‘Against the iron railings of History’: the Poetry, and some of the Prose, of Kevin Higgins

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Kevin Higgins, The Boy With No Face (Cliffs of Moher: Salmon Poetry, 2005)
Kevin Higgins, Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray (Belfast: Lapwing, 2006)
Kevin Higgins, Time Gentlemen, Please (Cliffs of Moher: Salmon Poetry, 2008)
Kevin Higgins, Frightening New Furniture (Cliffs of Moher: Salmon Poetry, 2010)

To write a positive review of Kevin Higgins’ work for the Irish Left Review might seem like preaching to the converted. After all, the poet has published poems on this site, and they almost always receive enthusiastic comments and feedback from ILR readers who frequently go on to post the same poems on Facebook and elsewhere online. Readers of the ILR have not been slow about challenging the poet on occasion, but Higgins himself has also expressed reservations about the kind of back-slapping that often passes for criticism, in political as much as in literary circles. He is acutely aware of the problematic relationship that exists between texts and their readers. As he puts it in ‘Borges, Balzac & the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come’, a review of Christopher Hitchens’ Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, originally published in 2002 and collected in Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray (2006):

Even today, those who review books (or films) for left-wing publications tend to operate on the basis that if a book is ‘objectively speaking’ on the right side of the class struggle then this, in and of itself, must mean that the book in question is a ‘good book’ deserving a positive review. (Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray 11)

At a recent reading in Dublin the critic and poet Kit Fryatt said that Higgins was ‘notable for never toeing a party line’, to which he responded that he is ‘one of those middle-of-the-road people now’. Far from being a writer on the fence, however, Higgins’ poems and essays engage in meaningful and sometimes moving ways with the kinds of disappointment that almost always result from unthinking forms of affiliation, in the private as well as in the public sphere. Through his three published collections to date – and in his prose essays and reviews – he has emerged not only as one of the most incisive and compelling poetic voices to probe what Dave Lordan has termed ‘the austerity era’, but he is also a poet whose work warns against self-congratulation, whether it is conceived in personal, cultural, or political terms.

Writing in The Cambridge Introduction to Irish Poetry, 1800-2000 (2008), Justin Quinn has rightly described Higgins as a poet whose work contains ‘a social critique as lithe and imaginative as that of the con-merchants who run the show.’ (Quinn 196) The comparison is illuminating, not least because it suggests that the forms of expression and imagination engaged in and by Higgins’ poems embody all of the cunning and deviousness of language as it has been manipulated by his many targets. In the poem entitled ‘To certain lyric poets’, from his first collection The Boy With No Face (2005), Higgins writes of a ‘lyric poet [who] sees / his own reflection everywhere’:

He’s been known
to agonise for hours
over a single word
and each one of them
is precisely meant
because, to him,
words are beautiful things,
flowers to be arranged
around the altar of his ego. (The Boy With No Face 18)

These lines satirise the self-regarding egotism of much erotic verse, but they also illustrate some of the strategies the speaker seeks to criticise in the ‘certain lyric poets’ of the title, as each carefully crafted line-break draws attention to the ‘precisely meant’ arrangements of Higgins’ own argument. As an exercise in satire the poem succeeds in part because it is informed by the very methods and modes of expression that it would claim to dismantle. In a sense, the poem works because Higgins wears the mask of the self critiqued in it. In the same way that Jonathan Swift assumed the voice of power in his great works of satire – think of the devastating act of ideological mimicry that is A Modest Proposal – Higgins’ poems often proceed through and by acts of cultural ventriloquism that speak across the noisome void of what he has termed ‘the Bankrupt Years’ (The Boy With No Face 64). It is no accident, indeed, that the title of his second collection – Time Gentlemen, Please (2008) – alludes to The Waste Land, the great modernist poem whose original title was, after Dickens, He Do the Police in Different Voices.

Higgins is not a radical modernist poet in terms of technique, and the comparison with Eliot doesn’t need to be pushed very far. Having said that, his poems engage with ideas of personality and impersonality, ‘tradition’ and ‘the individual talent’, and these explorations invite readings of his work in relation to a longer modernist lineage that extends beyond the Irish cultural frame of reference. Higgins’ poems often dwell on the recent past and on the author’s own experiences growing up and living between London and Galway from the late-1960s to the present, but they are rarely if ever too intensely autobiographical. Always in his work there is an ability to take the images of personal recollection and transform them into a broader public or historical vision. In ‘Nostalgia, 1990’, for example, ‘A miscellany of recollections, / trinkets tossed from a deep black sea’ of personal memory are transmuted, in the course of the poem, into an acknowledgement of the necessary ordering and reordering of experience, and different versions of the past are ultimately said to compete for ‘Polite applause with murmurs of approval.’ (The Boy With No Face 65) Higgins is not shy about admitting the way that the contemporary poetry scene participates in this process of cultural self-validation, and ‘Nostalgia, 1990’ is one of a number of poems in his first book where he teases out the uncomfortable social dynamics of literary culture, the gatherings of ‘literary associates and occasional friends / reading from latest collections.’ (The Boy With No Face 65)

