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Michael Donaghy – by Sean O’Brien

The T S Eliot Lecture delivered by 2007 T S Eliot Prizewinner Sean O’Brien at the Poetry International Festival, South Bank Centre, London, on Sunday 26 October 2008

Michael Donaghy (1954-2004) was a fastidious poet, slow to write and slow to publish. He was always prepared to endure the frustration of sitting out the time it took for a poem to begin to emerge, in order to have the equally frustrating pleasure of working on it. He once claimed, more or less jokingly, to write only three poems a year. This Collected Poems contains roughly 150, of which about a third were unpublished at his death in September 2004 at the age of 50.

This is not a large corpus, but it is remarkably diverse and exciting, and one turns repeatedly in sorrow and anger to the fact that he was not able to complete his work. W.H. Auden proposed that poets die when their work is finished: Donaghy is clearly an exception. The ‘late’ material in Safest, and some of the uncollected pieces here, indicate that a further stage of development was in progress, albeit inescapably shadowed by the intensifying awareness of mortality which he experienced after his health grew fragile in the last few years of his life. A number of the poems strike a valedictory note, but Donaghy the poet had by no means exhausted his art, and there are signs that he was moving towards the further reconciliation of his wit and learning with greater lyrical economy and directness.

Wit and learning were among the powerful attractions of Donaghy’s first collection, Shibboleth (1988). He didn’t simply have opinions: he knew things – about literature, history, music, science, anthropology, non-Western cultures. The book boldly announced his arrival among other poets of his generation, including Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney. Donaghy was doing something different again from either of these strongly contrasting poets. In his constellation of interests and his delight in the connectedness of things, he most resembles his exact contemporary Ian Duhig, like him a poet of Irish descent.

For those who cared to notice, Donaghy was among other things renovating some features of the scholarly, formalist American poetry of the 1950s, whose leading exponents were Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht. By the 1980s these poets had little readership, especially among the young, on this side of the Atlantic, because they had been eclipsed by (according to taste) Lowell and Plath, the Beats and the New York Poets. What Donaghy shared with Wilbur in particular was a love of the art, and artfulness, on its own account, as a sign of imaginative

plenitude. Those who enjoyed poems of Wilbur’s such as ‘Shame’ and ‘The Undead’ and ‘The Mind-Reader’ could recognize a kindred spirit in Donaghy, one free of the gentility to which Wilbur was sometimes prone. Equally, those who admired Hecht’s ‘More Light! More Light’ or ‘The Dover Bitch’ saw what Donaghy was about while noting the absence of that faint superior coldness which can seem to impede Hecht’s work. An Irish working class upbringing in ethnically diverse and at times dangerous district of the Bronx gave Donaghy’s work a salty vernacular life which in turn lent his forms a packed, excited urgency. And the poems are often talking to someone – a lover, a ghost, the passer-by drawn in to hear the story. This sense of address to the reader recalls Frost, while the simultaneous aspiration to visionary grandeur reveals among other things the depth of Donaghy’s immersion in Yeats.

Such a list risks creating the image of an imaginary monster – the Donaghy – something described but never actually seen or heard. Donaghy was of course far more than the sum of his reading. He was of the academy (until he couldn’t stand it and gave up his graduate studies: he had contemptuously funny things to say about the orthodoxies of theory), but he was not an academic poet. The masters in his pantheon shone with special intensity because their presence proved that art, rather than attitude, or ownership, was at the core of his interests.
…It’s something that we’ve always known:
Though we command the language of desire,
The voice of ecstasy is not our own.
We long to lose ourselves amid the choir
Of the salmon twilight and the mackerel sky,
The very air we take into our lungs,
And the rhododendron’s cry.

Paradox is fundamental to Donaghy’s imagination, and the impassioned and hilarious ‘Pentecost’, an early poem about the cries of lovers, is one of his boldest examples. Language is deployed to evoke a state beyond itself – speaking in tongues, which crosses the division between the self and the world. In effect, consciousness is brought to serve its own renunciation, at the merging of the sacred and profane. Where Marvell’s ‘green thought in a green shade’ is the apotheosis of solitude, this poem imagines an addressee:

And when you lick the sweat along my thigh,
Dearest, we renew the gift of tongues.

It would be a mistake to read these closing lines as a glib or cavalier QED. They offer a joke, issue a challenge, invite the partner to engage in a lovers’ amused conspiracy, and they also pretend to test the partner’s credulity for the purposes of a seduction which has already been accomplished. The amusement is not directed at but enjoyed with the lover. The harmonic range of tones is very rich, the voice made present to us as to the object of desire, a method indebted to Browning but clearly new-made by Donaghy.

