Donaghy, Michael (John)

views updated

DONAGHY, Michael (John)

Nationality: American. Born: Bronx, New York, 24 May 1954. Education: Fordham University, New York, 1972–76, B.A. 1976; University of Chicago, 1977–79, M.A. 1979. Career: Doorman, New York, 1972–77; musician, Chicago, 1978–85 and since 1986, London. Since 1988 teacher, Birkbeck College, University of London. Awards: Whitbread award for poetry, 1989; Geoffrey Faber award, 1990; Ingram Merrill Foundation grant, 1995. Address: 88 Umfreville Road, London N4 1SA, England.



Slivers (chapbook). Chicago, Thompson Hill Press, 1985.

O'Ryan's Belt (chapbook). Madison, Wisconsin, Silver Buckle Press, 1991.

Machines (pamphlet). Guildford, England, Circle Press, 1987.

Shibboleth. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Errata. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993.


Editor, Michael Donaghy, Andrew Motion, Hugo Williams. London and New York, Penguin, 1997.


Critical Studies: "Other Irish Writing" by Cathal Dallat, in Verse (St. Andrews, Scotland), 9(3), winter 1992; by Michael Hulse, in Poetry Review, 83(2), summer 1993.

Michael Donaghy comments:

I want to say that my poems speak for themselves. I expect we all do. They have their own lives to lead. For those of you who do not know my poems, there is a lot of memory in them. Memory and history and music and sex and drinking. I hope you find them memorable—or at least memorizable.

A hostile reviewer dismissed them like this: "His poems are not confessional, but it helps to think of a Confessional—a little box with a screen separating two parties. Think of that screen as the page. A voice seems to come from behind the screen, but if you read the poems aloud the only voice you hear is your own" (Florence Olsen, Haymarket). I can live with that.

My principal influences are not twentieth-century. But there is no escaping that lunatic Yeats (The Tower). Paul Muldoon redirected me to Frost, his ear, his palimpsest ironies (Complete Poems, 1949). For my third choice I considered prose (Borges) or the collected Bishop or MacNeice, but Derek Mahon's The Snow Party brought me back to poetry when I thought I had almost given up.

*  *  *

In the blurb on the back cover of Michael Donaghy's prizewinning first collection, Shibboleth (1988), we read that "his work has a wit and grace reminiscent of the metaphysical poets." Like most statements in blurbs, this mistakes a wish for reality. Donaghy does imitate the gestures of Metaphysical poetry, but his conceits do not match in intensity or depth of feeling those in Donne and company. Heterogeneous things violently yoked together give way in "Machines," the first poem in Shibboleth, to something more self-preening: "Dearest, note how these two are alike: / This harpsichord pavane by Purcell / And the racer's twelve-speed bike." But the poem is saved from self-approval by its awareness of risk, and it attains an odd kind of "balance," to use its own word, by failing to be as slickly clever as, in one sense, it needs to be.

Indeed, Donaghy is a poet who often succeeds by failing. The bard who survived Odysseus's shoot-out speaks the finely antiheroic "Remembering Steps to Dances Learned Last Night." The poem begins with a spirited pastiche in the Homeric manner, but at the climax a more downbeat, colloquial tone makes itself heard: "I know you came to hear me sing about the night the king came home, / … / I can't." Donaghy's most authentic notes can emerge from moments that seem inauthentic and certainly are scarcely distinguishable from his interest in playing games, fooling around, showing off. Among the fascinations of "'Smith'" is its sideways glance at Donaghy's predicament as a poet: "Why does it seem to take a forger's nerve / To make my signature come naturally?" These jokey yet jittery pentameters are followed by the question "Naturally?"—revealing Donaghy's sense that the truest poetry may be the most feigning.

Such a stance can lead to a tedious, would-be poker-faced stress on fictiveness, as in "Analysand," which opens in writing workshop style: "I've had an important dream. But that can wait." More powerfully, the close of "'Smith'" at once sustains the view of the poet as forger and tries to recapture "a moment so pure." Those who live by irony have a tendency to die by it too, and the poem's ending is typical of some of the most compelling yet ambivalent passages in Donaghy's work; it shows the poet's palpable unease with an ironic manner he cannot quite disown. The collection's most impressive poem, "Letter," includes but triumphs over the poet's anxieties about writing, speech, and authenticity, anxieties parceled out in the poem between the poet and his elegized father: "No relics here of how you felt; / Maybe writing frightened you, the way it fixed a whim." The poem combines different line lengths skillfully, its avoidance of polished metrics and rhymes freeing Donaghy from posturing. In this piece the search for precision is helpful rather than merely precious. Thus the ending, as in Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," suggests a distinction between "silence" and "quiet" and then, touchingly, makes the words synonyms: "Your breath / Making the blizzard silent, / The silence quiet, at last, / The quiet ours."

Failure and error lie close to the thematic heart of Errata, Donaghy's second collection. In "The Commission" the speaker, a Renaissance artist, says of the pope that "all of my efforts to stay in his favour / were wasted." In "Cruising Byzantium" "firemen say the saved are sometimes wrong," and "City of God" begins, "When he failed the seminary he came back home." In "The Chamber of Errors" the speaker says, "I spend my life repairing details." In the three sections of "True" Donaghy offers a wry emblem of the way disaster is made the stuff of art's entertainment. The word "true" can, as the poem's epigraph points out, mean "to adjust so as to make true," and Donaghy writes with acute sympathy in this volume about the human endeavor to "make true" what needs adjusting. The result is to alert us to the crooked nature of desire and achievement, as in "A Reprieve," in which the police chief, Francis O'Neil, cuts a deal with a suspect so that he can augment his collection of Irish folk music. The poem ends with an ampler lilt and mood of forgiveness than is customary in Donaghy's work:

But there's music here in this lamplit cell,
and O'Neil scratching in his manuscript like a monk
at his illuminations, and Nolan's sweet tone breaking
as he tries to phrase a jig the same way twice:
'The Limerick Rake' or 'Tell her I am' or 'My Darling

For all the earlier collection's sporadic brilliance, Errata generally shows a maturity lacking in Shibboleth.

—Michael O'Neill

About this article

Donaghy, Michael (John)

Updated About content Print Article