Alexis Lykiard is a veteran poet, novelist and literary biographer whose iambic rhyming and blank verse, often in epigrammatic and/or sonnet form, has in many ways –along with the work of those such as Peter Sansom and W.N. Herbert– adumbrated such after-flowerings as Peter Branson’s; there are indeed stylistic similarities between the two poets, which is serendipitous considering I am reviewing both in succession, but the comparisons are more prosodic than tonal. Whereas Branson tends to the deftly metrical sculpted poetic miniature, Lykiard dialectical verse is inclined more towards the slightly looser line (not always strictly iambic), and sometimes the longer line too, in which to couch his phrases and aphorisms, a style which might be broadly described as ‘Audenesque’ –though it is not predominant– and which has the confidence of touch to accommodate rhythm and cadence alongside the occasionally more prose-inflected phrasing.
There is the chief difference in styles between the two, and for the purposes of Lykiard’s robustly polemical oeuvre, this slight de-regulation of figurative language is, in the main, complementary to a somewhat more political and less impressionistic timbre. In a sense, Lykiard’s is very much a dialectical materialist ‘Muse’, although his ideological allegiances are too organic for any easy categorising, and he is a distruster of all organised systems of thought and behaviour. Lykiard is of Greek extraction, having been born in Athens in 1940, thence removed with his parents to England in 1946 –hence his distinctive name (this formative transplanting of roots from Greece to the damper climes of England draws comparisons with C.P. Cavafy –and, receptive to this parallel, Lykiard pays homage to said poet in one of the poems in this collection).
Lykiard is a man of considerable accomplishment, not only in poetry and other literary genres, but also in academia, having been awarded the first Open English Scholarship from King’s College, Cambridge in 1957, when he was seventeen. He penned the Sixties teenage bestseller The Summer Ghosts; went on to translate Lautréamont, Artaud and Jarry; wrote two memoirs on the reclusive novelist of the Twenties and Thirties demimonde, Jean Rhys (who happens to be one of my favourite novelists), whom he knew personally, and has to date published fourteen poetry collections (the often striking covers of which can be viewed in an eye-catching collage at his personal website: www.alexislykiard.com). Lykiard’s succinctly political poems have been a staple feature of many poetry journals over the decades, and have appeared very regularly in the excellent left-wing journal The Penniless Press.
Lykiard has a special pedigree as one of the most outspoken poets of recent decades, especially in terms of satirising and criticising the distinctly apolitical and quotidian post-modernist ‘mainstream’ of what might also be coined ‘establishment poetics’ (e.g. that which often has a casualness of tone and plainness of expression almost indistinguishable from prose, which is often affectedly ‘ironic’, placing most emphasis on the aphoristic ‘epiphany’ often at the expense of cadence, lyricism, figurativeness, and broad adherence to recognisable poetic form, resulting, indeed, in what might be described as ‘columnised prose’), a robustly oppositional stance which of course precludes any poetic ‘honours’ (such as poetry prizes, radio slots or monopolies of space in newspaper supplements), and I certainly admire his sheer gusto in so openly poeticising his –bluntly, entirely justified– animus against the fashionable one-upmanship of today’s somewhat bloodless ‘mainstream’.
Lykiard spares no invective, though it’s almost always coated with a sharply satirical lacquer, and, combined as it is often is with rhyming or blank Augustan-style verse, bears obvious resemblance to Alexander Pope. In these senses Lykiard reminds one of the indefatigable and equally incendiary Leeds-born poet Barry Tebb (one of my first publishers), who was once given the sobriquet “the Dreaded Tebb” for his spirited and uncompromising poetic opposition to established trends in modern poetry. But whereas Tebb’s style is quite discursive, Lykiard’s is more formalist and metrical, and his versified invectives, as sharp and devastatingly precise as his prosody. For my own part, Lykiard’s frequently quite striking verses have served–alongside the work of some others– as something of a yardstick over the years, particularly in honing my own rubric of politicised poetry, so it’s a privilege now to be able to write a full review of Lykiard’s fifteenth volume, which, as with Branson’s Selected Poems, also collects together the poet’s output of the past twelve years (and, by some strange synchronicity, also covers the dates 2000-2012) divided up into five titled sections. Again, readers will forgive my chronological (in terms of page order) ploughing of Getting On; so we begin at the beginning, with the first section, Distances.
Whereas ‘Bransonian’ sonnets are almost always perfectly metrical blank verse, often in iambic pentameter, ‘Lykiardian’ sonnets tend to be often in iambic hexameter, also known as alexandrine, though they are slightly less precise in terms of iambic feet, which in no way detracts from their sense of rhythm; they also frequently adhere to some form of end-of-line rhyme pattern, albeit often irregular. The opening poem in this collection is one such sonnet, ‘Setting Out’, which, though not among the most striking of the book, at least sets the prosodic tone for the ensuing collection in sprightly and dextrous form. ‘Dutch Streets’ is a more interesting poem in both style and subject, made up of two sizeable numbered stanzas of irregular iambic blank verse with occasional end-of-line half-rhymes. The second verse is particularly impressive and displays at once Lykiard’s scalpel-sharp poetic precision and confident control of the line, again reminding me slightly of Auden, but much more so, in this poem, of Larkin, with whom Lykiard also shares most in common tonally (and possibly in terms of ‘poetic temperament’), while his ideological allegiances are more inclined to the former. Here is an excerpt from the second verse of ‘Dutch Streets’ –one notes the deft use of alliteration:
Why should these admirable sites appear unique,
and might they vanish soon? history’s quicklime would
efface most verbiage…
yet while little uplifts us, few artefacts last:
fabric falls to fragments, ruin perpetually;
language drifts back to the Babel of fabulous times…
Near water, pairs of footsteps ebb and flow, with
no trace left. Poor human imprints are transparent,
porous as brick, brief as remembered rhymes:
what price these classical ideas, that Golden Mean?
By giving the nice lie to cynical philosophy
a note from the resonant past can be heard.
Deep in the Museum of Egyptology,
here lies the 18th century figurine
of the God Bes, three-and-a-half thousand year
old, still going strong – “protector of music,
drunkenness and eroticism”. Just my kind
of mythic personality…
Perhaps because of his Greek roots, Lykiard’s oeuvre has a more Continental than ‘English’ flavour, not only in terms of subjects and themes, but also in a distinctly un-British intellectual tilt towards wanderlust and exploration of other cultures, particularly, of course, of the Mediterranean. This thematically peripatetic quality bespeaks flannel suits and sun-hats, and echoes past expatriate British poets and writers such as Laurence Durrell, Robert Graves and Bernard Spencer; while a palpable Epicureanism of sensibility (almost contradictorily combined with stoicism of politics, a kind of atheistic, flinty but not doctrinaire Marxism with a small ‘m’) and tendency towards the sexually visceral, reminds me, in philosophical terms, of D.H. Lawrence, even if in the prosodic sense Lykiard’s clipped versification could not be more different to the rangy muscular lines of Lawrence’s discursive free verse, more often than not a form of poetic prose.
‘A Pair of Kings’ is an historical vignette about the meeting of Freud and the composer Mahler in Vienna in August 1910 –it’s an example of Lykiard’s energetic engagement with language –here are some choicest snippets:
glum cuckold gripes from the great maestro Mahler
Muse to alpha males, groper of Gropius:
by narrow canals burgher, student and lover,
like Marlowe’s ‘perfect shadows’, shuffled off sad airs,
while these dark professorial foreigners criss-crossed
and mapped out awkward discords to avoid.
The phrase ‘groper of Gropius’ reads almost like a Classical scholar’s attempt at end-of-the-pier postcard sauciness; this denotes the distinctly tongue-in-cheek, even irreverent tilt of Lykiard towards the past and its most significant figures; though it’s not a disrespectful tilt, it simply emphasizes the human commonality of all people, whether cat or king, throughout history (the old ‘we all go to the toilet’ sort of tilt). This is particularly interesting as it flies in the face of Lykiard’s contrapuntal fascination with the mythic –no doubt a vestigial leaning from his Greek ancestry– though, admittedly, not with its mystifications through the ages, which he abrasively contravenes in his verse: Lykiard, like Lawrence, wants to get to the nuts and bolts of things, of bodily being, and, perhaps in some sense, transfigure the physical and material into its own mythology or religion (cue again Lawrence, and also, of course, Joyce).
‘Funeral Rights’ is a caustic piece on the ‘funeral trade’, or what might be called ‘thanatotic capitalism’, composed in slightly irregular iambics with a fairly scattered pattern of rhyme-endings, but also with the bonus of sprung rhymes –here’s an excerpt which for me demonstrates all these technical qualities, as well as the, as ever, visceral robustness of Lykiard’s distinctly earthy take on, well, all things earthly:
...or well-rewarded deals for bearers of each pall,
new styles of coffin, gags with every contract.
