His Swords and Armor: Remembering Michael Donaghy

by Robert Archambeau

The beginning of “The Classics,” a poem by Michael Donaghy, has stayed with me for a long time:

I remember it like it was last night,
Chicago, the back room of Flanagan’s
Malignant with accordions and cigarettes,
Joe Cooley bent above his Paolo Soprani,
Its asthmatic bellows pumping as if to revive
The half-corpse strapped about it.
It’s five a.m. Everyone’s packed up.
His brother Seamus grabs Joe’s elbow mid-arpeggio.
“Wake up, man. We have to catch a train.”
His eyelids fluttering, opening. The astonishment . . .

It’s quintessential Donaghy, invoking as it does his great theme, memory, and his love of performances of all kinds—especially those involving Irish music in dingy bars. It brings the two things together in that image of a hunched Joe Cooley, still playing his accordion even as he nods off, the music so thoroughly internalized that he needn’t be fully awake to play it. The true performer, Donaghy implies, gets lost in the performance—something that can only happen when the music has been so completely absorbed into the musician that it becomes his second nature.

Donaghy was famous for reciting his own poems from memory at readings that were fully realized performances in a way too few poetry readings are. At a Donaghy reading there was never any of the mumbling, page-flipping, or nervous self-explanation with which poetry audiences are all too familiar. He was entirely present to the poem and to the audience, not hovering a little above himself, wondering just how he ought to manifest. Once, when Yeats’s famous question “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” came up, Donaghy gave an answer that underlined his commitment to losing himself in performance: “Who cares?” Better for the two to be so intermingled they can’t be torn asunder.

“The Classics” ends like this:

I saw this happen. Or heard it told so well
I’ve staged the whole drunk memory:
What does it matter now? It’s ancient history.
Who can name them? Where lie their bones and armor?

Perhaps, given Donaghy’s fascination with memory (accurate or otherwise), there’s a small irony in how the version of this poem I’ve carried in my head for years turns out to be a bit distorted. When I came back to the poem on the page recently, I was surprised to find it ending with the question “Where lie their bones and armor?” For ages I’d been saying “Where lie their swords and armor?”—an inferior ending, to be sure. But I want to keep my distorted version, for now, and use it as a way to talk about Donaghy’s poetry because his poems—or perhaps I should say his performed poems—were both his swords and his armor.

* * *

Why would a poet, so long after the days of the cavaliers, need swords, even metaphorical ones? For the Poetry Wars, of course: a serious business for several generations of poets. When Maddy Paxman, Donaghy’s widow after his sudden death in 2004 at the age of fifty, recalls the terrible day he passed in her memoir The Great Below, she tells us that among his final words were “Tell my friends to look after Ruairi, and keep up the fight.” Ruairi was their young son; the fight was the battle on behalf of formal verse, which Donaghy feared would be lost to the forces of the avant-garde. Donaghy became a partisan of formal poetry early on. During his time as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he and his friend Keith Tuma numbered among the editors of the Chicago Review, where, as Tuma recollects, “we were all a little tired of the limp free verse of American poetry and looking for alternatives.” Tuma turned to experimentalism, to the Black Mountain poets and to language writers like Charles Bernstein and Lyn Hejinian. Donaghy took another path. Questing after shape and pattern, he briefly experimented with proceduralist poems (published under a pseudonym) before finding his affinity with a range of formalists, from Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht to Louis MacNeice and Derek Mahon.

American poetry, Donaghy felt, had fallen into the hands of an experimentalist coterie based in the academy, harboring precious little sympathy for the poems he loved. Never fully at ease in a university environment, Donaghy dropped out of graduate school, and was always of the “we murder to dissect” view when it came to literary theory and critical analysis. When he settled in England, Paxman reports, he “delighted in the way poetry seemed much more a part of ordinary life. . . . British newspapers regularly printed poems, and poets were sometimes mentioned on the news.” He rapidly became a success, sweeping the major prizes (the Whitbread, the Forward, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial), and being scooped up first by Oxford University Press and then by Picador, as well as being thrust into the spotlight as part of the much-ballyhooed “New Generation” of rock-star poets in the 1990s. Would he have had the same reception in America? It’s difficult to say, of course, but signs point to no: not one of his books was ever published on this side of the Atlantic.

