The End of The Modern World, Anthony Cronin, Raven Arts Press, IR£4.95.
The first thing that should be said about Anthony Cronin's new book is that it is an eloquent memorial to the speed of modern publishing. The 'Author's Note' is dated February '89 and the book was in my hands in late March - as far as I know that beats both Jane Eyre and A Passage to India for brevity of gestation in
the womb of the printer.
More than two decades ago Mr. Cronin published his first
elegy of the modern era in R.M.S. Titanic. In his new work the Titanic has been raised, thanks to the bathyscope of mature thought and the auto-sub of Raven Arts. The new book has less unity than the older poem, being a seven-year coalition of sonnets first elected in 1982 with 41 Sonnet-Poems. The grandeur of the title of the new book may put people off, and it may sharpen the knife of many a reviewer. But the title is honest and full of good faith. Cronin has always been an honest, and therefore vulnerable, commentator: he has always been an oracle rather than a politician. In the last decade and a half his Irish Times essays have been my constant companions. Several bedsits have had their wall plastered with his press-clippings and two Irish Times articles, one from 1976 on the economics of poetry and one more recent of 'The Boat Again', are still pinned to a new wall in a new house. In a literature full of drivel and special pleading Cronin's intelligence and skepticism shine through with heartening clarity. He has always written as if he lived in a beseiged city, like the Camus of Combat.
It was Comenius, the gifted Latin scholar, who published a book containing representative pictures from the known world, pictures from industry, art, commerce, medicine etc., accompanied by a Latin text. In this way he hoped to teach students a new language to coincide with a complete view of the world. Cronin, like Commenius, offers us a visual text of wordpictures along with a new grammer, poetry. The impulse behind the poem is didactic. It is not merely an effort to witness public events like Lowell's Notebooks or to create a context within
which to operate artistically like Montague's Rough Field. Cronin presents us with more than a mere anthology of the world - he has 'edited the century to create a picture of decline. Cronin is ever a Jacobite, a poet at the barricades, resisting the world while conferring unity upon it:
'But strike they did and threw a king's cropped head As gage of battle to the kings of Europe
Thus horrifying many gentle souls . .' (No. 27)
Thus by Sonnet 27 we've moved from defeated Roman farmers to revolutionary France, the frenzy of revolt. Then the poet moves through the world of Byron, Baudelaire, De Sade, through Rilke, Marconi, Gauguin, and Marinetti who 'went to see the guns/ Oiled steel recoiling. Plume. The answering puff! Among the terraces was death.' After the horror of the Great War the sonnets rest awhile in the Russian Revolution that great promised unifier of poetry and machines, the ultimat~ context:
'Those who have not lived through revolution
Can not imagine its great and solemn beauty.' (No.76)
Cronin, the dialectical phenomonologist rather than materialist, focuses upon the person aspects of world events or th~ artistic aspects when art as a witness clarifies the truth~ In thIS ,way the world ~s it unfolds into decline becomes a distinctly OCCIdental event; Images assert the underlying philosophy of ?eclIne. The poet rightly narrows the focus, for a poet can only ImagIne. the decline o~ his own context. The West, as Ai Qing and FaIz Ahmed F~IZ often r~peated, is a slave to images, symbols and SymbolIsm. There IS nothing here of the wonderful ~o?tinuity of China or the spectacular triumphs of Islam. There IS Instead a series of pictures from the decline of the West. I think it was Jas.pers, or was it Spengler, who used that latter phrase. It was. c~rtalllly J asp~rs who said 'The sclerosis of objectivity is the a~nIhllatIOn of eXIs~ence.' ~hat Cronin has done faithfully and WIth un-self-conscIOus serIousness is to sustain a double movement in this sonnet-series; a dialectic of machines and mechanic syste.n:s of thought selected from history and set in ~onstant oppOSitIOn to a personal and artistic life. Human value IS constantly under threat of being stifled. Material success mater~aIism itself, creates that mauvaise-foi which is the ver; opposite of authentic living or engagement. Poetry as both a
form of liberated will and authenticating life-project is the hero of this sequence, with sexual activity as a feit-motlf, a Nietzschean subjectivism:
'He sought, no doubt in darkness, love perhaps, Those shudderings and that fierce abandonment.'
When Cronin moves to Stella Gardens he sees it as an authenticating move, a protest against alienation. It is a defiant nest-building to spite the Hemingways of Sonnet 110 and the battlement-pacing Yeats of Sonnet Ill. This is my favourite part of the sequence (Nos. 110-128) and it is a personal victory within the war of decline. But by sonnets 127 and 128 even the integrity of Stella Gardens is at risk. Dockers, the poet's neighbours, take their 'three thousand quid redundancy' -
'They'd sling the hook no more, but stay in bed, Drink pints and read the paper, have a bob
On something that Our Travelling Correspondent Thought might oblige. Of course it mostly didn't.'
In between, between the rejection of Yeats' grandiose battlements and the collapsed lifestyle of the dockers, the author is threatened by the ESB and the P&T, yet is lifted on the rising tide of the last Economic Programme. By this time - the late Sixties - the poet has bread enough in his belly to dream of state schemes for the support of the arts:
I joined the NUJ. I wrote long pieces About the need of state support for artists, Tried to define an order in which art
Might find itself the breath of common being.'
This was the germ of Aosdana, a scheme far bolder than anything Yeats ever thought of. But the objective world, the anthology of decline, intrudes. In Sonnet 117 we have Robert Kennedy's death, seen from Des Moines' Sunset Bar. The death of Kennedy comes to us between sonnets on Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. The three of them together become a composite image of ' So many poets unhappy in this time.' After those public sonnets, nos. 122-124 are strangely private and inaccessable: they come to a formal closure in 131 with the phrase 'The mere desire to sexually possess.' Sex is the feit-motlf, as I've already noted. In this sequence there's every kind, from oral with the rubber off to sex with panties on. I'm not happy with Cronin's approach to this subject: there is a question
begging to be answered: i.e. what about the woman; about women's liberation, which remains undocumented here. The ~uthor should have been wise to the absence of female sensibility m the world. He has narrowed the context of his poems even further by not exploring this theme. The women's movement is the culmination of all the authentically liberating ideas. Without it there is no freedom.
But it is fitting that a sequence about the end of the modern world should have lunacy and art as its closing preoccupations. As Cronin says 'the mad have more to fear from us/Than we from them'. Salvation lies somewhere between the Van Gogh or Gauguin of nos. 157, 158 and 159 and the art gallery of the second-last sonnet -
'These air-conditioned spaces which absorb To the faint murmur of a distant duct
The last assault waves of the avant garde'
In this work Cronin has ventilated most of the big questions of our time. In the last twenty years or so we've been trained to chew smaller mouthfuls, to operate artistically through an exotic provincial sensibility. Cronin has been faithful to his teachers, he has addressed their anxieties. In the end he gives us Manhatten, 'a culmination of history seen at sunset from the harbour'; for the skyscr~per is the great phallus of material progress, 'Meanmgless, astonishing and simple.'