Michael Donaghy - writers gather to pay tribute in verse and prose
Sunday 03 October 2004
Carol Ann Duffy: 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
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.
As well as being about the sweetest man I ever met, Michael Donaghy was one of the three or four best American poets alive, and they hardly know his name.
Michael was one of the funniest people I've ever known. His sense of comedy was all about detail - see the wonderful "Local 32b", from CONJURE (2000). This seems based in his own experience as a doorman at an apartment block in New York, wearing the full braided operatic rig in the middle of summer and trying to hide a book in his hat. He makes this into a comedy about wealth and powerlessness, and about the role of poetry. Poetry is both impotent ("An Irish doorman foresees his death") and secretly triumphant, when the doorman-poet hails a cab for the visiting Pavarotti and signs off with a ba-ba-boom lit crit gag about metaphor: "Yessir, I put the tenor in that vehicle, / And a mighty tight squeeze it was." Does the world care? Of course not. More fool the world.He had all the gifts - a vast, detailed imagination, wonderful formal control, wit and timing, emotional force, humour - and vast learning. His work will last. I can't believe he's gone.
Ruth Padel, Chair of The Poetry Society
You never knew what he would do next. He experimented, he was mischievous, playful and metaphysical, passionate and wide-ranging; constantly storing every thought for poetry. Knowledge entertained him. He was restlessly erudite about extraordinary things, a unique welder of the twentieth-century American and British poetic traditions and a stringent musical craftsman with a profound sense of audience: of giving poems to people. He was also immensely kind. He wished people not to be hurt and enjoyed their strangeness. A great quiet debunker and teller of jokes: you felt lighter and happier to see him. Poets and poetry in Britain have been enriched by his presence and smile, as well as his work. Please read his last article in the current Poetry News, available from The Poetry Society, full of his unique aperus and waywardly illuminating linkages: Tibetan prayer wheels, New Scientist and Vietnam. Thoughts and connections no one else would make; and always that delight in sharing; watching to see if you heard what he heard. "I have no idea what poetry is (and neither do you)," he says. "Do poets ever tell the truth? Try it out on your breath." No one else could leave such a wide range of people so sad. It is a terrible loss.
Michael Donaghy was one of the best poets of his generation: compact yet expansive, memorable but surprising. He was also one of the most charming people imaginable, with the underlying toughness that is the hallmark of really significant personality. He knew his stuff, and talked brilliantly about nuts and bolts as well as flights of fancy. Anyone who heard him read - or rather, recite - his poems will know what I mean, and know too that his death is a tragedy. It's as simple and appalling as that.
Robin Robertson, poet and publisher
This is very hard to bear: not an elder statesman, but a loved contemporary - younger and more agile than all of us - going down. Mike did that thing that no one else could do: a 20-minute poetry reading from memory. I read after him once, and I took it as a challenge, going three lines blind into my most familiar poem before stumbling. Another night, with drink taken, he said he could walk up the wall, and he did.
Ciaran Carson, Professor of Poetry and Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's University Belfast
The last time I saw Michael Donaghy was at the end of April, where he read at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's University Belfast. For some fifty minutes he recited his poems from memory to a spellbound audience. It is hard to believe that such a brilliant mind is no longer with us.Simon Armitage
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 eighties/early nineties. He was 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.
"Mike was an inspired teacher who had the ability to teach inspiration. This is a rare gift given to few: Pound and Lowell, come to mind. People who went to one of his groups you would emerge fired up, not just about poetry, but the world itself."
Many will rightly praise Michael's skills as poet and teacher, but it's important to note just how much fun he was. One of his unfulfilled schemes was to write a collection of comic poems, but literary wits are generally dry on the surface, and Michael was far too busy being funny full-stop to usher laughs into a cage. To say "Mike's going to be there" was enough to ensure a turn-out at a reading or social occasion since he was always warm, ready with a yarn, and had no time for pecking order. I once went to see him for some advice on my own work, advice which was thoughtful and pertinent, yet his great skill as a mentor was to reaffirm belief in one's own strategies and obsessions.
Scott Verner, Reviews Editor, Poetry London
Michael's poetry classes at City University were always both instructive and beguilingly show-biz. I used to half-expect that at any moment in his lecture a big band would strike up, and Michael would glide into a snazzy dance routine straight out of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. On one occasion, to set off a poetry-writing exercise, Michael displayed a rubber ball, a newspaper, a book, a pair of glasses and a broken wristwatch. He invited his class to write a poem out of that.
