Kevin Higgins extended essay – Thrills and Difficulties: Being a Marxist Poet in 21st Century Ireland
Kevin Higgins was born in London. He mostly grew up in and lives in Galway City. In 2016 The Stinging Fly magazine described Kevin as “likely the most read living poet in Ireland. His poems have been quoted in The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, TheTimes (London), Hot Press, The Daily Mirror and on The Vincent Browne Show, and read aloud by film director Ken Loach at a political meeting in London. His sixth full collection of poems ‘Ecstatic’ will be published by Salmon in March 2022.
Introduction to Thrills and Difficulties: Being a Marxist Poet in 21st Century Ireland
This essay was my project for the ghastly first months of 2021. Unlike most of what I write, it was not written in one sprint but piecemeal, three or four hundred words at a time. Usually when it was dark outside. During the lockdowns I found time to read a huge amount of literary theory. This essay is in part my small attempt to add to Marxist literary theory by using my no doubt idiosyncratic understanding of it to give recent developments in Irish poetry a fairly robust autopsy. What does it mean to be a Marxist poet? It has nothing to with wanting to impose communism on the known world, though that sort of thing can be fun. What it really means is being someone who both interprets the world poetically and knows that if you don’t understand what capitalism is doing to humanity, and this planet we for now call ours, then you don’t really understand very much at all. It also means being prepared most of the time to be in a small minority in the literary world which, particularly in its power wielding upper echelons, is dominated by liberals who broadly sympathise with the Barack Obama / Katherine Zappone / Kathy Sheridan of The Irish Times wing of things as they are. To paraphrase Travis Bickle: I don’t hate these people, I just think they are silly. And that this silliness could, if the cards fall the wrong way over the next few years, lead us towards a Postmodern version of the disaster that was the1930s and early 1940s. The essay is written in the polemical style I favour. It will annoy many. And I will view their annoyance as a compliment. (more in the book)
Preview of Thrills and Difficulties: Being a Marxist Poet in 21st Century Ireland
Thrills & Difficulties: Being a Marxist Poet in 21st Century Ireland
for Susan Millar DuMars
More than a quarter of a century ago a man-child called Kevin retired from politics as he turned twenty seven. He had joined the then somewhat notorious Trotskyist group, the Militant Tendency, at the age of fifteen. After twelve years of activism, which began as a member of Galway West Labour Youth the month the Falklands War kicked off and fizzled like the saddest of fireworks in London in the aftermath of Mrs Thatcher’s Poll Tax, against which he had been a somewhat obsessively focussed campaigner, it was over. “Retirement” was the face-saving word he used to describe his departure from politics. From the inside it felt like a personal tragedy. And it was. After more than a decade as a fiercely loyal ‘comrade’, Kevin had had enough of Militant and they had had enough of him. Dialectics being the contradictory beast it is, a total exit from active politics may have been the best thing that could possibly have happened to him right then. But it didn’t feel like that to him. Instead of world socialist revolution, with which history had refused to oblige him, the spectres haunting the little part of Europe with which Kevin was then mostly concerned were, from his point of view, disappointing: Tony Blair and the Celtic Tiger, which got given its name the same year Blair became UK Labour leader: 1994.
Kevin sloped back to Galway from London via the Holyhead ferry that April with a mouthful of bad teeth; he wasn’t much of a one for looking after himself then. Though would march to defend the NHS for other people until his shoes disintegrated; he did not partake of such services himself. Kevin arrived in Galway with no particular plans, apart from a notion that he might do something artistic. Not artistic in the prettifying sense; he had no interest in describing the rocks around Connemara and the like. Indeed, he had little interest in any kind of beauty. Or so he thought. He wanted to express things he had been unable to say during his years as a (partly self-appointed) leader of the vanguard of the North London semi-lumpen proletariat. Mostly, this would involve going into some detail about all the people and ideas and institutions he was against. It was no small list. High on it was his endlessly self-sacrificing former self, who had worked himself some of the way towards a possible early grave, in an attempt to fight the political tide of the early 1990s that was, in the end, more about masochism than socialism. By “doing something artistic”, he meant stuff to do with words – songs, poems, maybe plays, novels… In the last years of his activism, when he was Chair of Enfield Against The Poll Tax in the North London Borough then represented in the House of Commons by, among others, Michael Portillo, he had become increasingly focussed on how best to say what needed to be said. It wasn’t enough to say it. It had to be said well. And, if possible, said wittily. He didn’t know it at the time but writing political letters with a satirical bent to the local papers in Enfield in the very early 1990s was his beginning as a poet.
