The Living not the Dead

Brendan O’Connor has an excellent article in the Sunday Independent, High time to bury the dead poets’ society, looking at how we treat our poets and praising a new book by Anthony Cronin, the man responsible for Aosdana and the artist’s exemption.
A Sample of Cronin’s writing: The Man Who Went Absent From The Native Literature“IT IS apparently said at Irish wakes that the dead person “would have loved it himself”. And if Paddy Kavanagh had been alive for his own 100th birthday celebrations, he certainly would have loved them himself. Did he ever think he would become such a bastion of respectable Ireland? No less than two televisual homages on RTE (presumably 10 more on TG4 but we all missed them) and countless other remembrances from the great and good on radio and in newspapers.
It’s hard to tell exactly what we’re congratulating him for. Is it for the fact that he didn’t live to be a hundred? For the fact that he was a great poet? Is it the fact that we feel guilty about how we treated him when he was alive? Or are we simply congratulating him for being dead?
The latter, sadly, is probably the case. Poets, even “great poets” like Kavanagh, are messy individuals when they’re alive. They are unreliable, tend to drink too much, can sometimes act in anti-social fashion, and often overstay their welcome at your house. They also smell a bit.
In death, calcified for posterity in the form of their most beautiful thoughts, they are saints: convenient, untroublesome, pure. In death, the messy poetic life is gone and all that remains is the product of that life, distilled into timeless verse.
Whereas a guy who was unpopular with the ladies and his peers as a teenager would just be the kind of guy you didn’t want to hang around with in real life, his poems about being unpopular with the ladies aren’t bad. And where a culchie up in Dublin with a chip on his shoulder about being a bogger is generally a pain in the hole in life, poems about it aren’t so bad. In fact, a hectoring drunken embittered Northie is really only going to gain any acclaim in death.
People love Kavanagh now, people who, when he was alive, would have crossed the road when they saw him coming. Sentimental old drunks who sing a few verses of Raglan Road when they’ve had a few. But now that it’s shag-all good to him, we celebrate him. To assuage our guilt or something.
A far more effective way to assuage our guilt would be to look after the poets who are alive. We seem to feel that not asking them to pay tax and giving them 10 grand a year from the Aosdana is enough. We wouldn’t be having them on television or anything. Unless, of course, they are Famous Shamus, the most widely unread Irish poet in the world.
Famous Shamus is unread by people all over the world. And we are justifiably proud of him. Because we do recognise on some level that poets are a good thing to have around. But poets are a bit like broccoli – we intend to digest them more than we actually do. We might take to heart WH Auden’s maxim – “Let us honour if we can. The vertical man. Though we value none. But the horizontal one”. But then Auden was a poet, so we feel safe enough ignoring him. Apart from when someone says one of his poems in Four Weddings and a Funeral. After he’s dead naturally.
It will have escaped your notice that Anthony Cronin has a new book of collected poems. You will have heard a lot about various crappy biographies by post 15-minutes celebs and trashy chick-lit but you probably won’t have heard much about Cronin’s book unless you move in arty circles.
He’s actually an interesting character. Not only is he regarded by people who know poetry as Ireland’s true poet laureate, he is also a bit of a renaissance man. Indeed Cronin embodies Yeats’s notion of a Byzantium where art and life are intermingled. Cronin is the very model of the useful artist. Apart from poetry he has done valuable work in biography, memoir and even Government policy.
Ironically, it is Cronin who convinced this State to look after artists a bit better. As the grandiosely titled Cultural and Artistic Advisor to Charlie Haughey he introduced things like artists’ exemption and Aosdana.
Looking back now we could be tempted to see Cronin’s exhalted position back in the early Eighties as another example of Haughey’s vanity and Napoleonic notions. But the notion that a gentleman of letters could have the ear of the leader like that is a wonderful one.
There are those who would argue that poets and philosophers should rule society. This was as close are we are likely to get to such an arrangement and Cronin was the man who did it.
He is also that other rare creature – a relevant academic. He has spent years as a visiting lecturer and poet in residence in various universities, but has never succumbed to the campus ailment of disappearing up his own alliteration.
He has even managed to write about other writers in a way that is human and engaging. Dead as Doornails is as close as we have to an autobiography of one of the most fascinating times in Irish history. And instead of being about writers, it’s about drinkers and egos and the pathetic lives that so many writers end up leading.
And indeed if Tony Cronin had drunk himself into the grave like all his contemporaries from Dublin in the Fifties, Dead as Doornails would be on the Leaving Cert course and Cronin would be lionised in the way that Flann O’Brien and Paddy Kavanagh and Behan and the rest of them are now.
But Cronin refused to do the decent thing and immortalise himself. He refused to explode into dysfunction:
Rigidly classical, you save/ Your praise for poets in the grave./ Forgive me, it’s not worth my while/ Dying to earn your critical smile.
The Roman poet, Martial
(circa 40-104 ad)
And while Cronin continues to refuse to die to earn the critical smile, we should try something new. We should celebrate him more while he’s around to enjoy it. Because as much as the rest of us, writers love a bit of praise. You might even say that there’s a healthy dose of ego about them.
So if you read only one book of poetry this year, read Cronin’s.
And why don’t we surprise him and ourselves by having a Tony Cronin festival?
The brilliant thing about it would be that the great man himself would actually be there. So we wouldn’t need a load of boffins to speculate about what he would have ‘thunk’ about various things. He’d be able to tell us himself. “