Page Turner: In memory of Michael, the Puck of poetry
Sunday 29 March 2009
It's five whole years since the poet Michael Donaghy died, and the Purcell Room at the South Bank celebrated him on St Pat's with a concert of Irish music (Mike was as accomplished a musician as he was a poet) and a debate on his work. This all tied in with publication of his Collected Poems and The Shape of the Dance, a compilation of his critical prose (both Picador £12.99). The event began with a clip of the ebullient poet being interviewed. The chair, The Independent's Christina Patterson, observed that it didn't really give a flavour of Donaghy's personal presence, his sparkling erudition, enthusiasm and charisma. But it poignantly resurrected him, even in shadow form. "Hi Mike," you wanted to say, "where've you been?"
Patterson had fond memories of his stint as "Reader in residence" at the Poetry Society when she was director there; a "jammy" job that nevertheless resulted in his writing "Wallflowers", the long piece which opens The Shape of the Dance. I have two especially vivid memories of him: shovelling plates of peanuts into his pockets at a book launch, the very model of an impoverished poet; and lying rapturously on the lawn at Dartington Hall one brilliant summer day after a poetry reading.
Sharing their memories of Donaghy with Patterson were the poets Jo Shapcott, Paul Farley and Adam O'Riordan. Farley quoted Donaghy's cheeky dictum: "Western civilisation is a posh shop with the security cameras turned off." Dazzling definitions of poetry were bandied about. Poetry is "an information storage and retrieval system" (that might have been one of Donaghy's), and Farley summed up Donaghy's accessibility in the brilliant phrase: "The poem is a machine and the reader supplies the current."
Traditionalism and wild artistic imagination tussle in a different way at the Royal Academy, where the woodblock prints of the Japanese artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi go on display in the Sackler gallery. Kuniyoshi interpreted classic tales of ghosts and monsters, boy heroes, monks, witches, warriors and princesses, and his tattooed outlaws still inspire Japanese gangsters today. It's like walking straight into one of Lian Hearn's brilliant Japan-set novels for teenagers: a world of heartstopping natural beauty, violence and extreme emotions, all mixed up with the chill of the supernatural. Not to be missed.
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