Donaghy: ten years today


‘Don’t be afraid, old son, it’s only me…’

Today, 16 September, while the Scottish Referendum rages, the future once again seems uncertain – like it did for some of us this week ten years ago, when Michael Donaghy lay in hospital, on a life support system, after a massive brain haemorrhage. Of course, I now know from reading his widow Maddy’s book (The Great Below) that already by this stage they did pretty much know what was going to happen when they turned the machine off that evening. The future in that sense – for Michael – was certain enough. But for many of the rest of us that week was long and helpless; and after he died (unimaginably)  there was a real sense of what now, how do we go on.

Well, so, what indeed?

Things did go on, as things always go on, and Michael’s death changed both nothing and everything. As a friend – another of his ex-students – said to me at the big memorial service at the Union Chapel: ‘We all have to grow up now’. We had no choice. We kept writing, we formed alliances, we published. We grew, changed. One group of us spent a year meeting almost weekly, putting together a book of our work, with John Stammers supplying the foreword. It was clinging to spars, we were each other’s spars, and the book – The Like Of It – launched several of us on our way.  (& n.b., I still have a few copies…) It’s been repeatedly said by a poet friend of the previous(-but-one) generation that he’s never seen anything like the solidarity Michael’s old students have as a group. ‘We never had anything like that in the old days’. And it’s true. We found that we were a family, of sorts.

The poetry landscape changed, by chance, in the ensuing decade. A new, startling generation of talented 20something poets came rushing up (almost too fast for those of us whom Michael was in some despair about, in his last year, because there simply weren’t the opportunities for us to be published then), with their different inspirations and concerns. But Salt, the old Cambridge experimental poetry press, suddenly jumped up and grew, encompassing the mainstream – but the hip, groovy mainstream –  and many of us, having indeed grown up, had our first and second collections published there. The internet became, not just a thing, but actually THE thing. People who remember Donaghy’s many alter egos on the discussion boards, and the emails he used to send out to everyone he knew (the jokes, the memes, the links to the Japanese cat-costumes websites) know what he would have been like on Facebook! Facebook even drives poetic careers: we’re ‘friends’ and definitely colleagues with more of our American cohort than ever before. And some of the ‘best’ places to get poems published in are webzines, which operate across borders.

In short, we’re much more integrated. Some of the old Poetry Wars arguments seem dated now. ‘Formalism’ has largely dropped its prefix ‘New’, except for in a sort of subculture where that’s more the point, seemingly, than the poetry itself – kind of like its opposite number where nothing must EVER rhyme. Much of the work that calls itself ‘innovative’ is, in fact, completely accessible – more linguistically, syntactically, imagistically standard, even, than the stuff the ‘innovative’ people complain about as being ‘mainstream’. I hope Michael would have applauded this tendency, as it opens up the field of poetry and lyric to a wider part of the brain. I like to think he’d have really liked Luke Kennard and Mark Waldron, for example.

Ten years on, I myself teach poetry, and Donaghy was my example for that. He gave me the reason why and a way to do it – though I’m nothing like him, of course. Now he’s one of the people whose work we teach, we share his poems, we quote his ideas, we tell the stories. Because there was nobody quite like him, at all, on either side of the ocean. And – in a neat sidestepping of the truism about writers’ reputations going into posthumous freefall – his work is revered by young and old poets as a lodestone. Technically rigorous, formally ingenious, full of intellectual games, and heart, full of music and literary theory, full of jokes that make you cry – challenging, and always there when you need it.

Well, as of today, it’s been ten whole years. I think we did grow up. And he’s still here.



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