‘Pentecost’ begins with the neighbours furiously hammering on the bedroom walls – to which the ultimate riposte is a religious-philosophical defence of selfishness. Its most prominent source is Donne’s ‘The Good Morrow’ – though of course Donne’s transcendent self-assurance is quite different from Donaghy’s proposed shedding of identity. As with many another poet, identity, time and memory are fundamental terms of Donaghy’s imagination. While they are ‘traditional’, they figure in Donaghy’s work not as tropes securely anchoring him to an unthreatening past – but as provocative crises in which the imagination engages anew with its inheritance.

We might say that Donaghy’s ultimate subject was human nature, the question being in what that nature consisted. The poems are full of assumed, discarded, temporary selves (see ‘Smith’, ‘Shibboleth’ and ‘Ramon Fernandez’ among the early work), creations necessary for legitimacy, survival, change of allegiance. They are not the self-creations of existentialism, still less of banal scientism, since they acknowledge the corridors of religion, history and culture down which the speakers have been led to the poems’ eventual declarations. For Donaghy’s characters there is no way out of the labyrinth; for the unbelieving poet the language and imagery of belief are not discredited fetishes to be discarded by atheistic maturity, but crucial means of vision and understanding. ‘City of God’ from Errata (1993) tells of a failed priest returning to the Bronx from the seminary, obsessed with practising a form of memory art:

He needed a perfect cathedral in his head,
he’d whisper, so that by careful scrutiny
the mind inside the cathedral inside the mind
could find the secret order of the world
and remember every drop on every face
in every summer thunderstorm.

The teller offers us both the poignant absurdity of this project and the reverence in which it is conceived. In the kind of joke that Donaghy enjoyed, the deranged psycho-encyclopaedist is independently covering the same ground as Borges’s Funes the Memorious, as well as recalling the ‘authentic’ but uncategorizable labours of Pierre Menard in writing Don Quixote in a form identical to but wholly independent of Cervantes’. More problematically, the character in ‘City of God’ seems to be committing a supreme heresy, even in the attempt to glorify the Creator, by undertaking to comprehend and encompass and thus internally reproduce His works. The poem closes as narrator and madman contemplate ‘a storefront voodoo church beneath the el /…/its window strange with plaster saints and seashells’ – signs of faith, of pilgrimage, and of the ungovernable character of the religious imagination.

It has been suggested that Donaghy’s status might suffer from his lack of interest in politics, but in fact Shibboleth contains a number of poems, adjacently placed, whose material is inescapably political – ‘Auto da Fe’, ‘Ramon Fernandez?’, ‘Partisans’ (which mirrors ‘Shibboleth’) and ‘Majority’ , a bleak series that progresses through the attempt to understand the appeal of Franco’s cause, the nature of allegiance, the banality of political terror, and lastly the horrors of complacent ignorance as (it would seem) embodied in the attitudes of the ‘majority’ of Donaghy’s fellow Americans. (And ‘The Safe House, from Safest, poignantly recounts the imaginary future of American leftists who shared an apartment with a concealed copy of the revolutionary Manual of the Weather Underground.) Throughout this series, the inseparability of religion and politics presents itself in various ways. ‘Auto da Fe’, a sonnet with an intriguing ballad-like feel, as though half-meant for singing, tells of an uncle who fought with the Irish volunteers in the Fascist cause in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). In the poem’s dream-encounter, the speakers debate this allegiance. Goya’s ‘The Sleep of Reason’ is cited without attributing the reference to either of the participants (the Church always claims the monopoly of Reason) and the poem moves on from discourse to image

The shape his hand made sheltering the flame
Was itself a kind of understanding
But it would never help me to explain
Why my uncle went to fight for Spain,
For Christ, for the Caudillo, for the King.

‘Yet man is born into trouble, as the sparks fly upward’, declares Job 5.7, and the next verse continues: ‘I would seek unto God, and unto God would I commit my cause’. The image of the lit match invokes both a Catholic Hell and the obligation of the faithful to protect Holy Mother Church and the inferno which burns encouragingly at the base of her theology. (There is an entire essay to be written about the role of fire in Donaghy’s work.) In the Holy Trinity named in the last line, the uncle’s commitment seems to entail seeing ‘the caudillo’, Franco, as a grim practical embodiment of the working of the Holy Spirit – an act requiring a subjugation of the self unthinkable to a poet such as Donaghy, who remarked that he himself had a lifelong problem with authority, as anyone who tried to get him to meet a deadline or catch a train could testify.

