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Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Case of Kevin Higgins, or, The Present State of Irish Poetic Satire

The topic of Irish poetic satire prompts me to a number of opening generalisations. Irish satire, I will propose, divides into optimistic and pessimistic strains. The former views the baiting of public nuisances as a contribution to social hygiene: by unmasking the reactionary face of the Catholic hierarchy, runs the logic of a typical Paul Durcan poem, the poet gently encourages the bishops to leave the stage, and cease inserting their croziers where they are not wanted in debates about contraception, divorce and homosexuality. Pessimistic satire takes a dimmer view of our ability to extricate ourselves from the toils of folly, and fears that the best we can hope for is to recognise our idiocy but also the delusory nature of the progress to which we look for relief. This would be broadly the Tory anarchism that Declan Kiberd has diagnosed in the Irish tradition, and of which Swift, greatest of all satirists, remains the lacerating paragon.

Humour has always been a defining feature of the Irish tradition, but a head-count of contemporary poets with the comic gene yields patchy results. Ribald and highbrow comedy is a strong feature of Paul Muldoon’s work, but the case of Eavan Boland reminds us that an absence of any discernible sense of humour is no handicap to a serious critical reputation, in some quarters at least. In the final chapter of his Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, Justin Quinn names Paul Durcan and Brendan Kennelly as the most consistent poetic satirists of modern Ireland. The satirist’s place, for Quinn, is between the perennial Scylla and Charybdis of the Irish imagination, tradition and modernity. In the straight-faced version of history these two coexist in immaculate balance: ‘the distant past of ancient Ireland is now acceptable for use in the heritage industry, while the recent past (of Catholic and nationalist repression) is used to warn what might happen if the country does not fully embrace the globalised free market.’ The satirist trades balance for excess, overstatement and savagery, uncovering the hidden dissonances of the social process. Prominent among the younger poets to have set themselves this challenge is Kevin Higgins, born in 1967 and the author of four collections in the last decade corresponding roughly with the rise, prime and decease of Celtic Tiger Ireland, The Boy With No Face (2005), Time Gentlemen, Please (2008), Frightening New Furniture (2010) and The Ghost in the Lobby (2014). ‘Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives’, Philip Larkin says of the female figure in his ‘Deceptions’, and Higgins announces his sense of words’ cutting force at the outset of his first book: ‘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.’

Seamus Heaney professed a desire to take the English lyric and ‘make it eat stuff it has never eaten before’. With satire occupying a sizable portion of Higgins’ work, he broadcasts an aversion to the effete lyric tradition and the poet as fashioner of exquisite, bejewelled stanzas. In ‘To Certain Lyric Poets’, the romantic imagery of the delicate bard is there ‘to let us know /he still gets laid’; his words are ‘beautiful things, /flowers to be arranged /around an altar to his ego.’ Facing this text is ‘I am Ireland’, a reworking of a Patrick Pearse poem, gutting the patriot’s sentiments and installing in their place the random trash of contemporary Ireland:

I am Ireland:
I am the love-child of Brian Keenan and John Waters.
I drive Lebanese terrorists and Sinéad O’Connor bonkers.
I will go on forever.

This is far from Higgins at his most effective, but the juxtaposition of the last two examples illustrates a key choice for the satirist. If we proceed on the basis of my optimistic template of social activism, an identification soon crystallizes between lyric detachment and political indifference, with a complementary identification forming between political engagement and the anti-lyrical detritus of mass culture – of terrorism, the cult of celebrity and the moronic infernos of pop music. Gestures of studied contempt for the first of these options and a lightly ironized embrace of the latter lay down a seductive paradigm for the all-purpose satirical poem. The debauching of Patrick Pearse’s idealistic poem into latter-day trashiness, however, raises a problem. With peculiar inside-out logic, the successful satirist will often bring immortality to the object of his ire, which his original intention had been to banish from the earth. Who would remember Wood’s half-pence today but for Swift’s Drapier’s Letters? I say ‘successful satirist’, because if the poem fails to master its occasion the transience of its material will have the opposite effect, of dissolving the poem’s interest for readers who will see not topicality but yesterday’s headlines, forgotten and illegible.

