"Outside the ivory towers" by Michelle Charlton
Oh, poetry, what crimes are committed in your name! One of the many crosses you have to bear as a socialist is the duty to remain at your post during a protest while poetry is being read. Or at least, “some poetry” is what was promised by the previous holder of the megaphone/microphone. In reality, what you have to stand through is, much more often than not, an over-earnest accumulation of cliché and unconvincing indignation, delivered in a voice equivalent to a sign saying ‘I’m a poet, and don’t I know it’—although that rhyme would be less laboured. It’s at times like these that you really want to know whether it was Plato or Socrates who suggested banishing poets from the republic, because he may have had a point.
Because poetry on the left belongs as often as it does to the ‘so bad it’s embarrassing’ category of TV talent show auditions, it comes as a welcome relief to read poetry which is of the left but also good poetry. We’ll come back to the bit about the left, because there is much to come back to, but even socialists should come to poetry with a poetic approach first of all. Do the words work well with, or against, each other? Does it spark recogition, understanding, a new way of looking at something you thought you already knew? At the end of it all, is it a good poem? On all these counts, Kevin Higgins can usually be relied upon to score highly.
But of course, you want the politics, which is fair enough. The context in which Higgins writes is often one of transition between decades with their own characters. The 1990s was a time when, as ‘Unbecoming’ puts it,
stay where it was. Nobody cared
what was on page fifty seven
But while the cultural highs and relative stabilities of the period allowed such disengagement from politics, ‘Remembering the Nineties’ provides a cold and effective image of the next brutal round of politics about to announce itself: “History was in the bathroom, / putting on her new face.”
He shows no mercy in scathing those whose response is to blame the victims of the new dispensation, as with the woman who “smiles like Magda Goebbels” in ‘Crowbar’:
but yourself.… No such thing
as poverty in Ireland today,
a proper job would know.…
Each of her days its own picket line
she pleasures herself by crossing.
More extreme responses won’t come marching in jackboots but in the form of a man on the internet, “his mouth full of euphemisms” as he cleverly sets up racist scapegoats (‘Among Aliens’). Conspiracy-mongers get similarly short shrift, like the man who “Doesn’t believe his own birth cert is genuine” in ‘My Inner Conspiracy Theorist’. Nostalgia for the good old days of Stalinism is given a very fair crack of the whip in ‘Ostalgie’ before the occasional “corpses left on the wire at the Wall” intrude at the end.
A way out is offered by socialist groups, although Higgins remains resolutely sceptical that their way represents any escape at all. ‘To That Imagined Place’ paints a utopian picture of a free society, marred only by the presence of a left-wing leader,
and never forgets a name,
who doesn’t believe in god
Similar figures crop up elsewhere, each contemplating “his or her own private Kronstadt / massacre of the inconvenient” (‘Against Together¬ness’), reading Animal Farm “to see / how the pigs did it” (‘Dear General Secretary’). The ‘Camp Rules’ allow debate—nay, en¬courage it—as long as the right side is guaranteed in advance to win the argument:
By all means explore what remains of the world
on the other side of the forest.
But be back within the perimeter fence
by breakfast, your mouth motorised
by where they’re going wrong, or we’ll begin
making a sad sound when we say your name,
and tilting our heads slightly to the left.
Questions are encouraged if the answer’s
the long form version of ‘yes’. Discipline
will be maintained by Nullifier Boyd’s
righteous bamboo stick, so big
it never need prove its existence.
Anyone with experience of such organisations will have en¬countered personalities and practices like these. There is a militant irony at play here, with reality heightened, exaggerated, pushed to extremes, but it is eminently recognisable and doesn’t require all that much satirising. There is a fatal contradiction at the heart of a left-wing politics which talks outwardly of change and liberation but inwardly places stifling restrictions on socialist thought and practice. To deny this problem is to exhibit a form of Stockholm syndrome. To accept it as benign or necessary is to masochistically acquiesce in your own political impotence. Higgins’s poetry has a positive role to play in characterising this problem. If a line or two from one of his poems sticks in the head and helps someone reject the conformism alloted to them in such a political scheme, stiffens the resolve of socialists determined to think for themselves, then all is good.
