The Neo-liberal Poet: An essay by Kevin Higgins

I will start with a definition: neo-liberalism has nothing to do with being in favour of gay marriage, or abortion rights, or against castrating black boys for saying hello to white girls. It doesn’t care either way about any of that: what colour you are, who (or how) you screw, whether (or not) you’re a member of the Aryan Nation, and it absolutely could not give a shit about where you stand on the male-female spectrum. For neo-liberalism it is always and only about the money. A true neo-liberal sees every situation as a potential financial transaction and would as happily flog child-sized white hoods to junior Klansmen at a cross burning in Cedar Town, Georgia as he (or she) would sell popcorn and M&Ms to participants at a gay bondage party in an apartment rented by a Lithuanian bloke across the road from the Irish Financial Services Centre in Dublin. 

The ‘liberal’ bit harks back to the laissez-faire (let do) economics championed by the governing Liberal/Whig Party in mid-nineteenth century Britain. It was liberalism of this left-to-itself-the-market-will-provide variety that led to the decision of the UK Treasury in 1847 to cut spending on public relief efforts at the height of the Irish potato famine. During the 1970s the ‘neo’ prefix was added to signify the economic policies of resurgent laissez-fairists, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Hilda Thatcher. Ronnie and Maggie and their advisors agreed with those nineteenth century Liberal politicians who bravely cut aid to victims of the Irish potato famine that government is not the solution, but the problem. 

What does any of this have to do with poets or poetry, I hear you ask? And the chorus is loudest in the corner of the room where the poets who think of themselves as apolitical, but are actually quite conservative, are sitting. Well, it has everything to do with recent trends in UK, American, and Irish poetry which male poets of a certain droopage and small c conservative outlook – the sort who first read the phrase “cultural Marxism” in Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules… and reckon they know what it means – spend a lot of time complaining about, both privately and on social media. Your average fifty five your old white male poet with sagging jowls living in Dublin, London, or the Chicago suburbs thinks that the poetry scene is going through a damaging politicisation at the moment. He is right about that. But it is the opposite of what he imagines it to be. And it has nothing at all to do with Marxism, about which said middle aged male poet typically knows a great deal less than Pamela Anderson, except in the sense that it is usually pretty violently opposed to it. The same arts administrators who launch numbers of their organisation’s literary magazine at the Dublin Stock Exchange or, come election time, publicly endorse pro-austerity candidates against those further to the left see no contradiction between this and their enthusiastic promotion of identity poetry, and there isn’t one. This new political poetry of the past few years is, on the key issue of the day – the ongoing dominion of the 1% over the 99% – every bit as conservative as the jowly male poets who hate it. Far from being genuinely oppositional or socialist, it is a poetry whose ideological roots are, for the most part, as ardently neo-liberal as the darker private thoughts of Ayn Rand. Langston Hughes, Muriel Rukeyser, and Hugh MacDiarmiad all, in their way, wanted to overthrow capitalism and the poetry they wrote was integral to that. All suffered career damage because of their political associations. The new identity poets mostly see being gay, black, a woman, or indeed working class as a commodity to trade on, a means of gaining entry into upper-middle class literary society. They are the sort of the people who, to paraphrase Lady Bracknell, only complain about society so that they can get into it. The minute they are in the door, the book of their complaints is burnt and its contents forgotten. Except by the likes of me, who crankily keep note. 

The politics of such people are akin to those of the character described in Auden’s ‘The Unknown Citizen’ who “held the proper opinions for the time of year”. It would be wrong to attribute to them any ideology, with the absolute exception of the cult of the self, at whose altar they spend their every waking moment prostrated in worship. For the neo-liberal identity poet accusations of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia or closet membership of the Nazi Party are not a matter of truth or principle. In any case, the concept of truth is so age of reason, honey. What matters is not what someone actually does or really stands for. For the neoliberal poet, people are not human beings in the Enlightenment Christian or Marxist sense but commodities to be classified into three rough categories (1) those who might prove useful to the rising neo-liberal poet, such as older writers who might mentor them, literary festival organisers who might invite them, magazine editors who might publish their poems, publishers who might publish their books, and critics who might mention them on the radio or in the newspapers (2) those who are rivals or in some other sense likely to get in the neo-liberal poet’s way, such as other poets about the same age, or poets slightly older than them – a particular pet secret hate of the neo-liberal poet are other poets who write on broadly similar themes to themselves and (3) the great rabble of the human race who should generally be ignored if at all possible. This would include people who tear tickets at the doors of big literary events and all minor arts admin functionaries of no particular import to the neo-liberal poet. 