One obese old dear needed a bigger
gurney and with huge exertion was propelled
on her last journey down the ramp. The flames
sucked at their fatted freight, promptly exploding her;
great clouds of methane gas forced gasping workers back…
Rarely are such burning issues raised (no names
no packdrill); backstage, fire reigns in hungry rigour.
‘Filial Focus’ is a nice little lyric portrait of the post-impressionist painter Seurat as, in a room with his mother, ‘he sketches as she stitches’ –I confess Seurat’s mathematical pointillism leaves me somewhat cold, ingenious though his unique technique was, but nevertheless, Lykiard manages to intrigue the reader through a sensitively-wrought vignette. ‘Roll-Calls’ is an epigrammatic rhyming poem in two stanzas of five lines, succinct, and laconically Larkinesque, not only in its metrical precision and clipped aphoristic qualities, but also in its rather life-fatigued, faintly resigning tone; indeed, the first verse has definite echoes of Larkin’s ‘Aubade’, and one almost hears in it the line ‘Death is no easier whined at than withstood’:
By seventy, you check the obvious score,
and scan each fulsome Obit with far more
than empathic headshake, pedant’s eye,
or curious disbelief. Death is no lie –
a dismal truism the young don’t share…
How can they guess there’s never time to spare?
For many of us, farewells seem unfair,
mean threadbare stuff, patched up for some old bore:
good luck to those who know love, friends and fun,
fulfilling their brief lives with harm to none.
Again, I’m reminded of some of Larkin’s lines from ‘Aubade’ (for me, by far the Hull poet’s greatest poem) as to how thought of death harries us ‘when caught alone without friends or drink’. But Lykiard’s take on the ultimate of subjects, mortality, and its contemplation, bespeaks not so much Larkin’s thanatophobia, as a sanguine fatalism, but, crucially, one tempered by a deeply humanitarian, compassionate fortitude as to the ultimate purpose of life being to live with and for others as much as possible. Curiously for Lykiard, being an atheist, there’s none of Larkin’s muted rant about the ‘moth-eaten brocade’ of religion, that thing promulgated in order to convince us that ‘we do not have to die’. (‘Aubade’ was apparently only ever published in supplement form during Larkin’s life, and only ended up in book form for his posthumous 1998 Collected Poems (Faber), where I first read it –how ironically fitting, given its anticipatory theme, that the poem was embalmed in a bound book posthumously).
‘Roll-Calls’ is indisputably a veritable supplemental-style poem, and one can only presume the reason none of us has stumbled on it before in the likes of the TLS is quite simply because Lykiard’s reputation as a politically outspoken poet and polemicist on the contemporary poetry scene precedes him perhaps a little too conspicuously for the temperaments of establishment editors (in spite of their frequent though demonstrably flimsy pretence to be ‘open-minded’ and ‘inclusive’ of various styles and points of view). Such is the price, it seems, for poets who speak their minds precisely because so few other of their peers do; who refuse to sycophantically pander to the recognised ‘poet-pedagogues’ in hope of advancing their own careers, in what has been, for at least twenty years, a pitifully ‘un-opinionated’, dialectically redundant ‘mutual (de-)appreciation society’ of a contemporary poetry ‘scene’ (if ‘scene’ can really be applied to it). Suffice to say, a poem like ‘Roll-Calls’ would be far better suited to white-bordered space in the TLS, or the LRB, than the, bluntly, nerveless verse of celebrity ‘poets’ such as Clive James (whose conservative formalism of prosaic, metaphor-lite, rhyming, metrical light verse seems something of a spotlight-monopoly –who says ‘celebrity’ doesn’t serve as a passport to publication, even in spite of a style flying in the face of otherwise intransigent established trends? So much for meritocracy!).
“I Feel Like A New Man” is a curious poem juxtaposing two Newmans: Cardinal Newman, and the jazz trumpeter Joe Newman, Lykiard’s point being to –excuse the pun– ‘trumpet’ the latter as a greater agent of lasting ‘spirit’ (as in, artistic) than the Catholic theologian. One particular trope of two rhyming lines is particularly skilful and resonant:
Sainthood with hindsight’s pure whimsy, just count off the temporal riff;
endgame’s a fact, while corruption refutes any glorified If.
‘Last Letter to a Son’ is a touching poem, faintly Audenesque in style, with occasional sprung and end-of-line rhymes; here are some tropes I particularly like for their turn of phrase and subtle alliteration:
Tight-lipped, warped by regret, or still bestowing
a recriminative bitterness, exposing
old emotions best outworn. Curt valediction
also figured, gestures made to nudge or goad
a numb recipient’s reply, no matter what…
Nowadays, with age, I’m easier going, but
persist despite myself, am not a jot resigned.
I’ve struggled to present the awkward truth,
clear of resentment, cloying diction or soured
motherlove; tell instead dreams, things seen and done,
hopeful reflections. …
and though a few plain words won’t mean a thing,
freely or not composed, they seek to heal.
Responses growing out of silence help us sing…
“Sweets to the Sweet” (i.m. Gertrude Starink 1947-2002) is a strikingly phrased lyrical encomium to a passed-on friend, starting in an almost Rimbaudian flourish, with a wonderful use of ‘p’-alliteration:
O feed her poppy and mandragora and kindliest
of all, Queen Morphine. A kiss upon the brow
to ease departure…
Its ending is deeply touching without sounding at all sentimental –and again, this is captured by the focus on imagery rather than emotional overstatement:
…she floats, moonpale, moving away
from us, turning toward the sky, to find an end –
the pure impossibility, limitless sun.
The short metrical rhyming epigram ‘December Song’ is Lykiard’s caustic riposte to the contradictory age of what one might term the ‘solipsism of social media’. ‘Irreverent Reveries, or, A Quartet At Four’ (Lykiard is fond of puns, and deploys them well) is a richly descriptive two page poem in four randomly rhyming verses, depicting the poet unable to sleep, waking up in the early hours to the sound of rain and, perhaps inevitably, contemplating mortality:
The four a.m. wolf hangs back: these are the small hours,
petty and dull indeed. They mock my mislaid keys
to night’s elusive kingdom, slippery domain.
Oblivion’s not sudden now, half-asleep’s a tease.
Neither insomniac nor yet noctambulous,
I’m restless as they drum on roof and windows –
wild torrents not of spring but of midsummer.
The downpour must have all but drowned the tall
tomato plants, sprouting bamboo-propped in their tubs.
Rivulets surely overflow both rain-butts,
while all this water cascades down the gutters,
gushes out of course from the leaf-choked hopper
and scurries down one wall, splashing into the drain…
Stylistically and tonally this opening calls to mind the garden poems of Christopher Reid’s much-praised volume A Scattering (Arete) –the only difference between the two being a Costa Prize appended to the latter’s book of distinctly Faber-like cover design (no doubt a homage to ex-Faber editor Reid, who has recently had two sizeable volumes published by that prestigious press which once ‘employed’ him… Lykiard’s own ‘connections’ are distinctly more left-field and countercultural, and arguably all the better for it). The second ‘Irreverent’ verse is equally engrossing linguistically:
Naked the memories swarm, before they flee
from me that sometime teased this Greek, prompting
partial recall of assignations, footsteps,
whispered encounters, rhythms in the dark.
The song runs I can’t stand the rain, but that old tune
fades too, angst of Ann Peebles, best and blandest part
of an intrusive storm which wrecks each blissful silence.
The third verse closes on a roll of Larkin-esque aphoristic introspection, ending with a confidently loaded line:
…Consciousness remains. The bleary dawn
is so far unimaginable. One must wait in vain
until the first burst of the glorious clear chorus
spills from that bright, bedraggled, always dauntless throng.
The poem’s final lines more than justify its length, with an affectionate nod to 18th century metaphysical poet (and suicide) Thomas Lovell Beddoes, and his masterpiece, Death’s Jest Book:
What if one managed casually to fall asleep
at last never to wake? That sounds like the best jest,
perfectly simple exit, unobtrusive, neat,
in one’s own bed: to clinch the struggle and slip through
death’s inner door – a consummation keenly wished,
worthy of Beddoes, exquisite anatomist…
All the same, it’s no morbid notion, more a joke
which reassures or sets to rights the febrile mind
journeying feebly onward to the end of night.
Why strain to mark the fitful if intemperate rain
that skims life’s surface and like breath will not persist?
The title of the short lyric ‘Earning One’s Death’ is taken from an off-the-cuff phrase from author Jean Rhys (most famous for her deeply poetic prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the masterpiece in its own right, Wide Sargasso Sea –but she was also the author of other angst-ridden gems such as Good Morning, Midnight) in conversation with Lykiard, and the poem itself is a kind of encomium to the departed writer.
