Michael Donaghy

b. 1954 – d. 2003

Michael Donaghy was a New York poet and musician, who lived in London from 1985. He published his first full collection, Shibboleth, in 1988 which won the National Poetry Competition. Errata followed in 1993, and Conjure in 2000. Recognition came in the form of the Geoffrey Faber and Cholmondeley awards and the Whitebread and Forward prizes, among others.


Michael Donaghy remembered – by Don Paterson

The sudden death of Michael Donaghy at the age of 50 has robbed British poetry of its most elegant voice, and one of our most articulate and persuasive advocates for the art.

Michael was born in 1954 in the Bronx of Irish parents. From his earliest years he was passionately involved with traditional Irish music (he eventually became a fine flautist, and an even better bodhran player); however, it was poetry for which he demonstrated an exceptional talent. As a teenager he fell under the influence of Pound and the Modernists; but while his bemused affection for Pound’s ludic excess and insane pronunciamenti never left him, he soon rejected them in favour of Auden, Frost and MacNeice (though Shakespeare, Marvell and Donne, along with Borges, were always his greatest heroes). He studied at Fordham University and the University of Chicago, where he was an editor of The Chicago Review; during his work on his (unfinished) PhD on Giordano Bruno, he held down a number of bizarre jobs that later supplied him with an apparently limitless fund of hilarious anecdote.

While working as a doorman at a Park Avenue apartment building, reading a dog-eared copy of Hopkins he had kept hidden under his hat, he was approached by a resident; a conversation on poetry ensued, and resulted in Michael being given a season’s subscription to the prestigious poetry-reading series at the 92nd Street Y, where he heard the great American formalists James Merrill, Anthony Hecht, and his strongest contemporary influence, Richard Wilbur. It was perhaps this one event more than any other which decided Michael’s vocation.

In 1985 he moved to London to join his partner Maddy Paxman. (Maddy and Michael married in 2003, and they have one son, Ruairi.) Michael immediately made an impact on the UK scene, his first book, Shibboleth, winning the Whitbread poetry prize in 1988. We can, in this country, take some considerable pride in the fact that we were quick to recognise and honour Michael’s immense talent; he went on to win Geoffrey Faber and Cholmondeley Awards for Errata (1993) and the Forward Prize for his last book, Conjure (2000). However, as Glyn Maxwell recently remarked, ‘he was one of the three or four greatest living American poets, and they hardly knew his name.’

In the last few years, Michael was much animated by the rise in influence of the Postmoderns and the avant-garde; while this may have offered a distraction from his increasingly frequent health-scares, it became in itself something of an unhealthy obsession. For Michael, the poem was a force for human enlightenment and compassionate wisdom; he was appalled by what he saw as the hijacking of poetry for the precisely opposite aims.

Michael remembered everything he read, and had a wonderful facility for memorising verse. Everyone agreed there was no more spellbinding performer, and in those extraordinary readings he seemed to consecrate that absolute marriage of sound and sense to which the true poem aspires. While he was justly acclaimed as a ‘modern metaphysical’, some of his poems could seem mere comic bagatelles; but after half a dozen readings, all would reveal the most subtle depths of construction and argument. His poems had the emotional immediacy of Frost, but below their surface lay almost impossibly intricate machines (he was obsessed with Cellini, and the animatronic golden birds in Yeats’s Byzantium poems), beautiful self-winding mechanisms that will keep many of them humming with life as long as English is still read.

His fatal mix of charm and vulnerability meant that many fell in love with Michael at first sight, and perhaps inevitably some women mistook the genuine and indiscriminate concern he expressed towards everyone for its reciprocation. But perhaps more than anything else, Michael was at pains to make us all feel terribly safe, safe being the one thing he rarely felt for himself. (We found his last complete poems not in a folder called ‘finished’ or ‘best’ but, miserably, ‘safest’.) The body probably knows more of its own fate than it decides to tell the mind, though Michael always had a strong inkling that his term would be cut short; many of his poems now seem unbearably prophetic. He compensated for this knowledge by making more friends than most of us could make in five lifetimes. To those who didn’t know him, our grief might seem a little hysterical – but he really was the smartest, the funniest (Michael was outrageously funny), the kindest and gentlest of our number. As a friend mock-bitterly and accurately remarked after reading the deluge of tributes printed in the Independent the week after his death, ‘No one will ever speak so well of us.’ His passing has left a dreadful gap in the circle at every gathering. The single positive outcome is the fact that we have all had to draw so much the more tightly together to close it.