Books: Poetry Notebook — The Donaghy Negotiation |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]


When Don Paterson asked me to write an introductory essay for Picador’s projected collection of Michael Donaghy’s critical writing, I saw immediately how such a piece might fit into a Poetry Notebook. So far I had several times touched upon the connection between poetry and the criticism of poetry, but I had not pursued the matter. When talking about Donaghy, the subject was unavoidable. He had put the adult part of his short lifetime into resolving just those two forces: to create, and to understand. His career also raised the topic of the relationship, in modern times, between Britain and America, as it was acted out in the literary haunts of London. Questions of national origin need not necessarily play a crucial part in the appreciation of a poem, but they often play a part in the history of how poetry gets written. Donaghy never lost his American voice, but there was an element in his critical prose that might not have been expected: definitely not from Deadwood, he was a deep believer in the formal element. Even when they sounded casual, his poems were dedicated to that conviction. His work was an example of the daunting thoroughness by which Americans, when they put their minds to it, can be better at making our stuff than we are, starting with moleskin trousers and elastic-sided boots. Daunted though we might be, however, we need to remember that this branch of American cultural imperialism is no more threatening than a dream come true. We wanted a world of the arts, and we got it. Donaghy enjoyed the cultural paradoxes that came with international territory. Even beyond his untimely death, his every paragraph is alive with delight, as critical prose ought to be.

The Donaghy Negotiation

(First published as the introduction to Michael Donaghy, The Shape of the Dance, 2009)

Michael Donaghy’s death at fifty was a cruel blow but he had already done enough as a writer of poetry to establish himself firmly among recent poets who matter. His achievement as a writer about poetry, however, is still in the process of being assessed and absorbed. The first and best thing to say about his critical writing, I think, is that it was necessary, even when that fact was not yet generally realized. If we can see now why his views on poetry were so vital, it is because they help us to recognize what was missing. Nobody else in his generation had such a generous yet discriminating scope. It is still the kind of scope we need, but now we have his example. He called true poetry ‘the alchemical pay-off’, and his criticism shows how prose can be that too.

Born only two years before Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was published in 1956, Donaghy grew up as an Irish Catholic in New York at a time when American poetry was supposedly breaking its last bonds with the transatlantic formal tradition. He was never automatically contemptuous of the results that accrued to this final freedom. He just doubted its validity as an historical movement. Whether by instinct or from his training as a musician — questions of underlying psychology preoccupied him all his short life — he was suspicious of the idea that freedom from all restriction could yield perfect creative liberty. (He always insisted that even Howl was not the Whitmanesque ‘barbaric yawp’ that Ginsberg claimed, but a carefully worked and reworked artefact.) At Chicago University, where Donaghy edited the Chicago Review and founded his music ensemble, he was already grappling with the critical questions that arose from a too confident assertion of American separateness.

In pursuit of his future wife, and perhaps also in pursuit of a more nuanced context in which to work, he moved to London in 1985, and steadily established himself as an imported expert who knew more than the locals. Actually this, too, was an American tradition that went back as far as Henry James, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, not to mention the Eighth Air Force during the Second World War, but his presence was refreshingly new to a whole generation of young British poets who came to his classes. The impact of his own collections of poetry might have been enough to pull them in, but his powers as a mentor kept them glued to their chairs. There was a paradox in that. Donaghy never ceased to warn against the menace of the ‘creative writing’ industry on either side of the Atlantic: hundreds of creative writing teachers with nothing useful to say, thousands of creative writing students publishing first collections that would go nowhere.

But his British students knew that they had found a teacher who transcended his own suspicions. At least a dozen gifted young poets benefited from his combination of a broad sympathy and a tight focus on language: if they are now a school without a name, it was because he taught them the merits of unbelonging. He had an even wider field of influence, however, through the pieces he wrote for such outlets as Poetry Review. Many of these pieces, undertaken as journeywork at the time but always lavished with the wealth of his knowledge and the best of his judgement, are collected in this book, and it is remarkable how they coalesce into the most articulate possible expression of a unified critical vision. He was a crucially important reviewer, and my chief concern here is to say why.