This Kevin, who was of course me, hoped to escape politics via poetry but also harboured illusions that he might somehow find a way of combining the two. It is a contradiction I have been working out ever since.
Praise for the author "Memoir, manifesto, survey of movements and moments, unapologetic Marxist apologia, Kevin Higgins' Thrills & Difficulties offers a succinct survey of a significant Irish writer's journey to date. Writing 'to support, and just as importantly to record, the progressive movements of our time,' it describes in candid, witty, and incisive detail his contributions and importance to whatever it is we mean by the term 'contemporary Irish poetry'." Prof. Philip Coleman, Dept. of English, TCD "Those who habitually occupy 'the best room' will hear its walls rattling in this detailed, rollicking, humorous, full-on piece of polemic. It's personal. What makes it even more forceful is that Higgins comes to praise as well as to bury, generously listing and quoting from a phalanx of poets. Poets who, while sometimes outside 'the best room', are making the best noises. In an age where poets are being routinely enlisted to make banks and building societies look 'street' [and themselves vacuous] ----this type of corrective slap is ever more necessary. Long may he [purposefully] rave." Matthew Caley; poet & author of Trawlerman’s Turquoise (Bloodaxe Books, 2019) “I would never accuse Kevin Higgins of writing anything so diminishing as a rallying cry or manifesto. And yet, nobody is safe from his sharpened wit (least of all his Granny's fading crockery) as he eviscerates any notions we might have about what poetry should be. It would be wise to read this with a strong dose of self-awareness and, at the very least, a muted understanding of the genuine need for change in a world cracking under the weight of capitalism.” Alvy Carragher; poet & author of The Men I Keep Under My Bed (Salmon Poetry, 2021)
Higgins is co-organiser of Over The Edge literary events in Galway. He has published five full collections of poems: The Boy With No Face (2005), Time Gentlemen, Please (2008), Frightening New Furniture (2010), The Ghost In The Lobby (2014), & Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital (2019). His poems also feature in Identity Parade – New British and Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2010) and in The Hundred Years’ War: modern war
poems (Ed Neil Astley, Bloodaxe May 2014). Kevin was satirist-in-residence with the alternative literature website The Bogman’s Cannon 2015-16. 2016 – The Selected Satires of Kevin Higgins was published by NuaScéalta in 2016. The Minister For Poetry Has Decreed was published by Culture Matters (UK) also in 2016. Song of Songs 2:0 – New & Selected Poems was published by Salmon in Spring 2017. Kevin is a highly experienced workshop facilitator and several of his students have gone on to achieve publication success. He has facilitated poetry workshops at Galway Arts Centre and taught Creative Writing at Galway Technical Institute for the past fifteen years. Kevin is the Creative Writing Director for the NUI Galway International Summer School and also teaches on the NUIG BA Creative Writing Connect programme. His poems have been praised by, among others, Tony Blair’s biographer John Rentoul, Observer columnist Nick Cohen, writer and activist Eamonn McCann, historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, and Sunday Independent columnist Gene Kerrigan;
and have been quoted in The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Times (London), Hot Press magazine, The Daily Mirror and on The Vincent Browne Show, and read aloud by Ken Loach at a political meeting in London. He has published topical political poems in publications as various as The New European, The Morning Star, Dissent Magazine (USA), Village Magazine (Ireland), & Harry’s Place. The Stinging Fly magazine has described Kevin as “likely the most widely read living poet in Ireland”. One of Kevin’s poems features in A Galway Epiphany, the final instalment of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series of novels which is just published. His work has been broadcast on RTE Radio, Lyric FM, and BBC Radio 4. His book The Colour Yellow & The Number 19: Negative Thoughts That Helped One Man Mostly Retain His Sanity During 2020 is just published by Nuascealta. Kevin’s sixth full poetry collection, Ecstatic, will be published by Salmon in March 2022.