If the neoliberal poet hears that a publisher or magazine editor is a bum-grabber, around whom one should steer a wide berth on one’s way to the bar, the central question is not the truth or otherwise of this allegation. What matters is that the neoliberal poet is now in possession of potentially nuclear information which will only be used if said person fails to publish their poems. Similarly, if another poet is a rampant homophobe or closet racist, the question is not so much the homophobia or racism itself, but to what use the neo-liberal poet might put said homophobia or racism. If the poet in question is a rival, then their homophobia or racism must be used to remove them from the equation at some time of optimum advantage to the neo-liberal poet. But if the poet in question might be of use to the neo-liberal poet, then it goes without saying that the homophobia and racism are quite okay because, as the postmodernists taught us, all truth is relative and one needs someone to give one references, propose one for membership of elite literary bodies, and give one prizes. And if the neo-liberal poet happens to know that a particular arts administrator is a closet member of the local Nazi Party, and has a duvet cover with a picture of the late Herman Goering on it, the only question for the neo-liberal poet is whether this information should be used to strategically remove said arts administrator or suppressed. As long as the arts administrator in question continues to invite the neo-liberal poet to do stuff, their Herman Goering duvet cover will remain a strategic little secret; the moment the invitations dry up, or the neo-liberal poet outgrows them as his/her career flourishes, that Herman Goering duvet will be loudly and tearfully denounced on Twitter. This might seem like a hypocritical way of carrying on. 

Not at all. For the neo-liberal artiste it is always and only about the next networking chance. They are of a different universe to writers such as Adrienne Rich and Amiri Baraka, both of whom were associated, at considerable risk to their literary careers, with the radical end of the women’s and black liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s. Baraka once said that “As long as black writers were obsessed with being an accepted middle class, he [she] would never speak his [her] mind, and would always fail.” The neo-liberal literary identitarians of today invest much time trying to claim for themselves the corpses of poets such as Rich and Baraka, seeing such legacies as priceless commodities. But to turn the Baraka quote on its head, today’s faux radicals mostly have no minds to speak and rather than being part of any political movement are doomed to squabble and lick their way to tenure, Áosdána, or the Ted Hughes Award. 

Such rapacious individualism is the cultural legacy of the era when deregulated capitalism had it all its own way. Though the era that fashioned it is dying, the attitude remains and indeed grows ever more shrill. Eventually such people usually go mad and start shouting about how Eileen Myles is far more relevant now than problematic old Bertolt Brecht and that the only reason you don’t agree is because of you’re so incurably heteronormative. Over the past few years, on foot of poems I’ve written, I’ve been accused of being a neoconservative, a Stalinist, an anti-Semite, anti-Catholic, a racist and a misogynist. I take all of these insults as compliments, for that is what they really are. In truth, I am actually quite discriminating in terms of who I hate, and have never hated anyone because of what they are, though I hate plenty of people because of what they do. Politically, I have people I call friends who are Trotskyists, members of the British Conservative Party, former members of the IRA, members of the Communist Party of Britain, members of Fine Gael (the Irish Tories), and even, dare I say it, a few centrist Democrats. In time, like the fringed lampshades the Victorians bequeathed us, and the poetry of Rod McKuen, the hateful neo-liberal identity poets must surely find their rightful place in the cultural junkyard, still no doubt shrieking me, me, me. Our hope must be that, in their place, something of the solidarity that is being rediscovered in the reborn socialist movements around Sanders, Corbyn and others will take their place and make the poetry world a little more inhabitable for actual human beings.

 – Kevin Higgins

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Kevin Higgins is co-organiser of Over The Edge literary events in Galway. He has published five full collections of poems: The Boy With No Face (2005), Time Gentlemen, Please (2008), Frightening New Furniture (2010), The Ghost In The Lobby (2014), & Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital (2019). His poems also feature in Identity Parade – New British and Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2010) and in The Hundred Years’ War: modern war poems (Ed Neil Astley, Bloodaxe May 2014). Kevin was satirist-in-residence with the alternative literature website The Bogman’s Cannon 2015-16. 2016 – The Selected Satires of Kevin Higgins was published by NuaScéalta in 2016. Song of Songs 2:0 – New & Selected Poems was published by Salmon in Spring 2017. Kevin is a highly experienced workshop facilitator and several of his students have gone on to achieve publication success. He has facilitated poetry workshops at Galway Arts Centre and taught Creative Writing at Galway Technical Institute for the past fifteen years. Kevin is the Creative Writing Director for the NUI Galway International Summer School and also teaches on the NUIG BA Creative Writing Connect programme. His poems have been praised by, among others, Tony Blair’s biographer John Rentoul, Observer columnist Nick Cohen, writer and activist Eamonn McCann, historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, and Sunday Independent columnist Gene Kerrigan; and have been quoted in The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Times (London), Hot Press magazine, The Daily Mirror and on The Vincent Browne Show. The Stinging Fly magazine has described Kevin as “likely the most widely read living poet in Ireland”. Kevin’s most recent poetry collection Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital was published by Salmon Poetry in June; one of the poems from which will feature in A Galway Epiphany, the final installment of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series of novels.