When reviewing another poet, Donaghy relied first and foremost on his ear for loose language. Devoid, on paper at least, of malice or professional jealousy, he could nevertheless quote a dud line with piercing effect. Robert Bly thought he was being profound when he wrote: ‘There’s a restless gloom in my mind.’ Donaghy could tell that whatever was happening to Bly’s mind at that moment, it wasn’t profundity. But he made such judgements a starting point, not a death sentence. What had the same poet written that was better? Donaghy could quote that, too. He was always searching for the language that had reached a satisfactory compression and power of suggestion. (It didn’t have to come from ‘the tradition’, or even from a poem: he was a close listener to song lyrics, playground rhymes, and street slang.) When he found it in a poem, he had his principles to help him explain it.

To his chief principle he gave the name ‘negotiation’. A sufficiently tense diction, the alchemical pay-off, was, Donaghy argued, most likely to be obtained from a contest between what the poet aimed to say and the form in which he had chosen to say it. If the poet tied the creative process down to his initial commitment, with no formal pressure to force him to the unexpected, there was no contest; and a contest there had to be, no matter how loose the form. Always a great quoter, Donaghy, on this point, quoted Proust to telling effect: ‘The tyranny of rhyme forces the poet to the discovery of his finest lines.’ The tyranny didn’t always have to be of rhyme, but there had to be some tyranny somewhere. Negotiation was Donaghy’s touchstone concept, and lack of negotiation was the reason why he thought an informal poem was even more likely to slide into banality than a formal one. When he found intensity within an apparently formless work, it was because the author had imposed some kind of discipline upon himself, locally if not in general. He found a good example in C. K. Williams, whose ten-beat loose lines had, in Donaghy’s opinion, an underlying formal drive, proving that something concrete had been negotiated even when the poem steered towards abstraction. This capacity to find practical merit even in what he was theoretically against was a precious virtue.

It was matched by an equal capacity to find the limitations even in what he was theoretically for. John Updike’s poetry was as formally virtuose as might be wished, but Donaghy thought that too much of it was too much so. There were too many poems that ‘almost made it before the skill took over’. The implication was that a display of skill should not be an end in itself, even though to eschew skill altogether was a bad way of avoiding the danger.

In this way, Donaghy left a door open so that he could get back to the informal spontaneity of American modernism after William Carlos Williams and praise it where praise was due. His openness to the possible strength of the informal poem lent him the authority to say that the rewards from a formal poem could be greater, just as long as they had been properly negotiated. But he was always certain that the informal poem had far more dangerous ways of going rotten than the formal one. When the formal tradition decayed, the result was, at worst, sclerosis: a malady whose chief symptom he neatly summed up as ‘rhyming in your sleep’. But the informal tradition in decay was an infinitely adaptable virus which would always try to pass itself off as the next development of the avant-garde. Donaghy the mighty quoter liked to revisit his favourite quotations, and the one that he revisited most often was from Auden. ‘Everything changes but the avant garde.’ But the witticism isn’t the whole truth. The avant-garde does change, in its scope: it continually increases its territorial claims. Logically it should have run out of steam when the ne plus ultra stood revealed as the reductio ad absurdum sometime during the reign of Dada, but here we are, almost a hundred years later, and there are still poems exploding all over a full page in the London Review of Books like fine shrapnel, just as if Apollinaire had never done anything similar.

Donaghy, not very neatly for once, referred to such abjectly posturing stuff as L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry. He was borrowing the title of the busy movement’s home-base magazine, but he might have done better just to call it poppycock. Large-heartedly, he found enough time for this tirelessly self-propagating fad in which to decide that it added up to nothing. (His rejections were seldom immediate, but they were always decisive when they came.) Donaghy’s British acolytes were not encouraged to follow the example of those established poets, often well protected within the academy, whose poetry is beyond criticism because it is about nothing except language. Donaghy wanted his young hopefuls to write negotiated poems, which are never just about language even when they say they are. Some of his modern models were British, or at any rate Irish: he said he didn’t mind being asked to talk about ‘Auden & Co’ as long as it was understood that the ‘Co’ meant MacNeice. There was a whole teaching programme hidden in that one remark, because it will always be true that a neophyte stands to learn more from MacNeice than from Auden: it is useful, if frustrating, to try copying MacNeice’s strictness, but it is fatal to try copying Auden’s apparent nonchalance.

