Anthony Cronin is ensconced next to his bookshelf in the living room with a reading light shining over his shoulder. This venerable man of Irish letters is well-dressed in a purple plaid blazer with a sharpened HB pencil protruding from his breast pocket.
Cronin’s poetic masterpiece, The End of The Modern World (1989), expresses scepticism about modern technology in sonnet 171:
Gadgets which he never had occasion
To use or which were quickly superseded
By different models; cameras, recorders:
. . . aids which destroy
True evocation, memory, the past.
With this in mind, I ask permission to tape our conversation. “One must choose every word with those things,” he says.
Choosing his words carefully is nothing new to Anthony Cronin, in fact, he made crafting them his métier.
We are in Ranelagh, Dublin, where Cronin lives with his wife, fellow poet and novelist Anne Haverty, in their logophile’s kingdom. He has joked in the past that here is his querencia – a term describing the bull’s safe spot in the ring, where the animal feels at home and can make a stand.
This writer’s stand now takes the form of a weekly feature for The Sunday Independent – where he selects poetry and gives an insightful note – as well as his latest collection entitled Body and Soul, published in 2014.
Just this week his publisher, New Island, have released a revised and extended version of The End of the Modern World.
Ranelagh have acknowledged the ‘myriad-minded’ poet’s presence by naming a laneway after him. Fittingly, the lane skirts the Village Bookshop with its dark towers of hardback ink and pulp stacked high in the main street window.
Cronin first took an interest in poetry when sent as a boarder to Blackrock College from his native Enniscorthy. Having joined the chess club, which got him off the school grounds unsupervised, he picked up a copy of The Century’s Poetry in a local newsagent, “Penguins as a whole were new then. They were cheap, six pence . . . So I bought a copy and that did the job.”
To the teachers patrolling after-school study it was incomprehensible that anyone would read poetry for pleasure.
“Denys Kilham Roberts’ anthology was my first introduction to modern poetry. The rest of the stuff was The Charge of the Light Brigade and that kind of thing.
“I found it not only pleasurable but, in a funny sort of way, a consolation and an illumination to read.”
Unbeknownst to his teachers, Cronin was with the “blunder’d” 600 charging into the valley of death with poetry as his newfound steed.
Cronin’s work is far from confined to poetry and his other writing has had a lasting impact on the arts in Ireland.
After college he was called to the Bar, an opportunity he declined. Instead he took a desk job and started frequenting the pubs of the capital. This experience informed his deeply comic novel, The Life of Riley (1964), which lampooned the bar-stool intellectualising prevalent at the time and gave a voice to the literary aspirants of 1950’s Ireland.
This rollicking satire sees the author untether his sharp wit on every page. While this is his most overtly comic book, humour is a constant lens through which Cronin observes the world and his application of this wry gaze is a hallmark of all his writing.
While his character Patrick Riley worked hilariously hard to maintain his idleness, Cronin saw the drudgery of the working world and wanted little to do with it. By further indulging the autodidactic strain within him, he started pursuing the creative life through poetry.
In biographies of Samuel Beckett, The Last Modernist (1996), and Flann O’Brien, No Laughing Matter (1989), Cronin corralled his eloquent prose into compelling portraits of two Irish giants of 20th century letters.
If you were looking for Irish literature at the start of the 20th century it could be found on the Abbey stage with Yeats, Sygne, O’Casey and Lady Gregory. But as the century warred and wore on it was on the page, as well as the stage, where two distinct groups of writers carved a modern Irish identity and garnered an international reputation that Fáilte Ireland market to this day.
The two groups were made up of those who left and those who stayed. Firstly the exiles, Joyce and Beckett, who headed to the Left Bank in Paris for a better view of their country’s soul. Then there was the Dublin cabal of hard writing and harder-drinking 50s vagabonds: Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan.
The latter group called McDaids and various other pubs their garret. Friend and confidant to all three, Cronin would go on to memorialise these characters in Dead As Doornails (1976). In those pages he displayed the vibrant writing life he shared while documenting their penurious living arrangements and the sad demise that befell each of them. This he did without succumbing to hagiography.
