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Friday, 8 June 2012

After the Dublin launch, The Stinging Fly review

REVIEW by Philip Coleman in Summer 2012 issue of The Stinging Fly (Edited by Dave Lordan).

"Turning to more recent developments in Irish literary culture, in fact, it is useful to think of poets such as Kevin Higgins, Dave Lordan, Elaine Feeney, and Sarah Clancy as the inheritors of this extremely diverse and largely non-academic Southern Irish poetic culture over the last few years—a cultural context that has received significantly less critical consideration to date than its Northern Irish counterpart.

Kevin Higgins’ interest in the performative and political aspects of poetic practice certainly owes something to the combined efforts of writers such as Galvin and Durcan before him, and the public impulse of his work is reinforced by the essays and shorter prose pieces collected in Mentioning the War: Essays and Reviews, 1999-2011. As the title suggests, Higgins’ work—like Bardwell’s, in this respect—seeks to discuss things that are often not given broad or open coverage, and in this collection he writes with equal critical insight about literary as well as political matters, regardless of their current cultural status, currency, or standing. An essay on George Orwell is followed by a piece on Elaine Feeney, which in turn gives way to reviews of books about the corrupt banker Se├ín Fitzpatrick and the Corrib gas pipeline controversy. Literary criticism and political/social commentary appear side by side in a book that demonstrates Higgins’ clear commitment to the value of the written word. Indeed, the contents of Mentioning the War are drawn from a diverse array of publications, including literary magazines and periodicals in Ireland, the UK, Canada, and Australia, but also from publications such as The Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society and the Albanian newspapers Ndryshe and Shekulli, demonstrating both the high regard with which Higgins’ work is held internationally and the transnational range and reach of his interests.

In an essay on the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva’s prose, Joseph Brodsky wrote:

What does a writer of prose learn from poetry? The dependence of a word’s specific gravity on context, focused thinking, omission of the self-evident, the dangers that lurk within an elevated state of mind. And what does the poet learn from prose? Not much: attention to detail, the use of common parlance and bureaucratese, and, in rare instances, compositional know-how (the best teacher of which is music). All three of these, however, can be gleaned from the experience of poetry itself (especially from Renaissance poetry), and theoretically—but only theoretically—a poet can get along without prose.

Kevin Higgins, like Leland Bardwell, is a poet first and foremost, but he did not need to write prose to learn the things flagged here by Brodsky. His essays, like his poems, attend with great care to relevant details, just as his political and cultural observations are often informed by actual experience and insight. As he puts it in an interview included in this collection but first published in 2009: ‘The writers I am always interested in are those who see everything in the world as their subject, and ruthlessly write the truth as they see it, come what may. Far better to do this than become a yes man or woman for this or that popular front.’ The breadth of topics discussed in Mentioning the War, coupled with Higgins’ intelligence and candour as a social, cultural, and literary critic, make this an indispensable volume, not just to readers interested in contemporary Irish poetry but to anyone interested in the current political, cultural and social climate. Including illuminating introductory pieces by Darrell Kavanagh and John Goodby, Mentioning the War reproduces some of the work published in Higgins’ earlier volume Poetry, Politics & Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray (Lapwing Press, 2006). Like Bardwell’s Different Kinds of Love, however, the pieces reprinted here retain all of the urgency of their earlier occasions. A poet may get along without prose, but no reader interested in the state of contemporary Irish poetry or culture can afford to ignore the interventions made by Bardwell and Higgins in these very different but immensely valuable prose collections."

The book was reviewed alongside the short story collection Different Kinds of Love (Dedalus Press) by Leland Bardwell.

Philip Coleman has previously written about my work in his extensive essay Against the Iron Railings of History: the poetry and some of the prose of Kevin Higgins which was published last August on Irish Left Review