However, limitations to his attitude appear repeatedly. ‘Against Togetherness’ dismisses a left-wing misalliance as “devils I’ll make no pact with, / though the country’s begging for change / with a small foam cup”. The play on the word “change” is masterly, but surely the reason not to join with them is precisely because of the state the world is in, not in spite of it, because it demands a genuine radical answer rather than a larger imitation. When, in ‘Leaving The Party’, Higgins is “determined to be / everything you’re not”, his tongue is presumably in cheek, but the party being left is still defining his attitude, albeit inversely. The negation has to be negated itself, if we can speak dialectically for a moment, raised to a positive stance of what we are for, not a merely negative stance of what we’re against. It isn’t enough to criticise sectarianism on the left, even to acerbically and artfully expose it. A better way of doing things should be put forward in its place, and a poet convinced of that could find some expression for it.
Of course, poets can and should only write about what they are inspired to write about. Too much politics, not least on the left, is characterised by people repeating things they don’t really believe in, and such self-deception would be found out far too easily in poetry. If Higgins combines his distaste for left-wing hypocrisy with a pessimism towards an alternative, or is understandably waiting for more evidence of its viability, then honesty demands that his poetry reflect that. Party lines, instructions, even suggestions of what people ‘should’ be writing about have no part to play in a socialist attitude to poetry, or art in general. So no one can condemn a collection for failing to open with ‘Haiku on the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall’ and close with ‘Sonnet on the Second Congress of the Communist International’.
This one wisely prefers to capture our social woes in perceptive images. ‘Austerity Mantra’ takes the constantly regressing metaphors of neoliberal fiscal rectitude and runs with them:
Everything’s on the table and
The figures speak for themselves
But the general economic mess features surprisingly little. ‘Tidings’, a line of which provides the book’s title, seems promising, but never seems to hit the spot. ‘The Political Divide’ starts very well with its portrayal of governmental switchover—
the slight adjustment of the set
every however many years; which
bundle of common sense in suit
—but then spirals into an overly long riff on the not very insightful notion that society’s real dividing line is between conventional and unconventional behaviour.
The issue which has clearly exercised Higgins most in the period he wrote these poems is abortion. ‘The Euphemisms’ is a biting and depressing cataloguing of the myriad carpets under which official Ireland contrives to sweep the issue:
The letters A, B, C. The letter X.
If we leave it long enough
all the letters in between.
Something you can’t have women
walking in off the street
‘Alternative Proposals’ is only slightly more ludicrous than the actual provisions of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, suggesting that terminations require the written consent of half a dozen INLA veterans or the full complement of ephemeral pop sensation Six. Some with a penchant for dodging tough questions will dismiss this as a mere liberal issue without relevance to the effects of austerity on the working class, but the peculiarly Irish solution of outsourcing abortion to Britain makes it an even more specific injustice against working-class women, forced into
made possible by post office accounts
and extra hours at the newsagent’s;
[‘Irish Government Minister Unveils Monument to Victims of Pro-Life Amendment’]
Most of these poems have been published elsewhere, and Higgins seems to be deliberately casting his bread upon the waters as widely as possible, to the extent that you could access much of what’s here with a bit of diligent googling. It sometimes means an almost instant response to events, which runs the risk of issuing ill-thought out reactions to developments not properly digested. This is partly why John Lennon’s self-proclaimed habit of making “singles like broad¬sheets” led to some not very good music. But, although his poems show no signs of being revised since first publication, Higgins avoids this for the most part.
This is possibly a legacy of his political apprenticeship, a reflex habit of analysing political situations in the round, for better or worse. Higgins sometimes appears entirely dismissive of the years he spent in such a role. In ‘The Necessary Arrangements’,
sellers of socialist newspapers
…tell children with cigarettes
and guys in boxer shorts they got
free with The News of The World
about the working class and how
they have nothing to lose
but their tracksuit bottoms.
Now, attempts to spread the socialist gospel are often attended with incidents comic, tragic and pathetic, and an ability to appreciate this in good spirit is as necessary as reading Marx. But this verse leans on a contemptuous stereotype of sections of the working class. Snigger-ing at clothes worn in local authority housing estates, imagining them as giveaways from defunct right-wing tabloids, feeds an attitude which is foreign, not just to the left, but to any honest attempt at expressing reality.