Looking at You, City U (circa 1994)
Michael's workshop watch has lost its tick
but the women all think he's a sweetie.
Maybe he'll show us how he writes so slick -
I hope the curriculum soon gets meaty.
I've got to do something with my verse real quick
before I'm reduced to graffiti.
I joined Donaghy's class two weeks ago
to write like Seamus Heaney.
If I don't get off this doggerel pretty prompt
I'll study with Matthew Sweeney.
I loved Michael's combination of energy and generosity, in the man as well as the poems, and can't help but sense things are going to be noticeably tougher without him. I valued, too, the way he'd often comment on other writers' work in surprising ways. He had my next book in his hands for that very purpose, and was going to blurb something for it. That was something I was really looking forward to. When Michael wrote of Billy Collins - "I'd follow this man's mind anywhere", he was also stating, rather elegantly, the way many of us felt about him. Perhaps there's something in there that captures a spark of Michael's impact.
I played many gigs with Mike at functions, parties, National Theatre foyer etc. He played Irish music on flute and bodhran in a style that was impeccably traditional, subtle and sympathetic. His use of the bodhran was astonishing, unlike any other player in my experience. He could provide a driving rhythm while varying the tension in the skin to produce an effect that was, through a microphone, like a double bass accompaniment. He was delightful company, light-hearted, modest and funny. The Irish musicians' community are shocked at the sudden loss. He will be badly missed. Our sympathy goes out to Maddy and Ruairi.
He was a kind man, and funny, and truly gifted. He was ever on the case when he saw evidence of the hollow and the fake in poetry. Large-font emails came in that said, "Hey Davey-o, check this out," then a transcription of some piece of literary pretentiousness, hilariously annotated. The last time I saw him, I was working on versions of Ritsos, he on Akhmatova. We talked about the virtues and drawbacks of "imitations" and Frost's definition of poetry: What's lost in translation. Here's more poetry lost; poetry and much else.
Jules Mann, Director, The Poetry Society
On behalf of everyone here I'd like to say that Michael was one of those unique people who is not just brilliant as a poet, but brilliant as a person. (And personally, he was like a brother to me. I shall miss him terribly.)
Alison Spritzler-Rose, American poet who has lived in England since 1987
Michael once told me about a train journey when he was hungry and had no money. A stranger bought him a slap-up meal. When Michael offered to pay the man back the man replied it was thanks enough for him if Michael did a similar favour for a stranger in future. It was an act of friendship without ego and that's what Michael was like. I sometimes think the stranger on the train might have been him all along. As it was, he didn't have money to throw around - but his intelligence and his teaching were given freely for all to use. He was a brilliant teacher who held nothing back. He wanted everyone to write the best poems possible.
Michael's poetry has a diamond quality to it. It's so finely made that it seems to give back new light, no matter how many times you read it. He's a metaphysical poet really, full of wit, grace and feeling. A rare, lovely man and poet.
I always loved Michael's story of when he worked as a doorman on Fifth Avenue, where reading on the job was forbidden. In the summer months, he was allowed to hold, rather than wear, his hat, and so he'd hide books in it. One day, a resident noticed some Hopkins stashed in its crown. Turned out she was a treasurer at the 92nd St. "Y", and she gave him a subscription to their poetry season. Suddenly he was seeing the likes of Borges and Bunting. For me, it chimes with his own legendary generosity: when I turned up for his evening classes at City University, he gave me a second life.
Michael Donaghy was a master poet of everyday magic, the most kind and generous of fellow travellers: long live the irony of his dry wit as it merged with real feelings.
I first met Michael a dozen or so years ago at the Troubadour. We had both emigrated from the States around the same time, and that, perhaps, gave us instant rapport, or possibly this was the effect his friendliness had on everyone. I felt the full impact of Michael's formidable talent when I reviewed one of his books, and later on, at closer quarters, when we shared a poetry reading at Lauderdale House. The weather was stormy and the crowd miniscule, but Michael performed as he always did, awesomely brilliant, free of false modesty in displaying his superb craftsmanship. On and off stage, he seemed more alive than most people. It's impossible to believe he's gone. He was most generous and kind as a man, and certainly one of the great Anglo-American poets of any (new, old?) generation.
