How I avoided becoming a literary liberal or modern-day William Wordsworth

Kevin Higgins on his Thrills & Difficulties: Being A Marxist Poet in 21st-Century Ireland

This essay was my project for the ghastly first months of 2021. Unlike most of what I write, it was not written in one sprint but piecemeal, three or four hundred words at a time. Usually when it was dark outside.

During the lockdowns I found time to read a huge amount of literary theory. This essay is in part my small attempt to add to Marxist literary theory by using my no doubt idiosyncratic understanding of it to give recent developments in Irish poetry a fairly robust autopsy.

What does it mean to be a Marxist poet? It has nothing to with wanting to impose communism on the known world, though that sort of thing can be fun. 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.

It also means being prepared most of the time to be in a small minority in the literary world which, particularly in its power-wielding upper echelons, is dominated by liberals who broadly sympathise with the Barack Obama / Katherine Zappone / Eamon Ryan and his bicycle wing of things as they are.


To paraphrase Travis Bickle: I don’t hate these people, I just think they are silly. And that this silliness could, if the cards fall the wrong way over the next few years, lead us towards a postmodern version of the disaster that was the 1930s and early 1940s.

The essay is written in the polemical style I favour. It will annoy many. And I will view their annoyance as a compliment. It is also personal. Ultimately, it is the story of how I didn’t end up like William Wordsworth, though of course I haven’t ended yet. Wordsworth was a young enthusiast for the French Revolution – “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” – who in later years became a fossilised reactionary, even writing a pretty awful poem, Protest against the Ballot, in which old Willie declaimed his opposition to the Chartists and their crazy notion of giving working-class men the vote.

There has been much such turning of the coat by literary gentlemen down the past couple of centuries. Saul Bellow, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Conor Cruise O’Brien, John Dos Passos, Max Eastman, Robert Southey and John Osborne – to name just a clutch – all started out as radicals of one stripe or another and ending up as shrieking right-wingers who did things like vote for Nixon/Thatcher/Reagan, or support the ill-treatment by gardaí of republican suspects in the 1970s.

During the few years (about 2006-2013) during which I tried to believe that our existing political world set-up might be preferable to any alternative, I never went as far as that. But by 2010, it’s fair to say I was in some danger of becoming a sort of neoconservative. It got so bad that one of my poems was even praised by Tony Blair’s fan-boy biographer John Rentoul in the London Independent, another by Iraq War enthusiast Nick Cohen, who described my The Eternal Peace Activist as “a poem for our times”.

They were dark and terrible times. But a necessary learning curve for me, which I embarked on for what I still think were understandable reasons. So, yes, in many ways this essay is above all memoir. A much compressed version of the story of a poet who appeared to be abandoning his youthful Trotskyism for literary liberalism of the Cruise missile variety, but who was talked out of that apostasy by the sheer silliness and venality of your average common or Town Hall Theatre literary liberal.
For more about Thrills & Difficulties see here. Michelle Moloney King of Beir Bua Press will launch Thrills and Difficulties (in line with regulations) at Charlie Byrne's Bookshop, Middle Street, Galway on Wednesday, September 8th, at 6.30pm.