In this honest and incisive depiction of these friends, there is the story of the first Bloomsday celebration organised to mark the 50th anniversary of the 16th June 1904, the day Joyce set his modernist masterpiece Ulysses.
On that day in 1954 a coterie of literary figures headed to Martello Tower at Sandymount to trace the route taken for Paddy Dignam’s funeral in the novel. In the purest coincidence, that same day, a horse called Elpenor won the Ascot Gold Cup. The race features in the novel and Joyce had based his character of Paddy Dignam on Elpenor from Homer’s Odyssey, a character who falls off a roof and then journeys to the underworld.
The horse was fifty-to-one to win as they snaked around the capital paying homage to the scenes from Ulysses but nobody backed the coincidence and the outsider only paid out through the writers’ future anecdotes.
For a dozen years, around the 1970s, Cronin wrote a column called Viewpoint in The Irish Times. It dealt in ideas as well as social and political criticism.
For a time, he moved from the artist’s “long tradition of the man alone, / Deriding all sides, driven out by all,” in order to take the role of cultural advisor to Charles Haughey where perhaps he “Tried to define an order in which art/ Might find itself the breath of common being.”
Cronin often defended Haughey in print, saying he was the first head of government to make the arts an integral part of state policy. When Haughey died, he made a promise to stop defending his legacy in print, saying it was now posterity’s turn.
As for his own role, he says: “Going into the taoiseach’s office as an advisor, I saw the opportunity of doing things and bringing things into being: The [Irish] Museum of Modern Art (Imma), The Heritage Council, Aosdána in particular”
Aosdána was established in 1981. It currently has 250 members and state support from the Arts Council in recognition of their contribution to Irish artistic endeavour. Was the organisation an attempt to mend the relationship with artists after censorship?
“Ireland fell out with its artists almost immediately on its foundation. Censorship was one of the things but it wasn’t the primary thing. The primary thing was the notion that all artists were anti-religious. There was a clash with the values and established beliefs of the country at large, which had just triumphed, remember.”
His poetry is critical of the triumphalism of the new State:
. . . The ones who fought the War of Independence
Did so, and let’s admit it in all fairness,
Out of the purest motives, with no thought
Of how things eventually would turn out,
Of how the banks, insurance, brokerage, commerce
Would fall to them. The dialectical process
Is to blame. They couldn’t know the bourgeois
Revolution would be a bonanza.
They hadn’t read their Marx and couldn’t see
How sweet would be the sweets of victory.
These spoils of victory didn’t accrue to artists. In fact, the first few decades of the Free State was an increasingly uncomfortable time for them. The ‘artists dole’, as Aosdána was nicknamed, and the tax exemptions were starting points in the state’s reconciliation of its relationship with artists.
Critics label the programme elitist, and some artists have refused the bursary after being nominated. However, even those would admit that it has served a largely positive purpose. It was surely no harm to artists that one of their own had Haughey’s ear in that ‘inner sanctum’ of deception and decision that was Irish politics.
Despite his many achievements as novelist, biographer, critic and cultural advisor, Cronin’s artistry is best represented in his poetry, particularly his longer verse: R.M.S Titanic, The Minotaur, Reductionist Poem and The End of the Modern World all stretch out over tens of verses and flow with the storied ease of a novel.
In these extended poems he revels in his ability to ruminate at length on subjects such as modern existence and the Irish State.
He renders cities of the mind in verse full of “true evocation”, probing what it has meant to live through modernity and amongst its inevitable human failings.
Attuned to the struggles of daily life, at times, his poetry is almost a form of heightened journalism, and he even makes reference to his own deadlines:
. . . I managed two
And sometimes up to four effusions weekly,
Facing the bedroom wall, my papers
Behind me on the bed. There were no stairs
Or battlements to pace upon in Stella.
And yet I was embattled in the way
That most of those who are embattled are
In our society. I feared the post,
The admonition from the EBS
Which threatened to uproot me every month,
The ESB which threatened instant darkness,
The GPO which threatened severance.