But for his British students and readers, Donaghy’s most provocative models for the accomplished poem were Americans. His range of examples drew from the two great lines of achievement leading on from Whitman and Emily Dickinson but he lent no credence to schools, only to the intensity of the individual talent. In one of his reviews, he ascribed to Richard Wilbur ‘the most flawless command of musical phrase of any American poet’. It’s a mark of the consistent authority of Donaghy’s critical prose that the confidence of such a judgement sounds precise, instead of just like a puff on a jacket. In the quarter of a century before Donaghy became active as a reviewer, the outstanding critical voice in London had been Ian Hamilton. Nobody wrote a better argument than Hamilton, but not even once did he say something like that about Wilbur, or indeed about anybody. Hamilton was strongest when he found weakness. Donaghy, in so many ways the heir to Hamilton’s seals of office, was no more forgiving to lax expression, but far less inhibited about communicating enjoyment, instead of just leaving it to be inferred.

Donaghy was not immediately famous as a critic in Britain, whose citadels fall slowly. But he was immediately understood: the broad sympathy of his view travelled well. Especially he was understood by his young admirers, to whom he gave, by his guidance of their reading, the modern American poetry that matters. Indeed he gave them America, with the result that some of the best poems about America in recent years were composed in Britain by young writers who had got their standards for highly charged and musically cadenced language from him. We all enjoy such a coup as Frank O’Hara’s poem about Lana Turner, and even those of us who think that John Ashbery has turned into a factory get a kick out of his classic poem about Daffy Duck. But not even O’Hara or Ashbery ever wrote anything quite as good about American popular culture as John Stammers’s poem ‘The Other Dozier’. Once it would have been a sign of cultural subjection for Britain to claim that some of the best American poetry is written here. Now it sounds more like a simple claim to truth: the Atlantic has become an exchange of energy, and Donaghy is partly responsible.

He was also responsible, and more than partly, for ensuring that some of the best American criticism would be written here. He might have found it harder to write it at home, where any critic who publishes a limiting judgement is thought to be an assassin. In a previous generation, the same had been thought of Randall Jarrell, but in fact Jarrell could be adventurous and generous in his praise: nobody, not even Galway Kinnell when introducing his indispensable selection from Whitman, could do a better job than Jarrell of showing why the best lines and phrases from Leaves of Grass defied belittlement even at their most naive. Jarrell’s strength as an appreciator, however, depended on his powers of discrimination, and that dependency will always be regarded with suspicion in America, where a critic sins against democracy if he finds some poets more valuable than others. Donaghy, who had already committed the same offence, probably did well to head for less tolerant climes. And after all, he brought the best American criticism with him, just as he brought the best American poetry. Donaghy the great quoter always paid his fellow American critics the tribute, with due acknowledgement, of reproducing their best lines. Thus we came to hear Dana Gioia’s opinion that ideas in the poetry of Ashbery are ‘like the melodies in some jazz improvisation where the musicians have left out the original tune to avoid paying royalties’. Donaghy knew he couldn’t beat that, so he quoted it. But there were many occasions on which he matched it. He could deliver judgements in a way that people remembered, and for anyone who is capable of doing that, it really matters if he is right or wrong.

In his theoretical work it mattered less. Quite a lot of Donaghy’s writing on psychology is included here. The incidental remarks are frequently valuable, but in the end there is no settling some of the conundrums about the functioning of the brain: or anyway, if they ever are settled, it probably won’t be by a poet. Perhaps partly because of the traditional nostalgia of the lapsed PhD, science always fascinated him. He not only admired Coleridge, he emulated him, producing pages of text in which various parts of the argument go on in various frames, rather as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner grew annotations in the margin. But such pretensions to complex simultaneity weren’t what made Coleridge a genius, they were what ensured his genius would never be coherent. Donaghy was in no such danger, because he knew what came first: the sayable, memorable, living poem, and his living response to it. Science didn’t even come second. His repudiated but never forgotten Catholicism would have a better claim to the silver medal. When he talks about poetic truth, he just can’t help mentioning the Elevation of the Host. Ritual was deeply embedded in him, like music. They were formal resources. But every resource of his mind and memory was in service to language, of which, both creatively and critically, he was a master. Had he lived, he would surely have done such great things that he would have been universally recognized as one the voices of his time, not only in poetry but in the understanding of it. Some of the reasons we can be so sure are in this book.