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The theologians’ poet laureate

by
03 January 2014

Micheal O’Siadhail’s work is admired and quoted by leading theologians. As his poetic output is gathered into one collection, he talks to Pádraig Ó Tuama

GILLIAN BUCKLEY

I ASKED Micheal O'Siadhail how many languages he spoke. “Oh, I've kept up with seven or eight,” he says, “English, Irish, Welsh, Icelandic, French, German, Norwegian, and Japanese.”

He worked as a linguist for almost 20 years, beginning teaching the subject at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1969. His academic career included two university posts in Dublin, and visiting lectureships in Harvard, Yale, and the University of Iceland.

He understands himself as a poet first, and a linguist second, however. “I learnt linguistics in the way a sculptor learns geology.”

Far better known in Ireland than in the UK, O’Siadhail has been prolific, producing 13 volumes of poetry since his first, in 1978. Last year, these were compiled by Bloodaxe into a collected edition (Books, 29 November).

His plentiful words are carefully chosen. His topics range from private to public concerns, and his writing is imbued with a deep belief in what he calls “the ministry of meaning”. Meaning is a word he returns to throughout our conversation. Even when writing about the most dreadful circumstances, like the recent death of his wife, his firm focus on life in the midst of decay is arresting.

Now 66 years of age, he is a tall man, with a soft accent, and I am aware of a quality in his tone of voice, which I can only call kindness. He married Bríd Ní Chearbhaill, from Co. Donegal, in 1970, and they made their home in Dublin.

Bríd spent most of her life as a teacher, and, later, headmistress. She died, after a long illness, in June 2013. While O’Siadhail's early poetry is full of sensual references, and warm praises of love, it was his 2005 collection of poems addressed to Bríd, Love Life, that caused the Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, David Ford, to call her “the most written-about woman in Ireland”.

 

O'SIADHAIL'S first collection, The Leap Year (1978), is filled with a certain foreboding about ageing. “I had a terrible dread of death as a child, and I have tried to face it,” he says. “I am trying to make it so that death doesn’t have the last word. There are much worse things than death: to become bitter, warped, or dead as I live. I try to be in love with life. And this is my resolution and I stick to it.

“My conclusion is that, by facing finitude, you release yourself from compulsions I think of addictions like drink and drugs, but also overwork, which is the acceptable drug these days. By facing finitude, we might be released to savour, released to enjoyment.”

The new collection, unusually for a book of poetry, has a thematic index, which is helpful for exploring its underlying intuitions rather than just its chronology. Intriguingly, it contains more than 40 references to jazz. Jazz captures him because it has “an exuberance which has transcended suffering”.

In “Glimpses”, he writes:

Depths of survival. Klezmer or
   jazz or céili,
A story squeezes at the edge
    clamours of music;
Out of darkest histories,
   profoundest gaiety.

He is also drawn to the improvisation at the heart of jazz. “Creation is always some kind of improvisation,” he says. “So, in a manner of speaking, creation is itself jazz.”

O’Siadhail is a man of faith, although he will not describe himself as a “religious poet”. None the less, his poetry has gained traction through its appeal to theologians, notably Professor Tom Wright, and Professor David Ford, a close friend.

 

I ASK what he thinks about the statement by the poet Patrick Kavanagh that every poet must be a theologian. He replies: “I suppose it must mean that both poetry and theology are in the project of seeking meaning.” I wonder whether he could imagine a conversation between jazz and theology, and he directs me towards his friend’s comments on jazz.

In Professor Ford’s forthcoming book The Drama of Living, a commentary on St John’s Gospel, he draws (as he often has) on O’Siadhail's poetry. Jazz, he says, can teach us about the drama of living. Just as musicians must work within a profusion of melodies and possibilities in a reciprocal improvisation, to come up with a coherent performance, Professor Ford argues, so, too, must human communities. “In the drama of living, the deepest understanding is shown in the wisest improvisation.”

There is a long and warm friendship between Professor Ford and O’Siadhail, built on a shared love of words, and professional collaborations in performance, and print. I tell O’Siadhail that, when I saw them share a reading at Greenbelt in 2005, what struck me most was the deference and respect that each showed for the other’s work.

