Originally published in Rí- Rá by The Irish Post, Saturday December 7th, 2013
Best Known for poems that evoke a certain despondency, Micheal O’Siadhail has been celebrated this year by the publication of his Collected Poems
STRIDING across the lobby of the Dublin 4 hotel in which we meet, 66 year- old poet Micheal O’Siadhail doesn’t look like a man with a large amount of weight on his shoulders. Standing at over six feet tall, boasting an athletic frame, a youthful, bouffant hairstyle and an impressive visage, the Clongowes educated “Jesuit boy” is a striking figure, which might explain the appearance of painter Mick O’Dea’s portrait of the poet, featured on the front cover of Ó’Siadhail’s Collected Poems, recently published by Bloodaxe Books.
As we exchange pleasantries, O’Siadhail is notably downcast and ashen- faced. I ask him how is feeling, today. “As good as can be expected”, he replies.
The poet has every reason to struggle with the business of publicising his latest publication. In June of this year, Bríd O’Siadhail (née Ní Chearbhaill), wife and muse of the poet for over 43 years, died of a heart attack while in care. A former teacher and suffer since 1997 of Parkinson’s disease, the poet is noticeably shaken and upset at the very mention of her passing.
“It was the most extraordinary moment in my life when I was writing the dedication of the book to my late wife, Bríd. My intention was always to write “To Bríd, with love” and I found myself writing “In Memoriam: Bríd”. I see the publication of the Collected Poems, though, as a huge privilege. I’m proud of the work between the covers, Mick O’Dea’s portrait and the cd provided by Bloodaxe, which is wonderful. Though she saw the proofs, I wish Bríd could have seen the finished book. We had a wonderful rhythm in our life, together. My overall feeling, though, is that I feel incredibly privileged to have been with her for 44 years, because not everyone can say that, unfortunately, and I fell deeper and deeper in love with her, over time. The support that I have received over the months at the recent readings and speeches have been heartening and supporting. “
At over 800 pages, O’Siadhail’s Collected Poems comprises of a life’s work- 40 years, in fact- of poetry. What impresses O’Siadhail most about the publication by Bloodaxe, however, is the audio c.d. “There’s an accompanying c.d. with the book, which I’m delighted about. I often ask myself how poems by my favorite poets would sound and feel if I have audio tracks of them reading: imagine hearing Shakespeare reading his Sonnets?! Claddagh Records have, over the years, done a great job of recording poets such as Patrick Kavanagh, Michael Hartnett, Derek Mahon and, many, many others, reading their own work. I think that it is important to have a record of how the poet sounded when he / she read their poems. That said, a composer isn’t always the best conductor of his / her own music: inevitably, readers will put their own spin on these poems when they read them out loud and they will stress and inflect where their voice leads them.”
It was the most extraordinary moment in my life when I was writing the dedication of the book to my late wife, Bríd. My intention was always to write “To Bríd, with love” and I found myself writing “In Memoriam: Bríd”
Culturally, what was energising those first poems in 1978’s The Leap Year? “Well, when I was writing in the 70’s it was quite a time to be writing. We had already been through the highs and the elation of the 60’s and those who came to adulthood in the 60’s had to face up to a different set of circumstances in the 70’s: it wasn’t the party that the 60’s was. So I was trying to make sense of my at that time, I think, which is what I’ve done with my poems: trying to find rich and deep meaning in life and question what that is: in friendships, in love. I have, however, also written about the Holocaust, which I think encapsulates the evil aspects of life, which I have also written about.”
“I don’t think that those early books are full of despair, but I think they reflect, certainly, a lot despair that was in the air. At the that time, Beckett was still one of the most major writers in the world and his plays full of despair, as is Pinter’s work and that of the theatre of the absurd. My work, I think, says that despite all that, I have seen ordinary people live lives of normality, of joy, of richness.”
In an early poem, ‘Line’, there seems to come a point of self- realisation, much like Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’; that the poet has chosen the vocation, or the vocation has chosen the poet. “You’re absolutely right. There came, with that poem, a sense of confidence. ‘Line’ was the moment when I realised that I was on this path of poetry and- I think I write in the preface in the Collected Poems– a way of reassuring both myself and my reader that this was all worthwhile; that for better of for worse, this is the commitment; this is where I stand. Up until ‘Line’, those early poems from the first two books were probing towards the vocation until there comes a certain point that you realise this what you are; this is what you do.”
As with O’Siadhail’s thematically- focused poems since the 1980’s, there is an index to the poems. “I think the index is another great addition to the book. It’s a surprise to me, to be honest; when I now read from the book I am able to see how many poems that I wrote about jazz, which occurs so often across the book, to my surprise. Even for me it’s fascinating. I wasn’t surprised by some of the themes that I have written about, but I have been surprised by how pervasive they seem to be in my work. Seasons crop up a lot and primal imagery is recurring, which is also interesting.”
I come from a completely different background to Patrick Kavanagh, but his sincerity and his vulnerability are things that I recognise
It was move to Oslo as a student that had a profound effect on the poet. “Oslo changed my poetry significantly, there’s no question about that. I was interested in Icelandic poetry, Swedish poetry, Nordic poetry and there is a quality in those works that appealed tremendously to my temperament: it’s the clarity and the primal imagery, which I would think is a result of the extreme climates in which they live. I’m sure it had an effect of me. I don’t think I was imitating anyone; I think all of those things were already inside me and my experiences opened up a lot of those things.”
In the late 1980’s, O’Siadhail left his Professorship in Trinity College Dublin to write full- time, going against the late Dennis O’Driscoll’s dictum that “All play and no work makes jack a dull poet”.
“I never regretted going full- time: it suited my temperament, it suited the way that I worked. I knew Dennis well and that was his choice, as it was T.S. Eliot’s who was a banker, Wallace Stevens who was an insurance man. There are lots of examples. For me, personally, it just suited my temperament. It also gave me the opportunity to explore themes and since I went full- time in the 80’s, my books took on a thematic structure. I knew John McGahern well and John- who also wrote full- time- would say that “it’s not only the hours that you’re working that count; it’s your mind when you’re not working that count as well.” You never clock- off. Perhaps if you are doing something that is automatic or routine- such as research- it takes up a lot of energy, which saps the creative energy. I loved writing poetry over academia and I’ve never regretted going full- time. My poems got deeper and richer.”
The influence that does come through, again and again in O’Siadhail’s poems is that of Patrick Kavanagh. “An extraordinary poet. On his day, he was as good as anyone. It seems to me extraordinary that he came from a pre- industrial society in Ireland and he reflected that society. He had a medieval humour that underpins his work and he also has a vulnerability, which I think readers like to see in their poets. I come from a completely different background to Kavanagh, but his sincerity and his vulnerability and things that I recognise.”
So with the publication of Collected Poems, 800 pages comprising of over 40 years of poetry, is this the end of the line for the prolific poet? “I hope there’s more to come, but as of now I’m deeply, deeply proud of the Collected Poems.”