Michael Donaghy

New Generation poet of exceptional lyrical gifts

Michael Donaghy, poet: born New York 24 May 1954; FRSL 1999; (one son with Maddy Paxman); died London 16 September 2004.


Michael Donaghy was one of the most lyrically gifted poets of his generation. An Irish American who grew up in New York, he came to England in 1985 and quickly became a dominant player amongst a group of poets who emerged collectively as the New Generation in 1994.

Michael Donaghy, poet: born New York 24 May 1954; FRSL 1999; (one son with Maddy Paxman); died London 16 September 2004.

Michael Donaghy was one of the most lyrically gifted poets of his generation. An Irish American who grew up in New York, he came to England in 1985 and quickly became a dominant player amongst a group of poets who emerged collectively as the New Generation in 1994.

He was born in the Bronx in 1954, to Irish Catholic parents. His uncle was a traditional accordion player and Donaghy became a fine folk flautist and bodhran player. He was educated at Fordham University, New York, and Chicago, where he later became poetry editor of the Chicago Review. His first book, Slivers (1985), was published in Chicago shortly before he moved to London.

Donaghy made an immediate impact in Britain, winning second prize in the National Poetry Competition with "Shibboleth", which became the title poem for his first English collection in 1988. All of his books won prizes: Shibboleth the Whitbread Poetry prize, Errata (1993) the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and Conjure (2000) the plum Forward prize. Donaghy was published by Oxford University Press until they shockingly abandoned their poetry list in the late 1990s. He moved naturally to Picador, where his great friend Don Paterson is the poetry editor.

Michael Donaghy was always the artist in everything he did. He wrote slowly: when, as Editor of Poetry Review, I gently chided him for sending poems so rarely he said, "I only write three a year, you know." So we have only three full collections for almost 30 years of work, plus a selected poems - Dances Learned Last Night: poems 1975-1995 (2000) - but it is very striking that everything in them seems to have lasted well. He never issued anything that wasn't considered. This also applied to his reviews. He wasn't a self-promoter and didn't clamour to get the bit-work that goes with being a poet but his reviews were always essays rather than the usual occasional work.

When in 2002 the Forward Prize became embroiled in controversy over allegations that it had been taken over by an urban, Picador-dominated clique, he responded with typical integrity by resigning as chairman of the judges.

Michael Donaghy's poetry is often highly allusive and riddling to be solved. His poems don't easily disclose all their meanings. In some respects it is a muso's poetry. "The Palm", from Conjure, is a cunningly assembled noir-ish tableau of 1942 Vichy France with a gypsy jazz band:

Tonight the gypsy counts in the quintet.

They'll play until the curfew lifts at dawn.

They have to call this foxtrot la Soubrette

But it's "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm".

Donaghy was more of a poet- composer than most, artfully arranging his elements to create a finished object. Music brought out the best in him as a poet and "Down" is a classic evocation of the late urban blues:

Helicopters insect round

Above the burnt out cars.

Here were Gospel testified

Between the wars

His harp of darkness cried and prayed

To bottleneck guitars.

In 1999, he was Reader in Residence in the Poetry Society Poetry Places scheme, for which he produced a charming little pamphlet called Wallflowers (subtitled "A Lecture on Poetry with Misplaced Notes and Additional Heckling"). He said: "All my life I have harboured a weakness for those wilfully eccentric philosophies and theological precepts valuable for their beauty alone." He often referred to a scientific paper by Frederick Turner and Ernst Pöppel called "The Neural Lyre", which gave him intellectual justification for his instinctive formalism. Turner and Pöppel suggested that the appeal of formal verse lay in crossing right-brain processes (music, plastic arts) with the left-brain activity of understanding language. What Donaghy valued was "the serendipity provided by negotiation with a resistant medium".

Assured while he was in his art, the human element in his poems is often one of uncertainty. The early poem "Smith" has him quaking at a hotel where he has gone with a girl, forging a signature at the desk - identity is a problematic subject in his poetry. This made him poetically comfortable with post-modernism, locating meaning in the culture rather than in the individual.

We admire Americans for qualities we aspire to but don't quite have and Donaghy was very much the honorary British admired Irish American. He was a generous teacher at workshops and a warm advocate of emerging poets.

There is always a need to try to place poets and for someone like Michael Donaghy who arrived fully formed in our midst in 1985 that is difficult. When the Poetry Society organised the New Generation poetry promotion in 1994 - putting him in a Top Twenty of young poets, alongside Moniza Alvi, Simon Armitage, John Burnside, Robert Crawford, David Dabydeen, Carol Ann Duffy, Ian Duhig, Elizabeth Garrett, Lavinia Greenlaw, W.N. Herbert, Michael Hofmann, Mick Imlah, Kathleen Jamie, Jamie McKendrick, Sarah Maguire, Glyn Maxwell, Don Paterson, Pauline Stainer and Susan Wicks - Donaghy was asked about his influences. "My principal influences aren't 20th-century," he said, and then went on to cite Yeats, Frost, Muldoon, Elizabeth Bishop, Louis MacNeice and, above all, Derek Mahon amongst 20th-century poets. Those pre-20th- century influences he referred to were principally the Metaphysicals, to whom he was often compared.

Despite the presence of these English and Irish poets, to English ears he sounds very much one of the tribe of the sophisticated American formalists such as Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht and James Merrill.

From 1994 onwards Donaghy was one of the most successful poets, if not in public profile, certainly in peer recognition. His closest friendship in poetry was with Don Paterson, another Celtic (Scottish) musician-poet with a penchant for intellectual teasing and strong formal lyric gifts. They had their own bands, Paterson's being more jazzy and Donaghy's tradtional, but they often played together.

At the time of New Generation, Donaghy and Paterson's music was very much in the frame because poetry then was supposed to be "the new rock and roll". Paterson ironised the hoopla around this in his diary piece on the promotion:

Donaghy and me are never going to fill Wembley Arena, Mike zipping up the ramp on his motorised skateboard to recite "Shibboleth" with one foot on the monitor, holding the mike out for the last line as 10,000 adolescents scream "Maxine! Laverne! Patty!"

Wembley Arena, no, but Donaghy was, unusually for such an urbane page poet, a very fine performer. He eschewed the shuffling through the papers and mumbled hesitancies of most poetry readers and declaimed dramatically from memory.

As an Irish American living in north London he seemed a round peg. He found a receptive audience for his Irish music and the London poetry scene suited him. His long-time partner, Maddy Paxman, was a great source of strength. His first book has the acknowledgement: "Thanks are due to Maddy Paxman without whom this book would have been completed in a fraction of the time." One suspected that without her his other books wouldn't have been completed at all.

Peter Forbes

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