The beginning of “The Classics,” a poem by Michael Donaghy, has stayed with me for a long time:
I remember it like it was last night, Chicago, the back room of Flanagan’s Malignant with accordions and cigarettes, Joe Cooley bent above his Paolo Soprani, Its asthmatic bellows pumping as if to revive The half-corpse strapped about it. It’s five a.m. Everyone’s packed up. His brother Seamus grabs Joe’s elbow mid-arpeggio. “Wake up, man. We have to catch a train.” His eyelids fluttering, opening. The astonishment . . .
It’s quintessential Donaghy, invoking as it does his great theme, memory, and his love of performances of all kinds—especially those involving Irish music in dingy bars. It brings the two things together in that image of a hunched Joe Cooley, still playing his accordion even as he nods off, the music so thoroughly internalized that he needn’t be fully awake to play it. The true performer, Donaghy implies, gets lost in the performance—something that can only happen when the music has been so completely absorbed into the musician that it becomes his second nature.
Donaghy was famous for reciting his own poems from memory at readings that were fully realized performances in a way too few poetry readings are. At a Donaghy reading there was never any of the mumbling, [End Page 33] page-flipping, or nervous self-explanation with which poetry audiences are all too familiar. He was entirely present to the poem and to the audience, not hovering a little above himself, wondering just how he ought to manifest. Once, when Yeats’s famous question “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” came up, Donaghy gave an answer that underlined his commitment to losing himself in performance: “Who cares?” Better for the two to be so intermingled they can’t be torn asunder.
“The Classics” ends like this:
I saw this happen. Or heard it told so well I’ve staged the whole drunk memory: What does it matter now? It’s ancient history. Who can name them? Where lie their bones and armor?
Perhaps, given Donaghy’s fascination with memory (accurate or otherwise), there’s a small irony in how the version of this poem I’ve carried in my head for years turns out to be a bit distorted. When I came back to the poem on the page recently, I was surprised to find it ending with the question “Where lie their bones and armor?” For ages I’d been saying “Where lie their swords and armor?”—an inferior ending, to be sure. But I want to keep my distorted version, for now, and use it as a way to talk about Donaghy’s poetry because his poems—or perhaps I should say his performed poems—were both his swords and his armor.
Why would a poet, so long after the days of the cavaliers, need swords, even metaphorical ones? For the Poetry Wars, of course: a serious business for several generations of poets. When Maddy Paxman, Donaghy’s widow after his sudden death in 2004 at the age of fifty, recalls the terrible day he passed in her memoir The Great Below, she tells us that among his final words were “Tell my friends to look after Ruairi, and keep up the fight.” Ruairi was their young son; the fight was the battle on behalf of formal verse, which Donaghy feared would [End Page 34] be lost to the forces of the avant-garde. Donaghy became a partisan of formal poetry early on. During his time as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he and his friend Keith Tuma numbered among the editors of the Chicago Review, where, as Tuma recollects, “we were all a little tired of the limp free verse of American poetry and looking for alternatives.” Tuma turned to experimentalism, to the Black Mountain poets and to language writers like Charles Bernstein and Lyn Hejinian. Donaghy took another path. Questing after shape and pattern, he briefly experimented with proceduralist poems (published under a pseudonym) before finding his affinity with a range...