Mentioning the War: Essays & Reviews 1999-2011 by Kevin Higgins is a nice collections of book reviews, focusing largely on contemporary Irish poetry, general cultural commentaries on the state of the arts in Ireland in post Celtic Tiger bad times and some brilliant political analysis. Higgins' political thoughts range from very Irish centered issues to global concerns. (There will be a more detailed author bio at the end of the post.) He talks a good bit about the work in Iraq, which I do see as a terrible thing, both morally and as a use of American resources. It will be remembered as one of the dumbest wars initiated by the United States.
When first presented with the opportunity to post on his collection I of course said I would be interested in reading it and would then decide if it could post on the work. Initially I was confused as to how I might approach the book. Much, at least half, of the work is taken up with reviews of the work of contemporary Irish poets and Irish political infighting, both things very remote to me. Then I read his two very insightful articles on George Orwell, a writer whose works I admire tremendously, and I knew I could find a way to talk about his collection. I have loved the work of Orwell ever since I read Animal Farm in the 8th grade. In high school I had a teacher, who claimed to be a socialist, who said the book was just a crude attack on communism and of no greater value than as a historical curiosity.
I thought to myself, OK you know nothing about contemporary Irish poetry and next to nothing about Irish politics but the man admires Orwell and a lot of the essays on literary works also contain very thought provoking remarks about the role of the arts in modern society so I decided perhaps I could post on this book. Some of the essays are polemical pieces and just as Samuel Johnson spoke for victory you can feel that Higgins once and a while writes for victory and knows how to persuade others to his point of view. He also talks a lot about the role of the poet in society, a topic of interest to me. By and large I have not read much poetry by living writers. The only poets I have read intensely are Yeats and Whitman.
This will be a kind of rambling post in which I talk about a number of his essays. I do not agree with some of the things he says and I will try to explain this but my real purpose of writing on Mentioning the War: Essays & Reviews 1999-2011 by Kevin Higgins is let others know of the existence of a very honestly written work that has a lot to teach the world about poetry, politics and Ireland. He seeks justice and he tries to tell the truth, just like Orwell did.
As to my own political orientation (I only mention it because I think it colors ones thinking in posting on a work like Mentioning the War: Essays & Reviews 1999-2011 by Kevin Higgins) is vaguely left wing with some libertarian ideas but I distrust all grand ideologies. My blog is very multi-cultural and I see the harm in the domination of world politics by America, especially in the Bush eras, but I am not knee-jerk Anti-American.
The book starts with a forward by Darrell Kavanagh in which he tells us, and I could for sure see this, that one of the very interesting things this book provides us a look at the author's at one time very far left politics where ideology comes first evolving to a more pragmatic approach. I loved these lines from Kavanagh and I totally agree with it. "Mentioning the War is an antidote to the know-nothing, don-t want to know anything attitude which perverts human society. You know the sort of thing: super confident twenty-somethings, working in marketing or some other non-job, without an ounce of culture or humanity, blathering about how they are their own 'brand'". In the introduction John Goody helps us understand some of the things that have influenced Higgins and talks about his development as a poet and political thinker and teacher.
I will talk about a number of the essays and reviews one at a time, in a fashion similar to my manner of posting on short story collections. (I do not consider myself a "book reviewer", I just read things and post my reaction to them.)
"Back Home to Ireland"
The lead off piece in the book, "Back Home to Ireland" in a way kind of sets the tone for the book. It starts out when Kevin was seven and his family is moving back to Ireland from Coventry in the west midlands of England. He moves back to Ireland in a period of upheaval. There are power cuts due to coal miner strikes, the IRA has begun a bombing campaign in London. Somehow when he left England Kevin knew he was going into a less comfortable world. I admit I liked it when he tells us he got the day off from school for the funeral of De Valera and his mother said "it was nice to see him going to his own funeral for a change".
