Head in the Clouds

A doctor’s grim prognosis gave Timothy Donnelly a new outlook on life—and poetry.

In 2003, shortly after the release of his debut poetry collection, the poet Timothy Donnelly started having serious dizzy spells, one of which happened in Penn Station. Donnelly decided to visit an ear, nose, and throat specialist, who gave him a basic test. The results looked bleak.

“You’ve suffered some serious hearing loss,” the doctor told Donnelly, suggesting the possibility of Ménière’s disease, an inner-ear disorder characterized by common episodes of tinnitus and vertigo. Shortly after, Donnelly went through a dozen more tests—“hearing stuff, visual stuff, the greater part of an afternoon,” he says—which revealed his condition to be far more complicated than initially imagined: a tumor, maybe, or a lesion in the brain stem, perhaps something life-threatening. Or nothing.

“I thought, ‘This is what it feels like to have your mortality around the corner,’” says Donnelly, who is 41. “I wasn’t crying. I just felt gutted.”

It turned out, however, that Donnelly didn’t have a medical condition after all. His brain simply has, as he puts it, an “idiosyncratic way of processing sense data.” The result of this experience: slight hearing loss, as well as “The New Intelligence,” the opening poem in Donnelly’s second poetry collection, The Cloud Corporation. As the poem’s final stanza describes it:

I won’t be dying after all, not now, but will go on living dizzily
hereafter in reality, half-deaf to reality, in the room
perfumed by the fire that our inextinguishable will begins.

Donnelly’s wife, Lynn Melnick, a writer and the mother of their two young daughters, Stella and Ada, describes his situation this way: “His brain doesn’t read signals the way other brains do. It really is wacky, but not in a bad way. There’s something really different about his brain. It’s his brilliance, his uniqueness. Also the fact that he works really, really hard.”

Donnelly is, without a doubt, a workhorse. He’s a husband and father, a creative writing and literature professor at Columbia University, and the poetry editor of Boston Review. He’s also a graduate of Columbia’s MFA and Princeton’s PhD programs. And he’s a burgeoning poet who had two mammoth poems, “The Cloud Corporation” and “Globus Hystericus” (both of which appear in his new book), published last year in Harper’s and the Paris Review, respectively—no small feat for any poet, let alone a young one.

“I need to keep busy,” says Donnelly. “I don’t do well with stasis.”

* * *

Donnelly grew up in a middle-class family in a rural Rhode Island town surrounded by “oaks, maples, pines, sassafras, ferns, lady’s slippers, moss; after rains, mushrooms,” he says. “Fantastic stuff to play around in as a kid.” While studying in Catholic school, he became infatuated with the works of Keats and Dickinson and Shakespeare (Julius Caesar in particular). The arts, however—as Donnelly readily admits—were never a big part of his upbringing. His mother was a stay-at-home mom; his father worked in the jewelry business.

Donnelly did have artistic ambitions, though: he dreamed of one day becoming a famous movie director, following closely Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick’s “wonderfully composed frames and scenes,” as well as Martin Scorsese’s work—“the frenetic jumpiness, the feeling of there being lots of rules and codes in his movies, a violence.” Which is why, when Donnelly left home to attend Johns Hopkins, he enrolled in the university’s film program.

He quickly learned, however, that being a director was far more collaborative than he would have liked. He wanted to be a 1950s-style auteur, to make art his own way, to be independent. “Collaboration always means compromise,” says Donnelly. “Sometimes people can come up with ideas that send you in a new direction, that can be an interesting dynamic, but that’s never worked for me.”

Donnelly, instead, signed up for a slew of liberal arts courses: anthropology, philosophy, literature, fiction, poetry. He found the latter particularly interesting, especially the work of Wallace Stevens. “I felt a poem is a place where you can embody an issue, turn it in one direction or another,” he says, “but let the complexities of these issues, or these concerns, or these experiences, remain there for people to explore and investigate.”

After four years in Baltimore—and with little career direction—Donnelly moved back home with his parents, teaching English as a second language at the local library and working the counter at a Dunkin’ Donuts. “I didn’t know what to do with myself,” he says.

Donnelly’s next move: New York City, where, over the course of several years, he took classes full-time in Columbia’s MFA program (he would meet his wife there), interned at a rare-books library, and worked as an assistant at the Poetry Society of America. In 1995 Donnelly accepted an editorial job too, as poetry co-editor of Boston Review, a position that he shared with his Columbia classmate Mary Jo Bang for 10 years and that he’s held since.

Donnelly’s life, in essence, became a poet’s dream: studying, reading, writing, editing. The financial realities of being a poet in the city, however, began to add up and led him, in 1999, to enroll as a PhD candidate in literature at Princeton. Donnelly knew, for both personal and financial reasons, that he didn’t just want to write and edit poetry; he also wanted to teach it.

During this time, Donnelly was also hard at work on his first poetry collection, Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit—a book that, to his surprise, went on to receive offers from several publishers. Grove Press, a publishing house Donnelly associated with stalwarts such as Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett, was among them. “It seemed like the best place to be,” he says.

