Like most art, poetry is highly subjective.  It’s very easy to be terrible immediately, whilst very hard to be taken seriously eventually.  As the ever fantastic Oscar Wilde once quipped when asked how his day was: ‘’Well I spent the morning deciding whether or not to include a comma, and the afternoon deciding whether or not to take it out.’’  

Like all great prose, a huge amount of anguish applies to poetry.  It, being the one art form for which we all unhesitatingly reach in our greatest and most urgent hour of need, hurt, pain, betrayal, heartbreak and suffering.  And death.

So poetry has to resonate.  It has to account for something, mean something, be something other to that of regularity.  

Most importantly of all, poetry has to be real, which is why I found the Collected Poems of Michael Donaghy a real struggle. That’s not to say Donaghy was dishonest, far from it.  He was a modern metaphysical, who wrote potentially charming poetry of consummate technical ability.  The latter of which, whilst both clever and commendable, unfortunately robbed his poems of any true emotion.  And what is a poem - or any art form come to that - without emotion?  

For instance, writing of the Welsh poet Sion ap Brydydd in his introduction to Seven Poems from the Welsh, Donaghy is surely far too scientific for his own good: ‘’These short poems were not composed in the sense in which that term
applies to the writing of English poetry.  Rather, they were thought to have
obtained, like Japanese tanka and haiku, as the complete and inevitable response to a split second of painfully acute perception.  To the objection that the preconceived form of the poem shapes that perception, Sion would answer that during such moments neither poet, poem, nor subject can be distinguished one from the other.  In this mysterious way, he believed, all his englynion were faint echoes of a single unwritten poem which, if pronounced, would so perfectly unite the souls of author and listener that they would inhabit each other’s bodies and exchange destinies.’’  

Hmm.  Such scientific consideration, albeit perhaps somewhat inadvertent, irrevocably collides with any form of true grit emotion.  As such, whatever it is that is trying to be conveyed, simply collapses beneath an avalanche of (cold) consideration.

Donaghy invariably continues: ‘’This poem, he believed, drifted just beyond his grasp ‘like a snowflake of complex geometry which dissolves when it lights on the tongue.’’’  Here, the science may have abated, but a cryptic persuasion has taken hold.  It is unremmitingly inherent within that of the very poetry quoted; which in and of itself, makes for hard work.

Naturally, there are assorted marvels that leap forth here and there, such as:  ‘Until the clock, clicks locked in random clusters,’ and ‘Like tears in different colours…’ both from The Dreamer and the Dreamed Have Dinner, but by and large, reading these poems is akin to listening to Frank Zappa or XTC. You know it’s very good and very accomplished and very lots of other things – but so bloody what?

David Marx
Michael Donaghy – Collected Poems
With an Introduction by Sean O’Brien
Picador Poetry - £12.99