At the same time, Higgins is not willing to simply ‘throw a shrug of the shoulders / to the trend of the times’ as he puts it in ‘The Bankrupt Years’, but he persists in the making of poems and in believing in the agency of poetry, despite or in spite of the cynicism voiced by many of his most memorable speakers. Moreover, his poetry’s recording of the names of figures such as Liam Lawlor and Frank Dunlop in the creation of ‘the austerity era’ is just one of the reasons why it has already demonstrated what might be termed its documentary public value. As he writes in what can be regarded as a kind of early manifesto, ‘The Satirist’:

Society may flash its knickers at him,
but flowers or love songs, he will not bring them.
Instead the audience ripples with nervous laughter
as, from his jacket, he takes a scalpel.
And, his mask slipping just a little,
they see him briefly as he really is:
coming with a warrant, all their names on it. (The Boy With No Face 25)

Or, as he puts it in ‘Knives’, where the poet-speaker’s father is said to have compared ‘Albert Reynolds’ face to a torn slipper’:

I come from a long line of men,
who saw words not as decorations
but weapons, knives with which to cut
others down to size. (The Boy With No Face 15)

There is nothing particularly original in the claim that words can ‘cut / others down to size’, but these are important statements of intent in which Higgins lets it be known that he believes poetry – and his own poems – can work in the public sphere and, at their best, can affect change in the broader social and political contexts of their composition.

This is an issue that Higgins explores in the title-piece of his prose collection, ‘Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray’, originally written in 2004. There he writes:

Almost every poet I know is prone to exaggerate the influence poetry can exert on world events. Maybe it’s the cold reality of poetry’s marginal position in society which leads many of us, particularly at a time of crisis like this, to talk in loud excited voices about how poetry can supposedly make politicians sit up and listen or even ‘change the world’. This benign egocentricity is perhaps a necessary indulgence to save us from vanishing entirely into our garrets, or academia, convinced of the total irrelevance of what we do. If we don’t at least convince ourselves that poetry can matter, then how on earth can we expect to convince anyone else?

The truth is poetry can sometimes play a role in actually challenging people’s minds, by convincing the reader (or listener) emotionally of an idea to which he or she may be intellectually opposed. If a poem can win the ideologically hostile reader’s heart, then his or her head will surely follow. Such a heightened experience of poetry can lead to a transformed world view for the reader. So, yes, the influence of poetry can be profound. (Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray 7)

In the course of this important essay Higgins goes on to argue that the best thing writers can do is ‘bear witness as honestly and as well as [they] possibly can’, not just to the hypocrisy of people like Lawlor, Dunlop, Reynolds, and others in Ireland, but also to the broader international crises of our time, from the so-called ‘War on Terror’ to what he has described as the degeneration of ‘the high Socialist hopes of the early twentieth century … into … sordid everyday tyranny’ in an essay on Albanian poet Visar Zhiti (Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray 47) Again, in his piece on Zhiti, Higgins is not afraid to disagree with ‘socialist friends’ – ‘some of them now former friends’, he interjects – who have criticised the works of poets such as Medbh McGuckian or John Ashbery because of their perceived detachment from the world of politics and economic materiality. Unlike those who would ‘act Stalin when dealing with poetry which doesn’t appear to serve the cause’ (46), as he puts it in the same piece, Higgins is a poet – like Seamus Heaney, in this regard – whose work credits the value of poetry as a tool for raising consciousness and conscience in the public sphere. So what if the point appears exaggerated to those who don’t read or appreciate it: poetry always exceeds the occasions of its saying.

Indeed, this point has particular resonance in relation to Higgins’ work as organiser of the Over the Edge series of readings and workshops in Galway, an important forum for many new, emerging, and established writers since its creation in 2004 and which has, together with developments such as the Wurm im Apfel series in Dublin, asserted poetry’s place in society in ways that have certainly helped to raise its profile in recent years. The importance of Higgins, in particular, in spearheading a whole new poetry reading/performance movement in Ireland over the last decade cannot be overstated. Moreover, it is fair to say that his work, like that of Dave Lordan and other poets such as Elaine Feeney and Karl Parkinson, is often written with the public forum of the reading or open mic session in mind. While these poets may be said to participate in an oral tradition that goes back several centuries and ranges across many cultures, it is important then to consider how their work in Ireland, today, challenges the critical, academic, and economic hegemony of the ‘slim volume of verse’, with its focus on the single, silent reader. This aspect of contemporary Irish poetry’s development has only been touched upon in critical studies of the field to date, but where the cultural history of the ‘austerity era’ is concerned the work of Higgins and the other poets mentioned above will be shown to have played a crucial function not just in terms of the ways that their works expand conventional definitions of poetry as a verbal art form, but also for their insistence on a reconsideration of poetry and the poet’s place in the public sphere.

