Tuesday 12 December 2017

The perfect monument is raised to a great Irish voice . . .

Collected Poems, Micheal O'Siadhail, Bloodaxe, £20

Portrait of a poet: Micheal O'Siadhail, painted by Mick O'Dea
Portrait of a poet: Micheal O'Siadhail, painted by Mick O'Dea
Micheal O'Siadhail

Brian Lynch

If Micheal O'Siadhail weren't already a large figure in Irish literature, this enormous volume would raise a monument to him.

Its 832 pages of text are accompanied by a CD of the poet reading some of the poems – and all of this for the astonishingly cheap price of £20.

Not least of the book's attractions is a wonderful portrait of O'Siadhail on the cover by Mick O'Dea, Ireland's finest living portrait painter.

O'Siadhail is, by training, a linguist. If you ever tried to teach yourself our first official language, you were probably using Learning Irish, his hugely popular textbook published by Yale University.

He has a first-class degree from Trinity College and has always taken a particular interest in Scandinavian languages – he is, or was, a specialist in Icelandic and Norwegian, not to mention his ability to speak Japanese, Tibetan, Tagalog. . .

But in 1987 he gave up his professorship at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies to become a full-time poet. Considering that the weekly wages even the most successful poet can earn would hardly buy a bag of chips, how he has not starved to death is a mystery.

Considering, too, O'Siadhail's credentials as an intellectual, what is surprising about his poetry is how easy it is to understand. He doesn't go in for high-flown chanting like WB Yeats – instead of saying "I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree", he just gets on his bike and goes there.

Nor does he do seven types of ambiguity, like William Empson – instead he tries to say what he means in as straightforward a way as possible.

One consequence of this simplicity is that his verse can sometimes read like prose. Here, chosen at random, are lines from a charming series of poems about his Jesuit education at Clongowes: "Bugs O'Leary, Rev Father Organiser of Almost/ Everything, charmer of boys' sisters and mother,/ guardian angel to the nurse, prefect of the study-/hall where his thick soles creak on the parquet/ as he spins accusingly: 'O'Herlihy, shut up!' . . ."

But in what I take to be his best work, a hefty volume called Tongues, published in 2010, he unites his simple joy in the world of appearances with his training as a linguist and produces verse that is at once playful, interesting and profound.

It is significant that Tongues, unlike the other books here, has a lengthy introduction. It constitutes a summing up of his belief about language and a statement of his personal credo in poetry.

Not the least fascinating thing about it is the information that in Scotland the word "glamour" was originally spelled "grammar" and that "grammar" came to mean "magic".

O'Siadhail's Collected Poems is, like himself, large, awkward and unwieldy, and yet, in its open-hearted humanity, it is touchingly devoted to the glamorous and the magical.

Brian Lynch's new novel The Woman Not The Name will be reviewed here shortly by Deirdre Purcell.

Irish Independent

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