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Saturday, 23 December 2017

personal review of 2017 - poetry

2017 was a big, if slightly peculiar, poetry year for me personally. My New & Selected Poems Song of Songs 2.0 was published by Salmon in April and launch at the Cúirt Festival. You can hear my talking to Kernan Andrews of The Galway Advertiser about the book here.  


The book was launched at Cúirt by Dr. Philip Coleman who had this to say:

"It is a great pleasure to be here to say a few words to launch Kevin Higgins’ Song of Songs 2.0: New & Selected Poems, but I do feel like a bit of an interloper talking about Kevin’s work here in Galway, at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature…. I’m sure there’s not much I can tell a Galway audience about Kevin’s work and its importance – given the importance of this city and, indeed, this festival to the development of his work over the years!

Quite apart from his involvement with the festival over the years as a reader of his own poems, Kevin’s work as a teacher of creative writing here in Galway has helped many others to feature in prominent ways at Cúirt. Students of his have won the Cúirt New Writing Prize, for example, and the Cúirt Poetry Grand Slam. As you know, Kevin is also co-organiser of the hugely successful Over The Edge reading series here in Galway, which specialises in promoting new writers. He also teaches poetry on the NUI Galway Summer School programme and the NUIG BA Creative Writing Connect programme. This evening, though, we are not here to celebrate and listen to the work of Kevin’s students – as brilliant as they may be – but to welcome and applaud the publication of Kevin’s New & Selected Poems, which has been brought into the world by Salmon Poetry.

It is appropriate, in fact, that we acknowledge and thank Jessie Lendennie and Siobhán Hutson at Salmon for the amazing work they have done over there in Knockeven by the Cliffs of Moher, not just in preparing Kevin’s New & Selected Poems for publication, but for all they do, year in year out, to promote the art of poetry. Thank you, again, Jessie and Siobhán: you have done a stunning job with this book, but we wouldn’t have expected any less from you.

Now I mentioned that Kevin is a teacher of poetry, like myself, but I did have to stop and think for a minute when I read these lines from the poem called ‘My Wishes For You’ from the New Poems section of the book:

                       
                        That your son at Trinity College
                                    may graduate
                        to become a rogue gynaecologist….

Because I not only work but also live in Trinity, I wondered who the poor creature might be walking around with such a hex on him – the curse of the poet! As I’m sure you all know, the Irish poetic tradition has many fine examples of curses, and this one used to be my favourite, by John Millington Synge, best known for his plays but also a really fine poet. He wrote this poem, called ‘The Curse’, to the sister of someone who disapproved of The Playboy of the Western World:
                       
                        Lord, confound this surly sister,
                        Blight her brow with blotch and blister,
                        Cramp her larynx, lung, and liver,
                        In her guts a galling give her.

                        Let her live to earn her dinners
                        In Mountjoy with seedy sinners:
                        Lord, this judgement quickly bring,
                        And I'm Your servant, J. M. Synge.

As I say, this used to be my favourite Irish curse poem, until I read Kevin’s new poem ‘My Wishes for You’, which is a masterpiece of this particular subgenre of poetry. Maybe Kevin will read it for us later, but one of the key things about these curse poems is the fact that they are both terribly nasty and, at the same time, extremely funny.

What happens when you combine those two things – darkness and comedy? Some would say that these are the essential ingredients of satire, and certainly when we think of the great satirists throughout the history of western literature we can see that there is something in this. From Horace to Jonathan Swift, and from H.L. Mencken to Melissa McCarthy, the satirist claims our attention by making us laugh but in the same gesture we will be disturbed by some image or idea that seems just too absurd, too horrible, to countenance. At this moment, then, we take a kind of second take on the world we think we already know, reconsider our sense of it, re-evaluate our beliefs and opinions. Given all of this, then, it is no surprise that the historian Diarmuid Ferriter has described Kevin Higgins as ‘Ireland’s most accomplished political poet and satirist’.

But hang on a minute, what would a historian like Diarmuid Ferriter know about poetry? I am kidding, of course, but only a little, because I think it is important – and this is the place to say it – because I do not believe that Kevin Higgins should be categorised or labelled solely as a ‘political poet’ or, indeed, as a ‘satirist’. There is nothing wrong with those classifications, as such, but I want to celebrate Kevin Higgins tonight as a poet, first and foremost, who has dedicated himself to the art of poetry now for a number of decades, as a teacher and as a critic, but first and foremost as a writer himself of some of the most memorable and significant poems to have been written by an Irish poet. The consistency of his commitment to his art may be matched by the commitment he has made to politics, but when his political views and allegiances have shifted his sense of the importance of poetry has stayed true to its course. Song of Songs 2.0 will give new readers of his work a clear sense of this because it provides a generous selection of his work going back to The Boy With No Face (2005), Time Gentlemen, Please (2008), Frightening New Furniture (2010), and The Ghost in the Lobby (2014). I very much hope that Salmon will keep these individual volumes in print because in a selected poems there are always going to be things left out, but we shouldn’t complain. Song of Songs 2.0 gathers work from each of Higgins’s published volumes to date, including the pamphlets The Ministry for Poetry Has Decreed (Culture Matters, 2016) and The Selected Satires of Kevin Higgins (Nuascéalta, 2016).

