George Szirtes, ‘Passionate in public’, review of Anthony Cronin, Collected Poems,
in The Irish Times (18 Dec. 2004), Weekend.

[Some poets write what they think and feel, others feel their thoughts and write. The first have thoughts they want to present in poetic form, the second discover what they think. There is no precedence between them: we enjoy and benefit from both on their own terms, writes George Szirtes.]

Anthony Cronin is of the first kind, a thinking man who happens to be a poet and a remarkably fine one at that. The late C.H. Sisson is quoted on the back flap of these Collected Poems to the effect that it is the best of Irish prose that has entered Cronin’s poetry. He is right. Cronin’s gift is for the memorable articulation of experience that might have been rendered less memorably in prose. This makes for a passionate and public kind of poetry. Cronin’s engagement is with the ordinary intelligent man in the city street, not with gods, ghosts, the muse, the unknown or the Other. He is aware of these entities, and in his longest and most important poem, the cycle of sonnets titled ‘The End of the Modern World’ he does fleetingly address the muse in the guise of Diana, the moon goddess, but she is not his main concern. Far from it! In the same poem, which is in effect a spectacular lecture on the history of capitalism, the character Childe Roland appears as a modern man in the world of the market’s Dark Tower. He accommodates himself to it and hears above “the murmur of the traffic”

A voice ask what it profited to save
One’s solipsistic, self-regarding soul
If one should lose the real world in that saving?

This is an inversion of the Biblical question, and though Roland is truly a child of his time, accepting the commercial realities, the way the question is voiced points to the fact that Cronin himself has asked and answered it much as Roland does, albeit from a different, firmer ideological perspective. It is the possibilities of this world that matter for Cronin: the soul is a part of the real world and redeems itself through it.

The Dark Tower, it should be added, is in Manhattan, and has been the dark tower to others since Cronin’s poem was first published in the key year of 1989, the year when Reagan’s “evil empire” fell apart, leaving the tower in sole charge. In this respect, ‘The End of the Modern World’ is a tortured meditation on the loss of an ideal that was never fully embodied, and anticipates an argument with Fukuyama’s The End of History .

Argument is at the core of Cronin’s poetry. It was Yeats who said that out of the argument with others we make rhetoric and out of the argument with ourselves we make poetry. This is borne out in Cronin, who has himself been a notable public man who has argued with himself, but also one who has mastered the rhetoric of arguing with others. He is of a less mysterious cast of mind that Yeats but to him too, as to late Yeats, poetry means shouldering responsibilities.

The poet may be no finer a public man than anyone else - he may indeed be worse, more absolute, more willing to yield small lives to a largeness of vision, to kill his darlings for the greater good of the poem. Cronin has written beautiful love poems, and some imperious political verse. It was his bad luck that his poem on the Titanic was overshadowed by Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s greater work. But Cronin’s is a major voice: he is Ireland’s modern Dryden, a master of the public word in the public place.

[George Szirtes’s most recent book of poems, Reel (Bloodaxe), is shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. His translation of Sándor Márai’s novel, Conversations in Bolzano, is published by Viking Penguin; Collected Poems. By Anthony Cronin. New Island, 333pp.

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