A corollary of this is the opposition of home and abroad. The case of Austin Clarke provides a salutary example here. Witnessing the power of the church at close quarters, Clarke was one of its most vocal critics in the post-independence Free State. While this satirical vein yielded its share of fine poems, it also threatened to become a form of poetic fly-paper, reducing Clarke to self-immolating gestures in his attempts to get away from a subject to which he remained desperately attached. This desperation, combined with the parish-pump aspect of his poems’ occasions, is what Denis Donoghue has in mind when he dismisses Clarke as a ‘local complainer’, one who has suffered the dreaded decline from satirist proper to a crank. The bad blood between Clarke and Samuel Beckett, despite their many shared qualities – their aversion to the authoritarian church among them – may have been prompted on Beckett’s side by a fear that he too would bog down among the objects of his hatred, becoming their hostage rather than their master. Beckett’s satirical poem ‘Antipepsis’, on the banning of More Pricks Than Kicks, is pitched more fatalistically than Clarke’s satires, but while it appears to wallow in unending Irish stupidity, it does so (we remember) from the position of elective distance and exile not available to Clarke. Bringing this up to date, I can think of strong satirical poems inflected by the same dialectic of home and abroad. Justin Quinn’s ‘Ur-Aisling’ and Conor O’Callaghan’s ‘East’ are two fine satires, on the subject of feminism and the nation, and the myth of the romantic west respectively. Powerful though they are, both poems depend more than a little I think on the exilic distance from which they are written. Neither poet has lived in Ireland this century, and both write more in a spirit of settling their homeland’s hash than anything as deathly bland as an invitation to constructive debate.

Though Higgins was born in England to emigrant parents and possesses a strong internationalist streak, much more so than Quinn’s or O’Callaghan’s his work gives a sense of an Irish poet talking directly to his home audience on home ground. An audit of Higgins’ targets, however, raises immediate difficulties when we seek to place him on my spectrum of optimistic versus pessimistic satirists. The principal surprise for a first-time reader would be the number of poems Higgins devotes not to the architects of Ireland’s various disasters, religious, economic and social, but those most convinced of their possessing the solutions to these problems. Chief among these are the anti-war movement and the Irish far left, as represented by the Socialist Workers’ Party. At any point in this discussion, the ground is likely to shift from an argument about literary politics to politics pure and simple, but Higgins’ indignation is driven by a Hitchensesque suspicion that many of these organsations are less anti-war than apologists for unsavoury non-US-aligned régimes. He pounces with Orwellian gusto on the language of euphemism and apologia with which the apparatchiks of these groups square what Auden would call ‘necessary murder’ with their consciences, as in ‘Firewood’, his poem on the Darfur conflict, inspired by an anti-war activist’s statement that it was ‘problematic’ to describe the slaughter in that region as ‘genocide’. A protest against the use of Shannon airport by US military flights, provokes the following response, ‘they’ being the protestors:

You uproot weeds, tell yourself
if their dream republic got born,
the cat wouldn’t be crouching
in the dark, but cold between slices
of questionable brown bread –
all you’d have to eat – know
you’re more likely to go
into the night on a unicycle
screaming: Free Paris Hilton!
Free Paris Hilton! than accept
another red balloon from them.

Yet a contradiction, or possibly several contradictions lurk in these poems. Higgins’ despair at the logic whereby one’s enemy’s enemy is one’s friend scores some palpable hits in his attacks on the far left’s sleazy weakness for Saddam-style dictators standing up to American aggression; but there is a corresponding blind spot on the other side of this debate. His early poem ‘A Brief History of Those Who Made Their Point Politely And Then Went Home’ offers a trenchant satire on those who fail to bridge the gap between liberal opinionation and radical action. Everyone’s favourite Slovenian provocateur, Slavoj Žižek, is fond of the Max Horkheimer line that those who do not wish to speak critically of capitalism should keep silent on fascism, which he employs as a retort of choice to those whose objections to more extreme political solutions fall back on the presumed naturalness or desirability of the status quo. Something of this infects Higgins’ God That Failed-style polemics against the Irish left, particularly in the essays and reviews collected in Mentioning the War, which in one disturbing moment inspire him to praise the good faith of Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle in wanting to bring democracy to Iraq (!). It is also worth pointing out that Higgins has chosen to publish his satires on the Irish left on the Blairite website Harry’s Place, which has combined opposition to the skulduggery of the hard left with a noisy enthusiasm for the invasion of Iraq. This does not invalidate Higgins’ position, but reminds us of the complicity that is the lot of most satirists prepared to wade into political debate. One might even suggest that the problematic nature of Higgins’ political stance is useful, in its way, as a corrective to the disingenuous and naive nature of contemporary anti-war poetry, as encountered in the anthologies of largely forgettable poetry galvanised into existence by recent wars in the Middle East. The premise of anti-war poetry is the rejection of force and coercion, yet few contemporary poets are more desperately coercive than Harold Pinter in his anti-war doggerel or smug assumption that poets possess the ‘gift to set a statesman right’, to paraphrase Yeats. Reviewing a trio of anti-war anthologies, Higgins plays off Pinter’s poems against Hayden Carruth’s far more successful ‘On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam’, a poem which internalizes and makes a work of art out of all the reasons one might have for not taking up that invitation.

