“Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was a missing ingredient when I was trying and failing to write poetry as a young man.“
We know we can’t finesse what’s been Michael Donaghy
I met him twice. Once in my local,
where suited he sat with a half of Guinness,
his cue in its case like an instrument.
Just passing through, he took pity on me
and played for free. It was poetry.
Angles and vectors, like he made it up.
Sooner or later, a mark strolled up
and I left him the table.
had the soft Irish eyes of my friend Michael,
the same mannered focus, and his voice was soft
and his hands when you shook them…soft.
Years later, I saw him in the Troy Club,
that late-night dive off Hanway Street,
and he was absolutely ruined –
alone, smiling and crying and sheeted
to a wind I fear only he could hear.
I told Mike about it, puzzled though he was
by the wan look and strangled tone
with which I framed my tale.
For many, many years, my writing process when it came to poetry was not to write at all. I was a young poet (‘of promise’, or so they told me) in the late ‘90s and very early ‘00s – having moved south from Scotland to be part of the London poetry scene. And then I stopped writing poetry. Part of the reason why is bound up in the subject of this poem.
The epigraph to ‘The Hustler’ comes from another poem, Michael Donaghy’s ‘Regarding Our Late Correspondence’, which ostensibly uses the metaphor of playing pool (and being rubbish at it – I can personally testify to Michael’s unimpressive pool game) to describe an inability to communicate true feeling to another person. There is a second poem I had in mind when I wrote ‘The Hustler’, also featuring the game of pool and by another poet. But I don’t want to be gunned down (with a revolver shooting flowers) by the Magic Circle. In other words, I’ll leave that other source text for the reader to figure out, if they so wish to.
The Irish-American poet Michael Donaghy was, as I say in the poem, my friend. Before that, he was my teacher, as like many others, I attended the London evening classes he taught at the time. There has been so much written about Michael the personality (he was spellbinding) and Michael the public reader of poetry (ditto) that I hesitate to rehearse it all here. These things have perhaps taken away from the poems themselves, which are by far the greatest thing about him. For those who haven’t read his Collected Poems, I can only recommend that you seek it out.
Michael passed away in 2004, at the age of only fifty. I had started to run into trouble writing poetry before then, and Michael was aware of this. I remember a rather melancholy day wandering around London Zoo with Michael discussing the difficulties I was encountering. And in truth, Michael himself was beginning to encounter difficulties in writing poetry towards the end of his life. The last conversation I remember having with him was on whether he should try writing a novel about his childhood in the Bronx instead. He didn’t sound terribly enthusiastic.
When Michael died my own life was in a happy, but disconcerting, flux. I had just got married (to another poet, Kathryn Gray) and our daughter was born a fortnight after Michael passed. We had to split duties between the memorial service and the wake. I mention all this because I wasn’t capable of mourning Michael at the time (or perhaps I was avoiding it…appropriately enough, I was the one who attended the wake). Writing poetry proved similarly elusive. And so, for many years, I wrote nothing at all. In retrospect, the avalanche of public grief within the poetry community that followed Michael’s death left me feeling alienated (as it surely did others). I could not find the space to grieve on my own terms.
Fast forward twelve years later, and I found myself writing poems again. It started in an involuntary way and from the beginning, Michael was a presence in the work. This wasn’t surprising, as our taste in poetry was very similar. Nevertheless, I found myself going through a very delayed process of grieving within that. And some poems directly about Michael came out of this, including ‘The Hustler’.
On one level, the poem is a true story. Back in the days before Michael passed, I did indeed meet a young Irish pool hustler in the manner described. He did remind me of Michael. I did see him some time after in the Troy Club (describing that legendary Soho establishment would take an entirely separate essay) and he was in a very bad way. The shock of the contrast between the virtuoso pool player and the ruined drunk stayed with me…long enough to come up with this poem more than a decade later. So, the poem is, I suppose, a reflection on virtuosity and vulnerability, two qualities that are often intertwined. Indeed, Michael himself was a virtuoso poet – absolutely in control on the page – but also one of the most vulnerable people you could ever meet.
In addition to this, ‘The Hustler’ is about the difficulty of meaningful communication, in keeping with Michael’s source poem, ‘Regarding Our Late Correspondence’. I would hope the slant expression of emotion in ‘The Hustler’ works more powerfully for the reader than a direct lament. Emotions, particularly those involving grief, are far from clear after all. They can take years to understand, because they require a ‘stringent attentiveness…if the soul is to do justice to their turbulence and furore’. These words are not Michael’s but those of another poet he greatly admired, the late C.K. Williams. And that is how I try to write poems, with a stringent attentiveness to emotion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was a missing ingredient when I was trying and failing to write poetry as a young man.
One final point. I describe ‘The Hustler’ as a true story but perhaps it would be more accurate to say the story is ‘trued’, a coinage of Michael’s to excuse the fictional adjustments made to a poem when describing real life events – to heighten the truth of its emotional impact on the reader (or ‘the mark’…to use the language of hustling). In all honesty, I cannot now say for sure if the last three lines of the poem ever took place. My memory plays tricks on me. And yet, in another sense, I have told Michael the story many times over. I am still telling him it. This is the reason I mention framing my tale in the poem’s last line – a frame being what happens in pool when two players break the rack of balls and take turns to clear the table.