Poem for Michael Donaghy by Hylda Sims
While Michael was dying
I was sitting in the Poetry Library
copying out one of his poems, "Held"
the first poem in his second collection, "Errata"
Neither of us knew what the other was doing
at the time, a strange, even macabre, coincidence
you might say, for I am not one who often goes
copying out poems about brief moments you know
you will always hold, will always hold you.
The poem knew what it was doing, but I keep thinking
there must have been a mistake, a misprint
surely there should be more moments, more lines
Hylda Sims (poet, songwriter and novelist)
I co-run Poetry & Jazz at the Poetry Cafe, Betterton Street, Covent Garden and Michael has often read and played for us there to an overflowing audience. The reason I was copying out the poem was that in the coming year we hope to produce a Poetry & Jazz CD for which Michael had agreed to offer a poem.
Michael came to Belfast three or four times and lit up the scene: unforgettable. I really admired the way he recited his poems by heart: a song-bird with a complicated song, inward quavers as well as piercing notes. We know by heart poems as good as his. The song will endure.
Michael Among the Workshops
I first met Michael in 1986 or '87 at a poetry workshop in north London. He was unknown in Britain at the time and probably pretty anonymous elsewhere too. We had both showed up for the first time at this promising-sounding place to discuss the poems of whoever wanted to photocopy and pass round their stuff. Most of it, as is the case, was profoundly unmememorable. Michael's poem made an immediate impact on me and I immediately invited him to join the Thurlow Road Poetry Workshop where I was a regular and I thought he would fit it. Over the years as he came and went his intelligence, clever, touching poems and witty style made him one of TRPW's stars. Someone once offered around a box of Iranian dates "You have to have a chaperone" said Michael straightaway. I didn't think I was the only one who could have noticed him at the first, awful group though. I was right. At the end of the evening, as Michael later told me, the chatelaine of the workshop asked for a word. "I think you've eaten too many crisps" she said.
I just feel heartbroken. The only thing I'd say is that as well as the exceptional achievement of his poetry, he was a man of immense sweetness and grace who always left friends and colleagues in a better state than he had found them.
Wendy Brandmark, Director, Certificate in Creative Writing, Birkbeck College Faculty of Continuing Education
It's very hard to think of creative writing at Birkbeck without Michael Donaghy. He taught poetry writing through Birkbeck's Faculty of Continuing Education for the past 15 years. He was an inspiring teacher, loved by his students, revered by his fellow poets at Birkbeck. I can remember sitting in on one of his classes, listening to his brilliant analyses of poetry, then eating pretzels and sharing Bronx memories in the break. Though I write fiction, I felt at the end of the class that I must go home immediately and write a poem. He made us all want to be poets.
Louise Lambe, Programme Manager for Creative Writing, Birkbeck College, Faculty of Continuing Education
The poet, his partner, and the college bureaucrat: Michael, Maddy (Paxman) and I enjoyed many a year of shared form-filling, publicity-writing, document-sending, and meeting-reminding - Michael often needed a nudge, and I was sometimes stern - but with Maddy's help we always got there in the end. I will sorely miss our working trio - a faculty of friendship. Michael's deep devotion was to our students, which deserved an A* in any quality review.
Michael never left a party early, a glass half-full or a letter unanswered. He ran the extra mile, for himself or others, always. I used to wonder at this unflagging curiousity and energy, his endless capacity to give himself up to a poem or a student, a friend or his adored family: now I wonder if always knew his time was short. He died so much young, yet brought so very much to completion. He was my good and most generous friend.
Julia Bird, Marketing and Education Officer, Poetry Book Society
Michael's poetry was populated with starlets, musicians and circus acts - and the inclusive, playful intelligence he bought to his poetry bubbled through his relationships with his friends and colleages too. When he took part in the Poetry Book Society's national tour, many Travel Lodge breakfasts were brightened with discussions about his idiosyncratic enthusiasms. For me, the 8am conversation about chimpanzee sign language interpreted with the same actorly precision he bought to his readings embodies the inquisitive, marvelling and generous spirit which was so well loved and will be so keenly missed.
Supported by Southern Arts, I organised a reading for National Poetry Day 1996 for Michael and Bernard O'Donoghue at the Jude the Obscure pub in Oxford. We were expecting the normal turn out - around 50 people, instead 150 people came, crammed into the bar, standing on tip toe and craning to see the poets, their faces lit up by the occasion. Michael spoke his poems from memory and played a flute and bodhran (?). An unforgettable evening that's still talked about. It was a privilege to be there.
