Monday, 20 July 2009

Collected Poems by Michael Donaghy with an introduction by Sean O'Brien (O'Wow) published by Picador

This substantial but portable hardback is a bargain at £12.99. The first thing that you may notice about it (assuming that you don't have a visual impairment) is the dust cover, from which the author peers, with an intense, if slightly psychotic stare, enhanced by the fact that the top of his head and chin have been cropped off the image.

Given Eva Saltzman's revelations in the lastest edition of Poetry London about the author's love of raves, garage and house music, I can't help feeling that the possessed stare might have some sort of chemical basis. If his regrettably early death in 2005 from cancer was hastened by drugs, then that adds to a long list of people whose lives were irreparably damaged by the desperate hedonism and DIY communitarianism of the 90's rave scene.

The intensity of the cover is mirrored by the contents of the book, which has a useful introduction by Sean O'Brien, which manages to be, by turns, authoritative, tub thumping, subtle, perceptive and opaque ( a polite civil service term for 'being up your own arse', as we say in Yorkshire). This is followed by Donaghy's 4 published collections and some uncollected poems right at the end. Unfortunately, there is no first line index or index of titles.

O'Brien points out that the best poems are influenced by John Donne or Browning (or Eliot in Portrait of a Lady). The poetry is unusual in having both intellectual scope and a tendency to rhyme. I think O'Brien is wrong to say that it completely avoids the dull autobiography of so much modern verse. From time to time Donaghy dabbles around in his Irish-American identity so he can write poems about his Mum.

He often writes about failed seductions or tries the odd seduction poem out and does a pretty good job of it. Not an easy task for someone to complete successfully in the late 20th century, but he has a much more limited emotional range than Donne - or even Robert Graves for that matter, whose love poems are just as clever whilst demonstrating a little more maturity. Sadly, maturity was beginning to display itself in his last collection, Safest, which he wrote when he knew he was gravely sick and dying, though not a maturity which destroys his playfulness and zest:

Don't worry. I gave the dancing monkey your suicide note.
Was it something important? How was I to know?
He's probably torn it to pieces now or eaten it
or substituted every word for one adacent in the dictionary

What I love his poetry for is its polish, its fertile imagistic invention and his ability to start with a great first line, or from an odd perspective. Apparently, he had some difficulties getting poetry magazine editors to publish his work - possibly because he never mastered the Zen art of taking everything you might be interested to read in a poem out of it. However, neither is he didactic nor does he use his poems as a vehicle to dump trite thoughts or emotions on the reader.

Enough of my interpretation ... if you want comment, buy the book and read O'Brien's chewy (but largely digestible) introduction. Then get stuck into the poems, which form one of the best dessert selections you're ever likely to come across. Here's some great lines to whet your appetite:

We shared a dream beneath
a dream-beneath-a-dream.
Our tears became a storm
that washed away our names
and our voices blended with the rain's.

I touch the cold flesh of a God in the V and A,
the guard asleep in his chair, and I'm shocked
to find it's plaster. These are the reproduction rooms,
where the David stands side by side with the Moses
and Trajan's column (in two halves).
It reminds me of the inventory sequence in Citizen Kane.
It reminds me of an evening twenty years ago.

Me, I heard a throaty click at the end of 'wedlock'.
And Niagara on the long distance line.

And if you're still not convinced, try The Raindial on page 108 or Music and Sex and Drinking on page 14, for the re-introduction of the Renaissance 'conceit' into English(ish) poetry


  1. You've persuaded me to buy this book. thanks

  2. Please feel free to share your thoughts about the book with me via this blog. I'm sure there's a lot more to say about it which I haven't even touched upon.