‘Ramon Fernandez?’ is an altogether more complicated piece of work. Any reader of modern poetry will know Wallace’s Stevens’s ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, written in 1934 and published in his collection Ideas of Order (1936). Towards the close of the poem, the speaker asks ‘Ramon Fernandez’ to explain why the lights of the vessels in harbour seem to impose an order on the darkened sea.

This rhetorical question enables Stevens to go on and reorganize its materials as a statement of the ‘maker’s’ ‘blessed rage’ for order, rather than undertake an answer which would either be impossible or tautologous. Following the publication of Ideas of Order, Stevens was concerned to formulate a response to the Marxist critic Stanley Burnshaw, who saw him as the poetic representative of a doomed, privileged class soon to be swept aside. In a letter Stevens declared himself, rather implausibly, to be of the Left, by which he may really have meant that while (like most of the major modernist poets) he was a reactionary, he was not a Fascist.

Ramon Fernandez was an invention for the purposes of the poem – a non-speaking companion. The name is by no means unusual, and Stevens declared that he did not intend to refer to anyone particular, although he acknowledged that he had heard of the French critic Ramon Fernandez, a contributor, like Stevens, to the magazine The Dial. In the period 1934-37 the actual Fernandez moved from anti-Fascism to membership of the Fascist Parti Populaire Francais led by the ex-Communist Jacques Doriot, in bitter opposition to the Popular Front government of Leon Blum. Both Doriot and Fernandez became eager collaborators following the fall of France in 1940. Donaghy’s poem is ‘about’ neither the historical Ramon Fernandez, nor Stevens’s ‘Ramon Fernandez’, but both identities are present in the wings, as are Steven’s 1937 poem ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ (from the 1937 collection of the same name) and, presumptively, Picasso’s 1903 Blue Period painting ‘The Old Guitarist, which was exhibited in Stevens’s home town of Hartford, Connecticut, in 1934 (also the year when ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ was written). It was of course Picasso who delivered one of the most memorable – and artistically uncompromised – responses to the atrocity of the Civil War in his painting ‘Guernica’ (1937). Among the famous facts about Stevens is that despite his taste for the exotic and his extensive imaginative travels, he never left the United States, but in Donaghy’s poem much that, explicitly or otherwise, concerns Stevens, is transported to the Fascist siege of Barcelona, to the sphere of practicality and survival.

I include this fairly complex background in order to suggest the richness of the resources Donaghy could bring to a poem, as well as the double vision he offers in this one. The reader too is likely to bring some literary-cultural knowledge to a poem which also has its own story to tell. That story seems both to criticize the presumption and to underwrite the urgent, inescapable relevance of the artistic questions Stevens raises, by showing that in the dawn of totalitarianism nothing lies outside or above the sphere of the political.

A hero to the Republican troops who sing his songs when going off to battle at the Fascist invasion Catalonia in January 1939, Fernandez is also a composer of choice for the forces of Franco, with ‘A few words changed, not many.’ Eventually ‘he vanished back across the front’, perhaps to suggest that an audience is an audience whatever its political stripe, perhaps that it was the border rather than the musician that moved. In the meantime, the Lenin Barracks clock, beneath which he played at noon, its hands arrested at half past eleven, is struck by a stray round and the hands are blown off, leaving ‘the face / To glare like a phase of the moon across the burning city.’ The background presence of another reactionary poet, W.B. Yeats, can be felt here. In ‘The Phases of the Moon’ from The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), Michael Robartes summarizes the moon’s twenty-eight phases, noting that ‘there’s no human life at the full or the dark’ – for example, at the dark noon of the Fascist triumph, which was assisted by members of Eoin O’Duffy’s blueshirts serving among the Volunteer Brigade, like the uncle in ‘Auto da Fe’ – blueshirts for whom Yeats had at one point written marching songs (though these were apparently too verbose for the purpose).

Donaghy was more aware than most of the ultimate sterility of the poem-as-anecdote which is so heavily represented on the contemporary scene. As ‘Ramon Fernandez’ and many other poems demonstrate, his search was always for a deeper, more extended resonance than that offered by mere sentimental recognition. At the same time, his range of learning was present in the texture of his poems rather than appearing as a prohibition to those less well-informed than himself. We do not find in his work the not uncommon tendency to confuse erudition itself with poetry. One of the reasons he liked living in the UK was that the reading and listening audience for poetry which seemed to him to have gone missing in the United States was still to be found here, and the most complex of his poems will always extend the courtesy of an invitation rather than an admonition or a dressing-down.

