Michael Donaghy - Reader in Residence

Michael Donaghy has won numerous awards for his elegant and passionate poetry. He has had two collections published by Oxford University Press: Shibboleth, which won the Whitbread Poetry Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and Errata, which was selected for the New Generation Poets promotion. Born in New York in 1954, he has lived in Britain since 1985.


Imagine growing up in a society where one's first and only experience of music occurred in a schoolroom, where the beauty of music was meticulously analysed and explained to you and where you were judged by your ability to explain it in turn. In one sense, of course, your appreciation of music would be exquisitely sophisticated because tunes wouldn't be tinkling persistently out of lift speakers or commuter's headphones. Music wouldn't be an "on" switch away, so you'd be more alert to its nuances when you did hear it. But let's face it, you wouldn't be queuing round the corner for the experience. It would always be more "improving" than pleasurable.

Well that's more or less our (urban, Anglophone) experience of poetry. Perhaps its low profile has to do with the way it's taught. On the graduate level, modern pedagogues have long felt disinclined to lead tour groups around the gallery waving their pointing sticks at the sheer genius of the Old Masters. They want to be the main event. Literacy corrupts, they seem to be saying, and Literature, the common ground of writing agreed to be worthy of cultural survival, is the tool of the oppressor. If poetry depended on intellectuals for its survival it would be about as current as hieroglyphics.

They exhibit common scholarly errors of reading from the outside. On a popular level, we've all encountered the crazed overreader who find allegories of the exiled Zemblan royalty in The House At Pooh Corner or Satanic messages in Sense And Sensibility. Once after a workshop on Frost I was buttonholed by one such keen interpreter who swore blind that "Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening" was about Frost's sexual experiments with his horse and he would - unless stopped - demonstrate this with a line-by-line analysis.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near...


He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake...

This was not merely a readerly error, however. He himself, he said, had penned a crown of sonnets in which he gave half the farmyards in Devon a good seeing to. Another error consists of treating the "canon" as a pickled corpse to be wheeled out for dissection practice by generations of medical students. Literary taste was effectively banished from the curriculum when I was a student. I remember complaining that a particular contemporary poet we were studying wasn't to my taste. The professor looked baffled. "Taste?" he said, pointing to his tongue, "Taste is here." Once, I was pleasantly surprised when another professor - James K. Chandler - read Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight" aloud, all 567 words of it, paused, and asked us if we thought it was beautiful. Thanks, Jim. That's the only time in my experience of academe I got any indication that it might be relevant to find pleasure in a poem.

For the past year I've been "reader-in-residence" for the Poetry Society. I tried the opposite approach, running discussions and "close-readings" of poems, mostly with groups of librarians, in which we tried to understand the poem from a maker's point of view. In other words, I followed the example set by schools of music and painting, where criticism and theory are taught in conjunction with practice. If your only experience of motoring lay in deconstructing the Highway Code you could hardly be expected to understand the allure of the automobile, so I took my readers for a spin round the block.

My principal accomplishment in this post, however, lay in organising my ideas about reading/writing poetry into a disgracefully disorganised "lecture" called "Wallflowers", I'm very grateful to the Poetry Society and the Arts Council for giving me the opportunity to do this. Some of the ideas here came out of conversations with Chris Meade, Don Paterson, Sean O'Brien, Colin Falck, and - especially - Jo Shapcott.
Michael Donaghy

Young Poets Network