Not Just Tuneful But True…a review of “The Five Quintets”

BY JOHN O’DONNELL on April 1, 2019

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.”

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