His teaching style was an invigorating and mesmerising mix of laid-back chat, practical advice, an astonishing ability to quote from memory, analytical rigour, bad jokes, and an unstinting devotion to poetry, says Maggie O'Farrell
Saturday 20 November 2010
"Hair oil, boiled sweets, chalk dust, squid's ink . . . / Bear with me. I'm trying to conjure my father."
There are many of us out there who would, if we only could, conjure the man who wrote these lines – Michael Donaghy, the Irish-American poet who died in 2004. How might the list go? Tweed overcoat, huge grin, sheaf of papers, flute . . .
I attended his poetry classes at City University in the mid-90s. I'd just moved to London and was navigating my way through the usual damp flats, unfulfilling relationships and the kinds of jobs where you open a lot of envelopes. His teaching style was an invigorating and mesmerising mix of laid-back chat, practical advice, an astonishing ability to quote from memory, analytical rigour, bad jokes, and an unstinting devotion to poetry.
"'No ideas but in things'," he might shout as he walked through the door, often late. "Who said that? William Carlos Williams." Or, slapping a photocopied poem down on our desks: "Some burglars broke into my house last night. They took everything." A pause while he looked around the room, registering our shock. "Then they replaced it with exact replicas, only a little dustier. OK! Who likes Sharon Olds?"
He taught me never to throw away a first draft, that every word must pull its weight, that good things come in threes, never to use abstracts, to cut and cut and cut. Everything I ever needed to know, basically. Plus how to play the bodhran.
I no longer write poetry – or play the bodhran – but who he was forms part of the bedrock of my writing. I often find that, when I'm working, I have conjured him inadvertently. Typing a sentence, I will stop and think, no, he said avoid the construct "the (abstract noun) of a (concrete noun)" – cut it, quick, before anyone sees. The other day, I was stuck and I remembered another piece of advice: go back to the masters, see how they made it work. So I did. I went back to him.