He used to play "Tabhair dom do Lamh" ("Give Me Your Hand"), and his flute-playing was like his poetry: welcoming (he loved dancers), joyous, disciplined, respectful of tradition and audiences. So we loved him; he was our generous instinct, as MacNeice urged the poet to be. We still have some of Michael's music but we'll miss his generosity, which poetry here can ill-afford to lose.
Some poets claim to have their poems by heart. Then at readings make a mess of performing them. I've heard Auden spoil a reading by stumbling. Even clamorous Russians like Yevtushenko and Voznesensky, who may have memorised their works to save them from the KGB sometimes failed. One poet whose public readings were always immaculate was Michael Donaghy. He never compromised by inserting announcer's commentary but linked his poems into a perfect chain of eloquence. He had the authority of an oracle but didn't mystify his audience. He was the most natural reader of verse I have known. Because he was so fastidious a writer, a Donaghy recital became an encounter with the whole artist. There are so many of us who admired not just his poetry but his ability to shape and form everything he did, from the lightest squibs to the most complicated human patternings. I can hear his voice, as I write this. It is a sound I relished from the early days of his coming to London and which illuminated those innovatory poems in "Shibboleth", and which I last listened to at London University earlier this year when he read Wallace Stevens and his own work at a Literary Conference. Would that all such conferences had so poetic an intervention.
His poems were as pied-piperish as his music: reading him was like being drawn into the dance of his bright, sure-footed thoughts.
Clare Brown (former Director of the Poetry Book Society) Michael and health scares:
In April this year when he was doing a reading tour of the USA, Michael was rushed to hospital in Lake Forest with severe jaundice and subsequently had an interim operation to unblock the duct of his gall bladder which, he emailed with relish, was "more of a gall quarry, boasting over 100 stones. Poetry martyr that I am, I was on my feet delivering a reading eight hours after the procedure. I'm telling you all this because I never miss an opportunity to boast." A few weeks later he had an operation to remove his overly-productive gall bladder and sent out a text message inviting orders for jewellery to be crafted from the salvaged stones. The last shaggy dog story I received in an email from Michael earlier this year: "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." Michael Donaghy was an "anchor-man" (with Sean O'Brien) for A Fine Excess, the Poetry Book Society's 2001/2 national poetry tour. Its aim was to present a selection of live contemporary and classical poetry which was both intellectually challenging and widely accessible - that elusive, some would say impossible, combination. Michael's incomparable performance of his own work dazzled audiences but never blinded them: he wanted to lead us through his elegant metaphysics and did so with an innate, almost actorly ability to say the same words, by heart, night after night, with utter clarity and bewitching style. His performance invariably had audiences enthralled, amused, fascinated, surprised and deeply moved. Offstage he had the same effect. Michael wore his learning so lightly that you didn't realise he was constantly teaching, in the truest sense of the word, until afterwards. Whether he was talking about his observations of primate communication (a personal obsession), or the finer points of prosody, or telling one of his vast catalogue of ludicrous jokes, it was always with an infectious joy and playfulness that most grown-ups have lost too long ago to remember. It made him the most widely loved, as well as admired, poet in this country.
Michael Donaghy was an extraordinary poet and an extraordinarily kind man. Whilst I was the publisher of Picador he was admired and beloved by all who worked there. He will be very, very missed.
An inspiring teacher, he wore his erudition lightly. A good friend, always fun to be with. A scintillating performer of his poetry and as a musician. His charismatic personality attracted a loyal following and many of those who met on his courses remain close friends. One evening giving him a lift home, we were discussing Roland Barthes' Punctum which led me to describe a photograph of mine, which he used later in his small and wonderful book Wallflowers published by The Poetry Society in 1999.