“Friendship is improvisation,” he responded, “but also, at the heart of friendship, is vulnerability, which has an element of jazz, too. In friendship there is the vulnerability of one person saying to another ‘You are important to me.’ With this must come trust and loyalty.

“I went to boarding school from the age of 12 to 17; so, in a way, I was brought up by my friends, and friendship is in many ways the axis of poetry and theology. I find meaning in human relationships: the greatest meaning is found there. There is a perichoresis in the dance of relationship, love, and friendship.”

It was Professor Ford’s references to O’Siadhail's poetry which brought it to the attention of Professor Wright. Professor Wright told me that he was immediately struck by “a sense of celebration even of the sad and puzzling things in life. . . I recognised so much in those poems; as always, with good poetry, he drew attention to things I recognised at once, but hadn’t put like that to myself.”

 

THREE of O’Siadhail’s poems appear as motifs in his recent book Paul and the Faithfulness of God, building on what Professor Wright called “a collaboration of theology and the arts to make a performative celebration of belief”.

Professor Ford tells me that he “most often finds more in Micheal's reflections on the Gospel than in a foot-high stack of commentaries”. O’Siadhail’s conjoined poetic and linguistic vocation form their own commentary in “Logos”, a poem that reflects on the inclusion of the word in the opening of St John’s Gospel:

Although its root had only meant 
    “to pluck”
Or “gather” and then “to read 
    together”,
“To tell”, “to speak”, and so to 
    “the thing said”
Which in turn takes on a life of its own.

Professor Wright says that the collection Tongues reflects the integration of the poet and linguist. “So many pictures, so many vivid images, and just as he has taught us to celebrate the rich diversity of life as a whole, so these poems teach us to celebrate the rich diversity of human language, from grammatical constructions and verbal conjugations through to the extraordinary complexity of those Chinese characters.”

He also recalls a recital, when he was Bishop of Durham, in Auckland Castle. The poetry bill for the evening was to have been a reading by O’Siadhail from his collection Love Life. The setting for the reading was a firelit room filled with Zurbarán’s oversized paintings of the 12 sons of Jacob. With such company, O’Siadhail interspersed love poems with those from The Gossamer Wall, which deal with the Holocaust.

“Micheal was standing in front of the log fire with some of the room in semi-darkness,” Professor Wright says, “and it was almost as though he was himself one of the figures in the paintings, having stepped down from the wall like the portraits in Ruddigore. It was an utterly memorable evening unique, and rich, and moving.

“The improvisation inspired by the setting, and the bravery of the alternate counterpoint between what is most life-giving and what is most atrocious, bears witness to O’Siadhail’s poetic vocation.”

 

WHEN writing Gossamer Wall (2002), O’Siadhail felt the need for a deep form of respect, appropriate to the momentousness of the subject. There is no “I” in any of these poems. They are broadly arranged in five movements, with the central one a series of sonnets. In this section, the theme of isolation is palpable. In “Here”, he writes:

Each for himself. Father steals from son.
Parched but denied an icicle Levi
    asks why?
There’s no why here.

O’Siadhail’s poetry is known for its refined and deliberate use of form  both classical and improvised. So, why the sonnet in this case? “I used an elegant form to critique those who separated the virtues of beauty, truth, and goodness,” he says. “For those perpetrators, they could do hellishly evil acts, and yet enjoy music.”

In “Never”, he questions poetry after Auschwitz. He seeks to bear witness to “the restless subversive ragtime of what thrives”; he talks of “the criss-cross of flourishings,” and proposes that, in music, “we feast to keep our promise of never again.”

The final section of Gossamer Wall the part that caused him most anxiety is named “Prisoners of Hope”. “It was a worrying thing, and perhaps one of the more difficult things, to turn attention to hope at the end of the Gossamer Wall collection. I didn’t want to appear trivial. But I have always had a celebratory note in my poetry. Hell can’t have the last word.

“Why hope? If hope doesn’t have the last word, then hell wins. Hope is a wager on meaning. Hope is not optimism. I think that ‘all manner of things will be well’ is hard won. Hope is grounded in reality, but it still has light.”

 

IT IS impossible to read The Collected Poems, especially the “Love Life” poems, away from the shadow of his recent bereavement. Bríd O’Siadhail died in June 2013. In the introduction, O’Siadhail writes: “As I write I am coping with the most difficult circumstances in my life so far.” Theirs was a love of longevity, intimacy, sensuality, and words.

