Anthony Cronin’s unquenchable fighting spirit
Anthony Cronin has produced one of the most distinctive oeuvres of Irish poetry in decades
Echoes of the past: Anthony Cronin, photographed with his dog Butler in 2004. Photograph: Frank Miller
Body and Soul
At a reading in Ranelagh in 2010 to launch his previous collection, The Fall, Anthony Cronin joked that Ranelagh had become his querencia; that is, the place in the bullfighting ring where the bull chooses to make his stand. And in this latest collection, his 13th, Cronin’s fighting spirit is much in evidence as he surveys modern Ireland, as is his sceptical, clear-eyed contemplation of mortality and the troubled marriage of body and soul.
At this stage it is hardly necessary to point out that poetry has always been Cronin’s central concern, something that may occasionally have been obscured by his achievements in the fields of fiction, biography, memoir, criticism and journalism.
What is becoming more obvious is the way in which his work in those areas fed into his poetry, and vice versa. The clarity, rigour and wit of his best prose inform his poetry, as does his concern for the citizen and the res publica. In this way, Cronin has produced one of the most distinctive and essential poetic oeuvres of Irish poetry in recent decades.
Inevitably, it is hard to read the poems in this collection without being aware of echoes of the earlier work. This volume rings with the rough music of old shields being taken down and struck. In the short, somewhat tongue-in-cheek verse After Thomas Moore, Cronin summarises one aspect of his art: “Dear Harp of my country, in Celtness I found thee, / The Chain of Antiqueness had hung o’er thee long, / When proudly, my own island harp, I unbound thee / And gave all thy chords to the street and its song.”
This brings us back to the almost forgotten culture wars of the 1950s and 1960s, the backdrop against which Cronin published his first book, Poems (1957). These wars were won so comprehensively that in hindsight it is hard to imagine the hegemony that a certain kind of writing exercised in Ireland at the time, despite the huge, distant gravitational pulls of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.
The guiding idea was that true Irishness lay in Celtic mythology rather than in modern history, in rural roots rather than the real complexity, often urban, of life in Ireland – not to mention the priority granted to the Irish language. All this was in some ways merely a cover for a postindependence power grab. Cronin attacked it more or less directly and satirically in poems like The Man Who Went Absent from the Native Literature and Lunchtime Table, Davy Byrne’s: “All here possess the teanga, Times’s, jobs / In Academe, Departments, Bords and Comhluchts.”
But Cronin’s real blow against this absurd, self-serving essentialism was to move quietly and determinedly in a different direction, towards a poetry grounded in experience, the language of good sense, and a vision of the poet as engaged citizen rather than anthropologist or bard. The poet, as a man in the street: “On the pavements of two worlds those calloused feet / Walked their weary, / Remorseful, / Anxious, / EVEN EAGER / Miles.”
Louis MacNeice may well have been a shadow in the background there, and Cronin is certainly an inheritor of Patrick Kavanagh’s quantum leap into democratic vistas, but it is England which was to be Cronin’s lodestar. Not so much England as English poetry. There is no doubt that a certain deep tradition in English poetry was his true homeland. I recently came across a trove of English magazines from the 1950s, largely forgotten “little magazines” like X and Nimbus, and was surprised to find Cronin so omnipresent on this London scene, with people such as David Wright and Francis Bacon.
His poems of these years can stand with the best of the Movement in their wit and hard-won lyricism. Out of this period, too, came the long poem RMS Titanic, a major work that was published in the Penguin book Longer Contemporary Poems alongside works by WH Auden and Hugh MacDiarmuid. The ill-fated leviathan gave Cronin a metaphor with which to explore the modern world, especially the nature of capitalism and class society.
Cronin eventually returned to Ireland and throughout the 1970s wrote a hugely influential column in this newspaper, as well as taking a unique public stance on the place of the arts in Irish society.
In parallel he was also working on his masterpiece, the sequence of sonnets that would become The End of the Modern World, one of the most singular achievements in Irish poetry of the last century. It is a poetic extravaganza, a meditation on history and the rise of capitalism, which incorporates into its disciplined but flexible form reports of the Russian Revolution and discussions of the origins of chivalry, explorations of Marinetti and Van Gogh, as well as autobiographical fragments and attempts to untangle the knots of sex, love, wealth and class. The whole is seamed with symbols from English and other literatures, especially the Tower and its avatars, those shining symbols of late capitalism that no longer seem quite so invulnerable.
That a poem crammed with such material remains topical is due to the fact that it fulfils Ezra Pound’s criterion for poetry: it is news that stays news.
The interplay of public and private continues to interest him. How to deal with the public thing in a poem? How to avoid falseness of gesture, the merely rhetorical phrase?
“Why does being right seem wrong? I wondered, / Or protest seem so like complacency?”
In a mordant poem in the present volume he considers Pound, WB Yeats and TS Eliot, poetic giants who were less successful when they moved the ideas that informed their poems into the public realm: “On these grave subjects they were bound to look foolish / However wisely they might otherwise write. / For on these grave subjects the children of darkness / Are wiser in their generation than the children of light.”
But this self-laceration is balanced against the wintry delight that gleams in these poems. There must be a grim satisfaction in seeing the bodies of enemies floating down the river, as people finally grasp the true nature of late capitalism, their eyes opened not by abstract argument but by the weather on the streets. This long view is one of the crowning glories of age. Cronin started off in the Ireland of Lough Derg but is here to see how “The Irish go on pilgrimage / To Santiago now. / They like the sunlit walk . . .”
Like The Fall, this collection shows a growing interest in the theological. But don’t expect any sudden revelations. Cronin keeps his feet firmly on the concrete, without illusions. He remains, in the last poem in this collection, what he has always been, a man speaking truth to men: “But if we did still pray / For what was uppermost / In our anxious, sometimes / Desperate hearts / That you might think were beating / Their wings / Against the bars of the temporal, / It would belong to the temporal, / Not the spiritual world. // The temporal is our sphere, / We know no other.”
Michael O’Loughlin’s latest collection is In This Life (New Island)