A story Michael Donaghy once told me: When Donaghy was hired by his father to work as a doorman at the Park Avenue apartment building where the old man was the superintendent, Donaghy used to keep a volume of poetry concealed in his official doorman's hat-something to read when he was not opening and closing the door for the well-to-do tenants. One day a woman who lived in the building noticed him absorbed in a paperback edition of Gerald Manley Hopkins. The ensuing conversation inspired the woman to give the young doorman a season's subscription to the pretigious poetry reading series at the 92nd Street Y, just a few blocks away. Last year, decades after that incident, the Y invited Donaghy and two other poets to read in their "Tenth Muse" series. That evening, Donaghy told the story again from the stage, then turned and bowed to the right side of the auditorium where we all soon discovered sat the very woman who had introduced the young man from the Bronx to the celebrity poets at the Y. And when Joan Jacobson was applauded roundly, there was a sense that a circle had been completed. Felt distinctly throughout the crowd was the acknowledgment that Michael Donaghy had traveled, as a poet, much farther than the few blocks between the Y and the Park Avenue vestibule where he had stood, a book of poems tucked inside his hat.
I am head of English at a super-selective girls grammar school - Newstead Wood School in Orpington, Kent. We have run Writers in Residence for 15 years and Michael had become a friend and mentor to many students at Newstead. His annual masterclass as part of our "leading english dept." was attended by over 60 students, and his influence is seminal. He challenged our brightest thinkers and helped them to find their own voices through the imaginative use of cinematic image, Greek legend, and rich vocabulary, eg mnemosyne and iconography - for our first-years! "Have the courage of your doubts" he would say, or, "there are no words for", and in his passing we have lost an utterly great paradigm and mind.
Michael the poet was remarkable for the deftness and depth of his imagination, the perfection and grace of his work. These qualities he brought to his friendships, too, as I was lucky enough to know. Characterisically, it was when I was in trouble that he moved into action. When I was broken-hearted he took me to see the movie "Godzilla". When I was broken-hearted again he took me to a late night cocktail bar and fed me green cocktails and told me jokes until I was insensible with drink and laughter. When I was broken-hearted again we drove for miles across London in the middle of the night so that he could show me his favourite shop window. It was a junk shop that specialised in theatrical bric a brac and was stuffed full of amazing objects: a tawdry but wonderful tutu, a number of magic wands in different states of disintegration, wizards boots and strange items and implements we made up functions and reasons for. We must have spent an hour looking. Then, last year, when I had to have a six-month course of chemotherapy it was Mikey who came round bringing remedies for the nausea, entertaining ideas for tattoos across my bald scalp and one of his famous home made CDs, which many of his friends were lucky enough to receive, but this one full of specially chosen music he thought would be good to have chemotherapy by. "He whose face gives no light shall never become a star" wrote William Blake. It's a statement that measures the rest of us against Michael Donaghy because for sure his face did give light and he was, is, a star.
Christopher North, Almassersa Vella, Relleu, Alicante, Spain
A last Week with Michael Donaghy
Michael, with Maddy and Ruairi, stayed at the Alm?ssera here in the mountains of Alicante for the last full week of his life. He was tutoring a poetry workshop for half a dozen poets. We billed it: "A Week With Michael Donaghy". Although he seemed tired and subdued during the free time - in the workshop and evening sessions he was inspired. Apart from setting some eight assignments for the assembled participants, all carefully planned and exact - he shared with us a seemingly endless stream of poems from Marvell, Shakespeare, George Herbert, Coleridge, Keats, Auden, Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur, James Merill, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, to Tess Gallagher, Tony Harrison, Eavon Boland, Sean O'Brien, Sharon Olds, CK Williams etc It seemed to me he was pulling things from a cupboard as if wanting to empty it, as if to spread before us all the riches he could before they vanished.
In each poem he revealed facets that were new . They seemed to glow with a fresh injection of life once he had read and explored them with us. He played a CD he'd prepared of some recordings of many of these poets, saying excitedly as he played them: "Now you got to hear this - this is just wonderful - let me explain what I think he's doing here" - this to precede Richard Wilbur's "The Mind-Reader" but then, as he was locating the recording, he passed the voice of Robert Frost and he switched. "Have you heard this one? - Frost's "Birches"? - Oh, you got to hear it."