For Higgins, then, poetry is always a public event, and in his three published collections to date he has steadily insisted on the place of the poet in the life of the nation state. This is one of the reasons why criticisms regarding the prolific output of poets like Higgins and, to a certain extent, Lordan, seem to miss the point. In a review of Higgins’ third collection Frightening New Furniture (2010) in Poetry Ireland Review, Richard Hayes, while generally positive about the work, wrote that a ‘slimmer volume’ might have done more to reveal the poetry’s strengths. Fair enough, but it is also important to see the longer poetry collections of Higgins, Lordan, and others as a testament to their ongoing commitment to the process of engaging with the world through art. A volume of Selected Poems will in time reveal the high points and greatest hits of Higgins’ early career, but his three collections published with Salmon Poetry between 2005 and 2010 – weighing in at an average of sixty poems or so per book – attest to Higgins’s belief in the appropriateness of poetry as a form of direct, continuous response to the social, economic, and political realities that would and have at different times sought to obliterate both the poet and his vision, as the example of Visar Zhiti demonstrates. Higgins of course is the first to admit that ‘at least [poets in Ireland] are not in danger of being denounced by the Ministry of the Interior’ (Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray 46) for their perceived apoliticism, but his own work, in any event, is thoroughly involved in the transformations of the public sphere. His prolific output – in addition to the three books under discussion here there are also poems in numerous print and online journals and magazines – is a consequence of his passionate and consistent engagement as a writer of real commitment. Nevertheless, Higgins is, first and foremost, an artist, and it is for this reason that he can agree with Marx when he said that ‘one reactionary Balzac … was preferable to a hundred socialist Zolas’, as he mentions in his review-essay on Hitchens (11).

Art and the processes of poetry – the formal, aesthetic, and critical procedures by which it is made, measured, published, and packaged – are also of interest to Higgins, therefore, and in several poems throughout his three collections he has questioned and indeed challenged the effectiveness of his own methods. This is one of the reasons why he is important not just to readers who might agree with his political or ideological critiques, but also to practitioners and students of poetry itself regardless of their ideological inclinations. His contribution to the development of Irish satire is indisputable, but in poems such as ‘This Small Obituary’ from Time Gentlemen, Please (2008) he reveals an awareness of the dangers of the satirical approach:

Your next-door neighbour will vaguely remember me,
when some hypocrite writes this small obituary:
“He had a real knack for last lines,
but fell in love with his own invective;
became such an expert at cutting throats,
that, in the end, he slit his own.” (Time Gentlemen, Please 28)

This poem is partly about what it means to have a voice, but also about the dangers of using it too much, or of speaking always in the same tone and on the same topic. So while commentators have often focussed on the overtly political and social projections of much of Higgins’ work it is also important to recognise the ways in which he has explored other aspects of experience beyond the realm of politics, including the vicissitudes of private, domestic life. In poems such as ‘The requiem plays, though not for us,’ for example, from The Boy With No Face, or ‘Together in the Future Tense’ in Frightening New Furniture, Higgins writes poems that explore what he calls ‘our very own festival of befuddlement’ in the latter piece (Frightening New Furniture 93). Where he may be said to exhibit a quasi-Larkinesque reticence about sex in and of itself – and the comparison with Philip Larkin, about whom he writes with judicious insight in the Hitchens piece, is also discussed by Richard Hayes in his PIR review – Higgins is also interested in the dynamics of personal relationships and these poems should not be overlooked in any full appraisal.

The wry sense of humour and intimate comedy of many of his more personal poems – including ‘She Considers His Proposal’ and ‘Word from the Other Country’ from Time Gentlemen, Please and ‘To a Discarded Lover’ from Frightening New Furniture – work well in those collections to remind readers that Higgins is a poet whose work moves confidently between public and private domains of experience. It is true, reading through his first three books, that the bulk of his work concerns overtly political or social topics, but in the same way that it is important to recognise the fact that Higgins is a poet with an international outlook – his poems about American foreign policy are among the most incisive written on either side of the Atlantic in recent decades – it is also worth recognising the ways in which his poems engage with the private sphere. What the preponderance of overtly political poems proves, however, is that Higgins is a lyric poet for whom the pressures of the public world are too great, and too serious, to ignore. In fact the poem from which his most recent collection takes its title, ‘Clear Out’, explores the relationship between domestic or personal space and the public world of politics in its imagery and language:

