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“Our world is interwoven”: Micheal O’Siadhail and The Five Quintets

« Notre monde est entrelacé » : Micheal O’Siadhail et The Five Quintets
Eugene O’Brien
p. 115-129

Résumés

Cet article propose une étude du recueil de Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets (2018), dans la lignée des grands narratifs modernistes établis par T. S. Eliot et Ezra Pound dans The Waste Land, Four Quartets et The Cantos. La poétique complexe d’O’Siadhail est analysée, tout comme ses structures thématiques et formelles, ainsi que la large palette de penseurs et d’auteurs qui apparaissent dans son œuvre. Chaque quintette est divisé en cinq chants, à leur tour divisés en sections, chacune écrite dans une forme différente. Par ailleurs, chaque quintette fait apparaître une série de personnages de ces derniers siècles, dans les domaines de l’art, de la musique, de la littérature (« Making »), du commerce et de l’économie (« Dealing »), de la politique et du gouvernement (« Steering »), des sciences et des mathématiques (« Finding »), ou encore de la théologie (« Meaning »).

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  • 1 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, Waco, Baylor University Press, 2018, p. xv.

In this twenty-first century we are facing the first global era in history. Given our world with instant electronic communication, immediate media reaction, and constant and rapid travel, all our cultures, economies, politics, sciences, and religions are more interwoven than ever before. How do we orient ourselves? Where have we come from? Have we a vision for the future.1

  • 2 T. S. Eliot, The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose, Lawrence S. Rainey (ed.), Ne (...)
  • 3 T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, in Collected Poems, 1909-1962, New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963, (...)
  • 4 Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, revised collected edition, London, Faber and Faber, 1975.
  • 5 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. xxi.
  • 6 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy. Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, introduction by Eugenio Montale, (...)
  • 7 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. xxi.

1The Five Quintets, an extensive single poem divided across different sections and running to over three hundred pages, is Micheal O’Siadhail’s answer to his own question, as it traces the history of ideas and of people who were foundational in bringing humanity to its current stage. O’Siadhail’s work has spanned the 20th and 21st centuries, and he is a complex and compound figure, drawing strong influence from the modernist, cosmopolitan and Eurocentric work of T. S. Eliot (The Waste Land2 and Four Quartets3) and Ezra Pound (The Cantos4), as well as being a significant part of the Irish poetic tradition. As O’Siadhail notes, in terms of his own chosen title, “naturally, such a title calls up thoughts of The Four Quartets, but that seemed appropriate. Much as I am taken by Eliot’s great poem, I always felt it needed a fifth part. He never really gets to the joy and let-go of an imagined heaven”,5 and joy is a significant factor in this poem as he is looking at the people as well as their ideas, and the interconnections and interweavings between human experience and human intellectual work. Dante’s The Divine Comedy6 is another important source for O’Siadhail: “Dante was the key”, as he wanted more than just a pallid history of ideas, but also, as history “is changed by the actions of flesh-and-blood humans with all their gifts and flaws”,7 he felt it necessary to include the people and their lived experience in his discussion of ideas and new thinking:

  • 8 Ibid.

I wanted to try and tell what happened, at least where possible, through lives and personalities. Certainly a person’s character and background affects how he or she acts in the arts, economics, politics and philosophy and theology. I am sure it’s also true, if perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent, in science. I like the way Dante could encounter and engage his characters, and there is something fascinating about his trope of hell, purgatory and heaven.8

2The poem is involved and multifaceted, and the intricacies and complexities of humanity are mirrored in the elaborate and careful structure of the sequence. Richard Rankin Russell summarises it well:

  • 9 Richard Rankin Russell, “In the Beginning the Jazz”, Irish Literary Supplement, vol. 40, no. 1, 202 (...)

Inspired in part and also indebted to Dante’s great Commedia (each of the five quintets is divided into five canti, which are then further broken down in sections, each written in a different form and set off in lower-case Roman numerals) […]. And so in each quintet, we meet a series of personages from the last several hundred years in art, music, literature (“Making”), commerce and economics (“Dealing”), politics and governance (“Steering”), science and mathematics (“Finding”), and theology (“Meaning”).9

  • 10 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2007.
  • 11 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. xx.
  • 12 Ibid., p. xx-xi.

O’Siadhail’s introduction cites another source, namely Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age10, and he recalls being impressed by how it traced the progress of notions of God in society from being hegemonic to a current position in academia where, “in what he calls ‘the Atlantic culture’”, the dominant mode is “secular”.11 The sheer intellectual sweep and scope of the book made an impression on O’Siadhail, who began to ponder whether “a long dramatic modern poem might take stock of our way of thinking, as our stance in the world seems to be in the process of change. Would it be possible even to hint at some vision?”.12

  • 13 Ibid., p. 55.
  • 14 Ibid., p. 355.

