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Not Just Tuneful But True

John O’Donnell

.The Five Quintets, by Micheal O’Siadhail, Baylor University Press, 384 pp, $34.95, ISBN: 978-1481307093

In “Haiku One” the poet John Cooper Clarke ruefully observes: “To freeze the moment / in seventeen syllables / is very diffic”. The bard of Beasley Street is having fun here of course, but he’s also highlighting the constricting ‑ sometimes suffocating ‑ effects of form. No such worries afflict Micheal O’Siadhail in The Five Quintets, where he enthusiastically embraces haiku, sonnet, iambic pentameter, terza rima and other forms the poet has devised himself in what he describes in his helpful introduction as a meditation on the changes in the way we think and act over the last four hundred years, and more particularly on the individuals O’Siadhail believes are responsible for those changes.

So is this history or poetry? The answer is yes; while elsewhere in the introduction, he describes the book as “a history of ideas … told through lives and personalities”, O’Siadhail assembles a large cast of characters from history whom he profiles – and, daringly, has them address us – and all in verse.  Even to attempt such a work is an enormous undertaking, and a courageous one, at a time when we are constantly told that “the long form” – whatever that is ‑ is dead. The stamina and discipline required to sustain such a project are in themselves remarkable (even excluding O’Siadhail’s introductory essay, the text runs to some 357 pages) yet O’Siadhail’s energy seems boundless, thanks no doubt to “Madam Jazz”, O’Siadhail’s muse so often in the past whose inspiration is sought once again in the work’s opening lines, which summarise so sweetly how, for O’Siadhail, art is made: “Be with me Madam Jazz I urge you now, / Riff in me so I can conjure how / You breathe in us more than we dare allow.”

The work is divided into five sections: “Making” (which deals with the arts), “Dealing” (commerce and economics), “Steering” (politics), “Finding” (science), and “Meaning” (theology and philosophy). Each section contains five cantos (O’Siadhail gratefully acknowledges the influence of Dante, and the title of course echoes TS Eliot’s “Four Quartets”) and each canto or “song” in turn contains beneath its title one or more verses riffing on its subject. The field is crowded and the juxtaposition of some of the players is intriguing: Yeats, “proud archpriest of sound” lines up with Picasso, who confesses “Enclosed in both my fortune and acclaim / I can’t outgrow the icon I became.” Elsewhere, Karl Marx appears alongside John D Rockefeller … and our very own Michael Fingleton (“The wastelands of your windowed soul / With dull and disillusioned eyes; / Your hell is greed’s own blackest hole’). O’Siadhail is also having fun here: his selection of Margaret Thatcher (“[w]ho, exploiting dreads and prejudice, / Seems to read the fears of everyone / And pledge returns to pasts that never were” ‑ some things never change, do they?) in between the profiles of Adolf Hitler and Osama Bin Laden is defended as being due to the exigencies of following a strict chronological order, though her more ardent detractors may see no injustice in this placement.

There’s a spiritual bass-line underpinning O’Siadhail’s analysis of the sciences and the music of the spheres; “as poets still believe they’ll catch the wind / so too a dream of final theories, / a deep desire for supersymmetries / to close the gaps in life’s invariance / that drives our search to understand still more, / to knock again on God’s all-knowing door”. The message of “the joiner’s son from Galilee” reverberates throughout the next section, “Meaning”: “[w]hile Europe’s thinkers slowly reason out / belief in God and weave their filigree / of subtle arguments for faith or doubt”. These last two sections are more reflective and discursive than the previous sections, as O’Siadhail eschews the more formalised profile mode, while still imagining thrillingly robust exchanges between the likes of Voltaire and Locke: “O no, Monsieur John Locke, don’t give me that! / You and rights of revolution though / you’ve shares in slaves despite your caveat.” In the final section O’Siadhail tentatively approaches a kind of vision: “I can’t yet understand but know by heart // that nothing but desire can underwrite / my passage through this vaulted light-led zone, / that in this arch’s eye all things unite.”

There are one or two concerns. The paucity of women is regrettable. O’Siadhail suggests this reflects “the reality of history”, but there is no attempt to address the work of Marie Curie or indeed any of the other life-changing innovators in the field of health. It would likewise have been interesting to see profiles of campaigners such as Rosa Parkes, or for that matter Martin Luther King. Given the nature of the book, a far more comprehensive contents page would assist considerably. O’Siadhail explains the format of the book and introduces many of the characters in his introduction, so it is hard to see why the contents page could not likewise set out the players who feature in each section of the various cantos, since the verses bear no titles.

These though are quibbles. The real value of this work is that it delights even as it teaches: “A verse may find him who a sermon flies”, as George Herbert advises, and the breadth of learning here is breathtaking yet worn lightly. Above all, the golden thread tying this scholarly work of glinting, jewelled pieces together is the writer’s love of -and considerable skill with – language. “Not just what’s tuneful, but what’s also true / Must sanctify the altar of grand art”, O’Siadhail observes of Wagner, while Basho elsewhere notes “My syllables are blossoms so precise …[d]elighting in the strange alas of things”. The same might be said of O’Siadhail in this heroic and imaginative work, which audaciously jumps the textual tracks from history to poetry. It’s appropriate to finish with the words the poet gives to Dante (a personal favourite of the author): “I dare allow my sacred poem to leap / From where we are to where we’re made to be.”

1/4/2019

John O’Donnell is a poet. His latest book, pubished by Dedalus Press is Sunlight,New and Selected Poems.

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