Elsewhere things are rightly more complex, however. A former Trotskyist rabble-rouser may well now possess “ideology gone soft as butter” but that doesn’t stop him having to worry about “the fat tens of thousands / you haven’t put by” (‘For Darrell On The Occasion Of His Fiftieth Birthday’). Nostalgia for days of bygone activism features strongly, and possibly the greatest admiration is for a socialist “still sitting in front of armoured cars // others aren’t big enough to resist” (‘Prayer For A Friend’).
We are treated to fine examples of a Higgins speciality, delineating the attitude of those who couldn’t care less about in¬justice. It is only something that discommodes them (‘Inconvenience: A History’) or that they run a mile to avoid confronting (‘The Man Who Put The Laissez Into Laissez Faire’). Some make a ladder for their own advancement out of “the meek / on whose behalf / you’re inheriting the earth” (‘You Are The Nation’s Conscience Awake’). Others, like the protagonist of ‘Lie Down’, take good care that it never gets in the way of the business of doing nothing:
the surface of the water—
centimetre squared—without once
There are poets who take up residence in ivory towers, of course, sometimes permanently, and very occasionally lucratively. But Kevin Higgins is ringing the doorbells of the ivory towers and running away laughing, getting his picture pinned up in the security huts which guard them. He has a rare talent for depicting some of the things wrong with life as we live it, and such a talent can help us in our faltering attempts to change it for the better.
Review: John McAuliffe reviews The Ghost in the Lobby by Kevin Higgins for The Irish Times (Saturday, 2nd August 2014)
Kevin Higgins satirises hypocrisy and, in his fourth collection, The Ghost in the Lobby
(Salmon, €12), loves to carve out negative spaces. "That Which Must Not Be Examined" locates the damaged world of "Always the hangover, / never the night before", while "Unbecoming" begins, "All we became / has left the building". In the aftermath of such leave-takings, Higgins generates a world where "They have affairs with dental assistants / in third floor apartments by the docks. / You think of nothing else" (Them and You). Higgins reserves his most hyperbolic satires for armchair conspiracy theorists who "demand the truth / so they can put it in a jar / and spend their whole lives / avoiding it" (Against Togetherness) and those Pollyannaish optimists who think history’s cataclysms have concluded: "The hijackers you envisaged / always landed the plane / and let the passengers go" (Historically Sensible). The casualties of both approaches are evident in The Euphemisms, one of his poems about “Something you can’t have women / walking in off the street /and demanding."
Higgins is… a poet who has a vision of Ireland. His is populated by smug, noisy fools and furnished with both trendy white goods and the flotsam of talk radio. Fluent and often as laugh-out-loud funny as Paul Howard's Ross O'Carroll-Kelly, Higgins's poems sometimes make you think that they do not want to escape the terrible, lovingly described cul de sac he has defined so well.
I used to be a close friend of the poet Kevin Higgins; I am not especially close to him anymore - by that, I mean, we haven't seen each other in three or four years, at least, don't speak on the phone, and rarely email, if ever - but of course have some facebook contact, now and then. I was very sorry when his mother died, and told him so. I mention this because, though I am fond of Kevin, and he wrote an introduction to a book of mine from his own publisher, Salmon, there isn't any literary back scratching going on these days, if ever there was any, between us. Things just drifted, as they do, as people in middle age become embroiled in their own days and ways.
I can write what I am about to say without fear of feeling compromised, or in any way, hindered. If anything, my own familiarity with the man and all his poems (I have met him on perhaps a dozen occasions, sometimes with his talented partner, on two continents, and in major cities like Paris, New York, London and Galway) enables me to say this, with something approaching certainty.
The Ghost in the Lobby, his fourth collection, just out now from Salmon Publishing, is a major work of Irish poetry - it is a masterpiece. Were it not for the very odd politics of place, publishers, and prizes, Higgins - who is, of course, highly regarded by many of his peers already - would by now be seen as the leading Irish poet of his generation, South of Dundalk, anyway. He is, in fact, a genius, much like Patrick Kavanagh was, despite and because of, his faults, regional influences, and personal vision.
