An Irish Dante: Micheal O’Siadhail

BY MORIAH SPECIALE on March 2019

Sartre famously wrote that “hell is other people,” but for the poet Micheal O’Siadhail, hell is a highly specific group of other people. Among the damned are Franz Kafka, Karl Marx, and—you guessed it—a certain existentialist Frenchman, all of whom are punished for their role in launching modernity. But this hellscape is part of a larger project for O’Siadhail, a means of puzzling over the question, “How do we describe the contemporary world?” His answer is The Five Quintetsa poem spanning 400 years of intellectual history. Mirroring Dante’s The Divine Comedy, O’Siadhail presents readers with a summation of the modern period, a Who’s Who in verse of the ways and whys that led to our particular moment in history.

Born into a Dublin family in 1947, O’Siadhail attended Clongowes Wood College (like his countryman James Joyce), studied at Trinity College Dublin, and ultimately took up life as an academic—a linguist—at Trinity College and the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, accepting lectureships at Yale and Harvard before resigning his professorship in 1987 to work full-time on poetry. O’Siadhail’s deep, abiding love of words is evident not only in his written verse, but in the spirited way he delivers readings. He winds himself up and draws in breath, as if preparing to sing. Watching him, one feels the force of Robert Pinsky’s observation that “we sing all day to one another, when we speak.”

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