The second section is titled, Ovid-like, Games of Love and Language. ‘Games’ might indeed be the operative word here in that much of this section charts the perennial literary parlour games of poetry corrupted to a quixotic source of competitive one-upmanship and ego-amplification, even if a medium completely untouched by any actual market-appetite or ‘demand’ for competition (and, more often than not, ‘competition’ which tends to result in some of the less obviously gifted or imaginative exponents sweeping up much of the plaudits, supplemental space and, significantly, financial prizes –though, interestingly, more seldom decent reviews, except for the proverbial ‘damning with faint praise’).
Lykiard is as unabashed as the like-minded Barry Tebb –not to say also the often equally outspoken and robustly apostolic Michael Horovitz– in his verse invectives against the inexplicably self-satisfied and self-congratulatory British mainstream, albeit with a detectable tongue in his cheek at times, and enough ironic wit to soften his more scathing judgements –in fact, combined with frequently scatological imagery, some of Lykiard’s poem-polemics are distinctly Swiftian, having generally something of the visceral irreverence of eighteenth century lampoonery. Indeed, one wonders, with the first poem in this section, ‘Questions Time’, if it is an attack on literary critics who hide behind cryptic initials or a ‘brutal Anonym’ (to quote from the first line of the poem), or a satirical ventriloquism of the very type of died-in-the-wool poets-cum-critics of perceived prejudices and complacencies of their own ‘scene’, a vicarious spleen-venting through a hypothetical critic, with whom the interlocutor, Lykiard, feels more than a smidgen in common, in terms of the subject’s vast tapestry of targets. Whichever the interpretation, there is palpably something more than mere empathy charging these coursing, energetic lines of skilfully phrased aphorism. The piece is preceded by an un-typically capricious, tone-setting trope from John Clare’s ‘The Parish’: ‘Let those who merit what the verse declares/ Choose to be vexed and think the picture theirs’. Here are some choicest excerpts to give a flavour of this bravura piece of verse:
These brisk sarcastic retorts – there’s no need to resort to a shout –
are par for the broader intellectual course,
are part of a brazen, most unwelcome habit
of bracing LitCrit, underpinned by sharp impatience.
A presence of berate pretension, smug imaginings,
he’s here to deplore the current ambience –
and calmly, soberly, directs his own due rant
at whichever drab poetaster raises
his own fierce and horripilant hackles.
The phrase ‘smug imaginings’ is a great piece of alliteration, while the wonderful ‘horripilant’ would appear to be a neologism of Lykiard’s. This anonymous ‘critic’ is particularly indiscriminate, or rather, wide-ranging and eclectic, in his comprehensive sweeping aside of all types and stripes of contemporary poets and poetry:
Banality of Academe, mere self-regarding cant,
This also, absolutely, he dispraises.
Winners of Awards, Established Reputations,
the New Obscurantist Sensations,
bygones and Icons, National Treasures, Dim Young Things,
how few of them manage a poem that sings!
Which drooling ninny is fit to browse on Gert Stein’s tender button?
Strangers to genuine experiment, to ecstasy,
freeliving foes may flaunt The Drug Experience:
unfortunate lambs ripe for slaughter, while dressed up as wise mutton;
those too he fulminates against – clogged prose, limp lines and woolly brain.
Pouring scorn on the School of the Bleeding Heart,
he shows healthy contempt for Confessional Pain,
and dismisses such stuff with a belch or fart.
Somehow this ‘critic’ comes across as possessing almost universal animus, marking his own distinction through his macrocosmic dislike of almost every conceivable poetic style; but after all, most critics are natural born misanthropes –and something in the very anatomical imagery of Lykiard’s ventriloquised invective reminds me at times of the late epic blank verse-diatribes of John Davidson, such as his ‘The Crystal Palace’ and ‘The Triumph of Mammon’. The litany of this critic’s perceived scourges is truly impressive, and quite often disturbingly understandable:
He castigates too the neat Minimalist;
decries a threadbare bourgeois Domesticity;
Freud’s invoked, to poke fun at grim Miserabilist
whose cloying aches and pains ooze from a childish hoard.
New Righteousness is spurned, Gendered Self-Pity
that toils on woodenly prosaic chopping-board;
he lambasts as well trendy tweakers of daft feminiscule truth.
No litterateur escapes, not hallowed Age or callow Youth…
The neologism ‘feminiscule’ is a potentially toxic one, no doubt; again, one wonders just how much of Lykiard himself is invested in this personification of the macro-critic –whatever it is, is nothing to be apologetic for, given the truly patience-trying nature of our particularly narcissistic contemporary poetry culture (microcosm as it is of a desperately narcissistic broader culture), which, frankly, has a distinct knack at attracting frequently understandable opprobrium. Indeed, in the second section of this piece, the macro-criticisms go into even fuller tilt, with more specific subjects for criticism:
Cliques and claques he furiously abominates,
likewise the lame ducks of officialdom. And laureates,
Media-besotted Old- or New-Gen publicists,
the suited apparatchiks of the BBC,
Left or Right Message-Bawds, earnest Religionists,
tripe-mongers straight or gay, their hangers-on, old mates,
macho lad, jammy rat, piffling Postmodernist.
Re the Networker Careerist, he reserves the right to be
quite as politically stern or incorrect
as necessary – sensible, impeccably direct.
Impartiality imbues his hates;
he likes to rile the ranks of his half-baked antagonists:
the precious Clever-Clogs who go out of their way
circuitously to confound all honest sentiment
as they confuse plain truth with truism, inert cliché;
the Rag-and-Bone Creeps, clad in outdated styles;
colourless Collagists of yesteryear; trite Rappers of today.
He knocks those Nerds, aficionados of the second-hand,
Tricked out in worthy Oxfam, or less worthy Oxbridge, gear;
Slick Plagiarists; Recyclers of junk and throwaway ironies;
Clones and pathetic Clowns; Performance Poseurs
Pretentious self-congratulatory sniggerers,
Pseuds and Prize Winners – smartarse figurers
in the dull, barrel-scraping likes of Poetry Review’s
Top Hundred, or a Colour Supplement’s ‘Best Ever’ Lists.
But who’s omitted? Who next to abuse?
The spite –whether justified or not– of this mystery-critic is truly prolific and Lykiard conveys it with real linguistic gusto –as in the third verse:
Satire’s the only apt response these days, he purrs,
since one must loathe each philistine – the toff or prole
alike – and worse, the tight-arse
middle-classes, blinkered and blank and apathetically content.
PR should be despised, he warns – genteel mendacity, third-rate
detritus of the times: smug propaganda and bad faith…
Poets turn nervous now at readings: in disguise,
he aims his lethal shafts, flighted with craft and expertise;
Then a telling slip of impartiality from Lykiard with the following trope –and quite fair enough:
these comments brim with justice, bring keen pleasure and surprise
to other verbal terrorists… Today the smartarse brash Young Man
In Vogue is targeted. A drivelling Teacher-dullard’s next.
then an avuncular Eccentric, flourishing fusty text.
Insecure versifiers desperately seek
to spot, anticipate and ambush him. They never can…
At times during this poem I keep speculating as to whom this shadowy ‘critic’ actually is, assuming he is based on one in particular and not some composite amalgam of a plurality of critics –were it not for the fact that many of his caustic remarks about contemporary poetic complacency strike chords with many of my own critical perceptions, I’d have suspected that, in terms of boundless surplus of spleen and acidic curtness of phraseology, Lykiard was depicting a certain notoriously scathing, initialled ‘critic’ who holds kangaroo-court on the back of a certain weekly national supplement…! But too many of the views expressed here seem, frankly, too apposite and discerning for the particular candidate I had in mind. But, unlike said acrimonious acronym, I leave the possibility that I could be wrong. Talking of which, Lykiard then begins to probe deeper into the Teflon-coated critic’s own closeted skeletons:
How about the dreaded Heckler-Critic though?
What’s his own whispered weakness, his dark history?
What seedy CV secret should we all make haste to know?
The mystery remains, crimped as it is in conveniently enigmatic initials… This poem closes on an exceptionally well-composed, aphoristic six-line rhyming ‘Coda’, which I quote in full:
Good critics? Well might you enquire! There’s a New Millennial lack.
Wyndham Lewis, Leavis, Grigson: does the memory call them back?
With Roy Fuller, Enright, Empson, could they rally to attack
Our increasing stacks of balderdash, this century’s bric-à-brac?
Should we ignore, or acknowledge, a ghostly shadow on blue plaque?
Are true, irascible talents required to keep Poets on track?