3O’Siadhail captures the joy of thought, of discovery and of invention across a range of periods and disciplines. As he puts it, speaking of George Eliot, “A traveller’s joy will trust what’s new and strange / And dare to go beyond the diagram”,13 and while speaking of his own aging process and of the power of memory, he notes that he is “becoming more myself in resonance / with those I love”:14

Although no memory compares with this,

each nervelet and synapse inside my brain
finds images among its bric-à-brac
to help an ageing vessel to contain

  • 15 Ibid., p. 356.

such joy.15

  • 16 Ibid., p. 233.
  • 17 Ibid., p. 24.

4The form of these stanzas, with enjambment spanning the stanzaic structure, and the terminal associative chain of the terza rima interwoven with the syntactic structure, allows the rhyming words, and the terminal word of the sentence, to form an associative chain which mirrors the thinking of the unconscious as it overdetermines the connections: “brain […] contain […] joy”. So far from being just an academic epistemological exercise, it is the interweaving of human experience, human cognition and invention that is at the core of this book. This is a text of process rather than product; of a journey rather than a destination, and its focus is on our “rainbow humankind”,16 where “all things are a process undergone”,17 and where the best way of governing people must be:

  • 18 Ibid., p. 90.

– a rich ambivalence,
Harmonious disharmony,
A daily thriving cut and thrust
Where most have half a truth and miss
How summits slope so many sides
And see no need for synthesis.18

  • 19 He has published two books on Irish-language teaching: Micheal O’Siadhail, Modern Irish: Grammatica (...)
  • 20 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 45.

His work as an Irish-language academic, teacher and writer further complicate his aesthetic outlook,19 which is very much one that sees connectedness across all sorts of barriers: “You’re most yourself when keeping on the move. / In tune we’re interwoven all in all”.20

5In this essay, I will show how O’Siadhail is attempting something genuinely new and almost countercultural in creating a sweeping, dramatic, public poem about the history of world ideas. He is writing a public poem wherein the areas of art, music and thought, very much what we expect from our poetry, are juxtaposed with those of politics, science, economics and theology. It is a poem where a significant range of figures are given voice, and are summarised by the poetic narrator, before being ventriloquised in their own voices. Structurally and stylistically, this is achieved through italics, and the italicised voices are often more imagistic than the voice which has, up to then, narrated their achievements and summarised core aspects of their lives.

  • 21 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 246.
  • 22 Ibid., p. 249.

6It is possibly a truism to say that contemporary poetry’s hegemonic mode is that of lyric, and that the personal pronoun, first-person singular has become fused to that title across a range of writers, languages and cultures. As Northrop Frye noted, literary discourse generally uses the term as a type of “trade slang […] for short poems”,21 and one need hardly emphasise the methodological difficulty, or the epistemological questionability of attempting to define poetic discourse in terms of length. He also refers to the ostensible lack of audience in the lyric, where the poet seems to be talking to him or herself in a manner which suggests that the utterance is overheard.22

  • 23 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Geoff Bennington, Brian Mas (...)

7The lyric “I” is the speaking voice of most poems, and also the topic of most poems, offering a type of solipsistic discourse, as the “I” speaks about the “I” in an effort to more fully understand the “I”. That poetry has an ability to offer levels of understanding about subjectivity that are not readily available to other forms of discourse is, at this stage, not contested I think, so it is understandable that the lyric “I”, as both speaking subject, and analysed and probed object, appears to be focused on the internal life of the subject as opposed to the society and culture in which that subject lives. O’Siadhail is trying to do something different. While still using the lyric form, he is attempting to move towards a form of epic and dramatic poetic structure wherein there is set out a grand narrative of how humankind has got to its current place: it is an epic that attempts to signify a full culture, mirroring in contemporary times the Homeric aims of the Odyssey and the Iliad, Dante’s La Divina Commedia, or Virgil’s Aeneid. He is looking to write an epic account of the epistemology of the contemporary worldview – an achievement that would seem to fly in the face of postmodern notions of an “incredulity towards meta-narratives”,23 as Jean-François Lyotard put it.

  • 24 Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, Georges Van Den Abbeele (trans.), Manches (...)
  • 25 Dave Robinson, Nietzsche and Postmodernism, New York, Totem, 1999, p. 41-42.

8Lyotard argues that we have ceased to believe that grand narratives of this kind are adequate to represent and contain us all. We have become alert to difference, diversity, the incompatibility of our aspirations, beliefs and desires, and for that reason postmodernity is characterised by an abundance of micronarratives. In Lyotard’s works, the term “language games”, sometimes also called “phrase regimens”,24 denotes the multiplicity of communities of meaning, the innumerable and incommensurable separate systems in which meanings are produced and rules for their circulation are created. Lyotard, like Nietzsche, argues that all the grand narratives of Western civilisation – such as Christianity, the Enlightenment or Marxism – have been demolished in the wake of postmodern scepticism towards great “stories” or total explanations of human nature, freedom, progress and history.25

  • 26 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. xx.
  • 27 Ibid.
  • 28 Seamus Heaney, An Open Letter, Derry, Field Day Theatre Company (Field Day Pamphlet; no. 2), 1983.

