A smile and a penny whistle

This year National Poetry Day is overshadowed by the tragic death of Michael Donaghy. Don Paterson gives an appreciation of the man and his work, while other writers gather to pay tribute in verse and prose
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The Independent Culture

The death of the poet and musician Michael Donaghy at the age of 50 leaves English-language poetry incalculably the poorer; however his friends and family are also devastated by the loss of one of the most remarkable men they are likely to have the good fortune to know. Since Michael could make a close friend in five minutes flat, he has left a hole in more lives than most of us will in five lifetimes. Our grief, though, is slowly being weighed against a growing sense of gratitude for having been lucky enough to have known him in the first place.

Michael - known to many of us as "Spike" - was an immensely kind, gentle and wise soul with an outrageous sense of fun, who would both light up and civilise any company he joined. He never really stopped being a boy, either in appearance or behaviour. (I realise now, depressingly, I could never convincingly imagine Michael in his seventies.) No doubt in the future I'll have time to reconstruct his brilliantly witty, casually erudite conversation - but what I treasure right now are other things. Spike stunt-diving into a pile of bin-bags on the street; Spike, drunk, innocently playing hopscotch on an art installation made of giant bar-codes, while the artist looked on in ashen horror; Spike on BBC2, introducing a traditional Irish air to a besotted and misty-eyed presenter, then lifting his flute to play a very slow, heavily-ornamented version of "Meet the Flintstones".

All this benign mayhem could turn into something a little more self-destructive when left to his own devices. Latterly, he was often saved from himself by his friends - in particular the poet John Stammers, but above all his wife, Maddy Paxman, whose love and support became more and more essential to Spike as the years went by. After the birth of their son Ruairi (Spike turned out to be a wonderful father, a surprise to no one else but himself) he calmed down a lot, but for years he had enlisted himself as the subject of some terrifyingly disinterested experiment. Often flagged by the quietly ominous announcement, "Maddy's away for the weekend," these were the days of smoking Hawaiian Baby Rose Seeds ("It's interesting, Donno," I recall him telling me, "your mind kind of gets forced out through your nose"), of culinary breakthoughs involving chilis, king prawns and chocolate digestives, and of the near-suicidal Donaghy ristretto (a whole bag of coffee in a single cafetiere, downed in one).

Spike's only fault was that he could be too forgiving. He loathed conflict of any kind, perhaps having a better sense than most that we have no time to indulge our recreational enmities. The worst name he had for someone was "fool". As the smartest of our number by some distance, this was still a pretty terrible judgement, though, and reserved for those little critics who (as his friend Sean O'Brien would say) "held opinions beyond their means", and for poetry's poker-faced avant-garde. A few of Spike's postmodern nom-de-plumes were starting to make quite a reputation for themselves in the magazines; I remember one hilariously incomprehensible sonnet that turned out to be an acrostic, reading ARRANT NONSENSE. As far as Spike was concerned, poetry was a force for enlightenment, for compassionate wisdom - and there was enough alienation, cacophony and fragmentation in the world already without recruiting poetry, of all things, to contribute more.

That fatal mix of charm and vulnerability meant that many fell in love with Spike at first sight, and perhaps inevitably some women mistook the genuine and indiscriminate concern he expressed towards everyone - everything, come to think of it - for its reciprocation. But perhaps more than anything else, Spike was at pains to make us all feel terribly safe, safe being the one thing he rarely felt for himself.

The most vivid demonstration I ever saw of the Donaghy Effect was, happily, the first time he met my children. He was reading in St Andrews that evening, and we had agreed to rendezvous on the beach. Spike was making his way down from the hotel, and emerged from the heat-haze in his blue suit, red shirt and cheap black shades, his mouth open to display that magnificent tribute to Bronx dentistry, his arms held aloft in crazy salutation. My two-year-olds twins were then terribly wary of anyone they didn't know, and they didn't know this guy from the Devil himself; but even at the distance of 200 yards, even dressed like this - they understood instinctively that he was the safest place in the world. I watched in astonishment as they dropped their buckets and spades, then ran and ran straight towards this complete stranger, straight into his open arms.

Don Paterson

Michael was so warm and lovely. His smile was just like Mozart's in Amadeus. My generation of poets has always had a big family feel to it, and everyone will feel they have lost a brother. Carol Ann Duffy

There's a morbid irony to the timing of his death. The Next Generation of poets has just been announced, replacing the New Generation, which included Mike among its ranks. It's typical of his sense of humour and human dignity that he should interpret the suggestion to move aside so literally.

Michael Donaghy the poet couldn't be ignored. His work typified the new buoyancy in poetry during the late 1980s/early 1990s. He was a communicator who loved an audience. On the page, he could bridge the worlds of, say, philosophy and anecdote, with just a few well-chosen words, and on stage he was an entertainer, preferring to recite and gesticulate than hide behind a book. I even heard that he liked to write standing at a lectern, as if the final delivery of the poem was never far from his mind. Neither could he be ignored as a person. He never stopped laughing and he never shut up, except to put his penny whistle in his mouth. Full of intellectual fizz, from his computer he spied, sabotaged and waged war on the enemy, righting poetic wrongs in far-flung corners of the world wide web against those who would do his chosen art a disservice.

There's always a pressure, at a time like this, to try and sum up a poet's reputation in literary terms, but I believe that's already taken care of, and anyway, what the hell. So my abiding memory of Mike is on a dance-floor in Seville, after a reading, high as a kite, throwing some mad shapes. Appropriate for a writer whose sense of timing, rhythm and poetic music was second to none.

Click here for further tributes as writers gather to give their appreciation of Michael Donaghy's life in verse and prose