The title of Kevin’s book is bound to be discussed by reviewers and commentators, and I’d like to say a few words about it here. As you all know, the ‘original’ Song of Songs is known by various titles, including the ‘Song of Solomon’ and the ‘Canticle of Canticles’, and it is found in the holy texts of both Christianity and Judaism. It is tempting to say, then, that Song of Songs 2.0 is a twenty-first century secular take on a spiritual classic. The poem ‘Song of Songs 2.0’ certainly sends up the ancient piece, in a way, and it is full of images that will be read, and heard, as instances of Kevin’s searing and dark poetic comedy in performance. Consider, for example, these verses from the original ‘Song of Songs’ (if we can speak of such a thing as an original of that text):
           
                        Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thine eyes are as             doves behind thy veil; thy hair is as a flock of goats, that trail down from mount Gilead.
                       
                        Thy teeth are like a flock of ewes all shaped alike, which are come up from the washing; whereof all are paired, and none faileth among them.

                        Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy mouth is comely; thy temples are like a pomegranate split open behind thy veil.

                        Thy neck is like the tower of David builded with turrets, whereon there hang a thousand shields, all the armour of the mighty men.

That’s great, all well and good – each to his or her own, and all that – but now consider this:

            How glorious your feet stuffed into trainers
            Oh lavatory attendant’s daughter.
            The joints of your thighs pop
            out like cuckoo clocks;
            the work of a drunken assembly line operative
            on his last day at the factory.

This is poetry at its darkest, envisioning our world in all of its stark brutality. There is no room for romance or the sentimental here. Towards the end of the poem the speaker says:

            Let us get up early to the canal
            by the chemical weapons factory
            and see what dies there.

This is an invitation to view the world in all its contemporary decay, where the solace of religious or, indeed, secular, succour is no longer possible to attain – not that it ever was. What is attainable, however, out of the bleakness of this vision, is a new, more honest and more humane, form of understanding that surpasses the surfaces of satire as mere entertainment.

In one of the most important essays I know on the subject of poetry and politics, ‘Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray’, Kevin Higgins writes:


            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.

Song of Songs 2.0 presents the reader with arresting and often disturbing representations of the self and the world on almost every page, but its greatest achievement may be in forcing us to think again about what poetry can do, what it is for, and what role it may have in helping us to negotiate the terrifying times that lie ahead.

If you have not read Kevin Higgins’s poems, now, more than ever, may be the time to read them. Song of Songs 2.0 provides a brilliant, timely introduction. There’s been a lot of talk in the media recently about things being launched. The North Koreans have been having fun launching their missiles, while the Americans keep threatening to launch theirs against them, all the while continuing to practice their own missile launching skills week in week out in other parts of the world. The launching of a poetry book may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but I believe, like Kevin Higgins, that poetry matters because it can challenge and sometimes change people’s minds about themselves and the world they live in. It is a real pleasure, then, to launch Song of Songs 2.0, but the real work of its launching will happen when the poems get out into the world, when you read and hear them read, and begin to think about the things they are saying for yourselves. In this regard poems may be more powerful than the most sophisticated weaponry. Congratulations, Kevin. Long may you and your work thrive."

However, as the man says:






The comments sections on the batch of poems I published during the year on Broadsheet.ie, a new outlet for me, are also worth a look.

During 2017 I was invited to regularly contribute poems to two left of centre sociopolitical websites based in the U.K - The Pileus and The Platform - and subsequently published several poems there.

I also published poems on Culture Matters, in The Morning Star, The Irish Times (twice), The Stinging Fly special homelessness issue, the Chichester Festival's Poetry & All That Jazz, the U.K. based Red Poets #23, North West Words, The Galway Advertiser, Spontaneity, Anomaly Lit, Light Journal (USA), Clare Daly TD's website, Socialist Unity, ROPES, Crannóg, Skylight 47, Caja De Resistincia (Spain), Scum Gentry Alternative Arts and Media, Poethead (edited by Chris Murray), and elsewhere.

In August my New & Selected Poems was reviewed on RTE Radio One's Arena Arts programme, and later in the month - in what must surely go down as one of the more hilarious moments in Irish poetry broadcasting - a poem from it, My Wishes For You, was broadcast on the same programme.

In September my new poem 'Sarcoid Years' - about my chronic lung condition - was published in The Irish Times, with an accompanying article. This poem apparently led to hopes in certain quarters that I might be about to die. But sadly it wasn't to be.

In the past month John McAuliffe reviewed my New & Selected Poems in The Irish Times (alongside books by David Wheatley and Paul Muldoon); Poetry Ireland made my tribute to Robert Mugabe their Poem of The Month on their website; The Irish Times republished my Brexit poem 'Exit' and RTE's Arena programme broadcast my poem 'The Art of Political Rhetoric'.  These last four led to grave concern in certain quarters that the Irish literary establishment might finally be grasping me to its bosom.
It's understood this possibility led a few to consider suicide. But sadly it wasn't to be.

In the last days before Christmas the book received the following generous mentions:

"With endlessly colorful wit, Irish poet and satirist Kevin Higgins offers an assortment of new and selected poems that rip into life and politics with teeth or, at least, dentures. Bursting with bathos as he riffs off of Wordsworth, Milton, and Burns or turning to absurdity the psalmic similes in the title poem, Higgins s verse revels in pastiche and political irreverence." --World Literature Today

"In Ireland, Kevin Higgins launched his Song of Songs 2.0: New & Selected Poems, published by Salmon Poetry and gives us a selection from his 4 previous collections as well as new poems. Knee deep in the political, sometimes brutally savage and often very funny, Kevin’s work over the years has kept me entertained." -StephenByrne.org 

p.s. over the next week or so I will post my ideological review of the year. If you're worried, then you absolutely should me. In fact if I were you I wouldn't sleep a wink the next several nights.