Donaghy’s most extended piece of critical writing, Wallflowers, begins by observing a crowd of dancers at a ceilidh – the local dance being perhaps the most democratic of the arts – and derives its discussion of pattern and memorability from the scuff-marks left on the floor by the dancers’ feet. He was always keen to affirm the highest artistic standards while insisting that poetry must live in the wide community of its readers and listeners, and his own public readings were delivered from memory, like the traditional Irish music in which he also excelled as a flute player. Some of his most memorable poems concern music – the haunting ‘The Tuning’, for example, or ‘Remembering Dances Learned Last Night’ (the latter taking place after the returning Ulysses’s massacre of Penelope’s suitors) – and the sequence ‘O’Ryan’s Belt’, from Errata (1993) was central to his work. It seems, too, from the previously unpublished material included here, that although he had published this sequence he had by no means finished with it. The triangular relationship of artist and material and audience is part of these half a dozen poems as it is of ‘Ramon Fernandez?’, and surmounting everything is the idea of what Pound called ‘a live tradition’, in this case sustained by memory and personal transmission, the common property of those who care for it.

Donaghy was neither pious nor sentimental on this topic. The story which perhaps most interested him is told in ‘A Reprieve’, where the Chicago Police Chief Francis O’Neil offers the fiddler Nolan, who has killed a Chinese man in a fight, the chance to leave town on a freight train if he plays his music so that O’Neil can transcribe it. For this night O’Neil has a Medici’s powers of life and death and patronage, while Nolan’s art receives official sanction – the further sting being that Nolan must try against nature and tradition to play the jigs the same way twice in order that they can be recorded on paper, and thus, in a sense, betrayed. The knowledge that the true art is inseparable from everyday contingency and circumstance is given a humorous airing elsewhere, in ‘The Natural and Social Sciences’ from Shibboleth, where a visiting American asks a player what the last tune was and is told, ‘Ask my father’, which he takes for an answer rather than an instruction.

Vanishing, escaping, illusory, unavailable for consultation, many of the characters in Donaghy’s crowded yet often solitary world seem to reflect his own sense of exile. He was from the working class but educated out of it, a scholar who gave up the academy, a leading poet in Britain whose work was little known in the country where he grew up. He recorded that he injured his parents by insisting that he was an American rather than, as they believed, an Irish boy who happened to be living in New York, while the last twenty-odd years of his life were spent in England with only occasional visits to the United States to give readings. To many people of Irish extraction this is a version of a familiar story, part of the complex and continuing diaspora that can lead anywhere except ‘home’ and that can make questions of ‘where your people were from’ of interest mainly to the enquirer. Many of its features held no interest for Donaghy, but the theme of connection and disconnection, separation and reconciliation, was an abiding one, and it emerged most clearly in his last completed book, his third collection, Conjure (2000). The book opens with a series of three poems dealing with near misses and attempted encounters with fathers. The poems share a certain hermeticism in that while the author’s ‘actual circumstances’ (he spoke at times of his father) are somewhere in the offing, the poems take place in an apparently fictionalized context and are all in some way concerned with lies and illusions and attempts to invoke what is not there. The book’s title, with its imperative form – Conjure – leads back to the history of that word, which takes in senses including: plot, conspire, swear an oath, bind together, call upon, appeal to a sacred person or thing, implore, invoke, charm, bewitch, employ magic. This etymology combines the sacred with the profane, illusion with ultimate reality, faith with deception, self with self-invention:

‘My father’s sudden death has shocked us all’
Even me, and I’ve just made it up.’
‘The Excuse’
Do I stand here not knowing the words
When someone walks in?
‘Not Knowing the Words’
This isn’t easy. I’ve only half the spell,
and I won’t be born for twenty years.
‘Caliban’s Books’

The speaker cannot know the father, though he may well turn into him. This is an inheritance he is powerless to evade, and its responsibilities are most strongly felt when the child becomes, literally, the father. In the book’s closing poem, the Coleridgean ‘Haunts’, dedicated to Donaghy’s son Ruairi, the child himself comforts the father by simply existing, able to dispel the fears attendant on the adult night. In a sense, the child frees the man of the question of himself: pass it on, as the saying goes.
In a more sombre sense, transmission is also a significant part of ‘Black Ice and Rain’, perhaps the most brilliant poem among many fine pieces in Conjure. It is the story of a not-quite ménage a trois involving the narrator and a young couple he meets at a party, told retrospectively to a young woman he has followed into her bedroom at another party some time later. The pretext for his narration is that he can see that he and his listener have important things in common. One is, apparently, an unusual sensitivity (something missing in the boring party they have deserted, a party on which the speaker at any rate is dependent for enabling him to draw this perhaps adolescent distinction). Another is a sense of destiny so elaborate as to encompass the actions of chance. A third is the susceptibility to the pull of memory: ‘the past falls open anywhere.’

