Nationality: South African. Born: 1949. Education: University of Cape Town; the Sorbonne, Paris, M.A. in philosophy. Career: Lecturer in philosophy and politics department, University of Cape Town, until his 1976 arrest and imprisonment for having carried out African National Congress underground work; released from prison in 1983 and spent three years in exile in London and Lusaka before returning to South Africa in 1990. Member of the executive, South African Communist Party. Awards: Ingrid Jonker prize, 1984, for Inside.
Inside. Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1984; London, Cape, 1987.
Even the Dead: Poems, Parables, and a Jeremiad. Bellville, South Africa, Mayibuye Books, 1997.
Inside & Out: Poems from Inside and Even the Dead. Cape Town, David Philip, and London, Global, 1999.
Ideologies of Politics. Cape Town, Oxford University Press, 1975.*
Critical Studies: "Inside" by Stephen Gray, in Index on Censorship (London), 13(3), June 1984; "South African Prison Literature" by Sheila Roberts, in Ariel (Calgary, Alberta), 16(2), April 1985; "Written Poetry for Performance" by Peter Horn, in Emerging Literatures, edited by Reingard Nethersole, Bern, Switzerland, Peter Lang, 1990; "Confession and Solidarity in the Prison Writing of Breyten Breytenbach and Jeremy Cronin" by David Schalkwyk, in Research in African Literatures (Bloomington), 25(1), spring 1994; by B. Harlow, in Race & Class, 40(1), 1998; "Inside Out: Jeremy Cronin's Lyrical Politics" by Brian Macaskill, in Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970–1995, edited by Derek Attridge and Rosemary Jolly, Cambridge, England, Cambridge University Press, 1998.* * *
Jeremy Cronin's poems address the relation between the public and the private, keenly rearticulating a tension common to contemporary South African literature: the disparity, perhaps only an ostensible disparity, of demands for revolutionary struggle on the one hand and aspirations for a more private aesthetic on the other. Charged in 1976 under the Terrorism Act for his participation in the then banned African National Congress, Cronin was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment, part of which he served with death row inmates at a maximum security prison. In an interview with Stephen Gray after his release in 1983 Cronin expressed how incarceration freed him from fears that a lyricism "concentrated largely on subjective feelings and emotions" is self-indulgent in the context of oppression: "one of the advantages of being in prison, at least for me, was that I suddenly felt that it wasn't such an indulgence to be able to write about my own personal feelings; what I was experiencing in prison was to a large extent the effect of the apartheid system, of which I too was a minor victim" (Index on Censorship).
Inside, Cronin's volume of poems illegally recorded in prison and either smuggled out or memorized for later reworking, bears testimony in its strongest constituents to a surprising symbiosis of autobiography, lyricism, narrative, oral performance, and political commitment. The sense of surprise the volume evokes begins with some of the thematic turns of the title of the collection. "Inside," of course, refers in one sense to the documentation of solidarity with political prisoners inside a contaminated penal system: "Every time they cage a bird / the sky shrinks. A little" ("For Comrades in Solitary Confinement"). But "inside" also refers to the autobiographical interiority of love poems written for the wife who died while Cronin was imprisoned, an interiority that fuels the lyricism of such poems as "A Prayer in Search of Beads," in which the function of a rosary's mnemonic beads—to recall words of spiritual praise—is substantiated by inversion, since words now seek to invoke a carnal palpability:
Un zip … Un zip I intone
fumbling with its sounds
as if I hoped to touch
in that word, bump, bump,
the tingling, the warm
rosary down your spine.
While the conjunction of these two senses of "inside" is not in itself exceptional, the linkages Cronin effects ring delicately true. For instance, consider "when to say plainly: / 'I love you' / is also / a small act / of solidarity with all the others" ("Itchy with its …"); "That's better, she says, but / Why all this delicate nature stuff? It wasn't / A flower that taught you how to drive" ("A Love Poem"); or "Your death, my wife, / one crime they managed / not to perpetrate / on the day that you died" ("I Saw Your Mother"). What remains exceptional in the coupling of the personal and institutionalized senses of "inside" operative in Inside is that the titular metaphor of the collection turns out to refer neither to private lyricism nor to public politics in any disjunctive sense. More than merging the private with the political, Inside turns inside outward, to a physical or sometimes metaphysical "outside" that the landscape and nature poems especially show to be contiguous with the inside. This can be seen, for example, in "Chapman's Peak," a love poem to the mountains that mark what was once known as the Cape of Good Hope, rendered in the poem as a figure of freedom, or in "Chameleon," the "confuser of nature's / metaphysical divides" that the poem addresses, having seen "you / finally old with age / tiptoe to the end / turn a deep brown and wear / your own death / like another disguise."
Despite the dangers of sentimentalism and ideological dissimulation that might be expected to attend a project like Cronin's, dangers that do threaten some of the poems, the turning inside out, or metamorphoses, from isolation and despair to community and hope typically produce a remarkable record of resilience and beauty. Refusing to be limited by constrictions of the present, these poems look with respect to the past and with hope to the future, making their linguistic insides serve materialist hopes for a world outside. In metapoetic fashion several of the poems explicitly conjure attempts "to prise carefully / sound / from sound / to honour by speaking / (and sometimes to discard) / … shells of meaning / left in our mouths / by thousands of years of / human occupation" ("Cave-Site"). Others offer themselves as a litany to and for the tongue ("tchareep tchareep tchareep / Protrusible Shadow / Tree of Tastebuds / kree-kree-kreekree / sssszzzz / from this jungle of unmapped sounds / you arise / Elastic Denizen" ["Litany"]) or link a mountain spring to speech ("dropping dental, lateral / Clicking in its palate") and then to the flow of history, agriculture, and industrial labor, all to identify a river in "The River That Flows through Our Land."
The river that flows through the land Cronin shares with his fellow South Africans is, as the poem insists, "a river that carries many tongues in its mouth." Although Cronin's tongue has been schooled partly by international voices—by poets like Seamus Heaney and César Vallejo and by the semiologists and theorists of Marxism who inform his critical essays on culture—its dexterity has more profoundly been coached by the many tongues of South Africa, not only by those of Mongane Serote, Mafika Gwala, and other performance poets and by the metaphysical poems of Douglas Livingston, say, but also by the rhythms of countless everyday voices inside and outside prison. To these voices, many and diverse, Cronin's poems remain true as they humbly struggle "to learn how to speak / With the voices of this land."