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Art, economics, science, and all that jazz

  • 04 February 2019


  The Five Quintets, by Irish poet Micheal O'Siadhail, is a gloriously unfashionable book. In an age of lyrics it is a long, conversational poem of almost 350 pages. In an age that focuses on detail, its topic is vast: the nature of Western modernity and its future. In a secular age its perspective is unobtrusively but deeply religious. It is therefore unlikely to make the best-sellers list. But it is an important and rewarding work.

It is worth dwelling briefly on the challenges facing the writer of such an ambitious poem and how he meets them. The first is to find a structure that organises the argument of the poem. As the title suggests, the work is divided into five quintets, each dealing with an aspect of modernity. Named 'Making', 'Dealing', 'Steering', 'Finding' and 'Meaning', they comprise the creative arts, economics, governance, scientific discovery and philosophy.

Each quintet is divided into five cantos which represent stages in the making of modernity breaking through, exploring freedom, dead ends of individual preoccupation or of control, breaking free, and paths to the future. Finally, the cantos describe in chronological order people, usually five in number, who represent each stage.

The inspiration and model of The Five Quintets come from Dante's Divine Comedy, whose theme is also universal in its scope, and which also focuses on individuals significant in the political and cultural life of the day. The movement within each canto echoes Dante's journey from earth through hell, purgatory to heaven, and the final canto concludes with a similarly ecstatic vision.

The second challenge in such a long poem is to present large ideas and cultural trends sinuously and unselfconsciously within the disciplines of poetry. Otherwise the poem would subside into a soggy and unappetising porridge.

O'Siadhail embodies ideas and attitudes in the lives of their representatives, and develops them through imagined dialogue with himself. The style of the writing is conversational and is given variety by the different poetic forms used in each quintet. These range from the sonnets and haikus (140 of each!) of the first quintet, to distinctive forms in the others, including the unbroken iambic pentameter that washes like a tide in the fourth quintet and Dante's terza rima in the final quintet. O'Siadhail is a skilled poet, at home in all these forms.

The third and decisive challenge facing O'Siadhail in this poem is to enter the lives and minds of people who made