At one evening gathering round the fireplace, to illustrate a conversational point with me, he recited from memory the whole of Keats' "Ode to Melancholy". As the words flowed out, all other conversations gradually died away until the whole company were listening to him, awe-struck. Another evening he, almost apologetically, read his own poems: "Pentecost", "Liverpool", "More Machines" and then the astonishing "Black Ice and Rain". He closed with "From The Safe House" with its chilling final stanza. Whilst listening to "Black Ice and Rain" I felt rather like one of those wedding guests gripped in the spell of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". On the last night here, as the company ate a final supper out on the terrace beneath the stars, he was suddenly absent from the table but a few minutes later appeared with his flute. He played some Galician folk dances. The buzz of conversation stopped. "No, no, please carry on" he said, almost urgently - "don't mind this, just keep talking". At the airport he embraced us all and said to make sure we looked him up in London. That was Saturday. By the following Thursday he was dead. Just yesterday I checked our player - his CD of recordings was still in it. The first track was three minutes of bird song and the second, half an hour of thunder and rain. Tamar Yoseloff, Programme Co-ordinator, The Poetry School
In the last week, I have been struck by the number of people who have said that the first poetry course they ever attended was taught by Michael, and how they have carried his enormous knowledge and generous guidance through their lives as writers. He did nothing by the book and never had notes, but the result was always that writers came away from his classes feeling they had understood something essential about the craft of poetry.
WHAT'S THE ADDRESS?
Mike, I wanted to text you to tell you
I was flattened when you died.
I'm still waiting for you to jump out
from behind your obituaries
and conjure me that Donaghy smile.
That last email I forwarded you
inadvertently, and which earned
your gracious response: "It's always good
to hear from you, by accident or otherwise"
shouldn't be our final exchange, so
can I email you now, what's the address?
And I'd love you to read my new book.
Mike, I remember that time we signed
each other's books, or that drunken
choral rendition of "Frost at Midnight",
or the occasion, in Oaxaca, when you
claimed the iguana in the tamale
was your late pet, then charmed us all
with your flute. It makes no sense
your being dead, so I conclude
it didn't happen. It's one more time
you're pretending to be someone else.
One of Michael's many lovely qualities was the way he honoured other poets. If another poet - well-known or aspiring - was reading, he would give the reading his total attention and interest, leaning forward to catch every word. He was rigorous and honest as a critic, but was also very supportive and generous in his praise. His sense of humour was wonderfully wacky. When he went through my manuscript for my first collection, he told me that there were too many pine trees in it. He said that he had been planning to go on holiday to a forest, but after reading my manuscript he didn't need to go anymore. His poetry readings were electric, as he read from memory, like someone walking a tightrope, and had his audience enthralled. The patter in between poems was brilliant and witty. He was a tender, musical, erudite and passionate poet who practiced economy and grace in his poems.
I first met him about six years ago, though we were present at the same National prizegiving in 1987, when he came second (with "Shibboleth") and I was commended (with "Waiting For Scott"). Donaghy was so important to so many people I know I'm just one of hundreds but if there's anything you can take, I'll be happy. His offer to give me a lift to the station from an event at the Poetry Cafe, only to find, when we got to his car, that it had been clamped. He was sanguine, even good humoured about it. We sat in the clamped car for an hour waiting for someone to come and unclamp it until I had to go and catch my train.I was always bowled over by how friendly he was to up-and-coming poets - when I met him I was six years away from my first published collection but he was as friendly to me as he was to any of the "poetry names" on the table - and as I witnessed time and again in his company, genuinely interested in other people. There are plenty of poets who'll barely speak to you unless you've got a publishing track record - Michael was never one of those. He was secure in his own talents, so happy to help other's along with theirs. Despite his extraordinary talent, his encyclopaedic knowledge, his skill as a performer, and no matter how many prizes he amassed, he treated everyone as an equal.
Michael at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival - was it 1998, 1999? - wearing some unexpected leather trousers. He explained them away as a mid-life crisis. He didn't look bad in them, either. Rather drunkenly marching along Aldeburgh High Street (it was freezing, as ever it is in November) to the poets' residence, where a bunch of us stayed up into the early hours, fuelled by Michael's vodka and general ebullience. I never thought he'd make it to deliver his early morning reading the next day - but he did, and as impressively as ever. One of the highlights of seeing Michael in his professional capacity had to be his performance/reading of "Black Ice and Rain" at the British Library, which had me in tears. You could hear a pin drop when he finished. I'd never seen - or heard - anything like it. I suppose that was the moment he became my favourite contemporary poet. There was no-one else who could straddle that page/stage crossover like Michael, and disprove the sceptics who think you have dumb down to get poetry across. His poetry remained complex and challenging, but he delivered it as though he were chatting with you across a table in the pub. Somehow, even though you'd seen him a dozen times before, his delivery was breath-taking. As well as being a talented poet, an inspiring performer, and brilliant teacher, he was very widely read, and a very entertaining thinker. The last time I saw him, in August, he was talking about the Greek concept of time - how Western civilisation considers the past to be behind you and the future in front of you; whereas the Greeks thought the past in front of you (where you could see it) and the future (which you couldn't see) behind you; Time sort of wooshed up from behind and caught you by surprise. A poignant last conversation, with hindsight. Or by the Greek measure, foresight. Like many other, he despaired at the new direction of Poetry Review, and called those now published there, "the ampersands".
