you can’t throw out,
or darkened shop front where your face
first shocks itself into a mask of mine,
but here, alive, one Christmas long ago
when you were three, upstairs, asleep,
and haunting me because I conjured you
the way that child you were would cry out
waking in the dark, and when you spoke
in no child’s voice but out of radio silence,
the hall clock ticking like a radar blip,
a bottle breaking faintly streets away,
you said, as I say now, Don’t be afraid.
First, notice the technical complexity. It’s all a single, vertiginous sentence, shifting back and forth in time, a deliberate tour de force like the opening of Edwin Muir’s “The Labyrinth,” another marvelous poem where the twists and turns of syntax mirror the sense. Donaghy spins the reader around and around, leaving him or her dizzy, confused, uncertain of what is real and what imagined.
The process of temporal disorder starts with the almost apologetic “old son, it’s only me.” After that seeming oxymoron, our perspective rapidly begins to kaleidoscope between the imagined future, the time of the poem, and the past as seen from the future. Throughout, Donaghy plays with the father-son relationship, and with the idea of being haunted. “Battlements,” for instance, inevitably suggests Hamlet and the ghost of Hamlet’s father. But who is the haunter and who the haunted? Donaghy pictures his grown-up son detecting his father’s spectral presence everywhere in later years—in the name he scribbles, in a book he’s inherited, in the reflection of his own face in a window. This is a kind of ghostly immortality for Donaghy, all that most of us ever get of non omnis moriar.
Yet right now, in the moment of writing, the son is still just a toddler, asleep upstairs. The father has simply conjured up in his mind the boy’s future self, and yet finds himself surprised at hearing a voice unlike that of the child he knows. The grown-up son’s words, moreover, are those that the father now uses with a nighttime-frightened three-year-old: “Don’t be afraid.”
So the comforting phrase—spoken by Donaghy in the poem’s opening and by his son at its end—echoes back and forth in time, like an outgoing and returning radar blip. In essence, the imagined future son takes on the grown-up’s role, giving solace to his dad. The child acts as father to the man. Did Donaghy already have intimations of mortality? Atypically, this poem ends with a date: “December 27, 1999.” It’s certainly tempting to link “Hauntings” to “Letter,” in which Donaghy goes through the papers of his own dead father and cites that famous phrase from St. Paul, “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life”: here, too, another kind of the spirit gives, and is given, life.
Well, one can speculate and research, or just enjoy the poem, along with all the others in Collected Poems. This Picador edition includes not only the three volumes published during Donaghy’s lifetime, but also a fourth, called Safest, that he was readying for publication when he suffered his fatal brain hemorrhage in 2004. An appendix adds eighteen uncollected poems. There is pleasure on every page.
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post. His books include the memoir An Open Book (W.W. Norton, 2003) and Classics for Pleasure (Harcourt, 2007), a collection of essays.