a tale of three writers you can really trust

There are not, in the scheme of things, as it may have become apparent in my essay on Zadie Smith on essays the other week, that many writers one feels one can really trust. I mean, who just somehow more integrity than everybody else – who have a kind of purity or clarity about them and their endeavour.Who you know will never lead you astray, or down the garden path. Not very many at all. It seems my whole life has been a search for these people.

Clearly, regular readers will know by now that one of the writers I feel I can trust is my late teacher and friend Michael Donaghy, who among other things addressed this very issue of trust by saying that is why technical skill is so important – we were saying in poetry, gut it applies across the board. It’s one of the ways of establishing with the reader that you aren’t going to let them down. I never would have been his student in the first place if it hadn’t been for this relationship of trust built on the page; the rest was serendipity.

Another of course, who predates him in my reading life, is the Master himself, Henry James. The summer of 2004 was the summer of  novels about Henry James: remember? The one by David Lodge that just looked so spurious; The Line on Beauty, which featured James tangentially, and which I was halfway through reading when Donaghy died in the September, so I never finished it; and the one I did real all through, later, transfixed, as if my life was changing. (In fact, it was.) The Master, by Colm Toibin. A novelistic rendering of the life of James, incorporating words from the man and his associates, and a remarkable, kaleidoscopic, prismatic, and deeply moving work.

(My poem The Master and the Future, written in the voice of James and based on a line from his notebooks, had been written a year earlier, in July 2003, a little white elephant; but that summer I got it published, on the crest of a wave, and it won third prize in an Oxfam poetry competition.)

Well, there’s the background. So imagine the shock and happiness of clicking on a link recently and reading this, by Colm Toibin:

It was the Hay-on-Wye book festival in the early 1990s. I was wandering around the tents after my own event, wondering what else was on. The program that afternoon included a reading by two poets: one name I vaguely recognized, the other was new to me. As I passed that tent, I found that the poets were starting. I went and sat on my own at the back.

I know that I had not slept very well the night before and was slightly hungover; this may have meant that I was oddly more receptive to things, more open and vulnerable. But I am not sure. Whatever it was, the work of the poet whose name I had not known hit me with considerable emotional force. There was a mixture of playfulness and rhythmic intensity in the work, of an imagination held down by the discipline of stanza form and metre and fired up at the same time by the beauty of language and by life itself. The poet, I should add, was also very good-looking and had a soft American accent. He was fresh-faced and young, and seemed almost innocent. His name was Michael Donaghy.

One of his poems in particular had filled me with delight, especially a line in which “a nice distinction” had been changed by a saint “into an accordion.” After the reading, when I was getting a book signed by him, I mentioned this poem and must have seemed disappointed that it was not in a published volume yet. He said if I waited he would write it out in longhand for me. I waited behind and he did so. Later, back home, when I read it over and over, I loved it as much as I had when I heard it for the first time. It was called “Irena of Alexandria”:

Creator, thank You for humbling me.

Creator, who twice empowered me to change

a jackal to a saucer of milk,

a cloud of gnats into a chandelier,

and once, before the emperor’s astrologers,

a nice distinction into an accordion,

and back again, thank You

for choosing Irena to eclipse me.

This just seems to breathe life into Michael again. I feel as if I can hear him speak, reading this. Then Toibin talks about the Chicago Police Chief O’Neill, who collected Irish music and about whom Donaghy wrote; and “Phantom”, the long memorial poem in Don Paterson’s new collection, Rain. It’s all in a gorgeous-looking Canadian cultural magazine called  Brick. But of course, I’m useless. Because I was going to link it in September, and you could have read the extract from the article they had posted online. But I delayed and faffed, and wrote other things, and now the new issue is up and Toibin’s memoir is taken down.

But I wanted to share it with you – and you can buy the magazine. It’s gorgeous-looking and chock-full of goodness (see, using technical skill to win our trust). And failing even that, you can read the works of Colm Toibin, Michael Donaghy and Henry James. Or you could just leave a comment telling me how useless I am.

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