Collected Poems, By Michael Donaghy

Intimacy mixed with Bronx grit

Reviewed,Michael Glover
Tuesday 18 August 2009 00:00
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Michael Donaghy's early death in 2004, aged 50, robbed Anglo-American poetry of a rare and impish talent. Anglo-American?

He was a little bit of both, and this confluence helped to shape the richness and oddity of his vision. He was Irish-American by extraction, and grew up in a tough neighbourhood in the Bronx. These poems are full of the details of his early experiences. But once he grew to maturity, he felt deeply unhappy about American poetry. There was no general reader out there; American poetry was too factionalised, and Donaghy hated all that kind of fence-building.

So he spent most of his adult life in England, which he found a more congenial environment, and where, in his opinion, matters of individual taste seemed to count for more, and the poetry audience was still knowledgeable. His own poetry often manages to combine an artful sense of easy, unencumbered flow with a craftsman's close attention to the word, phrase and line. His key word, analysing his poetry, is "negotiation". The poem is a matter of form in perpetual negotiation with content.

Nothing is imposed from outside. His skills as a poet must have been helped along by his talents as a musician – he played the flute with some gusto. Such music must have brought home to him what a war always goes on between that which is laid down – the essential patterning of a reel, for example – and all that lies open to the skills of the improviser.

Donaghy was a craft-engaged poet who wrote slowly, just a handful of poems a year, and was forever absorbing new influences as he went. But his poetry never feels overbearingly learned; it feels quite intimate, as if in the business of confiding a good story. Like Browning, he can catch your attention with a very arresting first line. He loved the Northern Irish poets, and Derek Mahon above all. He loved Mahon's "singing line", and in the best of Donaghy himself, amid the grit of the Bronx, there is some wonderfully compelling music.

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