THE SHAPE OF THE DANCE: ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS AND DIGRESSIONS
WHEN "MD" died at the age of 50 in 2004, there was a carnival of mourning. 'Well-loved' is one of those obituary-speak clichs, but never was it uttered more sincerely. This made the task of discussing Michael's work difficult, because all anyone seemed to want to do was talk about Michael: his charm, his outrageous wit, his kindness, and the trail of happy destruction he would leave in his wake.
He always had a strong inkling that his term would be cut short – the poems are littered with hints and clues and intimations, all of which we managed to miss at the time – but he compensated by making more friends than most of us will in several reincarnations.
Donaghy was an Irish American who grew up in the Bronx; he moved to London in the 80s, where he spent the rest of his life, writing, teaching and playing traditional Irish music. At the time of his death he had long been in the front rank of British poets (though his work remains criminally neglected in his own country).
The publication of his Collected Poems gives us the opportunity to assess the work more dispassionately; and if anything it stands stronger for not being overwhelmed by his personality. These are quieter, stranger, more serious poems than I remember. As well as his four published volumes, the book gathers together 20 early, fugitive or discarded pieces he would have probably killed us for publishing, had he not been (I can hear him saying this to me now) presently at something of an existential disadvantage. We included them because any other poet would have been delighted to have written them.
Refusing to operate under any of the usual flags of convenience, Donaghy saw himself simply as an Anglophone poet, and took the best from traditions on both sides of Atlantic. His exemplars were Donne, Marvell, and Shakespeare, the Irish poet Derek Mahon (whose work he adored) and the US poets whose work he read within the English lyric tradition – Wilbur, Hecht, Merrill, Bishop and Frost. (He seemed to have all of Frost by heart; I suspect he'd have traded him for most of the others.) The best of Donaghy's poetry stands up pretty well against any of them. It's breathtaking in the intricacy of music and depth of its argument; 'modern metaphysical' was always a description too easy for critics to reach for, but it was accurate enough.
There are also page-long poems that contain more plot twists than most novels, and each re-reading uncovers more and more startling connections and hidden senses. The remarkable thing is that such complex poems can delight on the first reading too.
Donaghy was known as a spellbinding performer, and would always recite from memory, reasoning that if he couldn't remember his own poems no one else was likely to either. The poems, too, are performances, designed to entertain first, softening the reader up for the heavy stuff. Every poem starts with a dramatic proposition that makes it almost impossible not to keep reading on: "Ever been tattooed? It takes a whim of iron." "My father's sudden death has shocked us all. / Even me, and I've just made it up." "What did they call that ball in Citizen Kane?"
Like Frost, he sounded light, but read dark. This takes not only a ferocious technique, but one selfless enough to disguise every trace of its own labour. (He was obsessed with Cellini, and the animatronic golden birds in Yeats' Byzantium poems; his own poems, too, are beautiful self-winding mechanisms.)
He was a trickster, too, and delighted in pranks played on the reader – riddles, jokes, buried puns, and not-so-buried puns. In 'Hazards' – a poem about art's obscurantists, with whom he felt himself at war – he describes the incomprehensibility of Japanese Noh drama to an outsider. "Was it the white pine face like a new moon? / The wet splutter and moan of the shakuhachi? / Was it the actor's dispersal in gesture and smoke? / What part of Noh did you not understand?" However, he also had the marvellous gift of using these tricks for utterly serious ends. I recall a poem of his called 'Riddle' – a poem I'd already committed to memory, and was reciting in my head again one day, just for the noise of it. When the answer suddenly hit me, my heart was thumping in my throat. "I am the book you'll never read / but carry forever / one blunt page garlanded / by daughter or lover / You already know two-thirds by heart / and I'm passing weighty for a work so short." I won't spoil it for you, but I'll tell you this much: when you've got the answer, you'll know it, and something in the world won't look quite the same again.
Editing Michael was pretty much a waste of time. I don't doubt he'd have listened if I'd had anything sensible to contribute, but his poems were always wholly finished, perfectly balanced and interlocked constructions, like those self-supporting wooden bridges built without nails or bolts, held together by nothing but the genius of their own engineering. To change a single line would have pulled the whole poem apart. He would occasionally concede the odd comma, but only, I suspect, out of pity. I would invariably find that he'd reinserted it in the proofs anyway.
The Shape Of The Dance gathers together interviews and essays, and here the full range of Donaghy's mind and personality is more openly on display: his easy erudition and astonishing range of reference (he was incapable of forgetting anything he read, a facility that drove him crazy, like Borges' Funes the Memorious), his goofball sense of humour, and – for once – his honest anger towards those he felt had betrayed the art he loved.
'Wallflowers' is his classic primer in ars poetica, and takes in Irish dancing, cognitive science and sign language; 'American Revolutions' is the best potted history of that country's poetry I have ever read, and a bravely unfashionable critique of the line of ugly Anglophobia one can trace in US verse from William Carlos Williams onwards.
The interviews show a Donaghy that was a little less sweet than most will recall, but more real and present for it, and always splendidly quotable. Though this is a wise and learned book, I'm delighted to see that one of his last interviews was, typically, one of his daftest: ("Q: What is the shortest route to success? A: Always carry a spoon in case it rains soup. Q: What's your advice to a non-establishment poet who wishes to be better-known? A: Assassinate a public figure.") It all finishes too quickly, I suppose, but then Mikey was never a man to outstay his welcome. It's still a gem of a book. The Collected Poems, however, is a treasure, and one you won't exhaust in a lifetime. v
Don Paterson is Picador's poetry editor