"And no one knew its name"
The second essay helped me feel a very common sense of humanity with Kevin. It is very personal story in which you can feel his love for his mother and his immense pain at her illness. I think putting it very near the start of the collection was very brilliant editorially as it makes us see Kevin is not just a very intellectual, cultured immensely knowledgeable person but someone any one can relate to. The story starts in 1977 (Kevin was born in 1967) when Kevin's mother cannot go into town to watch the St. Patrick's Day parade because of a pain in her back. Of course children of ten think their parents are indestructible and Kevin does not worry on it much. We learn about Kevin's family. We go on an expedition with them. His mother's back pain gets worse and worse and the doctors can find nothing wrong with her. The vague suggestion is the problems are in her mind and one doctor hints at a faith healer. Kevin gets into football and becomes a Liverpool fan! Kevin talks about the politics of the time, through the prism of his memories. His mother is still sick and no doctor can explain why. They call her illness "psychosomatic". My own mother went through an extended period of illness at the end of her life and I trembled at the thought of any doctor try to tell her that her problems were "psychosomatic" and I sense the same feeling in Kevin essay. "An no one knew its name" reads like the best of short stories so I will leave the ending untold. It did help me locate Kevin in "human space" and it is perfectly executed.
"Socialist Classics: George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia"
This was the first essay I read in the collection. My thinking was OK I know nothing of the poets he speaks of but I have been reading Orwell on and off for several decades so I will make this essay the determining factor in deciding if I will post or even read his whole collection. The essay starts out with an account of a conversation Kevin had with an "elderly Englishman" he met in Athens at a poetry conference. The man tells him he does not "get the whole Orwell thing". He says Orwell did a bit of the bohemian (Down and Out in Paris and London comes to mind-a book which may incidentally kill any interest you have in fancy restaurants) thing, then dabbled in politics and then "reverted to type". He "does not see what all the fuss is about". The problem turned out to be Orwell attitude toward the communist party. I do not want to spend the time to talk a lot about the history of the development of Orwell's political thought but he was at one time a member of the communist party but he turned against and it was in Homage to Catalonia, his account of the war in Spain, that signals his break with the party. Orwell was to big for any party, too honest, too concerned with suffering over ideology and repudiated the cult of personality as seen around Stalin.
Let us look for a moment at this key remark by Kevin. "In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell whose Animal Farm was later co-opted by the CIA, writes from a position that is decisively to the left not only of the Labor Party but also of the Communist Party" Kevin tells us that Orwell was for the revolution to a far greater extent than "all Stalinism's literary fellow travellers ever were". The CIA did pay for a cartoon version of the book to be used as a propaganda tool (The Manchester Guardian has a very interesting article on how this happened) but this really is a kind of cosmic joke because it if lead anyone to actually read the book they would never accept any form of totalitarianism again. It is no more necessary to understand Russian politics of the 1930s and 40s to understand Animal Farm a knowledge of English politics of the early 18th century is required to appreciate Gulliver's Travels. To my mind such an approach to both of the books trivializes them.
"Culture and the recession"
"Whoever you are the age of less is upon you".
How can you not respect the truth of this, the global truth. The time is past due for first world countries to take a hugely disproportionate share of the world's wealth, the time has come for a CEO to know longer make 1000 or more times as much as a worker. Less does not mean misery, unless you impose this on yourself or let advertisers do it to you.
Here is one of the most important sentences for an outsider to Ireland to understand:
"Since the implosion of the international banking system in September 2008 ushered in this era of great economic unhappiness, the atmosphere of everyday life in Ireland has changed for everybody to an extent that would be unimaginable just three years ago".
To a large extent, the ordinary people of Ireland (and Europe and the USA and many other places) are being asked to pay for the mistakes of the rich. Politicians say hardships must be shared, the hardships for those who caused the banking crisis in Ireland include smaller yachts and a cut back in the staff at your Greek Island villa, for others it means taking your meds only every other day. Kevin talks about things related to this throughout his collection, especially in this essay. Ireland has been, compared to say the Philippines where there is close to no public support for literary arts, blessed with good government support of the arts. I am totally in awe, as is the world, of the literary output of the Irish. Galway, a city of about 75,000 has produced more great writers than many a city of five million. Kevin talks about how the economic crisis in Ireland has effected the verbal arts and I found his essay very edifying.