‘A Knightly Afternoon’ is a verse-vignette about the poet addressing the Tennyson Society at the picturesque setting of Tintagel in Cornwall, where, in spite of archaeological chronology long-since established, the locals still manage to make a reasonable living out of local tourism by touting the hugely impressive but much later-dated remains of the town’s cliff-top castle as those of the legendary Camelot, court of King Arthur (which, as with the pool from which Excalibur was allegedly raised by the Lady of the Lake, has a habit of cropping up, rubble-like, in various other locations, in Wales, and across the Channel, in Brittany –though anyone who has ever visited the eerily still and treeless Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall will no doubt have felt something of the ancient Celtic mysteries about the timeless and desolate place). This poem is quite Larkin-esque in form, anecdotal but also didactic in places, beginning:
I’m booked to extol minor Victorian verse,
addressing members of the Tennyson
Society, gravely assembled at Tintagel –
the venue Camelot Castle, huge hotel.
This grey late 19th century folly squats
with proudest Gothic weight on the steep cliff-
edge. Is owned, they say, by scientologists;
looks grandiose enough for any cult,
boasting, what’s more, its very own Round Table
rather handcraftily installed in one
high-raftered hall – a truly curious wonder!
(In a footnote at the back of the book, Lykiard relates how his ‘disingenuous father’ knew L. Ron Hubbard, formulator of Dianetics, and was, for a time, an adherent to Scientology himself). This is, in case you haven’t noticed already, a somewhat sarcastic poem, but wittily so. Here’s some more from the third stanza:
From them I turn to celebrate the Reverend
R.S. Hawker, vicar of Morwenstow
so many years ago. His mini-epic,
a few of whose footnoted pages I’ve
artfully edited, I’ll read aloud.
I sip some water, rise to my feet, embark
emboldened on The Quest of The Sangraal.
Thirty-odd in the audience, mainly women,
Tennyson relatives and academics,
Arthurians for the most part, clearly clued-up.
Such the attentive group one needs must entertain,
if not convince…
Hawker’s imperilled knights
Relay their song of wandering without fail.
Blank verse to rival the revered old Laureate’s
Idylls tightens the line and buoys the music up,
Keeps its momentum….
‘Radio Fun’ is composed in looser and longer lines than most of the poems up to this point; it has something of the earlier Surrealist poems of W.H. Auden about it, or David Gascoyne, particularly in tropes such as ‘that deeper audible lode reveals an absurdist grin’. Lykiard is never short of tantalising aphorisms, even if they are themselves scalloped around ones by other authors, as in the beautifully alliterative line: “The rest is silence’, hints alternative history’ –the incorporated quote being Hamlet’s last words in the eponymous Shakespearean tragedy. Bouncing on its buoyant alliteration and sibilance is the fourth and final stanza of the poem, worth quoting in full for its Audenesque phrasal confidence:
Whenever set or mindset’s on the ball, the boil, the blink,
Dreamers approved the creative babble, those eccentric visions
Overloading the digital gig, word warfare relayed fancy-free.
Sceptics, though, hear too much – not conundrum nor wireless elisions,
But bland propaganda brought home, trails of grandiose vacancy…
‘Weekly Reviewers’ is another caustic little epigram –here it is in full:
The latest Art these hail or damn, while relishing stale work:
each critic’s lot is paradox, emergent from the murk.
Some insects whine insistent, through frenzy drawn to light;
irritant horse-flies manifest a dull obsessive spite
and keep on sizzling busily but are best pleased by shite.
Lykiard, like Larkin before him, doesn’t mince his words. There’s similar acerbity in Lykiard’s tongue-in-cheek swipe at a printer introducing ‘new typos’ to the proofs of one of his ‘Slimmest of volumes’ in ‘An Embattled Book’.
In ‘Mysteries of Missouri’, Lykiard turns his attention to two iconic avant-garde experimental writers who both happened to hail from St. Louis, Missouri: ‘T. Stearns Eliot’ and ‘W. Seward Burroughs’, as Lykiard chooses to call them at the start of the poem –both were to achieve considerable posterities as being fairly seminal in their fields, Eliot for his trend-setting High Modernist poetry (most famously, his masterpiece The Waste Land), and Burroughs (alongside the likes of fellow Beatniks Allen Howl Ginsberg and Jack On The Road Kerouac) for his visceral stream-of-consciousness prose, most famously The Naked Lunch. Lykiard’s own take on these two avant-garde literary figures is distinctly circumspect, not to say fairly sceptical as to the real merits of their highly revered oeuvres –though Eliot’s is arguably by far the most revered of the two. Lykiard is generally a formalistic poet, and certainly one of the most accomplished currently writing, and so one supposes his detectably lukewarm feelings towards these two more ‘experimental’ writers is in part down to his vastly different prosodic temperament; however, Lykiard is also a highly versatile poet, and is more than equipped to choose to compose in freer verse forms as and when he feels the inclination. Perhaps it’s fitting that –probably partly as a means to slightly mock his two subjects– in this poem Lykiard writes in a broadly free verse form, even at one point rather irreverently opting for a self-consciously tenuous enjambment:
Thus one might rearrange, annex and
playfully rejig quite a bit of Lit-
erature and Art in general,
chop sui generis material –
But this is another poem in which Lykiard demonstrates a skilful tilt towards faintly Surrealistic aphorisms and turns of phrase, which remind me again of early Auden, or Gascoyne –this from the first stanza:
Wellbred Wasps turned into revered highflyers
Yanks turned out like Anglo-Gents
and yet they were a weirdly priestly pair
running their dry-toned modernist routines
with keen if raffish elegance…
And from the second stanza:
Ancient Possum and
El Hombre Invisible
What both heard
was eloquence stirring beyond themselves
a mischievous multiplicity of voices
intimations of futility
what both had
were newest means
of collage, shuffling of crowded echoes
into a mortal dread with sly or mordant wit.
Certainly the term ‘collage’ perfectly applies to the esoteric scalloping of images, metaphors and allusions, which are in part what gave Eliot’s The Waste Land its mesmerising brocaded effect of multi-layered meanings and subtexts –qualities which still today mark it out as such a pivotal and distinctive Modernist achievement, since some of its most captivating aspects are, almost contrary to the pared-down Puritanism of much Modernism, more a kind of abstracted baroque, cerebral rococo, or, again, linguistic and imagistic ‘collage’. For me, the key to Eliot’s ‘greatness’ in verse is the fact that his (early) tilt towards experiment, particularly in tone, never lost touch with the essential musicality of poetry –whereas, arguably, many of his self-proclaimed stylistic ancestors have, confusing the progressive directive of ‘modernist’ poetics with a drive towards austereness, sparseness of expression, and in some cases, almost-mathematically arid minimalism. Lykiard plays much on feline imagery when speaking of Eliot and his densely ‘allusive’ oeuvre –thus, himself, alluding to Eliot’s own Possum’s Book of Practical Cats:
Allusive texts ranging from the bland to the grand –
and make a mark with feline claws
scratching at strange, decipherable hieroglyphs.
Often these scattered geneses appeared original,
their timely novelty urgent enough for us
to explicate, unravel, seek to comprehend.
Indeed, one might argue that, in –admittedly rather offbeat– parallel to the later groundbreaking decadal dominance of The Beatles in the Sixties, Eliot’s particular ‘genius’ was serendipitously placed at a time of cultural flux and upheaval (in his case, the war-traumatised, anomic and desperately pleasure-seeking ‘Roaring Twenties’), during which ‘something’ or ‘someone’ would inevitably crop up to supremely encompass the ‘vibe’ of the time, and, in turn, define that entire ‘moment’; for the new ‘godless’ Modernist era, that ‘something’ was The Waste Land (almost a contrapuntal poetic riposte to James Joyce’s simultaneously published prose-explosion, Ulysses –which ironically Eliot himself had, reluctantly, turned down at Fabers, prior to Joyce finding a publisher in Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare & Co., Paris), and that ‘someone’ was Eliot; in the Sixties, those ‘someones’ were The Beatles, and by 1967, cultural zenith of the decade, that ‘something’ was Sgt. Pepper.
Of course, subsequently Joyce’s own magnum opus would also be seen to have been both decade- and genre-defining; but at the time the vast stream-of-consciousness epic was, perhaps inescapably, misunderstood in its significance, except by a small circle of writers and intellectuals who noted its astonishing accomplishments. While The Waste Land was, almost par for the course with such convention-breaking works, ignorantly drubbed by those mainstream supplements peculiarly predisposed to impatiently and wilfully misunderstanding anything of any obvious and striking originality at any given time (the Times Literary Supplement in particular set to work with one of its customarily punctual hatchet jobs on Eliot’s audacious experiment, laconically commenting that it had ‘nothing to do with poetry’), its significance was more widely recognised and its influence more readily reflected in the wider literary community of its time than Joyce’s was. Funnily enough, no doubt regretting having turned Ulysses down himself as an editor at Faber, Eliot later wrote in The Dial what would become perhaps the greatest encomium for Joyce’s masterwork, given that it issued from one of the very few contemporary writers of his extraordinary calibre:
I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape… The next generation is responsible for its own soul; a man of genius is responsible to his peers, not to a studio full of uneducated and undisciplined coxcombs.
