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Brian Higgins and the iniquity of his oblivion.

By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.

“THE INIQUITY OF OBLIVION blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity.” So wrote Sir Thomas Browne, a writer who has not had the full weight of said iniquity fall upon him and managed to remain partly in the light of literary remembrance. Those of us stricken with the vanity that we may be remembered after our death for our poems, novels, plays, paintings, songs or whatever, never find out, of course, though we know the odds are in favour of the poppy.

Such was the case with Brian Higgins (1930 – 1965), poet, mathematician, teacher, rugby player, freelance journalist and dole wallah. Higgins published three (hardback) collections, two of them during his very short life (The Only Need and Notes While Travelling), and one posthumously (The Northern Fiddler). His poems had appeared in reputable magazines and anthologies, including The Faber Book of Twentieth Century Verse, so he was not exactly an obscure scribbler while alive. His portrait was painted by Patrick Swift, one of the leading Irish artists of the day, and he knew many of the more successful writers of the period. This included George Barker, himself a permanently half-remembered poet, who wrote a foreword to The Northern Fiddler.

Despite his reputation as a difficult man, given to writing abusive letters to editors and publishers, and practising a dedicated form of dole scrounging that could be seen as pioneering for later generations, this was not extreme enough to match the likes of Dylan Thomas to ensure a parallel form of remembrance. It may be a reason that by the time I first encountered the poetry of Higgins, in the late 1960s, he did not figure at all in the general consciousness of poetry lovers, whereas Thomas still did.

That encounter came in my school library when I picked up a copy of Notes While Travelling, published in 1964. Something in its mixture of its intellectual, occasionally Audenesque language (“The first person singular repeats/Infinite series marching to one point…”) and self-mocking melancholy (“Sadly the world enters/…Enters and drops its hat on the floor.”) appealed to my own adolescent mentality. Phrases have stuck in my memory for fifty years, especially from “Analogy”, the penultimate poem, in which the poet imagines himself as a prisoner on death row: “Each morning they bring me THE CONDEMNED MAN’S BREKKER.” I still find the jauntiness of the capitals and the colloquial “brekker” amusing.

Higgins is happy to take shots at various types. In The Only Need, he goes for his fellow poets: “Reading my contemporaries, except for one or two,/I am struck by their precision and bored with what they do,” (“Reading My Contemporaries Except For One Or Two”); a sentiment that would be apt today. And in “The North”, a long poem, not one of his best, he lambastes his alma mater, Hull University, “the worst university in England/Peopled with foreman-lecturers jostling to get reviews in the Guardian.” I won’t say anything about either Hull or its university but note that the Humanities departments seem to have been stuffed with Guardian readers even then.

In contrast with the transience of poetic fame the reader can observe the permanent nature of the blurb. The inner sleeve of The Only Need expatiates thus:

Gaiety, intellectual toughness, a genuine and rare ability to think and write with originality about current social, political and aesthetic attitudes and problems are among the qualities which distinguish the work of Brian Higgins. Rejecting the frequent falsity, conventionality, even hypocrisy, of much contemporary writing, a positive and zestful enthusiasm is expressed in all he writes. His is a new voice in the world of poetry. The incisiveness of both thought and style which characterises his verse makes him an exciting discovery.

With a few tweaks that would fit every one of us who has published a slim volume of unacknowledged legislation. I recommend it to the College of Thieves and their publishers.

By the second book, things had moved on a little. This time Michael Hamburger has been collared for a quote: “These poems show Higgins to be an exceptional poet…he is wholly original, writing as though he were the first poet ever, just beginning to discover the world and language.”

Not bad but I bet it didn’t help sell any more copies. Well, by the time the third book came out Higgins had died of a “rare heart condition”. The unspecified rareness of that is like the rest of his life – vague and suggestive. The poems themselves are preoccupied with mortality, poetry and uncertainty, although he still manages to take a crack at the clerisy, in “A Scholar’s Obituary”:

His life was crime, his death a gaffe.
A footnote was his epitaph.

His coffin was narrow, his views were wide,
He didn’t live much – but he certainly died.

In all my decades I have not met a single person who has heard of Higgins, but someone out there has — and they’ve written a Wikipedia page for him, which is a memorial of a kind. You can still pick up copies of all three books from dealers or on the internet. And after the iniquity of oblivion has finished scattering her poppies over the rest of us I suppose that’s the best that can be hoped for.


suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.

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