9However, for O’Siadhail, such grand narratives, while no longer seen as hegemonic in a globalised world, nevertheless do have a part in the creation of meaning and, contra Lyotard, he puts into contact and mutual influence very different phrase regimes. And in this poetic sequence, he interweaves them and allows them to mutually influence each other and traces out the connections between them. He also sees poetry as a mode of accessing aspects of human knowledge that may not be easily signified through more normative discourses. Hence, he cites Dante as an obvious influence who catches “a world picture as the medieval began to slide towards modernity”.26 But he also cites John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, calling it “another great public poem” which is “in turn a justification of the ways of God to man and of the Protestant Reformation”.27 The whole notion of a public poem is one that has very much been historicised: perhaps Seamus Heaney’s An Open Letter,28 is one of the last real examples, but significantly Heaney used the descriptor “letter” as opposed to “poem”, as he too seemed to feel that the great public poem had seen its best days.

  • 29 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. xix.
  • 30 Ibid., p. xvi.

10This public poem sets out a worldview: it does not preach that this is the only worldview, but it does set out a very comprehensive one, through a series of encounters with scientists, theorists, critics, economists, politicians and thinkers across a range of topics. Interestingly, the signifier “world” appears 236 times in The Five Quintets, 16 times in the introduction, and 220 times in the poem itself. In the introduction, O’Siadhail speaks of how “our world is interwoven for good as we learn to cope with plurality of every kind”,29 but, in the poem, there is no mere utopian smoothing of notions of difference or racial alterity; O’Siadhail is keenly aware that difference is not something that can be easily annealed. Indeed, as we trace the use of the term through the book, a more complex picture emerges as is the case with most ideas and themes in this book. As O’Siadhail speaks of Jonathan Sakes’s term the “dignity of difference”,30 but is at the time aware of how we can be:

  • 31 Ibid., p. 175.

Driven by a dread of difference,
Fear of all we name barbarians,
Strangers in their speech and in their gods?31

  • 32 Ibid., p. 188.
  • 33 Ibid., p. 213.

11He is also keenly aware how, in the current climate where identitarian politics and ideological politics have become almost hypertrophied, the binarist perspective has become engrained in people as our sense of selfhood is increasingly defined “against all those / Who in their differences menace us, / Feelings more in blood than in our brain”.32 He goes on to consider how this can be solved, and again, looks to the other side of the binary wondering whether “Must our peace now merge all difference?”,33 of course realising that this would be impossible as well. As we near the end of the poem, we see his own vision or solution:

  • 34 Ibid., p. 233.

We aspire to porous boundaries
So allow identities to flow,
Learning difference has dignity,
How to be at one and disagree.34

  • 35 Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature, Derek Attridge (ed.), London, Routledge, 1992, p. 37.
  • 36 Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, Marie-Louise Mallet (ed.), David Wills (trans.), N (...)

12For O’Siadhail, the public poem allows him to address significant issues of epistemological and ethical warrant in contemporary culture, and he sees poetry as a mode of thinking, as a way of looking in a different manner at how knowledge, progress and change across a range of disciplines have brought us to where we are. As Jacques Derrida has noted, literature is a space wherein exists “the power to say everything, to break free of the rules, to displace them, and thereby to institute, to invent and even to suspect the traditional difference between nature and institution, nature and conventional law, nature and history”,35 and this is exactly what is achieved in The Five Quintets. He sees poetry, and specifically a poetic mode of thinking, that takes into account emotions, feelings, and the mortality and lived life of the individual; it allows for the body and the unconscious as dimensions of knowledge to be voiced. Derrida notes that thinking concerning the animal “derives from poetry”, as this dimension of human existence, the connection with the world through our physical and animal being, is very much what has been bracketed in traditional rational discourses, and it is a dimension of knowledge that is not fully incorporated into philosophical critique (though there are some exceptions), which Derrida views as “the difference between philosophical knowledge and poetic thinking”.36

  • 37 David F. Ford, “Seeking a Wiser Worldview in the Twenty-First Century: Micheal O’Siadhail’s The Fiv (...)
  • 38 Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, Albert Hofstadter (trans.), New York, Harper & Row, 19 (...)
  • 39 Alain Badiou, Manifesto for Philosophy: Followed by Two Essays: “The (Re)turn of Philosophy Itself” (...)

13O’Siadhail’s focus and interconnection of five very different discourses of knowledge makes this poem unique; as he is speaking about a time “of massive disturbances and transformations, with global consequences, in the arts, economics, politics, science, and philosophy and theology – and therefore fundamental challenges to all previous worldviews”.37 Given that he discusses the thinking and work of Martin Heidegger, I think there is a connection worth making with Heidegger’s own multi-structural conception of the “fourfold”; that combination of earth, sky, the divine, and the human, can be seen as a parallel structure that grants the complexity and the polysemy of poetic thinking and poetic language.38 Poetry and thinking are very much connected in O’Siadhail’s writing, and in this connection he also follows in the footsteps of Heidegger, whose emphasis on poetry and poetic thinking was foundational, as Alain Badiou observed, to the tradition that was able “to hand philosophy over to poetry”.39

  • 40 David F. Ford, “Seeking a Wiser Worldview in the Twenty-First Century: Micheal O’Siadhail’s The Fiv (...)