The question of, if not coercion, then at least energetic canvassing is endemic to poetic satire, nor is it overcome by reading a satirist with whom one finds oneself in perfect agreement. Satire is a form of war by other means, and it is worth noting that one of Higgins’ satires so enraged elements of the anti-war left in Galway as to provoke a physical assault on the poet. The conflict will out, and in his return to the scene of the crime in his two most recent collections Higgins shows himself an enthusiastic (verbal) combatant. I will now float another generalisation about poetic satire: that, rhetorically, it cannot help but tap the energy and force, and even the violence, of its target. Much as people today like to announce that they are not religious but are deeply spiritual, it has become a commonplace to bemoan the misfortune of the October revolution in falling into the hands of Stalin. Žižek is never happier than when reminding us that there can be no Christ without St Paul, no Lenin without Stalin, and that to believe otherwise is an unfortunate case of the Hegelian ‘beautiful soul’ complex, which believes in the need for radical action up to but not including the moment of actually doing something. This is not to say that the Irish poetic left is without its Stalinist contingent, whose idea of political action is writing angry letters (or facebook posts) denouncing other Irish poets for not being sufficiently political, for the crime of these other poets not also devoting their time to writing angry letters (or facebook posts) attacking yet more people for not being sufficiently political – and by now we have entered the world of the ‘We could sit around here all day talking, passing resolutions, making clever speeches’ scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Here is Higgins’ poem ‘Critical Support for the Insects’, which he prefaces with an epigraph from Johann Hari, quoting a Stop the War activist saying the anti-war resistance should use ‘any means necessary’ to secure its aims:

Nothing against the dressing gowns smoking
by the main, revolving door;
nor the young men ambulanced here
weekend nights with suspected
broken heads.

But when the guru with no face
and John Lennon glasses, who labelled
the man dragged from his chicken wire cage
to be beheaded over the internet
another broken egg
for the anti-imperialist pancake,
takes time out to shout:
Save Our Health Service,

it makes me want to die
in a cold hospital
with no running water, under
the one remaining fluorescent light
which, when the last doctor flees
for the relative safety of Mogadishu,
will begin to blink madly;

where the only thing
that’ll make my trolly move
up and down the corridor
will be the insects.

Higgins nicely skewers the emptiness of political language in placing the unexpectionable (‘Save Our Health Service’) side by side with the grotesque. This has the effect of making the apology for murder seem banal, and the defence of the health service seem empty, or as detached from reality as the response to a far-away war. But then Higgins responds with his own rhetorical violence. In repudiating the sloganeer, he mentions Mogadishu, in a hyperbolic rhetorical touch. This is of a piece with over-the-top references throughout Higgins’ work, as when a poem about a haircut and the property market in Ireland (‘Inconvenience: A History’) lurches into allusions to a UVF victim skinned alive and a train taking a Jew to Birkenau. The phenomena are utterly incommensurate, and it would be a very artless reader who thought otherwise. Similarly, the speaker of ‘Critical Support for the Insects’ might wish to think twice about swapping treatment in an Irish hospital for one in Somalia, but if such hyperbole is the price of satirical catharsis, then so be it. This is Brechtian Plumpes Denken, ‘crude thinking’, in action.

There is a pattern of slippage in these poems from the banality of Irish political discourse to a more colourful, but dangerous or irresponsible register, for which references to Birkenau, Pyongyang or the Lubyanka do duty. While literalists among his readers will dispute the poems’ right to draw these comparisons, I would argue for the incommensurability as part of Higgins’ desired satirical effect, with its attendant implications for the role of the satirist himself. Higgins has intelligently tackled the phenomenon of the artist as anointed outsider in ‘President Robinson Pay Homage to Lord Haw Haw, 21 October 1996’. Written in pastiche Paul Durcan, this poem wittily reprises the defence of the novelist Francis Stuart by Durcan and others against the charge of war-time misdeeds and subsequent anti-Semitism. This is not the place to revisit the rights and wrongs of the Stuart case, but what interests Higgins is the implied neutering of what makes Stuart Stuart in the defence mounted by his supporters. Stuart traded zealously on his contempt for liberal democracy and his need for outsider status, while enjoying the position of saoi, or wise-man, of Aosdána, the Irish Academy for the Arts. This is not a contradiction entirely of Stuart’s making, as Higgins recognises by making President Robinson the focus of his poem, as she hails the wartime broadcaster William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw): ‘His is an awkward, an uncomfortable voice.’ The blurb-like quality of the president’s endorsement, recalling the word ‘edgy’ on the back of every other slim volume, highlights the co-opting of the outsider artist. Is it a prerequisite of the genuinely awkward, uncomfortable voice that it should remain invisible to heads of state? Further, we are reminded by Higgins’ poem of the way in which satirical gadflies such as Durcan end up promoted to national treasure status (and Aosdána membership). A poem in The Ghost in the Lobby is subtitled ‘after Peter Reading’, a welcome acknowledgement of one contemporary satirist who did not soften with age, and could be found fulminating in his later work against ‘Tony fucking Blair’; but unless Higgins is proposing to take up the role himself, Irish satire conspicuously lacks a Peter Reading (the only plausible candidate is Dave Lordan, whose emergence has also coincided with the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger). Another possibility, alongside the establishment court jester and the brilliant refusenik, is the outsider whose only qualification is that no one wants to praise, listen to, or acknowledge him, for the very good reason that he has nothing to say and is, in fact, as talentless as he is delusional. This figure too is a staple in Higgins’ rogues’ gallery, and is not without numerous real-life counterparts.