There, then, it is crystal clear the effect that Ulysses had on Eliot and his own subsequent work (in a similar sense to his earlier valediction to the undervalued oeuvre of ‘Yellow Nineties’ poet John Davidson, whose brilliant ‘Thirty Bob a Week’ Eliot cited as one of the poems that had most influenced his own urban-bound (specifically London-focused) imagistic verse, particularly his borrowing from Davidson’s pioneering use of mock-Kiplingesque ‘cockney’ vernacular (from said poem) in what is perhaps the most accomplished section of The Waste Land, the ‘HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME’ gossip-monologue of ‘The Fire Sermon’.
But to return to Lykiard’s ‘Mysteries of Missouri’: the fourth stanza once more provides some bravura alliterative effects:
All of which gives lesser scriveners pause,
lessons via tough survivals, distant lives. And so,
how far must would-be magi of the World still go
on ageless patient journeys, to renew and reinvent
those rows of lines along each revelatory page?
Furrows on faces long bespectacled
bespeak the urge for visionary order, how
to attain or earn some enviable end…
Here Lykiard brilliantly captures the perennial post-Eliot Modernist ‘mission impossible’ (which is of course a contrapuntal affliction in the post-Joycean prose world): to somehow, and probably impossibly, progress beyond the astonishing ambition and almost inhumanly chthonic efficacy of The Waste Land. Can it be done? Has it already been done and we just haven’t recognised in which work yet, or by whom? Or can it simply not be done; at least, not in the same sort of way? Some scholars might argue that David Jones’ In Parenthesis (published 1937) pointed a further way forward from Eliot’s hinterlands; others might even cite Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (1954) as a kind of lyrical afterglow, and certainly its own influence and significance have been fairly extraordinary; others, too, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1955).
But Lykiard hits the nub of the almost impossible ambition of post-Eliotic Modernist poetry, and his own opinion seems to be that there is no way to further traumatise the tectonics of Modernist poetics beyond that vital verse-rupture of 1922. Moreover, for Lykiard, The Waste Land was in itself something of a poetic pyrrhic victory, in that it debatably devastated future poetry by its sheer anarchic and apocalyptic Obscurantism. More to the point, by Eliot’s masterwork being arguably significantly ahead of its time in many ways, it also introduced something of a perpetual and implacable ‘temporal paradox’ into the very tectonics of Modernism –as with the movement’s own self-defeating name– in that almost anything composed since The Waste Land still seems as if, at certain levels, it’s trying to ‘catch it up’: Eliot outmoded Modernism itself, and when it was still relatively in its infancy –how more ‘modern’ can Modernism be in the future when its still-unchallenged apogee is now dustily historical, and long-archived over 80 years ago?
To Lykiard, the rest, inevitably, is either the best-intended pretensions of diehard Modernist poets to somehow replicate Eliot’s masterwork, with something resembling a kind of Waste Land II –or the bloodless circumambulation of anti-intellectual postmodernism, most of which is, ultimately, simply a much less decorative and musical Georgianism, a kind of adulterated-milk version with all the luscious cream skimmed off it:
Discuss: handfuls of dust stored in Hellenic urns;
sift through the poetry of Place; review belief
systems, fine verbal variants. From such minutiae
we may glean next to nothing, news from nowhere.
Life simply gets more difficult, pondering how
best to appreciate these aristos – past masters of what’s now
an ever-spreading acreage, wastepaperland…
There Lykiard strikes the seam again: The Waste Land is now long past and crumpled to the very bone-dry fossils of its blasted image-scape; so here he ingeniously depicts the scorched-earth of Modernist poetics left in its long-shadowed wake as, paradoxically, amounting to its own form of wasteland, an ‘ever-spreading acreage’, or ‘wastepaperland’, as Lykiard wittily puts it. This is a fine literarily themed poem which offers some refreshing and invigorating tilts to long-asked questions in relation to post-Eliotic Modernist poetry, even if its own conclusions are, in the end, as ostensibly nihilistic at Eliot’s own instincts on other subjects.
Lykiard shows short shrift for journalese, and linguistic and grammatical laziness in general, as in the deftly iambic ‘Spelling Things Out’:
Misuse and common errors, after not too long
are quietly overlooked, almost extenuated.
Acceptance creeps in blindly: what can knowledge do
when PR players bray with such sublime aplomb?
Perhaps inescapably, Greek-born Lykiard pays homage to the great Anglo-Greek Modernist poet C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933), in ‘A Lifetime After Cavafy’, which poignantly dwells on the posterity, or rather, ‘after shelf-life’ of the hugely influential Alexandrian –and in this sense, continues from the temporal paradoxes of ‘Mysteries of Missouri’. Lykiard here places the posthumous Cavafy among the papyri of ancient sources which inspired much of his highly erudite and culturally rich poetry:
…Some trace of coda, touch of sublime
truth (the poetic brackets closed) lingered and clung to his person:
he lay within History. Deceased now, described, part of time.
The past he so quirkily chose, examined. Beads of amber flicked
by his long fingers. Recounted, the brightest moments lived again,
Cigarettes lit. A studious parsimony required each
to be snipped in half. Ephemeral fragments, none remain.
Depicted here as the inveterate poet-and-smoker so typical of past practice –and something of an unconscious mortality-courting literary tradition kept up today by an ever-thinning lineage– Cavafy eventually died of throat cancer, as Lykiard alludes:
…If irony’s work resists time,
One’s taken to task, or tortured, by process of common sense.
Thus cancer caught him by the throat, to leave him speech
-less through the last months. …
Lykiard’s lyrical crystallisation of Cavafy’s lasting influence is beautifully evoked through descriptions of the poet’s past haunts in Alexandria, while the tone is almost mystical, Swedenborgian even, in its hints of earthly life being mere shadow of the truer and richer reality to come in the spirit realms:
Still they meet, melt quivering in heat-haze; shadow flirts with silence.
The various apartments he dwelt in, fleetingly beautiful forms
of the echo realm, the flyblown café life, those distant dynasties,
well, everything must be recaptured – sovereignty of flesh
built on the Logos, vaporous. The poems leave their paper trail,
tell of a teasing constancy, the faintest phrase and cadence
always wittily angled, imprinted against the void.
That ending is particularly defiant –even if flecked with Nietzschean futility.
Lykiard is, as is already evident, very much a lexicographical poet (in the theoretical, not practical, sense), and in the rather acerbic ‘Two For the Ex’, he makes much word-play with semantics and etymology through which to express his reflective perspectives on a past partner –here’s an example from ‘Pounds of Flesh’: ‘She cooked up for those trueblue, blasé Courts/ a frightful dish of offal – olid olio of orts’. The brio of Lykiard’s cosmopolitan vocabulary is particularly marked in that latter assonantal trope, which, in contemporary parlance, translates roughly as ‘foul-smelling hodgepodge (or mixture/mishmash) of scraps’. Ending the first deftly rhyming verse (of 1/1/2/2/2/3/2/3 rhyme scheme) with ‘this plump upholder of the rights of greed’, one might conclude that the poet doesn’t hold particularly fond regards for his ‘ex’, in this instance. In the second piece, titled ‘Epigram for E.’, there is nice use of sprung half-rhyme, and an aphoristic precision of phrase which has a sculpted quality to it:
Eons (or Aeons) too late, I’ve hit upon this
word from the Greek expressing one long-gone fix:
it’s fit for poet-sawbones: Beddoes, perhaps Keats.
I believe ‘sawbones’ is a slightly antiquated informal term for a ‘surgeon’.
The Audenesque ‘Languages of Romance’ takes as its theme that perennial phenomenon –never more apparent than today– of ‘reputational’ one-upmanship, something which, unfortunately, perhaps most of us are slightly guilty of at times; but a highly questionable and unattractive attitudinal behaviour when it becomes habitual, not to say even an engrained part of the behavioural fabric of, in this instance, the poetry scene. So here Lykiard justifiably takes some swipes at the poet-careerists of our contemporary culture, or those whom one might term ‘pinstripe poets’. But, indeed, as previously admitted, so meagre are the rewards for poets –at least, in any concrete or truly sustainable worldly senses– that it is perhaps in part inescapable that a large part of their aspirations are attached to achieving some sense of renown for their work, or even the phantom scent of future posterity, and hence are concentrated in the amplification of their own ‘poet-hood’ –the struggle for ‘recognition’ and ‘significance’ which, in both organic and inorganic senses, oils the ego.
