I used to be a close friend of the poet Kevin Higgins; I am not especially close to him anymore - by that, I mean, we haven't seen each other in three or four years, at least, don't speak on the phone, and rarely email, if ever - but of course have some facebook contact, now and then. I was very sorry when his mother died, and told him so. I mention this because, though I am fond of Kevin, and he wrote an introduction to a book of mine from his own publisher, Salmon, there isn't any literary back scratching going on these days, if ever there was any, between us. Things just drifted, as they do, as people in middle age become embroiled in their own days and ways.
I can write what I am about to say without fear of feeling compromised, or in any way, hindered. If anything, my own familiarity with the man and all his poems (I have met him on perhaps a dozen occasions, sometimes with his talented partner, on two continents, and in major cities like Paris, New York, London and Galway) enables me to say this, with something approaching certainty.
The Ghost in the Lobby, his fourth collection, just out now from Salmon Publishing, is a major work of Irish poetry - it is a masterpiece. Were it not for the very odd politics of place, publishers, and prizes, Higgins - who is, of course, highly regarded by many of his peers already - would by now be seen as the leading Irish poet of his generation, South of Dundalk, anyway. He is, in fact, a genius, much like Patrick Kavanagh was, despite and because of, his faults, regional influences, and personal vision.
Now, many poetry critics refrain from the word genius, because they mostly refrain from poetry criticism anyway. Instead, they shore up what is mostly boring, worthy and cautious work, unwilling to rock the boat and smash the emergency glass. Higgins is a genius, because he does something only great poets do: he writes with a voice that is entirely his own, in a style he has invented, about themes and concerns that now are instantly recognisable as his terrain. Compasses belong to John Donne, Boredom to Larkin, and Yew Trees to Plath. Post-Tiger Ireland and its drab attractions and failures belong to Higgins.
Higgins is often called a satirist, and a comic poet, because he is one of the only funny poets who has ever lived. I don't really laugh out loud at Muldoon, Billy Collins or even Paul Durcan. I chuckle. Higgins is funny like Wilde or Woody are: genuinely so, not merely literarily. Perhaps he is the funniest Irish political writer since Shaw. It is true, Higgins has a formula, where similes accrue, comparing absurd political moments in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia to mundane moments in Galway - but it is a formula I dare you to crack. It's mostly original to him.
On top of that aspect, the humour, there is the seriousness of moral vision - for Higgins has a message: the people fixated on politics are, pace Yeats, missing the smaller picture, which is the genuine one. All the sad posters and broadsheets from 1979 or 1983 never changed a thing. Marches have evaporated. The madmen in small rooms who plan the first against the wall are doomed to have their meals repeat on them. It is territory that seems poetically unlikely, but here is a whole book of more than 100 pages, exploring failed political missions, the cruelties of small-minded anti-abortion Ireland, and the way that love and cancer both happen despite, or because, of, the gurgling drain and the cracked window. Everything post-crisis, post-crash, is just a little sadder, but so is life sad, but also hugely vivid and worthy of anger, and reply.
Higgins is the master of unexpected and unwarranted mediation and reaction - like only the greatest poets, he sees things no one else imagined worth writing about, and makes them seem essential, and necessarily urgent. Once, this was a prostitute, or a snow-capped peak, or a girl on a bicycle, or a hawk in the rain, but now, for Higgins, it is about seeing into the monstrous ego of humanity, in all its maimed glory and pathos. He pokes fun at us like a doctor cures boils - with a needle we need, though it makes us wince.
Some critics demand levels of craft, form, and so-called seriousness that this new book may appear, on the surface, to lack - after all, Higgins is witty, but he is not experimental, or in fact particularly formalist - neither cerebral or anecdotally sentimental - he is not from Prynne's Cambridge, and he is not from Heaney's North. His tropes are new, dry as a bone after an acid bath; sharp as any surgery. He doesn't reach for the easily classical or shockingly Dadaist. He doesn't have to rest on laurels he didn't grow. He has that rare thing - a mind of his own. Perhaps he is closest to Orwell, another writer who was funny, and debunking, and totally original - a prose stylist whose style was pared down mightily.
Long after better celebrated Irish poets are dead and remaindered in the grave, someone somewhere will be reading Kevin Higgins. If he was a pop singer, these would be the lyrics of a generation. But he is not. He is a poet, so his audience is counted in hundreds, not thousands. But Ireland has a great writer in him, and should be proud. I haven't quoted here from the poems - order the book and see for yourself.