Placing dynamite under the whole system: Ciarán O’Rourke launches ‘Thrills & Difficulties: Being a Marxist Poet in 21st Century Ireland’

Thrills & Difficulties: Being a Marxist Poet in 21st Century Ireland by Kevin Higgins, Beir Bua Press 2021, was launched by Ciarán O’Rourke at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, Galway, Ireland on 8 September 2021

 It’s a delight to be able to join in the celebrations of Kevin Higgins’s stylish, urgent, and hell-raising new pamphlet tonight: in my experience, there’s nothing quite like it in the world of Irish poetry and literary criticism. If I were to distill down to a single element what I love, and what I believe is so necessary and unique, about Kevin’s work, it’s the wild and delicious ease (to be found in abundance in this pamphlet) in skewering the pieties of both the political and literary establishments: two formations which we’re often told are entirely separate, and have to kept this way, even as they become (in reality) more and more congealed into a single, somewhat monstrous entity.

Anyone who reads Kevin’s work, both in poetry and prose, will always come away with a much sharper, more ironic awareness of the very real crossover of those two zones, the political sphere and the literary scene. And this is certainly true of Thrills & Difficulties. In his research for this pamphlet, Kevin set himself the unenviable task of actually reading the various “Advice for Writers” sections on the websites of some of Ireland’s leading arts organisations. So in a sense he’s done us all yet one more favour: in that anyone here who might have been tempted to look for “Advice for Writers” from these State-funded institutions has now been spared that particular ordeal. Because, as Kevin shows, the unfortunate truth is that today in Ireland, from the top down, poets are actively encouraged to market and think of themselves as literary entrepreneurs: everything we say and do is supposed to be an exercise in building our own particular brand, re-packaging our conformity, and the largely banal details of our lives (poets, after all, are only people, like anyone else), as something that makes us worthy of instant publicity and endless patronage. Kevin does a beautiful job of placing dynamite under this whole system, and letting the grand ideological farce that it is explode before our eyes.

Certainly on the evidence of this pamphlet, I don’t think Kevin is going to be called a conformist any time soon. And I should say, in passing, that one of the many enjoyable aspects of this hybrid work (with its blend of memoir and Marxism, satire and literary criticism) is Kevin’s very much un-reverential and impious attitude to what might be called the formal Left, in Ireland and Britain. In other words, Kevin not only has had the audacity to insist on a better world (and better poetry within that world), but also has refused to fall into the very boring trap of regurgitating the party line. This is a valuable and rare quality.

We should probably face up to the fact that, in Ireland, poetry is in many respects a marginal activity. We would struggle, for example, to fill any of our national sports stadiums with hardcore poetry fans the once, whatever about matching the crowds that show up weekly, from every corner of the island, to show their support for county teams in GAA. But at the same time, we seem to reserve a great deal of reverence and cultural snobbery for the publishers of poetry. It’s as if the more money a publisher receives from the State, or the more ruthlessly market-driven a publisher is, the better the quality of the work that it publishes is presumed to be, which isn’t necessarily the case at all. And so, on that note, it’s reassuring to see a new, dynamic publisher (in the form of Beir Bua press) recognising the brilliance and originality of what Kevin is saying, and bringing it to life in book-form. So fair play to Beir Bua!

And what is Kevin saying? There is, of course, a spoiler alert attached here (as well as a more general content warning: readers may find themselves radicalised by Kevin’s work!). Well, here’s a taster (once again, a flavoursome combination of the thoroughly radical and inarguably sensible):

… what it really means is being someone who both interprets the world poetically and knows that if you don’t understand what capitalism is doing to humanity, and this planet we for now call ours, then you don’t really understand very much at all.

 To see this particular view of things expressed with such concision and style, such easy clarity, is inspiring.

The last point I’d like to make tonight, however, is partly a personal one. I’d like to emphasise that I think it’s typical of Kevin’s work, as both writer and grassroots organiser for the arts, that he expends so much time and attention in this pamphlet discussing and paying tribute to other poets. I was surprised, and then far too pleased with myself, to see some of my own poems mentioned alongside work by Dave Lordan, Ruth Quinlan, Rachel Coventry, Patrick Chapman, and others. The main point being that this gleeful, incisive, and inimitable essay is not just a glorious attack on the reigning assumptions of Ireland’s poetry scene, or an exposé of these, it’s also an act of generosity, and in more ways than one.

So without further ado I’ll read the poem of my own that Kevin mentions in the essay, called “The Revolutionist”, but not before saying thanks and congratulations to him (our very own “Revolutionist”). Following which, let the revelry begin!

The Revolutionist

And so I say the earth
is beautiful,

and belongs
like poetry or bread

to all of us,
who despite love’s

poisoned battleground
are believers still

in the pungent roots
that smell like tears,

in the streaming grain
of tomorrow’s skies,

in the billowing verb
of the blood we share –

we who have faced
the hungry future singing,

the earth belongs to all of us,
like poetry, like bread.

 – Ciarán O’Rourke

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Ciarán O’Rourke is a poet, based in Galway, Ireland. His first collection, The Buried Breath, was issued by Irish Pages Press in 2018 and highly commended by the Forward Foundation the following year. His miscellany of essays, One Big Union, was published in 2021, and his second poetry collection is forthcoming. More information about his work can be found at www.ragpickerpoetry.net/books.

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.Thrills & Difficulties: Being a Marxist Poet in 21st Century Ireland is available from https://beirbuapress.com/2021/08/02/thrills-and-difficulties-being-a-marxist-poet-in-21st-century-ireland-by-kevin-higgins/

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