14And, interestingly, in terms of the influence of Taylor’s book, he places theology and the transcendent as one of the five core areas, in this way challenging what David F. Ford has termed “secular super-sessionism […] the idea that religious worldviews have been superseded in a linear way by modern secular worldviews that, above all, appeal to the sciences for legitimation”.40 In another homage to the modernist predecessors, O’Siadhail provides some interesting guidelines to readers of the poem, explaining, in some detail, the complex and polysemic structure of his writing:

  • 41 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. xvii.

The title of each of the five quintets is a present participle: “Making,” “Dealing,” “Steering,” “Finding” and “Meaning.” Artistic creativity, economics, politics, science and the search for meaning in our lives are all works in progress. Each quintet has five cantos suggesting different phases on our journey through modernity to how we might envisage our future. The five phases in each quintet run very broadly parallel. First, there is a modulation to a modern outlook. Second, there is a shift towards either greater freedom or control. Third, there is either a phase of excessive individualistic freedom and interiority or extreme control by ideology and fixity. Fourth, there is a realisation of the need to attempt, however inadequately, to find a fresh approach. Last, in the company of those I admire most, I want to suggest some angle of vision for the future.41

  • 42 Ibid., p. xxii.
  • 43 Ibid.

15The syncretic nature of the thematics of the poem, as its different strands interweave and cohere into a loose textile is further overdetermined by the syncretic nature of its form. O’Siadhail uses a variety of poetic forms across the different sections of the poem. There is a deliberate attempt to complicate the forms and modes of expression in order to achieve a unity that is fluid and open: the interweaving of the different forms is very much part of the whole imperative of the poem. So, the first quintet, “Making”, has a mixture of alternating sonnets and haikus, “the great classic forms of the East and the West”,42 a new form for which O’Siadhail has coined the term saiku. The second quintet, “Dealing”, has a more irregular rhyme-scheme, while the third, “Steering”, has a meter based on stress. The fourth quintet, “Finding”, is in iambic pentameter, while the fifth quintet, “Meaning”, is in terza rima.43 The complication of the rhyming scheme is not really noticed in the sweep of the poem, which takes the form of a series of conversations, narrations and colloquies with figures from the past in each of the five areas of discourse. In each section, these key thinkers appear in strictly chronological order, and the mode of their appearance is broadly similar. They are very often addressed in apostrophe, and their lives encapsulated through a series of close-ups, or significant events, and then they are given voice themselves as they speak their own sense of self and subjectivity.

16For example, O’Siadhail admires John R. Commins, the economist and historian who promoted conditions for working people, as he again looked to achieve a form of dialectical complex fusion between “theory and real life”:

  • 44 Ibid., p. 126.

How theory and real life
Can push and pull and realign
A drama where a third way drives
A thickening plot which weaves its themes,
Enfolds philosophies and change
Beyond the yearnings for extremes.44

  • 45 Ibid., p. 135.
  • 46 Ibid.
  • 47 Ibid., p. 136.

17A little like Dante, O’Siadhail is voicing a via media in the characters that he admires, and often these are people with whom a reader may not be readily familiar, for example Wilhelm Röpke, the “mastermind / Of Germany’s renewal plan”,45 who would later work on the Wirtschaftswunder (the rapid post World-War-Two economic growth of West Germany). The technique here is synecdochic of the broader processes in the poem, as initially there is a zoom into Röpke’s appearance, “receding blond / A deep-eyed gaze”, and then a single line word, “integrity”,46 which is end-stopped and also the end of a sentence. This coalescence of the stanzaic and the syntactic units of meaning cohere to place Röpke before us as a man of integrity and value. His career in Germany, “professor then by twenty-five”, his escape to Istanbul and Switzerland and his post-war return are catalogued, as is his internal journey, as he is “aghast at zealots”, having fought in the First World War and being aware of its horrors.47 He speaks out about the Reichstag fire, and suffers the consequences – “you lose your chair” – and then leaves, first for Istanbul and then Switzerland and, here, the inner and outer journeys are interwoven, as in the Swiss cantons, he sees:

  • 48 Ibid.

That power can be where people are
And you believe what’s local’s best –
A nation’s nothing to adore – The
cantons grow their grass-root needs.48

  • 49 Ibid. (italics in the original).
  • 50 Ibid., p. 137 (italics in the original).

18O’Siadhail then traces the origins of the German economic miracle to the influence of the Swiss form of local government, as a palliative to the nationalism and centralism of the Third Reich. However, in the midst of this retelling of the life and thought of Röpke, we hear the imagined voice of the German economist, and this is a pattern that is common throughout all five quintets, as the narrated and described person becomes an agent in their own narration: the subject of the enounced becomes the subject of the enunciation within the framework of the poem. Röpke speaks of the desire to avoid the extremities of “The communists in love with novel schemes” or “strong-arm fascists”; “I weave a way between the dreams both pipe”.49 His strong sense that an economy must also care for all who live and work in the society is voiced in the following couplet: “Without community and ties of trust / Our hearts become a banker’s killing bee”.50 In a very short space of time, we are given quite an insight into the goals and motivations of Röpke, and the duality of perspective allows us to see a broader picture of the man and his ideas. In the closing lines of that section, there is a juxtaposition between the authorial voice, and that of the character, with both making broadly the same point which concentrates the power of the utterance:

  • 51 Ibid., p. 138.

