“The challenge for those who believe art should have real purchase on contemporary debate is always how to write the engaged political poem while still making it artful.”
Siobhán Campbell, MA/MFA Course Leader, Creative Writing, at Kingston University, London.
“Why bother with political poetry, just send me a text,”
A comment made by a radio host recently as part of a debate about the role of poetry as a political actor.
Kevin Higgins is probably one of the few poetic writers I can think of who has garnered respect in both the slam/spoken word arena and in the literary world. This is no mean feat as often the two worlds, sadly, live separate and sometimes antagonistic lives. In a period where poetry of both hues is attracting a growing number of participants in Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as a wider audience, Higgins is a bridge between those worlds. He has also gained a reputation as a poet who writes politically, again no easy manoeuvre to carry off successfully. It is some challenge to be poetically and politically credible.
His first book, “The Boy with No Face” was peppered with revealing thoughts on a myriad of issues, but particularly those connected to the changing face of Ireland under the impetus of globalization and the Celtic Tiger. His writing concentrated on unmasking the corruption, the greed and the recklessness of unrestrained free market capitalism, while recognizing (and warning the reader of) the weakness of the provincialism of old Ireland as an antidote to this. There was no going backwards, the question for Higgins was “where is it that we are heading towards?”
He attacked the loudmouths, the hypocrites, those who revere or accept the mundane. He warned also of the potential to see a rise in racist and fascist ideas and in his least restrained moments, there were “suggestions”, sometimes bold suggestions, that there is merit in resistance. Now this was all done with a witty irreverence. Most of the poetry was short, pithy, sharp. Not a word wasted. And it was at once accessible and substantial. Not an easy barbed wire fence to straddle.
His latest book “Time Gentlemen, Please” is darker and denser – there is a little more experimentation with form – it feels less “youthful”. From the opening strains of dealing with life as it actually turns out – so often a long distance from dreams and desires, to the sense that “maybe this time things will be different,”
“that the future’s about to leap at you
like a baboon with a hatchet
from a man-hole or a closet, screaming
something that can only mean
this is the end of the old regime”
Higgins screams and rails at the “grind”. No-one can allow themselves to succumb to the mundane. There must be a struggle to free ourselves from acceptance of
“the endless Monday to Sunday
and back around again”
We must dream of a better future
“…imagined ice-cream clouds
and warm blue rain, the frost bristling
And breaking free of the mundane, breaking free of what little Capitalism offers us, is only one of a number of overarching, interconnected themes; the fear of the future, handling the death of a father, dealing with difficult family relationships, losing the immature political orientation of youth with an attendant warning against dogmatism. And what is a prominent strain throughout this book, the inability to maintain a commitment to a particular strain of socialist politics, in Kevin’s case the Militant tendency, but he points the arrows quite widely here and pretty much at anyone who embarks on this path. The aim is to introduce a much wider discussion than just a personal journey; it is to turn attention to the revolutionary socialist left, to their foibles and weaknesses.
In this way it is a more ambitious book than the first. Higgins is intertwining the personal with the widest possible issue, the re-organisation of society politically and economically. If the mundane and the grind are to be challenged what is the alternative?
He is his first target, asking himself where did his commitment to a certain ideological orientation go, he is questioning whether or not such a commitment was/is warranted, realistic, realiseable – and finally what does this mean for life in general and the life of any particular individual.
Now, before you groan, this isn’t sombre reading. There is plenty of the frivolity and humour which characterised the first book, he writes of his marriage, of relationships, of the need to constantly dream and desire and after the struggle, and just to add a touch more tension to the mix, we get to contemplate the question of death.
There are three poems where the overarching themes follow closely – and they exemplify Higgins best moments – “The Candidate”, “From Grosvenor Square to here” and a poem about John Walker Lynde where he examines firstly the sell-out from ideals and struggle, to the squalid hypocrisy and strangely uncomfortable menace of the parliamentary road,
The miracle of modern dentistry has given the boy
With the shrieking red t-shirt
And mouthful of bombed out teeth
This ice white New Labour smile
…to the 68’er who just can’t move with the times in “From Grosvenor Square to Here”
Your imagination now a cluttered
Basement. By the time you sit down
No-one will be in any doubt,
If rigormortis could talk
This is how it would sound.