So Donnelly accepted Grove’s deal—a decision he quickly regretted. “The production of the book was rushed, loveless,” he says. “No one would return my calls. They had no interest in me. It was embarrassing. They thought my name was William Donnelly.”

Despite this, Donnelly, then 34, gained significant renown after the book’s publication. Even Entertainment Weekly took notice, heralding Donnelly as 2003’s “It Poet.” “His debut collection is a helluva lot more accessible than its funky title (eine lebenszeit: German for ‘a lifetime’),” reviewer Ken Tucker wrote. “The Brooklyn poet has a knack for buried aphorisms (‘What are the traits that delineate the human? / Leave me alone’) and Byronic satire (‘Fowler’s mother’s Byzantine neuroticism / and her father’s reluctance to address her directly / cast a pall over every minute of her youth. . . .’).”

In the poetry-reading community, however, Twenty-seven Props received a much more mixed response. On, 20 reviewers gave it five stars, while 18 gave it one. “It is fiercely smart and polished, and its observations about emotion both exult and score deeply,” wrote one reviewer. “The poems in this book all seem to have been written by a poet with a tin ear, with no regard for nuance or understatement,” wrote another.

The consensus: Readers seemed to either love Donnelly’s poems or hate them.

* * *

The writing of The Cloud Corporation took place over a six-year period. Most of it was penned late at night, while Donnelly’s wife and kids slept. For Donnelly, the collection marks a time of growth—and fatherly maturity. “In the writing of this book, I thought, ‘I’m getting older; I’m growing up; I don’t just want to have a party in my poems,’” he says. “I wanted to take on some deeper stuff.”

Among that deeper stuff: politics, the environment, and the economy. “Certain themes persisted in my thinking,” says Donnelly. “One was the sense that, globally, things weren’t going well, environmentally speaking and also politically. Another was, personally, in my own life, financial hardship. It was always a persistent thing. It was always a great worry of mine.”

The collection is thus an eclectic, albeit judicious, mix of sprawling, cinematic subjects and literary traditions—bridging heightened, Victorian diction, say, with the modern tongue. As the book’s editor, Matthew Zapruder, describes it, “It isn’t old-fashioned, but it feels like it has a timeless aspect.”

Largely a result of two decades of thinking, writing, and especially reading, Donnelly’s poetic convictions—“a combination of voice, philosophical rigor, and cultural and personal engagement,” as Rob Casper, publisher of the literary magazine jubilat, puts it—are on full display. “He isn’t the type of person who looks something up in a book, although he will do that at times for various reasons,” says the poet Mary Jo Bang. “Those books are part of him.”

Former Columbia students view Donnelly’s mind similarly. “He seems to have a big library in his head of everything,” says Justine Post, now a PhD candidate at the University of Houston. “His reading of medieval literature, his deep understanding of Shakespeare’s sonnets, of Victorian verse, of a range of literary traditions, speaks to how careful a reader he is,” says Lytton Smith, a former Columbia student. “Timothy clearly is—as an editor, as a teacher, as a human being—a thoughtful reader.”

Samuel Amadon, the author of the collection Like a Sea and another Columbia graduate, describes Donnelly’s mental makeup this way: “He’s the kind of person who will note to you that doughnuts are called doughnuts because they look like mechanical nuts—not some other kind of nuts.”

Hence another deep-seated trait of Donnelly’s poetry (and personality): humor. “I want to be silly, too,” he says. “That’s a large part of who I am.”

The most prominent facet of Donnelly’s verse, though, is undoubtedly its long, energetic, Stevens-esque length—a result of what he calls his “go big or go home” impulse. While 11 of The Cloud Corporation’s poems fit on one page, the other 38 run two or more pages, allowing him thorough room to explore his wide-ranging interests—“the topical, the political, the current, and the ancient”—and then wryly laugh off the complex, often apocalyptic anxieties that result.

As Donnelly says, “I’m definitely aware of the fact that things are not as they should be, including the fact that we’re all going to die. But given that, how can we enjoy our knowledge of that? By admitting it, addressing it, confronting it, getting a little bit silly about it.”

Not even a doctor’s once-disquieting prognosis of Ménière’s disease—or the hearing loss that resulted—can deter Donnelly from finding fun. Like Hitchcock or Kubrick, through whimsy he transforms bedlam into beauty.

Originally Published: October 27th, 2010

Spencer Bailey is a writer and editor in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times MagazineBloomberg BusinessweekSurface magazine, and other publications.

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  1. October 27, 2010

    An underwhelming review, a sort of interesting look into the process of the personality that made the poems. I've read the book, found it disappointing. A talented poet, no doubt, but one who stylistically has yet to find a steady and entirely new perch.

  2. October 31, 2010
     Terry V.

    What is this? It reads like an advertisement for his personality. It doesn't seem to have a point other than to say Donnelly is a helluva good guy...

    I don't mean to be rude, but just thought I'd ask...

  3. November 21, 2010
     Zooey Mitford

    I found this article illuminating. Is it such a
    bad thing to talk about the poet's life? or
    the place from which his/her poems come?
    I should think not.