IN 1974, Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Denial of Death. The American cultural anthropologist was given the award, ironically, two months after he died from cancer. Today his ideas still inspire and challenge those who continue to read his work.
Becker viewed both human civilisation, and mankind’s obsession for achievement in life, as a desperate attempt to transcend mortality.
Think of any massive human thought projects throughout history and you get the picture: Christianity, communism, capitalism, nazism, or any other ideology that attempts to bypass death and believe in something eternal.
In Becker’s opinion, when we deny our sense of mortality, we live in a constant state of repression and anxiety. Presently I mention the Jewish writer because Micheal O’Siadhail seems to agree with many of his ideas.
“I think the society we are a part of has a terrible dread of death. We hide away from it. In my collection, Our Double Time, I tried to face up to this idea of finitude.
“We escape facing finitude through many ways: alcohol, drugs or even work. We tend to numb ourselves,” says the 66-year-old poet, from his home in south Dublin.
In a poem with the same title as the collection, O’Siadhail writes:
‘From now every single moment our double time/ Not that I’ve grown blasé or no longer care/ more a deeper listening to a music’s densities/ No matter how or when, no matter where’.
“What I was trying to get across in that poem is that if you face up to finitude, you can actually praise and savour every moment in life.
“The idea then is that it doubles time because you know you are not going to live forever. It frees you up: if you are able to face death you don’t have to hide away from it.”
Both in art and life, death is a subject that O’Siadhail hasn’t been able to run from. He is still mourning the loss of his late wife, Bríd, who tragically died this past June. As his writing career progressed, she became a muse for many of his poems.
His 2005 collection, Love Life, is dedicated entirely to her. But perhaps the closing lines of While You Are Talking, published in 1990, best represent his admiration, infatuation, and respect, for the woman he adored for most of his adult life. The poem unifies the sensual and the mysterious. I quote the closing lines aloud to the man who wrote them:
‘I untie again ribbons of your mystery/ You shift and travel as only a lover can/ One woman and all things to this one man.’
A strange and slightly awkward silence lingers. But after this brief pause, O’Siadhail says: “It’s a huge consolation to have written those poems. The fact that I wrote Love Life for my beloved Bríd while she was still alive was a great joy for me. I was as deeply in love when I first held her hand 44 years ago, as I was the day I held her hand dying. It was an extraordinary journey that we experienced together.”
While love poems like these draw the reader into the deeply personal and intimate world of the writer, it would be wrong to suggest that O’Siadhail is a confessional poet.
He is just as willing to use history and philosophy to create his own fictional universe: where he can address moral and ethical issues in the public domain.
In 2002, he published The Gossamer Wall: Poems in Witness to the Holocaust. The idea of the book is to give a voice to those who perished in the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War.
The Holocaust is something that the baby boomer generation has never really faced head on in art and literature, says O’Siadhail.
“When I finished writing that book I thought: the only way of preventing these things from happening again is to embrace the full richness of death and life without narrowing it down to an ideology: because that is what leads to genocide. Obviously these poems are an act of imagination because I wasn’t in the camp. But poetry can imagine.”
O’Siadhail spent four years reading Holocaust literature. His hope was to try and come to terms what he calls ‘the greatest tragedy of the millennium’. But it’s an impossible task, as he found out.
He quotes the famous Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi, who wrote in one of his memoirs ‘here there is no why’: this was a response that Levi remembered from one of the Nazi guards, when he asked why Jews were being brought to the camp.
O’Siadhail inserted this quote into his own book because he says it isolates the deranged notion of a human being losing the ability to think.
“You really couldn’t write a book about the Holocaust without facing questions about our humanity,” he says. “In this collection, I also ask Theodor Adorno’s question: is any poem obscene after Auschwitz? My thought at the end of writing this book was that evil doesn’t win because if it does, you hand the victory to the Nazis.”
O’Siadhail’s poetry is very much at home in European culture. He casually remarks that he speaks fluent Norwegian. And he discusses a Lithuanian Jewish philosopher called Emmanuel Levinas, who spent his life looking at the questions of ethics after the horrors of the Holocaust.
While O’Siadhail still claims that his roots are in Ireland, he acknowledges the cultural and intellectual influence other European cities have had on his work.
Lunchtime in a London Café, published in 1985, for example, describes a “city’s jamboree” and its “limitless chances”. Refusing to be labelled as an urban poet, O’Siadhail still confesses his love for the city, which he has always seen as a symbol of both liberation and danger.
“Even right back to Biblical times, the idea of a city was about freedom from the tribe. It has always been about getting away from those people who knew you as a child: they can sometimes exercise a downward pressure on you.
“Often the pressure of small tribal communities tells you that you must not think you are anyone and therefore you mustn’t be different. The city the New Jerusalem, for example, was always a symbol where you could go beyond those pressures, where you could be yourself.
“The city opens up these possibilities.”
O’Siadhail has made poetry a permanent job since 1987. I mention a Seamus Heaney line about the impossible task of writing lyrical poetry full-time, no matter how much talent you have.
But O’Siadhail paraphrases a John McGahern line in response: something about the importance of time spent away from your desk, doing nothing but thinking. This is half the battle for a writer, he maintains.
But what happens when you become philosophically absurd and question the notion of time itself, when you are supposed to be writing?
You think some more, he says. And eventually, you write. But don’t expect answers to come quick and easy from poetry.
“One of the great questions we all ask is why are we are passing through time? We all know that life is not a rehearsal. Anybody who is concerned with the ministry of meaning is concerned with the concept of time. It makes you more conscious of the fragility of life.
“The central aspect in all my work is to find meaning: to ask the big questions. Why we are here? What we are doing? And where we are going?”