MTC Cronin ‘The Law of Poetry’ in the Sydney Morning Herald
Geoff Page reviews MTC Cronin’s The Law of Poetry in the Sydney Morning Herald
The Law of Poetry: The importance of poetic thought
Despite or perhaps because of the post-Romantic emphasis on lyricism, it is always good to encounter a new collection that reminds us of the importance of thought in poetry. Plato, famously, did not like the poetic mode of thinking, but it is valid nevertheless. Unlike philosophers, with their systematic and linear habits, poets tend to think by association and intuition, and allow the emotions a proper importance.
M.T.C. Cronin's 21st book, The Law of Poetry, is a fine, if not always successful, example of poetic thought. Cronin has worked for many years in legal research and it's not surprising that she should want to assemble two decades of poetry on this issue into a single, somewhat exhaustive volume.
The law Cronin is concerned with is not only that of interest to lawyers, legislators and police, but it also includes the laws of physics and what can be thought of as the laws of human nature. It even extends to laws relevant to the production of art, poetry in particular. There is not much, however, about revealed law of the kind favoured by theists, but this is one of the book's few exclusions.
Significantly, the poems are arranged alphabetically by title. This may imply that the laws we are subject to are, in fact, arbitrary, and there is therefore no point in trying to organise them, or it could be that Cronin found the task of arranging her thoughts systematically just too difficult.
It's notable, too, that while resisting systematisation, Cronin does endeavour to be comprehensive. Poetry is renowned for its compression, so a collection of 261 compressed pages may well be attempting too much.
Stylistically, the poems would seem to be influenced by Spanish and French surrealism and owe more than a little to Jorge Luis Borges' metaphysical free-thinking. Many of Cronin's best are pithy, short aphorisms or insights. Others have a significant narrative dimension, reminiscent of a parable.
The moods vary from the quasi-whimsical to the seriously, even ponderously abstract. The Law of Broccoli is a good example of the former. This law, Cronin says, ". . . gets me all bothered / the flowers are like / beautiful little narcotics / and I count them / all afternoon / the broccoli is so green / that it leads me / to the end of analogy / where everything is sleepy and still / and quite / unconvincing".
A large number of the poems are concerned with binaries and, like a good postmodernist, Cronin is concerned to show the interdependence of their supposedly opposing halves. In The Law of Darkness, she points out that "Darkness / was always in here. // Before law. Before light. // Darkness which does not visit // but inhabits. // Which governs all / the laws of light."
Another of Cronin's strategies is to proceed via a series of one-line oracular declarations. In The Law of Desire, for instance, she starts with an idea such as "A man needs one woman or fifty men", then continues with others, such as "Desire is like the emptiness of a chair" and then concludes with the memorably bleak line, "I am the mother of a corpse".
At the end of 261 pages, what remains in the reader's mind is not so much an overall argument about the nature of the law, or even the many illustrations of its ramifying diversity, but certain tantalisingly good lines shining from poems that are often in themselves less remarkable. Take, for instance, the opening of The Law of Reality: "What are you? // A broken star / inhaling a broken star", the last couplet of The Law of Perception: "God's deciding / whether to be", or the sheer cleverness of Cronin's two-line poem, The Outlaw: "I have never had a law. // All laws create me."
It's clear that Cronin, like most genuine poets, would consider it an honour to be escorted to the borders of Plato's Republic.