A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Michael Donaghy

I've just been reading Michael Donaghy's The Shape of the Dance: Essays, Interviews and Digressions. Donaghy is a delight: enthusiastic yet critical, funny yet serious, rigorous yet casual, discriminating yet generous.

An Irish-American born in the challenging Bronx region of New York in 1954 (the year of my own birth), he moved to London in 1985 — where he died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 50. In London he became a celebrated poetry teacher, influencing and inspiring a whole new generation of poets, and also worked as a traditional Irish musician. His own three collections of poems produced during that period  — Shibboleth (1988), Errata (1993) and Conjure (2000) — were much praised.

Donaghy found a true intellectual home in England after feeling at odds with the American cultural climate: the academisation of poetry, the solipsistic and experimental legacy of 'confessional' poetry and modernism, the welter of formless, hermetic and self-referential verse produced by the creative writing programmes.

Not that he was against free verse — far from it, and he wrote free verse himself, as well as employing many other different forms and styles. He simply believed in intelligent, crafted poetry full of surprise, allusion, music and rhythm, with its feet placed firmly in the real world rather than in the prolifically bleeding heart of the writer (if that doesn't sound too gruesome a metaphor). He liked the freedom which arose from negotiating with a resistant medium (i.e. the poem's structure), and believed that the best poems were born of of this struggle between form and content.

Donaghy worked slowly at his poems, and the results can be subtle and complex — but always very readable. His skill is accomplished, his wide knowledge evident, but he never uses this dexterity and learning to condescend to or browbeat the reader. He thought the poem as envisioned by the poet was only 50% of the story, and that the reader could and should meet the poet halfway. Many of his poems read like metaphysical verse — full of conceits and verbal trickeries, and connecting seemingly unconnected objects and ideas — but he avoids any trace of self-congratulation or pretentiousness.

A good example of this is the poem Machines, in which Donaghy compares a harpsichord pavane by Purcell to a racer's twelve-speed bike. This tour de force manages to bring in such disparate characters as Ptolemy, Dante, Purcell and Ignaz Schwinn (founder of the Schwinn Bicycle Company) to create a magical, concise poem which is about love and also about the act of poetry writing itself. It's full of conceits, allusions and surprising connections, yet is immensely satisfying in its ultimate simplicity. No mere sleight of hand or magic trick, it's not afraid to show off its adroitness, but is also quite moving: As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove / Who only by moving can balance, / Only by balancing move.

A poem may be thought of as a machine which strives for and achieves balance — if the poet is careful, skilful, lucky and desirous enough. (Auden called poetry a game of knowledge.) But doubt and precariousness — imbalance — are inevitably encountered along the way. The bike will wobble, the music falter — love and poetry making too. 

This poem contains these wonderful lines: The machinery of grace is always simple and So this talk, or touch if I were there, / Should work its effortless gadgetry of love, / Like Dante's heaven, and melt into the air. You can find the whole poem here.  


Bouncing Bertie said...

An allusion also to Einstein? Assuming Donaghy was aware of the great physicist's quote "Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving".
Cheers! Gail.

Amanda Summer said...

This poem had me at 'the machinery of grace.'

The Solitary Walker said...

Hadn't thought about the Einstein quote, Gail!

Yes, that line is arresting, Amanda.

Nick said...

What a beautiful, subtle poem that is. Magical.

am said...

From my perspective today, Michael Donaghy's poetry seems to have a kinship with Joni Mitchell's lyrics, and I am as moved as I was in April. I had cataract surgery on my left eye on the day before you posted this and couldn't read well until the second week of June when I finally got my new prescription lenses.

Will you be going to see Bob Dylan in concert in October? That concert I went to last November in Seattle was the best ever.

What a shock to realize that you haven't posted since April 21. You've been in my thoughts. Have been thinking you'd be posting any day now.

I am feeling some concern, realizing it's been a long time since you posted on your blog.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks so much for your kind and concerned thoughts, Amanda. I feel guilty I haven't explained this long absence until now, but, rest assured, I am well, though things have been in turmoil in my private, family and emotional life. Also I've been living abroad and haven't been able to connect to broadband until this very day! I can't really go into much detail about this publicly at the moment. I doubt if I'll be seeing Dylan, unfortunately. I remember your description of the concert you enjoyed so much in Seattle last year. My thoughts have been with you too - and I hope your eyesight is much better now. I hope to post something on my blog very soon!