There is no flawless plan or perfect place.
All this, all that. My head and heart both chose
A third way we discover case by case.
[…]
Too left is hell, too right is hell.
Are third ways heaven’s thoroughfare?51

Here the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the enounced cohere to interweave a sense of Röpke’s own contribution to the worldview of the poem. This is a stylistic and formal pattern that will underscore the appearance of the many scientists, philosophers, artists, economists and religious figures in the poem: we see their ideas, but we also see, in a very telescoped and concentrated manner, aspects of their lives and thoughts. The danger of such a synoptic work as this, with a cast of so many people, is that we would get brief pen-pictures with great breadth but no depth; however, this is avoided by the giving of voice to the characters who speak as well as are spoken about in each instance.

19This trope of the ventriloquised voice in speech or conversation is called prosopopoeia, wherein the dead and the absent are given both face and voice, and add depth and perspective to any poem, as well as constructing a more plural and nuanced form of identity. Paul de Man has spoken at length of this trope, defining it as:

  • 52 Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism, New York, Columbia University Press, 1984, p. 76.

[…] the fiction of an apostrophe to an absent, deceased, or voiceless entity, which posits the possibility of the latter’s reply and confers upon it the power of speech. Voice assumes mouth, eye, and finally face, a chain that is manifest in the etymology of the trope’s name, prosopon poiein, to confer a mask or a face (prosopon).52

  • 53 Marc Redfield, Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America, New York, Fordham Uni (...)
  • 54 T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, p. 231.
  • 55 Michael O’Neill, The All-Sustaining Air: Romantic Legacies and Renewals in British, American, and I (...)

20In his reading of the “Blessed Babe” passage in William Wordsworth’s Prelude, for example, de Man “casts prosopopoeia as a trope with enough totalizing power to construct a world – the infant, in Wordsworth’s poem, moves from eye to face to identity”,53 and the same is true of Wilhelm Röpke, who is now familiar to us in terms of his ideas and his persona. We have already noted the connection with Eliot’s Four Quartets, and a further connection here is that O’Siadhail’s prosopopeic figures have an ancestor in the “familiar compound ghost / Both intimate and unidentifiable”,54 of “Little Gidding”. As Michael O’Neill has observed, the passage in “Little Gidding” enacts Eliot’s career-long dialogue and quarrel with previous poets, especially Romantic poets, and reminds us that “the mind of Europe – the mind of his own country – is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route”.55

21This sense of weaving together the past as a way of understanding the present is something that O’Siadhail has taken to a whole new level. He has gone beyond Eliot in not just looking at avatars from poetry but from the five different areas mentioned, and he has a long list of ghosts in his work, ghosts not just from Europe but from across the globe. In this sense, there is a strong hauntological and spectral mode of thinking and poetic methodology at work in The Five Quintets. Hauntology supplants its near-homonym ontology, replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive:

  • 56 Colin Davis, “Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms”, French Studies, vol. 59, no. 3, 2005, p. 373.

Attending to the ghost is an ethical injunction insofar as it occupies the place of the Levinasian Other: a wholly irrecuperable intrusion in our world, which is not comprehensible within our available intellectual frameworks, but whose otherness we are responsible for preserving.56

  • 57 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New Interna (...)
  • 58 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 196.
  • 59 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx…, p. 174.
  • 60 Ian Hickey, Haunted Heaney: Spectres and the Poetry, London, Routledge, 2022, p. 13.

22Derrida views existence as being constantly indebted to the past in terms of its production, as all certainties of being and presence are destabilised and given to anachronism, the past constantly sutures itself within the present through the operations of spectrality: “a ghost never dies, it remains always to come and to come back”.57 Spectrality, like so many other grand narratives, has been deconstructed, and the images, people and voices of the past that haunt us are often very person-specific: the ghosts of these figures conjured by O’Siadhail are personal to him and to his interests and intellectual life: “we weave the fabric we are woven in”,58 and, as Derrida agrees in Specters of Marx: “everyone reads, acts, writes with his or her ghosts”.59 There can be no doubt that the spectral is always a part of the imaginative process and “holds a formative space within literature as we are given to reproducing spectres in the act of writing”.60 However, the public nature of this poem means that O’Siadhail is looking to test the validity of his own personal ghosts and see how familiar and compound they can become. I think most readers will have a familiarity with most of the people named, but depending on disciplinary knowledge and interests, by definition, there will be names here that are unfamiliar, so poetry here, unusually, is offering itself as a socially and culturally epistemic discourse that can tell us about areas of knowledge about which we have been hitherto ignorant.

  • 61 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 196.
  • 62 Ibid., p. xvii.