…to asking why an all American boy would up sticks and join the Taliban,
Because you’d rather go
Where the coffins are leaky
And the summers hot, fight
The bad fight at Mazaar-E-Shariff,
Than suffer another level 5 Christmas
at the Radison,…
To me this is exciting poetry – I would challenge anyone who gets this book to read these works aloud – and read them loudly – they roll rhythmically – they stick in because the words create the rhythmic tension necessary for the memory to grip into the ideas being expressed. They demand you to think through the issues – you cannot escape them because each is at once, nuanced and sharp.
The target is the connection between the ideal and the ideas realized in practice. Between the disconnection between what people say and what they do or end up doing, between the surface phenomena and the underlay, the gap between the end goal and the often disappointing reality that we still have a long way to go. Can we really say, as Higgins admits he once did, that Socialism is the answer? Of course, when you start down this road poetically and politically there are bound to be minefields ahead. While he raises a number of insights, while he forces you to contemplate, Higgins manages to steer himself on to less solid ground and it is here where there are difficulties in the flow of the book.
Quite a deal has been written about Firewood – the poem about Darfur in which he contrasts a sentence or two from an article in the Socialist Worker newspaper to the eye-witness account of the savagery of the Janjaweed. The ideas Kevin expresses here really are a pretty standard view of the conflict in Darfur – ruthless executions, genocide perpetrated by the Janjaweed, and the use of the words of an eyewitness account cannot but move the reader. But Higgins hints that there should be military intervention to solve the problem. That means we have ventured much further that just insight here.
There have been plenty of similar opinions expressed about Darfur so that really should come as no surprise – the problem is that the poem is moralistic and it only leads in one direction without much in the way of sophistication. It is blunt and it reads that way. This in my view weakens it. There isn’t room to elaborate here on a wider analysis, although it is enough to say that Darfur really does need careful treatment, and I would point people in the direction of the poet Afeif Ismail, the Sudanese exile who, while absolutely hostile to the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed, manages to convey the complexities of the situation far better, and in thinking through the solutions, if I remember correctly, points in the direction of providing food on a grand scale rather than adding to an already substantial armory.
The poem which follows “Firewood” rails at the old Stalinists and the “peaceniks” who protest at the Galway air show. Again there is a stumble here and even if this is tongue in cheek it steers too far in the direction of a sneer rather than insight. That’s why in a book rich with poetically and politically challenging writing, the tendency to tilt at caricatures of socialist windmills rather than deliver sharp insight and thought provoking poetry means the odd clanger creeps in. In a couple of sequences in the sections “Ponders End” and “Firewood” the labouring of the theme of the hapless revolutionary doomed to irrelevance dominates,
“Diminished now as a seaside town
at the season’s close. But still
his pickaxe voice rips the High Streets”
“……………Less the vanguard
of the Proletariat, than a dinner party
that kept not happening.”
“her gluten free muesli
to the veranda and watched the seagulls
flying towards her:
as she took out and weighed
all our betrayals.”
” and when she’s finished
be carried shoulder high
by the horn honking brothers of Local 319
as she leads them in a chant
“Things as they are! Things as they are!”
Now taking these two issues at hand, Kevin might say, in his defence that in the first instance he was just concerned about the clumsy, insensitive use of language in a far-left newspaper, and in the second to show up the distance between rhetoric and reality. Perhaps he may have a point (I couldn’t find the article he takes the quotes from so I have no way of knowing) but I’m just not convinced that this takes us very far. And Higgins does have far weightier, sharper and more poetically challenging material which creates that tension between the ideas and arguments that he wants people to think about.
That said, to my mind Higgins tends to rail as much against himself as he does the far left, he wants to see change and his poetry always has that “cut” against the grain while he searches for answers. Generally he lands on the side of hope for a better, more equitable future and I think the young socialist in him isn’t quite a dead beast yet, because no matter how much he might appear to protest otherwise,
“Whether I leave this world peacefully
surrounded by respectable nephews
and voluptuous nieces, or go roaring
at four in the morning in the Prison Hospital
come what may, let no black crow
sit squawking on my bed
but pin this sign above my head
“This fucker here does not repent
would do the same again and worse”
because for him
“Every time a door closes
A cat flap somewhere opens”
Gordon Hewitt is a performance poet from Belfast. He performs regularly with the performance group Screaming Blue Murmur who are based in Nothern Ireland.
Latest posts by Gordon Hewitt (see all)
- Time Gentlemen, Please: The Poetry of Kevin Higgins - March 9, 2009