The longer verse provided a semblance of normality to his daily writing routine. “I remember a poet George Barker telling me that one should write a long poem or two because you could sit down to it everyday like a novelist sat down to a novel.
“They’re a tremendous discipline. It also means that you’re the boss; it’s not the muse that you’re waiting for.”
The first of his long poems was published in the sixties, a time when a single poem could afford you a reputation (this is far from the case today), “I wrote R.M.S. Titanic immediately after seeing the movie, A Night To Remember (1958), in the pictures. The poem was about the death of an old school morality or decency.”
Coagulate with cold and dark the sea
Sucks down Titanic as the hiss of steam
Dies over empty distance. The boats gaze
On what was home, eleven storeys high,
Commotion crowding on its decks, its lights
Tilting above them as the band plays on. . . .
. . . We live by living, survive by mere surviving.
Stubborn beyond our stubbornness or strength
Our virtues, like our weaknesses, prevail.
These extended meditations provided more than a daily routine; they also formed the anchors around which his collections of poetry were built.
The End of The Modern World has occupied his mind for decades. Written throughout the eighties, and dedicated to Dermot Bolger, it was first published in 1989 (the year this interviewer was born) but this month this major work has been re-released in a solo volume for the first time.
The poem is an interrogation of centuries of European and classical thought – a sort of psychic history of Western civilisation from Roman times right up to a glistening Manhattan Island – with a familiar Irish squalor omnipresent throughout.
Like the Elgin Marbles in verse, it is a collection of significant events, both international and personal, juxtaposed with timeless works of art in some attempt to place modernity, as Cronin sees it, in a poetic frieze that is built to last.
After 179 sonnets he arrives at Manhattan Island and what, in hindsight, is an eerily prescient way to end a poem entitled The End of Modern World. But of course he couldn’t have known then that it would become the Ground Zero of the most modern of tragedies, “I ended on the Twin Towers, I didn’t think they were going to end at the time.”
Ask not what end, inquiring traveller,
Is served, what grim need to placate a god
Or worship him, what visions, definitions of
Our destiny, our purpose threw up these
Audacious towers to shine in evening light.
The sun, a crucible of nuclear rage,
Knows nothing of such ends: it thrummed out rays
Of heat until the ooze transformed itself.
Money’s convulsions too are life-giving,
Neutral, imply no purpose in our hearts,
But blaze upon this rock to make Manhattan
Rise in resplendence, such a culmination
Of history seen at sunset from the harbour,
Meaningless, astonishing and simple.
The scope of his vast poems, coupled with his meticulousness with words, must make them draining to write?
“I wouldn’t care to start a long poem like that nowadays, you might be trapped. Because it takes a bit of doing.”
Anthony Cronin proves a formidable subject. Deliberate, measured and scrupulous in all his responses, his life has been a war against cliché. He has strived through articulation to broaden our understanding of this “all too short life,” as he describes it.
His legacy is bound up with the import of language: its ability to both capture and expand experience on the page. Where he did this best is in his poetry, thirteen collections of it.
This brings us to his most recent collection, Body and Soul, and the succinct summation of existence in The Life of Man:
All that excitement, all that fear and pain
And snuff out and never be again?
“That is the question, isn’t it . . . Why do the events of a short not very eventful life, in many cases, have such extraordinary intensity and eventfulness if it means nothing? If we’re not going anywhere.” That poem isn’t a statement but a question, and one that none of us are equipped to answer.
“I rather like those two lines myself. The poem finds it kind of incredible that life should have any significance if it’s not one that’s carried on . . . But that may be a hangover from a Catholic upbringing. Maybe it has absolutely no significance whatsoever. Just a biological accident: you are conceived, you grow up and then, as the poem says, you snuff out . . . Could be . . .”
Nearing ninety the body may be creaking with the inevitabilities of a life, yet Cronin’s soul and mind are still engaged with these questions and are as sharp as that pencil in his breast pocket, so don’t be surprised if there are more poems to come from that prolific triumvirate.
And that is no small thing, as he says, because writing even one poem of value is a minor miracle.
A shorter version of this piece was first published in The Irish Times last Thursday, the 26th of May.