Saturday, 31 March 2012

Review: Mentioning The War, the Kevin Higgins book of essays

There are several strands of Irish poetry criticism by practitioners worth reading - one thinks of the serious Heaney essays, the playful, Quixotic Muldoon ones, and then those by a variety of more experimental Irish poets.  And then there is the Kevin Higgins essay.  Unlike any other poet-critic in Ireland, Higgins is now virtually unique, also, in the UK, for his prose style and approach.  Higgins, a very good, and clever, poet, is always lucid, straightforward, honest, to the point of bluntness, and funny; that he is also politically concerned without being (anymore) a fanatic is a plus.  He has modelled himself, clearly, on Orwell - but Orwell was not a poet.  Sean O'Brien comes to mind, or perhaps Randall Jarrell, but Higgins is not as dandyish as the latter, or as partial as the former.  Mentioning The War: Essays & Reviews 1999-2011 from Salmon, is therefore a welcome book, because it gathers together scattered hack work and puts it in the hands, potentially, of anyone who wants to sit back and enjoy a dose of Higgins.

This is by no means a perfect book.  It is riddled with typos, which is a pity, and some of the shorter pieces are really best kept in scrapbooks (some are a page and a half and quite local in scope).  His take on Muldoon's rock band is very slight.  Some reviews feel dated.  And like many such books, an editor might have tried to smooth over the inevitable repetitions - or perhaps, the hobby-horses are best spotted in this way.  Clearly, Higgins is most interested in arguing against the political in literature at the expense of good writing.  He has been a left-wing activist, and has now recanted, and feels entitled to chasten those still fanatical.  As he wrote a lot for Books In Canada in the mid-00s, too, a few of his assignments concern rather leftfield books, such as that by the grumpy Quebec figure, David Solway.

At his best, Kevin Higgins is tactically blunt, and this is a gust of Atlantic air over the sometimes stale, stuffy establishment world of contemporary poetry, where people, like in Hollywood, are often afraid to say anything lest it hamper their next gig, or instead, puff-piece like mad.  Few other critics let you know where they stand so promptly.  A Higgins review is therefore always worth reading.  His essays on Orwell, his take on anti-Iraq war poetry, and on slams, are all significant interventions - he became the de facto champion of the art of slam in Ireland this last decade.  It would be good to see other Irish poets (like David Wheatley) gather their essays and reviews.  They might be as erudite, but would they be as frank?  As such, this collection, for all its faults and eccentric homeliness (the book opens with very moving, personal recollections that seem out of place), is required reading for any young poet-critic who wants to engage with 21st century Irish poetry and literary criticism.  Highly recommended, then.
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