His parting shot, as we said goodbye at the train station, that last time I saw him, was that we should get our heads together and see if we couldn't do something about the ampersands. I'm sure you've got a whole bunch of stuff, but it'd be nice if any of this were useful to you. He was a good friend to so many people - he was so friendly and charming it was more or less impossible not to be his friend, if you met him. And I was honoured when he called me a friend. He was always a gentleman. And there wasn't a lovelier man on the poetry scene in this country, to my mind. Of course, all we women fancied him, but you had to get over that. There's no replacement, on any level. No-one comes close
Michael was a regular member of my poetry group in North London (the Thurlow Road Poetry Workshop) for nearly ten years. (Other regulars at various times have included Ruth Padel, Don Paterson, Joe Shapcott and Hugo Williams.) Shortly after he came to London Michael had been to a poetry group in Highgate and had shocked them with a poem full of lust and obscenity, etc, and had decided that this wasn't the group for him. Robert Stein brought him to Thurlow Road, he tried the same tactic, we weren't shocked, and he stayed. One of my happiest memories of the group (which still thrives) is of Michael and Hugo sitting there comparing gadgets on their Swiss Army knives. I don't know whose was best.
I'm an ex-student of Mike's, part of a City University group that became good friends with him over the past few years. I hope the deadline isn't gone! Don said the end of the week.Michael in class was a sight to behold. He'd arrive late, already talking, cracking jokes, reciting poetry before he even got into the room, and take ten minutes to set up his projector or laptop, muttering to himself, asking students to help him figure it out. You could have been fooled. In the first half of the workshop - the part devoted to reading poetry - you might even have spent an hour, as we did one tinme, just looking at photos of poets from Tennnyson onwards. (Muriel Rukeyser pic, Weldon Kees, anyone?) Or you might be treated to a spontaneously brilliant monologue on academic criticism. Or there might be a visiting American poet in the room - we all got fabulously drunk when Dan Riffenberg & Timothy Murphy came to London.
Peter Forbes hinted at Michael's generosity as a teacher. This generosity showed itself as the thing might have frightened off a fainthearted aspirant: his close attention was the gift that keeps on giving. The lesson: pay attention to what someone is trying to do; don't judge on first sight; use your discernment. A fave Donaghy trick: after reading a less-than-successful poem, he'd invite the class to "turn the page over - now, what do we remember about this? What one thing stands out?" It would always be the one good image and everyone in the room would always get the same one. Right now the image is Donaghy's eyes, darting tellingly under his brows as he hunkers down to tell the pig-breeding joke - the one that will be lost to memory now because no one else can do the sound effects. Or Michael, sloppily kissing everyone he loves goocbye at the end of the evening. Or Michael, extemporaneously reciting any poem you care to mention, conversationally, at the drop of a hat.Or Michael, naughtily taking his boy Ruairi for ice cream and chips when Maddy was away - eyes darting again: "just don't tell!" Or Michael, telling me confidentially as a friend who's going through a hard divorce goes off to the Ladies: "You know... she's my HERO."Michael: my hero.