The poem recalls Eliot’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’, with the male and female roles reversed, retaining a sense of sterile erotic futility and manipulation. More than that, it offers the complex riches of a story by Henry James, where apparently cultured society is stalked by cruelty and perversity and we witness the indulgence of a power whose near-intangibility serves to enhance its effect. In ‘Black Ice and Rain’ the speaker’s confession is an act of cruelty towards the listener, whatever moral awareness it shows from line to line. In an earlier time the listener might at least have reasonably complained that she and the speaker had not been introduced, but now, in a period of insistent informality, the ‘truth’ is held to be its own social justification, and this predator of the mind is at liberty to pass on his own torments. The poem is full of shifting depths, and each repeated reading finds it renewed, but one of the most significant features is the balance between the religious background, mocked and discredited by the young couple as they endlessly sketch quote-marks on the air, and the apparent meaninglessness of the suffering that chance has inflicted on the object of the narrator’s former desire by the car accident which has killed her partner. She may have got religion now, but her grief empties into a void. Worse (for the narrator) not only have her looks been destroyed, but now that he could have her to himself it is clear that it was her unavailability that made her attractive.
Then having lain at last all night beside her,

having searched at last that black-walled room,
the last unopened chamber of my heart,
and found there neither pity nor desire
but an assortment of religious kitsch,
I inched my arm from under her and left.

The narration, we remember, is staged in a bedroom at a party, while the rhetoric manages to be both stagey enough for a proscenium theatre and compellingly intimate its disclosure; both melodramatic and self-mocking; and unable or unwilling to credit the original integrity of any of its ‘material’. Its fascinated (and rapturously self-fascinated) coldness recalls a major character from another novelist, the composer Adrian Leverkuhn from Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, who sold his soul to the Devil in order to be able to make music that could escape the confines of late romanticism. The result was marked by brutal parodies of feelings it had allegedly outgrown. With the characters of ‘Black Ice and Rain’ we are far from high art as practised in early twentieth century Munich, but though the characters have no art of their own to make, only attitudes to strike, the human stakes are the same, and while the narrator makes a performance of his damnation, its psychic reality is not to be denied.
I’ve discussed ‘Black Ice and Rain’ in novelistic terms, through story, plot and character, in order to indicate Donaghy’s artistic confidence. He’s not simply rubbing up against fiction in the familiar timid and affectionate manner of a great many poets. He incorporates its forms and possibilities into the work while retaining the pacing, orchestration and variety of register which are the province of a poem. The poem more than stands its ground. What we have in ‘Black Ice and Rain’ is much more than another honourable addition to the genre of dramatic monologue. The poem offers a compelling renewal of the genre’s possibilities, applied to subjects – belief, value, the confusion of art with the self and the self with the good – which the era of postmodernity has lent new colours and new urgency. The poem is also, slyly, circumstantially, damningly, a critique of postmodernity as a mass cultural movement / product on the grounds of its simultaneous fetishization of ‘creativity’ and denial of artistic authenticity.

Donaghy disapproved of the notion of artistic ‘progress’, with its banal suggestion that ‘now’ is somehow better than ‘then’; he would even have disputed the notion that at bottom ‘now’ is even different from then. For him – as it surely should be for us – the poetry that matters, that deserves to live, that engages the imagination and nourishes the memory, emerges in contact with ‘a live tradition’. It offers itself to a general audience as both challenge and invitation, to create a space which can be colonized neither by vulgarity nor remote self-regard. It is, in the teeth of the odds, poetry undertaken as an act of good faith.

Sean O’Brien
October 2008
© Sean O’Brien

Sean O’Brien’s lecture is a version of his introduction to Michael Donaghy’s Collected Poems, which will be published by Picador in March 2009 alongside The Shape of the Dance. This companion volume to the Collected Poems will gather together the best of Donaghy’s writing on poetry and the arts.