There is also the proverbial revenant ‘old man in a hurry’, too; and most poets, even when still young in actual age, are almost temperamentally ‘old’ and ‘in a hurry’ from the very outset of their insecure careers (in part the product of poets’ overt sensitivity to time and mortality), only ameliorated, temporarily, by the verse-investiture of that proverbial ‘first slim volume’; or the mortal fore-glimpse of posthumous monument in seeing one’s name engraved on a book-spine –poets being psychical pharaohs, rather morbidly addicted to frequently visiting their own future tombs. So in this poem Lykiard demonstrates some empathy towards some of those poets in middling years who think and hope they have finally hit upon their somewhat belated ‘moment’ in the poetry spotlight, while later being slightly more admonishing in his approach to those who allow their impulsions to run away with them to the point of almost emasculating their actual poetic output to fit with current fashions and attitudes, simply so they can pass onto the next level of the ‘mainstream’ supplemental plateau. Both coat-tail trippers and careerists, which Lykiard criticises, have ever had their enthusiasts and equivalents in the circles of literary scholarship and criticism, as reflected in their critical opinions –a target John Middleton Murry had firmly in his sights in one particularly apposite paragraph of his The Problem of Style (OUP, 1922), which might be applied to the present day’s post-modernist poetic and critical trends of deconstructive reductionism, far more so than the then-modernist context of its grievance (a paragraph I happened to come upon only the other day, ironically):
Or again, the unaccented style (‘style’ in our second sense) proper to a lucid expression of intellectual argument, innocent of all distracting metaphor, with the plastic and emotional suggestion of the words reduced to a minimum, will be considered an excellence in a writer whose chief function is to give the illusion of life. This is one of the most glaring of the false sophistications prevalent in what we may call superior criticism to-day. A flat style is supposed to have some aristocratic virtue of its own, no matter to what subject-matter it is applied; to be vivid, on the other hand, is to be vulgar. That is pure heresy, and those writers who, through some deficiency in their own creative vitality or some fear of the contempt of the superior person, embrace it, must inevitably become parochial. They will enjoy a languid sequence of success d’estime in their lives and be quietly forgotten after their deaths.
(God knows what Middleton Murry would have made of the Sixties onwards in British poetry –or most of all, of the ultimate distillation of his prosodic Bête noire in the post-modernist mainstream poetry scene of the 90s to now!). Here are some choicest excerpts –and note Lykiard’s scholarly use of occasional French and Latin phrases (one of which I elucidate in brackets), indicative of the more classical nature of his generation’s educations:
Illusive and empurpled patch
it’s situated squarely where
defiant foreign bodies strut or languish, barely
aware of how they’re rated – their sad mission
the fond pursuit of the old ignus fatuus (ed: will-o'-the-wisp, or ‘fairy lights’)
flitting through manufactured scenes
past reinvented selves in endless repetition.
The phrase ‘empurpled patch’ is a nice Lawrentian play on the phrase ‘purple patch’, which basically means a time in someone’s life when everything comes together and they mark out some distinction in a certain field. The next excerpt has a distinctly Larkinesque tone and sound it:
...tall tales are apt, life a ramshackle game at best,
but here’s the vast void of ego-consciousness,
that seeks by all means not to draw the line.
by lies, by-lines, misuse of metaphor,
they entertain or bore, entrance a few,
and meanwhile prance and strut and grovel
until removed from public view,
each exit pitiful, exposed at last, cast out of smallscreen hovel,
Again, there’s also a real echo of Auden’s Thirties’ oeuvre here, both in style, confident extension of occasional line in order to cradle an extended phrase, and also in its rather Thirties-ish preoccupation with the Caudwellian paradigm of Illusion and Reality, falseness and authenticity, and the ontologically neurotic (though no less incisive for being so) perception that in some sense ‘life’ in a capitalist society is akin to acting or pretending, in faintly unreal surroundings resembling more flat-backed frontages –a la capitalism’s ubiquitous advertising hoardings– like those of a film set. As the poem winds to its close, we hit its nub, as Lykiard’s tone and locution become more directly rhetorical:
…So what became
of valid action, daring word and deed,
the valiant challenge, true outspokenness?
And, to assume there was once such a nothing,
what ever happened to that really
hard-fought simulacrum, well-earned fame?
Here, again, a Thirties-ish sensibility comes to the fore, both in the meta-language of ‘falseness’ and unreality in the use of the word ‘simulacrum’ (likeness), and with the emphasis on that decade’s all-defining quandary of literature and action/poetry and politics; and there is almost a faintly detectable recapitulation, in distinctly Lykardian phrasing, of Auden’s resonating trope regards how poetry might contribute more directly to culture by ‘making action urgent and its nature clear’ in those first three lines above. And if any contemporary poet has the right to ask what has happened to poetic ‘outspokenness’ –other than Barry Tebb perhaps– it is Alexis Lykiard, who is valiantly ‘outspoken’ in his exceptionally polemical poetry.
A final note on this last part of the poem is as to whether it is deliberate that Lykiard produces the line ‘to assume there was once such a nothing’…? One wonders whether this might have originally been ‘such a thing’ and the no- prefix happened serendipitously…? Whatever, it makes for a more beguiling and ambiguous phrase.
‘Oh, A Poem’ is another exercise in word-play, this time self-consciously on the assonance of the ‘o’-sound, the hollowness of which is wholly appropriate for the type of poetry-by-numbers produced by so many supplemental poets today –it begins:
Older Athenian poets
obstinately abhor piffle,
obscurity and pretension.
Oracles, administrators, proliferate –
obsequious, ambitious, persuasively
ousting any principles…
…otiose academics, poseurs.
Only adore perfection,
orchestrate attractive polyrhythms,
offer a poem,
order another pint!
[Note: I would have personally preferred it to end on the penultimate line].
‘A Festschrift’, titled after the academic term for a collection of writings by various authors paying tribute to a scholar (in this context, presumably, a literary scholar, or literary critic), is a tour de force verse-invective composed in hypnotic rhyming couplets –again Lykiard pulls no punches in his stripping down of the ‘character-on-paper’ of what appears to be a proverbial breed of acid-tongued ‘critic’, nay ‘hatchet-man’, whom the poet alludes to in the dedication of the poem in what is presumably an anagrammatic moniker, ‘Prof. R. Buggin-Stern’, in which one can detect the word ‘bugger’ (a la Dylan Thomas’s famous jumbled-up name for the village in Under Milk Wood: ‘Llareggub’, ‘bugger all’ spelt backwards). I excerpt what for me are some of the most exceptionally composed tropes in the slightly lengthier poem:
O leaden pedant, an unyielding Ode
is the best notice you are owed:
no other form of homage should accrue
to cretinizers such as you.
…A Bronx cheer
might well greet the egregious footnote-maker
who retails stalest gossip – low-high-table-talk
to fit emetic hearsay or hermetic lie…
What a squalling malevolent magpie,
repulsive puffed-up puffin, squat small auk!
[One notes that the term ‘stalest’ is a part anagram of ‘latest’, which is naturally associated with ‘gossip’].
Respond, you sad youth-hater, untruth-seeker,
time- and self-server, corrupt text-tweaker:
must rarefied thinking involve drinking slime
before those like yourself can sell Art’s Paradigm?
While always well-housed, wined and fed,
arch-parasites like you feast on the dead,
parade opinionated orts, ill-quoted knowledge,
to narrow minds confined within your College.
[It is a contentious though arguable transfiguration of the nature of a ‘literary scholar/critic’ as to depict them as a kind of parasite on the buckram-bound hides of the posthumous; even more so, to then come up with the following, even more disturbing analogy:]
Objectionable Eng. Lit. necrophile,
you play ghoul at post mortems, filled with bile,
then – shameless spouter of the latest jargon –
show off, a fake Authority on this or that…
So you present yourself as priceless bargain,
stool-Scholar readily available for hire,
the pundit semi-literate editors require.
A space-filling long piece? A ‘specialized review’
for this dull broadsheet, that pretentious journal?
Therein the precious, self-styled expert you
still claim to be, picks over pith or kernel.
but never no meat on dem dry bones,
whether or not dished up in those affected tones
of yours – braying and class-betraying tones!
Perhaps the most powerful trope of all is:
Sit tight, cunning old leech.
Let’s hear them speechify, pontificate:
Sly relic, you were born to be a tenured bore,
Drier than dust, the deadest metaphor.
Now that’s a poetic putdown! I almost feel a bit sorry for the target of this poem, but at the same time, am also inclined to think, ‘don’t dish out what you can’t take back’ –and clearly, to have inspired such vitriol as is in these verses, the subject must indeed have fairly formidable ‘form’ as a literary drubber. Lykiard punches straight in the solar plexus of the egoistically insecure literary critic, forever harrowed by the thought that, unlike many of the writers they ‘criticise’, whether constructively or not, they themselves are unlikely to attain any comparable posterity: ‘none, in the years ahead, would willingly read you’. The poem closes thus:
Vanish then, petty vampire, dismal creeping thesis,
Spewer of spite in vile yet verbose prose:
Oblivion’s pit awaits you, vile Hackademic!