23More than anything, this is a work of macrocosmic cultural and intellectual recuperation, as voices are put in dialogue with voices from other times; other worlds; other languages and other intellectual traditions, to give us a fuller sense of our contemporary globalised, postmodern world: “We weave the fabric we are woven in”.61 Even to list the people invoked in the poem would put this essay far beyond an accessible length, but the range of characters is huge. For example the first section, “Making”, deals with the arts and its sections are entitled “Transition”, “Feeling Freed”, “Labyrinths”, “Breaking Out” and “Abundance”.62 The characters who are described and voiced prosopopeically are: Miguel Cervantes, John Donne, Peter Paul Rubens, John Milton, George Frideric Handel, Francisco Goya, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ludwig van Beethoven, William Wordsworth, Charles Baudelaire, Richard Wagner, William Butler Yeats, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Gustav Mahler, Rainer Maria Rilke, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, George Herbert, Matsuo Bashō, Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Paul Cézanne, Willa Cather, Marc Chagall, Patrick Kavanagh, Olivier Messiaen, and Brian Friel; and that is just the first quintet. The interweaving of these different voices, discourses and preoccupations is complex, and possibly the best way of attempting to figure it is in O’Siadhail’s discussions of music:

  • 63 Ibid., p. 10.

I only want to hold the music’s line,
A flighty psyche focused on its goal
So every voice can shine but not outshine,
From all the woven parts create a whole.63

  • 64 Micheal O’Siadhail, Collected Poems, Tarset, Bloodaxe Books, 2013.
  • 65 Ibid., p. 35.

24Music, especially jazz, has always been a resonant metaphor in O’Siadhail’s writing. Indeed, his long-term muse is addressed as Madame Jazz, and she has appeared in most of his books in different forms. In his Collected Poems,64 the word “jazz” appears 68 times, and “Madam Jazz” appears 16 times; the epigraphical poem that begins the collection is entitled “Hail! Madam Jazz”.65 In terms of a metaphor or a paradigm for O’Siadhail’s vision, music is a strong influence. Speaking of Bach’s music, he describes its careful baroque construction, but also looks for something else:

  • 66 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 46.

Each line must make its own melodic sense
Or chase one theme hot-heeled a bar behind
To weave a music that’s both one and dense.
Such joy in what freewheels and intertwines;
Incarnate heaven held between the lines.66

And in a late colloquy with Hannah Arendt, he once again stresses the ability of music as a discourse to embody the vision that he is asserting as the sequence comes to its climax:

  • 67 Ibid., p. 340.

It’s just to emphasise the what-will-be,
the openness of music’s trusting mix
of well-planned chords and spontaneity.67

  • 68 Catherine Malabou, Jacques Derrida, Counterpath: Traveling with Jacques Derrida, David Wills (trans (...)
  • 69 Katy Shaw, Hauntology: The Presence of the Past in Twenty-First Century English Literature, London, (...)
  • 70 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 153.
  • 71 Jacques Derrida, John D. Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, (...)

Here he echoes Derrida’s ideas about poetry and thought: “poetry and thinking travel together, but their voyage is without truth; unguarded, it is totally exposed to the accident, to overturning. Like a hedgehog crossing the highway”,68 and for O’Siadhail this sense of accident, of play in the system, of a chink in the structure is at the centre of what he sees as being of value: there must be systems, structures and architectonics, but if the system subsumes the subject, then totalitarianism ensues – as voiced by Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong in this sequence. His thinking is very much aware of the need for spontaneity, for freedom and of the need for “openness” and “joy” in any vision of a worthwhile view of what it means to be human in the 21st century. His ghostly interlocuters provide a part of that freedom, as “the experience of being haunted is one of noticing absences in the present, recognizing fissures, gaps and points of crossover”,69 and these gaps and fissures are what O’Siadhail sees as absolutely necessary in any vision for our contemporary times: “an opening up to other worlds”.70 Derrida had already posited something like this with regards to deconstruction, whereby new structures and meanings are opened up when a questioning and probing of any given institution, text, or structure occurs – “if an institution is to be an institution, it must to some extent break with the past, keep the memory of the past, while inaugurating something absolutely new”,71 And The Five Quintets is just such an inauguration, as it sets out an attempt to deal with the increasingly separated and confrontational binaries that seem to govern the public sphere at the moment. O’Siadhail is looking to poetry as a way of thinking that allows for more dialogue and more permeability between different ideological positions. He imagines this as:

  • 72 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 334.

an open multistoreyed house where we
can move so simply now from floor to floor,
from porous room to room and, fancy-free.72

  • 73 Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p. 19.
  • 74 Ibid., p. 65.
  • 75 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Experience of Freedom, Bridget McDonald (trans.), Stanford, Stanford University (...)

25O’Siadhail searches for a middle-way between ideological positions, between self and other and all of the different oppositions that derive from this most essentialist binarism. Such concentration on the self, and such a dynamic process of summoning and releasing, “does not limit itself to distinguishing what is inside from what is outside but instead traces a threshold (the state of exception) between the two”.73 Agamben, like O’Siadhail, looks to the threshold as a symbol, and indeed this term has a distinguished history in European thought. Immanuel Kant, discussed in Canto 2 of “Meaning”, often spoke of the idea of borders between different disciplines or modes of identity, and as Agamben has explained, in Kantian terms, what is in question in this bordering is “not a limit (Schranke) that knows no exteriority, but a threshold (Grenze), that is, a point of contact with an external”.74 Speaking about space, Jean-Luc Nancy has remarked that this spatiality “is the space of freedom, inasmuch as freedom is, at every moment, the freedom of a free space”,75 and this sense of a space, of a free space that can perhaps deconstruct the rigidity of the ideological essentialism, which is one of the aims of the poem, is an aim which O’Siadhail figures through religious imagery:

  • 76 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. xxi.