The poetry wars Donaghy thought he had left behind in America followed him to England, and haunted him there. Maddy Paxman tells us how much anxiety this caused him. The battle “between the avant-garde academic faction and the more traditional (and popular) poets, had been Michael’s obsession for several years,” she writes, and he came to feel persecuted by the followers of Cambridge’s experimentalist godfather, J. H. Prynne: “he became quite paranoid at times about the supposed takeover of the poetry establishment by this faction” says Paxman, and he “spent hours writing blogs and reviews under pseudonyms, and composing a series of perfectly credible spoof avant-garde poems.” There were moments when he was able to rise above the fray, notably when Keith Tuma visited London while editing an avant-garde-leaning anthology of British poetry. There, Tuma and Donaghy squared off like gun fighters in an epic dance-off in a room above a pub as the gathered poets and critics cheered. But the détente didn’t last, and when Donaghy died four years later Tuma lamented “a friendship lost to stupid poetry politics.”

Donaghy could wield a sharp pen in his prose when taking on his poetic foes, skewering “daring experimental arrangements of words which to our untrained eyes look like meaningless drivel.” But his real weapon wasn’t prose but the performed poem. He saw poetry as an oral and aural art, rooted in the community of performer and audience, and felt that his ability to convene and commune with an audience was proof enough of the power of formal verse. The poet’s freedom didn’t mean an imperative to innovate so much as it meant the ability to move freely among received forms. Thinking of the oral traditions of the Italian, Irish, and Puerto Rican communities among which he grew up in the Bronx, Donaghy said:

A player in such a tradition is expected to improvise, to “make it new,” and the possibilities for expression within the prescribed forms are infinite. But it’s considered absurd to violate the conventions of the form, the “shape” of the dance tune or story, because you leave the community of your audience behind.

For Donaghy, the poem itself was only a script until it came alive in performance—an idea, he said, that came to him one rainy night in a church hall when he lived on the South Side of Chicago:

I’d been playing jigs and reels for a ceilidh, watching the set dancers spinning and stamping out with wild precision the rhythms of a dance which can be described (accurately) as a feral minuet. Some time during the course of the evening the music I had for years only heard and played became visible, filled with spinning sweaty couples, as the abstract shape of a whirlpool fills with water, or an equation takes shape as a tetrahedron. Only after the dancers had left the floor did I notice the circular patterns of black scuffs and streaks their heels had made on the polished wood. This pattern, I recognized, was an enormous encoded page of poetry, a kind of manuscript . . .

Does it matter that the image of the scarred dance floor is as likely to have been lifted from Paul Valery’s notebooks as it is to have been seen in a South Side epiphany? One imagines Donaghy replying, “Who cares?” He knew a staged memory is as good as a real one, and a poet’s truth is not a scholar’s footnote.

Connecting to an audience is never an easy matter, and it caused Donaghy no end of anxiety. Sometimes this sort of worry worked itself sideways into the poetry—as in “Shibboleth,” in which Donaghy describes the trivia questions used to ferret out German spies among the American troops after D-Day. The questions were all about a putatively shared culture, but in a society as big and diverse as ours, the idea of common reference points becomes strained:

By the second week of battle
We’d become obsessed with trivia.
At a sentry point, at midnight, in the rain,
An ignorance of baseball could be lethal.

The morning of the first snowfall, I was shaving,
Staring into a mirror nailed to a tree,
Intoning the Christian names of the Andrews Sisters.
“Maxine, Laverne, Patty.”

Preparation can only take us so far, and after that we’re taking our chances with an audience with whom we may or may not have enough in common. Donaghy often spoke of the need to meet the poetry audience halfway—and knew full well that doing so was not to be taken for granted. He had a lot at stake in connecting to an audience, including his sense of the continued relevance of formal verse.