‘Ten Ways of Coping With the Dentist’ (a part titular nod to Wallace Stevens' 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird') shows Lykiard in more whimsical mood, even if the subject is mundanely painful –but the spit and rinse of mandible-misery is lightened throughout by choicest literary puns and pastiches; even some lines from Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ are given the root-canal treatment of dental metaphors. But amid all the lightness there are some almost sublime flourishes, as in verse 3, which also demonstrates a dextrous rhyme structure not predominant of the entire poem:
Reason goes haywire, churns a tender curse.
‘My mind’s not right’, complained
Cal Lowell, cracked Bostonian bard.
but if his teeth were wrong, the fact explained
so many private things quite hard
to swallow in his more self-pitying verse.
Or, in verse 7:
Everyone will confess to anything
anyone will confess to everything
we all howl we all sing
how soon reduced to gibbering.
But the ultimate dark wit of the poem steals the limelight –as in verse 4:
My torturer burbles about
the many suicides within his own
profession. If I could, I’d shout
how frequent such things are in mine!
Who’d ever have thought of comparing dentistry to poetry in terms of associated suicide statistics? (The more disgruntled as to current poetic trends might also extend the metaphor by arguing that, like dentistry, much modern poetry also inflicts pain on others!).
The final poem in this section, ‘Luck of the London Irish’, is another richly phrased, lounging Audenesque verse, replete with semi-regular rhyme-endings, some sprung-rhyme, and a flexible though detectable iambic beat –it depicts Lykiard’s youthful memories of the Fifties, and his formative meditations on the beery, smoky, hand-to-mouth lifestyles of some of the poets and writers of that time, in this case, even of those fortunate enough to secure occasional freelance spots on radio –here are some choicest excerpts:
Third Programme pay meant spirits rose that night.
Convivial radio evening. So in grandest style
they grace the BBC’s best-favoured hostelry,
placed quite conveniently beside the studios.
Your puzzled music-makers – none too sober men
whose eloquence mocked logic…
they reel on, elegant MacNiece, wild Behan, two
true jokers. Until awestruck glances meet –
Dominic singing, Louis silent. No more rant
while silhouette looms spectral, drifts up front,
heads northward, is like them soon lost. Great Portland Street
Turning to the third section of this collection, tantalisingly titled Art and Politics, we stop first at the writers’, poets’ and philosophers’ graveyards in Berlin (a place I also visited years ago and wrote of in a poem entitled, strangely enough with Lykiardian punning, ‘Absolute Berliners’), in ‘Uneasy Jet Set’, composed in loosely rhymed verse with some occasional long-lounging Audenesque lines. The poem-letter, or verse-missive, begins by greeting its two addressees: ‘Dear friends, Editor Dent and Comrade Clay’ –these are shorthand sobriquets for Alan Dent and Ken Clay, co-editors of the excellent socialist poetry and polemical journal/webzine/imprint, The Penniless Press –which I regard in many ways as an elder cousin to The Recusant– to which Lykiard is a veteran poet-contributor. Lykiard’s attempt to poeticise, through description, the poignantly quiet and contemplative graveyard of past Germanic luminaries, besieged as it is on all sides by the uninspiring builders’ debris of a capital city seemingly forever undergoing new urban development, is quite amusing in some ways, and his sense of aesthetic disgruntlement is palpable:
Checked out the street plan: Chausseestrasse, in the former East,
is a wide, windswept unappealing thoroughfare
with pavements, we are told once scuffed by pimp and whore.
I strolled past 125, and missed the massive door,
since scaffolding concealed its grimed façade.
This admission by Lykiard as to the less-than-inspiring remnants of austere and impersonal Communist town planning reminds me of Ken Worpole’s conviction that –to paraphrase– Socialism has not yet accomplished a satisfactory or sufficiently attractive form of architecture through which to effectively reflect its best cultural ambitions (Staying Close To the River, Lawrence & Wishart, 1995; and the very broad and seemingly endless Modernist ‘Roman road’ of Chaussessstrasse truly is an existentially trying avenue to walk down, as I recall from my brief visit to the East Side of Berlin). Allusions to famous past literary Berliners abound, such as ‘the Commie beast’, and the ‘cigar-smoking genius Bert. B’ (Brecht); there are also some nice poetic descriptions, especially as the poet enters the graveyard, which he appears to have stumbled on somewhat serendipitously:
…into winter sun
which seemed too weak for shadows. Headstones, dark brown, grey
simply incised and grouped in the adjacent graveyard,
near a brick wall, prompted our awed surprise. One
didn’t expect such names amid that bourgeois stuff –
grand soot-black mausoleums, solid statuary,
the family tombs built high and heavy to impress.
Then Lykiard reverently surveys the mossy names of the posthumous:
Berliners ensemble lay here, tucked in, modestly enough:
Brecht alongside Weigel, the first pair on the left,
positioned rightly so. Hanns Eisler, Paul Dessau
close by – if not unsung, their music silenced now.
then, longer-lived, another famous Mann,
Heinerich, author of Die Blaue Engel – or
he who begat ‘Professor Unrath’. (The real rat
was Emil Jannings, wrote Mann’s nephew Klaus.)
But Brecht himself could play the artful louse
at times, pleading poetic licence; so is that
cause to hit the booze? Next down, Herbert Marcuse,
whose books were Sixties fodder…
beside these plain and plainly left-wing plots
is placed the plaque and grave of ‘Anna Seghers’,
best-seller once, quite celebrated in the East…
The quiet enclave constitutes a democratic space
where artists, profiteers, bourgeois and beggars
might meet as equals, suitably displaced;
we left their austere patch in evanescent sun….
But Lykiard is not by any means purely a poet of antiquity and nostalgia; he is also very much an epicurean poet at heart, a poet who immerses himself in life and being and experience, which is also reflected in his peripatetic themes, his wide-travelling (no doubt always restless in some sense due to his formative transplanting from his native roots in Greece), and in these senses reminds me –as I’ve mentioned before– of past flannel-suited ex-pat poets, such as Robert Graves, Lawrence Durrell and Bernard Spencer. Lykiard’s sense of life-affirmation and vitality tilts into this initially memorialising poem as if to carpe diem towards the close of the poem, coming unexpectedly after perhaps the most mournful trope:
in fact we were relieved to be alive not dead,
knowing that nothing lasts, flowers wilt and works remain undone.
P.S. The Fascist catch-phrase ‘Better dead than Red’
was often jocularly parroted.
One sober, cheerier line of thought instead
inspires me to conclude this airborne letter:
it’s life itself, my friends, dear life that’s better!
P.P.S. Belated missive to enunciate
some fugitive reflections well before
they fly off into limbo’s corridor.
(Four years ago or more – forget the date.)
Indeed, that last line in its way reads as if wilfully flying in the face of reflection and remembrance by dismissing the importance of recalling a precise date to the verse-letter.
‘Orders Old and New’ is one of Lykiard’s many signature rhyming epigrams –which are almost always bitingly polemical– to which I’ve become accustomed over years of browsing various journals they’ve appeared in; this one, a much-needed republican cri de Coeur for our ermine-fawning times, deserves quoting in full:
While malcontent philosophers may guardedly observe
the poor in other countries ruled by despots none deserve,
careerist politicians here – most servile or corrupt –
still now and scrape to Royalty no scandal can disrupt.
Enthralled, the masses play braindead. Class proves ‘a learning curve’
for subjects, never citizens. All dread the price of change
and thus uphold a system with rich pickings: it’s not strange,
this reverence for privilege our governors preserve.
More contentious still is ‘MCs – For Mercenary Colonials’, which takes as its subject the ‘Gurkha debacle’ of Gordon Brown’s twilight premiership, when retired servicemen from the famously loyal and ferocious British-raised regiment from Nepal-Gorkhaland (where the root noun Gorkha derives) were rather shoddily denied full military pensions and/or the right to settle permanently in the UK. It might not surprise us that Lykiard’s personal take on this issue flies in the face of broad public opinion of the time (from both right and left of the political spectrum), and has something of the devout pacifism of those such as Tony Benn, or John Pilger) –though sentiments with which I certainly sympathise to some extent, even if a small part of me nurses a very slight, ingrained respect for the more self-sacrificial aspects to the services, attitudinal casualty of coming from a fairly long military family line (my father was a Royal Marine for ten years when he was younger, his half-brother was a Royal Marine officer in the Second World War, their father, a Northumberland Hussar in the First World War, and my mother’s father fought in North Africa in the Buffs during the Second, etc.).
Nevertheless, Lykiard’s epigrammatic dialectic does pose some understandable questions about military expectations of civil society’s expressions of respect and gratitude, which, fairly scathing though it is, is quite a brave statement to make at a period of such high patriotism and, particularly, reverence towards the armed forces (cue the until-recently regular ceremonial rituals through Wootton Bassett). I quote from the alliteratively and sibilantly striking fifth line, to the end:
Plucky stars of every distant battle circus
needn’t repine for further bounty or rewards,
apart from gratitude the Commonwealth affords.