"From Tyburn to a Tin Box-Cromwell's Head by Jonathan Fitzgibbons"
I liked the starting lines of this essay in which the popularity of the American president George W. Bush was found to better than that of Oliver Cromwell. I have learned of late that the Irish hatred for Cromwell derives from his terrible genocide war in which about 41 percent of the population was died and in which over 50,000 people, mostly from the west of Ireland, were sent as slaves to the Caribbean. This article is a review of a book about the post death head of Oliver Cromwell from its detachement from his body in Tyburn to its eventual reburial in a tin box. The descriptions quoted of the executions make it sound like a very surreal event in that Cromwell had been dead for two years when they cut off his head. There is a very interesting historical irony pointed out at the end of the essay. Cromwell was not in his a left-wing anti-authority figure despised by right wing monarchists and Torries. Given this, "the worst atrocities of Irish history were committed by a man who was, as the Marxist would say, a progressive rather than a reactionary."
"Taking Arms Against A Sea of Troubles-Neoconservatism:Why We Need It by Douglas Murray
This is a brilliant essay in which Higgins shows us his thinking has developed and how he lets facts dictates what he believes, not the other way around. By this I means he lets events speak for themselves. The essay centers around America's intervention in Serbia. There is much concern in Ireland, as most of my readers will not know ( I do not think I did) because the Irish government has allowed USA military planes to refuel at Shannon Airport on the west coast of Ireland, thus aiding the American war efforts in Iraq and Serbia. There is the wisdom of centuries in these lines "I had known about the deadly Stalinist combination of lies and mass murder since I was a fifteen year old recruit to Trostkysim...I thought Left wing apologia for mass murder was something from terrible times past. I now began to ask myself whether there is something inherent in Left Wing thinking which, where it holds sway, makes lies and mass murder likely if not inevitable." If you think Higgins is just another left wing ideologist you are dead wrong.
"Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Terribly Astray"
"Almost every poet I know is prone to exaggerate the influence poetry can have on world events".
Poets are caught between their passions about their work and their feeling they may be of no consequence in the real world, what ever that is. As Higgins says, some react to this feeling by screaming their barbaric yep on the roof tops of the world (sorry I cannot always help myself) others by withdrawing into their studies or the world of academia and poetry societies. As Higgins says, politicians do not lose a lot of sleep worrying about the opinions of poets they have never heard of anyway. But this does not mean poetry has no consequence we just cannot say in advance what they will be. Poets and short story writers helped create all of the great religions of the world but when they were doing this 1000s of years ago they had no vision of this. Ok I love these lines - "The world, from New York to Madrid to Bali, is wracked by a conflict between a Texan buffoon..and a batty Saudi aristocrat out to restore the seventh-century Islamic Caliphate.."
There are a total of forty-seven essays and reviews in Mentioning the War: Essays & Reviews 1999-2011 by Kevin Higgins. I read them all, even the ones about poets I never heard of and have no way of reading.
Higgins is a very close reader and quotes enough to give you a good feeling for the writers of which he speaks. I enjoyed seeing that he was willing to learn from facts and did not just see anyone who opposed American policy has automatically a hero on that basis. His work is informed deeply by reading Orwell when young and as his life progressed reading him again and again. Orwell was not a saint, as Higgins points out in an essay, but he tries hard to tell the truth and he puts people before policy and sees the petty vanity in many political causes, from any spectrum of opinion.
Author Data (from the webpage of his publisher Salmon Poetry)
You can read selections form this book here
You can learn more about Kevin's work on his very well done blog.
I strongly endorse this book for anyone who wants a serious introduction to the world of Modern Irish Poetry, and its interaction with politics, locally and globally. This a very well written, at times quite funny and consistently interesting book.