The more I looked at the worst -isms across the board, the more it seemed as if our humanity cries out for justice, and Dante’s hell intrigued me. Purgatory as a halfway house for those who look towards heaven also interested me. But even more attractive might be the thought that, transcending the chronological order of the processes described, outstanding people across the different periods of modernity could mix or converse in heaven. Was this what “the community of saints,” a term I learned as a boy, might mean?76

  • 77 Ibid., p. 352 (italics in the original).
  • 78 Micheal O’Siadhail, Testament, Waco, Baylor University Press, 2022.
  • 79 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 41.

26The Five Quintets looks to symbolise and voice this notion of a communion of saints, of scholars, thinkers, politicians, scientists, economists, artists and theologians who can find a space, a heaven, wherein discourse, dialogue and debate have a place, where notions of censorship or being silenced are less strong (though still there as he is no idealistic utopian) to such an open vision. The heaven in question is a space of open discourse: in a sense, the heaven and communion of saints is this poem and the spectral presences who converse, and are interwoven with each other and with other ideas; where, as already noted, there is a dignity in difference: “Our heaven’s not the same for everyone, / though life is sweet to all in different ways”.77 Significantly, “heaven” is mentioned 82 times in the poem, which underscores its importance as a poetic trope, as well as foregrounding O’Siadhail’s fascination with theology, religion and the transcendent, something which will become the focus of his book Testament.78 For him, heaven is a name for a state where our individual subjectivities have freedom and space: “In heavens of our spirits’ empty space / All breathe in your compassionate embrace”.79

  • 80 Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, p. 66.
  • 81 Ibid., p. 4.

27Speaking about place and space, Agamben first thematises the threshold in The Coming Community, where he talks about “the event of an outside”. It is through this liminal border that the belonging of an entity to a set, or its identity, is determined. This limit does not, however, open on to another determinate space: “the outside is not another space that resides beyond a determinate space, but rather, it is the passage, the exteriority that gives it access”.80 Poetry is just such a passage. It is a “point of contact with an external space that must remain empty”,81 and, for both Agamben and O’Siadhail, it is the openness of the space that is important, as the interaction of points of contact, and the summoning and releasing process, will fill it in parts so that new structures of meaning may be created through the crossing and recrossing of this threshold. The threshold of The Five Quintets will be a much-traversed one as readers will return to this book with its wisdom, scope and sense of hope; it offers a new paradigm for the public poem in our contemporary world:

  • 82 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 355.

I hunger for the eye that beckons me
along a funnelled path between two rows
of slightly tilted boles where every tree
is interwoven with its counterpart,
convexing such a leafy canopy
where opposites can meet and then depart
in curves of paradox which shape the light.82

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Notes

1 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, Waco, Baylor University Press, 2018, p. xv.

2 T. S. Eliot, The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose, Lawrence S. Rainey (ed.), New Haven, Yale University Press, 2005, p. 57-74.

3 T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, in Collected Poems, 1909-1962, New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963, p. 173-209.

4 Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, revised collected edition, London, Faber and Faber, 1975.

5 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. xxi.

6 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy. Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, introduction by Eugenio Montale, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, New York, Everyman’s Library, 1995.

7 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. xxi.

8 Ibid.

9 Richard Rankin Russell, “In the Beginning the Jazz”, Irish Literary Supplement, vol. 40, no. 1, 2020, p. 20.

10 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2007.

11 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. xx.

12 Ibid., p. xx-xi.

13 Ibid., p. 55.

14 Ibid., p. 355.

15 Ibid., p. 356.

16 Ibid., p. 233.

17 Ibid., p. 24.

18 Ibid., p. 90.

19 He has published two books on Irish-language teaching: Micheal O’Siadhail, Modern Irish: Grammatical Structure and Dialectal Variation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Studies in Linguistics), 1989; Micheal O’Siadhail, Learning Irish: An Introductory Self-Tutor, New Haven – London, Yale University Press, 1988.

20 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 45.

21 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 246.

22 Ibid., p. 249.

23 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Geoff Bennington, Brian Massumi (trans.), Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1984, p. xxiv.

24 Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, Georges Van Den Abbeele (trans.), Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1988, p. 178-180.

25 Dave Robinson, Nietzsche and Postmodernism, New York, Totem, 1999, p. 41-42.

26 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. xx.

27 Ibid.

28 Seamus Heaney, An Open Letter, Derry, Field Day Theatre Company (Field Day Pamphlet; no. 2), 1983.

29 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. xix.