It’s no wonder, then, that Donaghy was such a consummate performer of his poetry, and such a trooper. I hosted what, I am sad to say, turned out to be his last American reading, and when I picked him up before the event I was worried he wouldn’t be able to take the stage. The whites of his eyes were yellow, and he was visibly in pain (I later learned it was gall bladder trouble and blocked bile ducts—he needed surgery). He wouldn’t be told to lie down, though, and when we reached the packed hall he strode up to the stage like a man transformed, emitted a thousand watts of charm, and soon received the only standing ovation I have ever seen a poet receive from an audience composed exclusively of college students. Back at the guesthouse he collapsed: a soldier with his mission behind him.

* * *

Donaghy’s charm was a legend. Everyone who met him has stories to tell, or an image etched in their mind—Donaghy rubbing his hands theatrically and grinning devilishly as he approached a patron of the arts at a reception; Donaghy running through the streets in a rainstorm and leaping, hands over knees, into a curbside pile of trash bags, executing a perfect cannonball regardless of the consequences; Donaghy walking down the hall with shoelaces trailing, his boyish helplessness igniting the maternal instinct in women who’d chase after him ready to tie them up. Much of the charm had to do with how he’d bring his attention to you in conversation in a manner that felt intimate but not prying. “Since his death,” Paxman writes, “I had learned that many people thought of themselves as Michael’s special friend: he had a gift for reaching out and connecting to others . . . a sort of golden charm that radiated from him.” Like certain politicians, he could walk by, say a few words, perhaps laugh and punch you lightly on the arm, and make you feel like you’d been noticed, appreciated, understood. And like certain politicians, he liked to be liked, felt tormented when he feared he’d given offense.

Everyone who met Donaghy felt warmed in the glow of his charm, but few knew the anxious man who hid behind it. He was a man of profound worries and cares, and had been all his life—a rough childhood in a tough neighborhood, with violence on the streets and in the home, started him on the fretful path; poverty and the early loss of his parents kept him there. He suffered through bouts of anorexia, had at least one mental breakdown, and attempted suicide in graduate school, slashing his wrists at the thought of a romantic breakup. He obsessed over his health, and could be paralyzed by distress. “His anxiety had been an almost physical force in our daily lives,” writes Maddy Paxman of their years together, and the morbid torpor into which he often sank made her feel “like a patch of pale blue watercolor being bled over by a large black ink blot.”

If Donaghy couldn’t lose his worries, he did manage to find ways to lose himself—in playing music with his band, in drinking, in the intense experience of beauty or of the company of others. His sometimes-manic sociability was a way of escaping from himself and his darker places. His famous charm—which he feared would eclipse his poetry—was fueled by this need to escape. The sudden sense of closeness and like-mindedness so many experienced when meeting Donaghy, came, in the end, from his desire to shake free of himself, to dial into another person’s frequency so thoroughly that he would drown out the troubling static on his own. Flight from anxiety in passionate experience, Paxman says, “sometimes led Michael to seek out stimuli in unhealthy ways, as if he needed to keep the intensity of the feeling going all the time, no matter the consequences. Of course,” she adds, “this could make him tremendously fun to be with, particularly for his friends.”

One of the intense experiences to which Donaghy turned was poetry, especially poetry before an audience. This was his finest, his surest, his most reliable armor against his anxieties. This was where he could lose himself in the moment of performance. He wrote about this very thing when he described Joe Cooley nodding over his accordion, and he wrote about it, too, in one of his most-loved poems, “Machines,” which describes the melding-together of a musician and his music, a racing cyclist and his bicycle, in the intensity of accomplishment. Machine and personality disappear into one another, in a kind of grace beyond anxiety:

As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove

Who only by moving can balance,
Only by balancing move.

Poetry, said T. S. Eliot, “is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality,” and Michael Donaghy would have agreed. Where does the dancer end and the dance begin? Where is the worrying, private man when poet and poem are one on the stage? We know Donaghy’s lasting answer (oh loss of worry, lapse of pain): “Who cares? Who cares? Who cares?” God rest his bones and armor.