Now, many poetry critics refrain from the word genius, because they mostly refrain from poetry criticism anyway. Instead, they shore up what is mostly boring, worthy and cautious work, unwilling to rock the boat and smash the emergency glass. Higgins is a genius, because he does something only great poets do: he writes with a voice that is entirely his own, in a style he has invented, about themes and concerns that now are instantly recognisable as his terrain. Compasses belong to John Donne, Boredom to Larkin, and Yew Trees to Plath. Post-Tiger Ireland and its drab attractions and failures belong to Higgins.
Higgins is often called a satirist, and a comic poet, because he is one of the only funny poets who has ever lived. I don't really laugh out loud at Muldoon, Billy Collins or even Paul Durcan. I chuckle. Higgins is funny like Wilde or Woody are: genuinely so, not merely literarily. Perhaps he is the funniest Irish political writer since Shaw. It is true, Higgins has a formula, where similes accrue, comparing absurd political moments in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia to mundane moments in Galway - but it is a formula I dare you to crack. It's mostly original to him.
On top of that aspect, the humour, there is the seriousness of moral vision - for Higgins has a message: the people fixated on politics are, pace Yeats, missing the smaller picture, which is the genuine one. All the sad posters and broadsheets from 1979 or 1983 never changed a thing. Marches have evaporated. The madmen in small rooms who plan the first against the wall are doomed to have their meals repeat on them. It is territory that seems poetically unlikely, but here is a whole book of more than 100 pages, exploring failed political missions, the cruelties of small-minded anti-abortion Ireland, and the way that love and cancer both happen despite, or because, of, the gurgling drain and the cracked window. Everything post-crisis, post-crash, is just a little sadder, but so is life sad, but also hugely vivid and worthy of anger, and reply.
Higgins is the master of unexpected and unwarranted mediation and reaction - like only the greatest poets, he sees things no one else imagined worth writing about, and makes them seem essential, and necessarily urgent. Once, this was a prostitute, or a snow-capped peak, or a girl on a bicycle, or a hawk in the rain, but now, for Higgins, it is about seeing into the monstrous ego of humanity, in all its maimed glory and pathos. He pokes fun at us like a doctor cures boils - with a needle we need, though it makes us wince.
Some critics demand levels of craft, form, and so-called seriousness that this new book may appear, on the surface, to lack - after all, Higgins is witty, but he is not experimental, or in fact particularly formalist - neither cerebral or anecdotally sentimental - he is not from Prynne's Cambridge, and he is not from Heaney's North. His tropes are new, dry as a bone after an acid bath; sharp as any surgery. He doesn't reach for the easily classical or shockingly Dadaist. He doesn't have to rest on laurels he didn't grow. He has that rare thing - a mind of his own. Perhaps he is closest to Orwell, another writer who was funny, and debunking, and totally original - a prose stylist whose style was pared down mightily.
Long after better celebrated Irish poets are dead and remaindered in the grave, someone somewhere will be reading Kevin Higgins. If he was a pop singer, these would be the lyrics of a generation. But he is not. He is a poet, so his audience is counted in hundreds, not thousands. But Ireland has a great writer in him, and should be proud. I haven't quoted here from the poems - order the book and see for yourself.
The London Independent's chief political commentator, John Rentoul, favourably mentions Kevin Higgins's poem, in his column:
There is a fine poem about conspiracy theorists by Kevin Higgins at Harry's Place. I especially like the closing lines:
He himself is actually
dead, assassinated years ago
by US special forces
during an otherwise enjoyable meal
in a Chinese restaurant
no one wants to talk about.
Kevin Higgins's poetry was the subject of a paper given by David Wheatley at a "symposium on satire" which took place in May 2014 at the University of Aberdeen. The full paper can be read here>
Review of the special issue of Poetry Ireland Review
, published to honour the late Seamus Heaney. Editor Vona Groarke invited 46 younger poets from Ireland, the UK, and US to write a short essay on a Seamus Heaney poem of their choice. Kevin Higgins wrote about Heaney's poem 'Limbo' and the piece gets a favourable mention in this review in The Irish Independent>