30 Ibid., p. xvi.

31 Ibid., p. 175.

32 Ibid., p. 188.

33 Ibid., p. 213.

34 Ibid., p. 233.

35 Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature, Derek Attridge (ed.), London, Routledge, 1992, p. 37.

36 Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, Marie-Louise Mallet (ed.), David Wills (trans.), New York, Fordham University Press, 2008, p. 77.

37 David F. Ford, “Seeking a Wiser Worldview in the Twenty-First Century: Micheal O’Siadhail’s The Five Quintets (I)”, Studies, vol. 110, no. 437, 2021, p. 62.

38 Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, Albert Hofstadter (trans.), New York, Harper & Row, 1971, p. 149.

39 Alain Badiou, Manifesto for Philosophy: Followed by Two Essays: “The (Re)turn of Philosophy Itself” and “Definition of Philosophy”, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1999, p. 74.

40 David F. Ford, “Seeking a Wiser Worldview in the Twenty-First Century: Micheal O’Siadhail’s The Five Quintets (II)”, Studies, vol. 110, no. 438, 2021, p. 215.

41 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. xvii.

42 Ibid., p. xxii.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid., p. 126.

45 Ibid., p. 135.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid., p. 136.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid. (italics in the original).

50 Ibid., p. 137 (italics in the original).

51 Ibid., p. 138.

52 Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism, New York, Columbia University Press, 1984, p. 76.

53 Marc Redfield, Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America, New York, Fordham University Press, 2016, p. 54.

54 T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, p. 231.

55 Michael O’Neill, The All-Sustaining Air: Romantic Legacies and Renewals in British, American, and Irish Poetry since 1900, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 79.

56 Colin Davis, “Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms”, French Studies, vol. 59, no. 3, 2005, p. 373.

57 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, Peggy Kamuf (trans.), New York – London, Routledge, 1994, p. 123.

58 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 196.

59 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx…, p. 174.

60 Ian Hickey, Haunted Heaney: Spectres and the Poetry, London, Routledge, 2022, p. 13.

61 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 196.

62 Ibid., p. xvii.

63 Ibid., p. 10.

64 Micheal O’Siadhail, Collected Poems, Tarset, Bloodaxe Books, 2013.

65 Ibid., p. 35.

66 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 46.

67 Ibid., p. 340.

68 Catherine Malabou, Jacques Derrida, Counterpath: Traveling with Jacques Derrida, David Wills (trans.), Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2004, p. 261.

69 Katy Shaw, Hauntology: The Presence of the Past in Twenty-First Century English Literature, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, p. 2.

70 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 153.

71 Jacques Derrida, John D. Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, New York, Fordham University Press, 1997, p. 6.

72 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 334.

73 Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p. 19.

74 Ibid., p. 65.

75 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Experience of Freedom, Bridget McDonald (trans.), Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1993, p. 145.

76 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. xxi.

77 Ibid., p. 352 (italics in the original).

78 Micheal O’Siadhail, Testament, Waco, Baylor University Press, 2022.

79 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 41.

80 Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, p. 66.

81 Ibid., p. 4.

82 Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 355.

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Eugene O’Brien, « “Our world is interwoven”: Micheal O’Siadhail and The Five Quintets »Études irlandaises, 49-1 | 2024, 115-129.

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Eugene O’Brien, « “Our world is interwoven”: Micheal O’Siadhail and The Five Quintets »Études irlandaises [En ligne], 49-1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 28 mars 2024, consulté le 28 mai 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/etudesirlandaises/18138 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/etudesirlandaises.18138

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Auteur

Eugene O’Brien

Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick

Eugene O’Brien est professeur de littérature anglaise et de théorie littéraire, ainsi que chef de département au Mary Immaculate College de l’université de Limerick. Il est responsable de la théorie littéraire dans le cadre du projet Oxford Bibliographies, ainsi que de la collection « Routledge Studies in Irish Literature ». Parmi ses ouvrages récents, on trouve Seamus Heaney as Aesthetic Thinker : A Study of the Prose (Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 2016) et “The soul exceeds its circumstances” : The Later Poetry of Seamus Heaney (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 2016). Son dernier livre, Reading Paul Howard : The Art of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, a paru chez Routledge en 2024. Il travaille actuellement sur une monographie consacrée à Micheal O’Siadhail, prépare avec Ian Hickey un livre sur la prose de Seamus Heaney, et rédige avec Anne Fogarty A Companion to 21st Century Irish Writing, trois ouvrages à paraître chez Routledge.

Eugene O’Brien is professor of English literature and theory, and Head of Department in Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. He is the editor for the Oxford University Press online bibliography project in literary theory (Oxford Bibliographies), and of the “Routledge Studies in Irish Literature” series. Recent books include Seamus Heaney as Aesthetic Thinker: A Study of the Prose (Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 2016) and “The soul exceeds its circumstances”: The Later Poetry of Seamus Heaney (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 2016). His latest book, Reading Paul Howard: The Art of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, is published by Routledge in 2024. He is currently working on a monograph on Micheal O’Siadhail; a book on Seamus Heaney’s prose, with Ian Hickey; and A Companion to 21st Century Irish Writing, with Anne Fogarty all with Routledge.

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