Mention of the UVF prompts another generalisation. While the local bother that has led to Brownlee’s disappearance in Paul Muldoon’s ‘Why Brownlee Left’ has fascinated British and American critics for decades, parish-pump rows from south of the border have struggled to engage the attention of critics outside Ireland. Had Edward Said lived to a hundred, I don’t think he would ever have followed up his Field Day pamphlet on Yeats and decolonisation with one on present-day politics in the Republic of Ireland. Higgins’ poetry is highly focused on the claustrophobia of the southern Irish experience, but the invisibility of many poets from the Republic to readers in the adjoining island, to go no further, is a complicating factor, and one that Irish criticism has yet to resolve. Questions of marginality and how to frame the Irish experience for wider consumption obtrude into many of these poems. When Higgins subtitles his poem ‘Remembering the Nineties’ ‘after Donald Davie’, he signals the time-stamped quality of poems committed to period detail. Not all ‘local rows’ (in Patrick Kavanagh’s phrase) end up transmuted into Iliads, and the redneck councillors and back-bench TDs with whom Higgins peoples his work will scarcely remain legible, even as period detail, to future readers. The Davie reference also serves a more important purpose, when read in tandem with Davie’s ‘Remembering the Thirties’. As Davie’s response to the Movement, to whose chariot he had been yoked, ‘Remembering the Thirties’ was a gesture of dissent and defiance. It also coincided with his impatient critique of his Movement contemporary Philip Larkin (a frequent touchstone in Higgins’ work), who Davie decided had resigned himself to a ‘poetry of lowered sights and patiently diminished expectations’. Davie was having none of it, and used his Thomas Hardy and British Poetry to commend the work of Ed Dorn and the Black Mountain Poets instead. It would be an unexpected development, to be sure, if the next step in Higgins’s development was a conversion to Language poetry and a diehard campaign against the soft underbelly of the Irish poetic mainstream – a target in waiting for Higgins, if ever there was one. The poem on which I would like to end, ‘Ourselves Again’, collides painfully with another set of lowered sights and diminished expectations, as experienced in perhaps Higgins’ favourite tense, the future anterior. Combining references to the English translation of Sinn Féin and Thomas Davis’s nationalist ballad, ‘A Nation Once Again’, the poem explores familiar tropes of political disappointment. The Celtic Tiger has been and gone, and the familiar is reinstated and embraced with unexpected vigour. The new dispensation has finally arrived, with the twist that it was the old dispensation all along. In its masochistic ecstasy Higgins’ poem offers a variant on the Larkinesque wallowing condemned by Davie, and the violence of the satirical act is almost physically present in the percussive line-break between the words ‘future’ and ‘finished’. This is a cul-de-sac and no mistake, social and political but not artistic. There is something deliciously wretched in the prospect of being ‘ourselves again’, but an accompanying refusal to say what we might or should be instead, which seems an appropriate impasse on which to finish:

In the park our ice lollies
fall victim to the June bank holiday heat,
while in glass rooms numbers moving
through dark computers
declare the future

Tomorrow, we’ll have our double glazing
taken out; the crack put back
in the ceiling and a draught
installed under every door.
I’ll attach a For Sale sign
to the seat of my pants.

Gangs of the angry unemployed
will bear down on the G Hotel
chanting ‘Down with Daiquiris
and Slippery Nipples! Give us back
our glasses of Harp!’

In pubs nationwide, the carpets of yesteryear
will be reinstated, and there’ll be meetings
of Sinn Féin the Workers Party
going on permanently upstairs.

On our knees, we’ll ask
for the unforgiveness of sins
and life not lasting.
We’ll be ourselves again
and then some.