“I don't think we could have been any closer,” he tells me. “The loss I am experiencing now is, in many ways, unspeakable. . . I never met anybody with the same ability to love as Bríd. The price of love is parting. With this, too, must come gratitude and grieving.”

He pronounces her name with care in “Name Dropping”, he recalls how he often steers conversation so that he can say her name:

How even in your absence I
   conjure you.

The poem “Guests” is a joyous and generous celebration of the “mischief and fun” at the heart of welcoming guests at their Dublin home. “Love, of its nature, has overflow, and this overflow is hospitality,” he says. “Being in love allowed each of us to become more ourselves, and in the trust and security that came from this, we found expression in hospitality.”

In “Matins for You”, he writes of her:

even as a girl you'd known your
     dream would be
Bringing others’ dreams about.
This once I think I glimpsed you,
You my glistening, lonely, giving
    Mistress Zen.
Thank you. Thank you for so
    many dreams come true.

He uses the word “lonely” because “Bríd had a loneliness for God, a longing for God. I respected this. Close as we were and I can't imagine that we could have been closer: we shared almost every thought for 44 years the mystery of otherness is always there.

“The Irish word uaigneach carries with it more than the term ‘loneliness’; longing, loneliness and alone-ness are all together in it. People ask if, in the grief of losing Bríd, I am finding consolation in faith, and the answer is that I am not. Rather, I find a challenge. It is a challenge to see the person I love the most go into a deep grave, and to still wager on meaning.”

Collected Poems by Micheal O'Siadhail is published by Bloodaxe Books at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18).

 

λογος - Logos
From Tongues

In the fourth Gospel logos is the
    word
That was in the beginning and
    made flesh
With Yahweh’s millennia of
    pledges
Echoing in one noun for “what is
    said”, 

But laden too with Greek
     philosophies
Commingling with logic and
    -ologies,
Rules, laws, argument, reason,
   measure, worth,
And even for Plato bird of the
   soul,

Although its root had only meant
    “to pluck”
Or “gather” and then “to read
    together”,
“To tell”, “to speak”, and so to
    “the thing said”
Which in turn takes on a life of its own.

Conjure believers reading papyrus
Wondering at a prologue’s
    parallels:
The same was in the beginning
    with God.
In a word, all and everything that
    is.

 

So
From Tongues

The final poem in the collection is “So” a haiku with echoes of the book of Genesis and the Gospel of John. He stays with the Japanese convention that the final five syllables of a haiku must refer to nature, and ends the collection with five syllables of life and hope.

In the beginning
The word. So too in the end.
Birds of Paradise.

 

Name-dropping From Love Life

Do friends notice when often by
    design
I somehow steer the conversation
    around

So casually to seem to drop your
    name,
The once-tapped r and long ee
    sound,

Charge of a consonant and vowel
  spliced,
Slipping you in like a hidden billet-
     doux

As though apart I need to stake
    my claim
On this lovely incantation of your
   Geist?

How even in your absence I
   conjure you.
I’ve called you by name. You are
    mine.

 

Never
from The Gossamer Wall

That any poem after Auschwitz is
    obscene?
Covenants of silence so broken
    between us
Can we still promise or trust
   what we mean?

Even in the dark of earth, seeds
    will swell.
All the inter weavings and fullness
    of being,
Nothing less may inure against
    our hell.

A black sun only shines out of a
    vacuum.
Cold narrowings and idols of
    blood and soil.
All the more now, we can't sing
    dumb!

A conversation so rich it knows it
    never arrives
Or forecloses; in a buzz and
    cross-ruff of polity
The restless subversive ragtime of
    what thrives.

Endless dialogues. The criss-cross
    of flourishings.
Again and over again our complex
    yes.
A raucous glory and the whole
    jazz of things.

The sudden riffs of surprise
     beyond our ken;
Out of control, a music's
   brimming let-go.
We feast to keep our promise of
never again.

Forthcoming Events

27 November 2021
An Advent Retreat with Poetry and Music
With Esther de Waal, Gregory Cameron, Peter Graystone, Richard Carter, and Rachel Mann.

25 January 2022
Preaching Lament and Hope
A Durham workshop from the College of Preachers.

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