The last I saw of him alive, he pressed me to his coat ("Not Knowing the Words"). Actually, he pressed me to his shirt, a dazzlingly white fine cotton shirt. Mike was good on shirts. And he was one of the best huggers ever. "Hey, Babe," he'd always say, "good to see you! How you doing?" Suddenly, always, I was absolutely fine.It was mid-July and, for the first time in years, we were booked to give a reading together, just the two of us: Croydon Town Hall on a Saturday night. Mike read some of his oldest poems, poems that have turned my heart over every single time I've heard them. I had no idea that this would be the very last. Over the past 15 years I've given more readings with Mike than with any other poet. We survived the New Gen Nightmare, trailing round the country reading deathless verse in New Brutalist libraries to audiences of: librarians; fetching up in B&Bs with wallpaper loud enough to keep you up all night. We did unprintable things on Arvon courses (I have a photo of Mike, in desperation, smoking weed via a "pipe" improvised out of a raw potato). I held his head when he was sick; he held me when I cried. And, most significantly, we stormed every available dancefloor. We were the best poets who ever danced. Who do you think gave John Travolta all those moves in Pulp Fiction? Everyone knows it was Mike remembering steps to dances learned last night.The best thing about being a poet is other poets, and Mike was the best of poets and the very best of friends. It's the same for all of us: he made us feel loved, safe, special. He was just like his poems: generous, witty, brave, profound, brilliant, passionate and lovable. He kept all of us together; even those of us who rarely spoke met through Mike. No other poet of my generation was as loved as Mike was, nor gave as much love. None will be so sorely missed. We were privileged to know him. On the journey back to London we did what we always did: showed each other our new poems. When I left the train at Clapham Junction he pressed me to his shirt. I had the very strange sensation, not that I'd never see him again, but of wondering how many more times we'd ever have the pleasure of spending an evening together like this, as poets, as friends. I turned and waved when his train pulled away. My dear, beautiful friend, his face lit up with that smile.
"Doctor, I think I'm a moth," says Michael Donaghy. "I think I can fly, and I'm endlessly attracted to sweaters."
"It's not a doctor you need but a psychiatrist," replies the doctor. "Why did you come to me?" Donaghy shrugs. "Because your light was on." Michael's eyes are twinkling. It's 6.30, we're sharing a post-work drink, and he's effervescent. If I've heard this joke before I don't mind the retelling - how could I mind - so damn charming is his delivery.
Perhaps it was his pursuit of a good line or his sense of timing; or perhaps it was his ability to find the heart of any given material. Whatever it was, I suspect that Michael's gift for humour was drawn from a well close to his poetry. Certainly, I never knew him miss a punch line or puncture the joke in the telling, just as his poetry readings were legendary in their precision, rendered from memory without fault. His unerring ability to make a recital - any recital - an unmissable event made being around him an event in itself. For the past two-and-a-half years, Michael has been coming into the offices at Faber & Faber to work with us on an anthology of poems about childhood. It's a project that he devised with his wife Maddy Paxman, and one that he seemed perfectly suited to: ebullient, mischievous, ever playing to his younger side. "Perhaps poetry is our way of using the power of language against itself," he pondered, "so that, however briefly, we see and feel the world afresh, with all the intensity of infancy."
Certainly, poetry gave him that delight in child's play, as did his wicked assaults on the world of poetics, where he loved nothing more than to lob a hand-grenade into the garden of the self-appointed avant gardist. ("MANIFESTOS ARE RIDICULOUS" he wrote in capital letters for a book of poetry manifestos I was assembling.) Misguided poets would find their readings cruelly remixed to a soundtrack of Barry White, and many a programmatic editor would leave an encounter with the literary equivalent of their shoelaces tied. For all the kidding, he was deadly serious about protecting the common ground from that kind of faux hijack, and was an exhaustive, corrective teacher and champion of younger poets. As a reader, I could find few better guides than Michael Donaghy: his formal craft, his lyricism, his razing wit and deep intelligence of ideas. Traditional in his formal influences (Frost, the Metaphysicals, he was preparing a selection of Marvell when he died), his subject matter was always snappy, streetwise, up to the moment, a mix that lent his poems their distinctive, edgy romance. Michael himself has said that he would rather be remembered for his poems than, as he put it waggishly, his charming personality. Fair enough; though I think, among his numerous friends, there is room for both. An inspiring and profoundly gifted poet; a generous, genuine helper of others. It's no wonder that he drew so many of us towards him: a man whose light was always on.
Michael Donaghy taught me how to write, how to suck the froth off a Guinness, how to play the bodhran. He knew a vast amount of poetry by heart and I was always struck by the fierceness of his concentration as he recited. Once, when he was speaking the elongated lines of Sharon Olds, I saw that his eyes were moving faultlessly from left to right, as if reading from an imagined page. He once told a gathering around a pub table that while he'd been away a group of burglars broke into his house. "They took everything," he said, "every single thing." There was a pause as we all gasped, shook our heads, muttered commiserations. Mike drew on his pint and said, "And they replaced it all with an exact replica, only dustier." The world without him will be a dimmer place.
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