Today it all goes to the dumpster,
my old political furniture:

the broken bookcase called
nationalisation of the banks;

the three legged dining chair called
critical support for the P.L.O;

the fringed, pink lampshade called
theory of the permanent revolution; (Frightening New Furniture 54)

Higgins’ work explores on many levels the application of political and social theory to daily lived experience – it is, again, no accident that his work is suffused with references and allusions to the many writers and readers he has read, from Leon Trotsky to Stevie Smith – but it is also honest in its evaluation of the usefulness or otherwise of theoretical speculation. As he puts it in ‘A Balancing Act’, from his first collection:

You who’ve come to understand
dialectical materialism like the back of your hand:
your ideas as clinical as surgical instruments:
must know knowledge is a commodity
all too often squandered, that the trick
is not to spot the flaw in every fabric;
to conduct elaborate experiments
in new forms of paralysis. (The Boy With No Face 40)

Higgins wears his learning lightly, as did Patrick Kavanagh. Like Kavanagh, indeed, Higgins does not take himself too seriously, but seriously enough that his poems affirm the value of intelligent and well-informed artistic engagement with the world.

At times the comic tendency in Higgins’ work can smack of self-deprecation, and he often comes across as a bit of a ‘B-movie actor who still / can’t believe the part is his’, as he puts it in the same poem (‘A Balancing Act’). This may be related to the pervasive sense of disillusionment with the Left that often informs his work, a disillusionment that is given clearest articulation perhaps in his recent satirical elegy for the Italian Socialist leader Bettino Craxi or, indeed, in a poem with a more local orientation like ‘Community Employment Scheme’, both of which have been published in the ILR. Nevertheless, it is clear that Kevin Higgins’ voice and the force of his poetic project are gaining in confidence and authority with each new collection. A poem like ‘Austerity Mantra’ – first published on the ILR site in September 2010 – is clear evidence of this, with its speaker’s insistence that ‘I am the unthinkable / but you will think me.’ In the final stanza of this poem he writes:

Tomorrow I’ll be known as
Four Year Consolidation Package.
Lock the cat in the oven and bake
at two hundred degrees centigrade.
Tie your last plastic bag over
your own head. The figures speak for themselves
and there is no table.

The ‘figures’ mentioned here refer to the cold statistics of economic forecasting and analysis, but they are also the ‘metaphors’ and ways of saying of Higgins’ unmistakable poems, through which he has recorded one citizen’s engagements with social and political crises in Ireland and further afield for a number of years.

In a recent article in The Stinging Fly Dave Lordan defined ‘revolt’ for the writer as a way of ‘working in words to capture unflinchingly the shocking image of power and, shocking back, to break it up, to weaken it, to reveal it to the other, to disenchant the world for your neighbour, and to change the dead stone back into living human flesh.’ Lordan and Higgins are very different poets in key respects – aesthetically and ideologically – but this definition, while it is clearly applicable to Lordan’s work, is also useful in describing the poetry of Kevin Higgins. It is a body of work that has in its own way sought and seeks at every turn to expose power’s absurd and often petty corruptibility. As he puts it in a poem called, appropriately, ‘Seriously’:

This morning the heretic sky
throws down gold you cannot use.
But tomorrow will collar your enemies
against the iron railings of History. (Frightening New Furniture 68)

[Philip Coleman is a Lecturer in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin.]

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2 Responses

  1. Walter Burns

    August 5, 2011 1:33 am

    I think the Trinity lecturer who wrote this piece is on the right tack. I feel that any poet first has to be considered for his/her use of language, since dexterity in language more than theme is what will grab the attention of general readers (listeners if at poetry readings) who may or may not be ‘political’. We know that Auden wrote political stuff, even went to Spain with Isherwood in a naive attempt to do something useful for the republican side; but today younger readers read and appreciate Auden for his love lyrics and daring innovations with Anglo-Saxon-derived language. We Irish especially return to his deeply felt poetic memorial to W.B.Yeats. Yeats’s political and spiritual thoughts were quite a mixed bag during his creative life – someone might reasonably think of him as a daft oddbod in the light of today’s reality – but his brilliance as a lyric and meditative poet make him stand the test of time.

    Kevin Higgins shows a daring ability with line and verse paragraph construction. He produces metaphors and imagery that cause one to doubletake. This writing grabs and keeps attention. After that his themes and ideas can also be considered, and deserve to be considered because he is one of the few living Irish writers who is willing to subject contemporary Irish and international reality to poetic interrogation.

    Philip Coleman in his critique of Higgins is helping to set a standard in contemporary Irish literary criticism. He and likeminded critics should be encouraged by such as Irish Left Review.

  2. William Wall

    August 6, 2011 8:59 pm

    Fine essay. Well done for drawing attention to someone outside the mainstream who is, nevertheless (or because of that), a significant voice in Irish literature.