Strange attitudes may tarnish military workers…
don’t medals suffice? What else rattled those Gurkhas?
Some of those more sympathetic to the armed forces may indeed find the last rhetorical trope a little difficult to stomach, particularly with regards to the Gurkhas, essentially Britain’s last colonial native regiment, fiercely –and some would say, inexplicably– loyal to our country and Queen, and among the most highly decorated of all of our regiments (and not only at the level of the ‘Military Cross’ –Lykiard’s ‘MC’ reference: twenty-six Victoria Crosses, the very highest medal for bravery, have been awarded to Gurkhas in just over a century, between 1858 and 1965). One feels that in this particular poem, Lykiard is fundamentally disinterested in the military, except for when he might write about it in order to make a broader ideological point about society, as he does here; in this sense, there is something of the robust but at the same time slightly sweeping rhetoric of John Pilger. But poetry is certainly a better place for such controversial verse.
More widely supported are Lykiard’s views in ‘Rus in Urbe’ (dated ‘Autumn 2009’), which tackles various contemporary scandals and perceived offences to democratic mandate, such as the deeply unpopular and seemingly futile military interventionism in Afghanistan. A humanist, Lykiard tends to take a ‘live and let live’ world view –albeit one also, perhaps slightly contradictorily, inflected with something of a ‘revolutionary zeal’, though one much more Lawrentian than Marxian (i.e. more in terms of ‘individual revolution’ through self-transformation, and the encouragement of the primary human inheritance of being ‘the moral animal’ –a secular humanism arguably originating in religious thought– than anything strictly political or macro-material; and in any case, mass organisation and mobilisation of any systems of thought are anathemas to Lykiard, his being inherently distrustful of any ‘dogmatic systems’ of thought). This poem starts off almost in tonal homage to the late Ted Hughes:
Out in our narrow garden by the stream
a squirrel scuttles through dark yellow
foliage, scurrying headfirst down the old oak bole.
But then tilts from the pastoral into the high-octane vicissitudes of recent political history, where a polemical tone seeps in:
Unease seeps from the radio,
a droning drawl to warn Security is tight,
but where that was I didn’t twig at first.
(Pakistan’s apparently worst place to go.)
The spectacle’s continuous – dimly partial show.
Meanwhile some more financial fiddlers try
to justify themselves, bankers, MPs:
Who Dares, Spins. Cute deception is a public curse,
disease of sorts, grinning duplicity whose sole
aim’s propaganda for some scam or fiscal scheme.
One catch-phrase to be honest gets it glibly right,
since lies breed simple folk who swallow War
On Terror. The poor in spirit thus proliferate,
become mere nuisances, prey to the brutish State
whose neat pretence of meaning well hides tight control.
Lykiard is an atheist, and so spares little vitriol for organised religion:
Be wary also, of each suave religionist
who smartly claims to save a credulous soul
from Hell, and shuns plain logic, and plays down harsh Fate,
consoles through Faith, promising worlds elsewhere, less grey.
All creatures though, must meet their Great Anatomist.
There’s a hint of Larkin’s short shrift for gentrified belief systems in that piece of verse. Finally, Lykiard takes again to his epicurean perspective (albeit one also tinctured with a slight stoicism), mining solace in the seam of the moment:
Doomed species or damned sceptics, let’s enjoy today
at any rate… I go on watching squirrels, note
that nuts this year are not in short supply.
‘Secondhand’, a poem contemplating the rather limited posterity –if that’s not an oxymoron– of most poets as names on piled-up spines of bedside books (it was Keats who famously juxtaposed ‘Sleep and Poetry’, of course), has some of the wistfulness of the meditations of contemporary poet Norman Buller, but, quite typically for Lykiard, the overall tone is fairly optimistic in terms of the lasting value of verse:
Here’s Nazim Hikmet, with Milosz and Guillevic,
three welcome bookshop finds, substantial, thick –
review copies, parked upon crowded shelves unread,
but now residing stacked beside my bed.
Dead poets often do survive, of course:
their brand of quizzical humanity defends
the free spirit while the work upholds, transcends
language and culture; they oppose regimes
that would dilute or dissipate our dreams.
A writer’s style and stance may for a time persist,
stay purely classless, unclassifiable,
even in exile…
Again, one also notes Lykiard’s disdain for organised belief systems, whether religious or political:
This despite rigidities
imposed by servants of the status quo
(bureaucrat, propagandist) whose timidities
or bluster serve to bolster some crass tyrannies.
Such livres de chevet summon legends chanced upon,
whose verities can soon enchant and seem
[The French phrase livres de chevet translates as ‘bedside books’]. ‘Tracey’s Taking Off’ (dated October 2009) is a much-welcome poem-swipe at the barely talented yet inexplicably lauded, trendily ‘seedy’, narcissistic, Tory-supporting conceptual ‘artist’ Tracey Emin, product of the Stuckist (or rather, ‘Stuck-in-a-Rutist’) school of artless, shock-tactic installations. The poem begins by paying tribute to past true exiles:
...the conscience-gnawed whom ideology impels –
genuine artists tired of guarding backs
from ridicule or populist attacks.
There were the witchhunt victims, sad exiles,
beleaguered refugees, enduring hate
together with the tortured and the desperate
flotsam of war, fleeing official spite,
migrants in dread of State hostilities.
Such folk weren’t grandiose and self-important; these
had to abandon roots and loves, reluctantly.
Lykiard then juxtaposes them with the eponymous contemporary fake equivalent, whose self-serving vacuity pales in comparison to their self-sacrifices:
The latest exiles simply evade tax,
betray themselves in boasting shamelessly –
departing arrivistes who now claim sympathy.
Emin, as media bad girl and mean-minded Star,
is free to take off where she fancies, near or far.
But living art mistrusts both gain and loss:
a brilliant fraud will fade. Then what price dross?
‘21st Century Bohemians’ begins with a laconic quote from fin de siècle social novelist George Gissing – “Anybody who encourages any young man or woman to look for his living to literature commits no less than a crime”– which gives a flavour of the poem to come: something that might have been composed by Gissing’s idealistic, commercially doomed novelist (and alter-ego…?) Edwin Reardon in the hugely engaging New Grub Street (1891):
While all the wild young writers always burned
to cut through clichés, seeing Art despised,
their allies remained few, since unabated
the full fat clouds of cliquish jargon floated,
invariably illiterate, ill-advised.
Art turned to fashionable commerce, rated best
as disposable product, self-interest
feeding a personal Myth, a public Face.
No would-be makers should have been surprised
if indigence soon cramped their ideal space.
And Lykiard takes a swipe at the creatively compromising careerist writers of the literary world, as represented in New Grub Street by the opportunistic and unscrupulous writer-cum-supplemental-hack, Jasper Milvain, antithesis to and nemesis of the struggling Reardon:
Struggle and starve, or else scoff and sell out,
with polar opposites seldom in doubt
and slogans prevalent – say Greed Is Good.
How to survive, to work well where one could?
New nomads sniffed that freezing air and shivered.
As you will observe, this is another bravura rhyming verse by Lykiard. In a similar vein, ‘PLR Check’ is a candid authorial lament on the disproportionately small material returns from high poetic output:
The more books the more writers publish every year
the less income comes in, as calculated here.
Proliferate yet be short-changed – the problem now applies
across the scribbling board quite equally. In my own sphere,
seventy titles earn me peanuts, feed one grim idea:
for every scribe who registers, scores more will soon appear,
to share fast-growing angst. …
authors know industry and indigence go hand in hand.
Borrowers, not of books but cash, increase. And libraries?
Their funding cut, they sell up stock, close down. …
‘Richard Yates (1926-1992)’ is an encomium to the eponymous late American novelist, which begins, in rhyming flexible iambic:
“Self-deception, disappointment and grief”.
The New York Times lead Obit. summed things up.
What else are lives and works about? No doubts? Belief
in oneself through isolate strife – that bitter cup?
‘A Rural Hostelry in the 1960s’ is a kind of Beatnik pastiche, centred on the page –here it is in full:
Good craic, local colour, most frank his opinion:
“Steer clear of Tim Leary,
be leery of Ginsberg,
Yankees the both, whether junkie or Jew,
and after the arse for to screw up the brains,
they’d fancy the pants off me mare or yer ewe!”
So reckoned one Irishman – Guinnessy-beery,
red cheeks rather dappled with purplish veins –
in an inn that was stoutly, undoubtedly Fenian,
by the darkening shore of Lough Derg.
(Another strange coincidence that here Lykiard, like Branson, also uses the colloquialism 'craic'). The fourth section of this volume is entitled, tantalisingly, Poets Cornered. We kick off with ‘Beware Paparazzi!’, a craftily sarcastic title given its subjects: avant-garde poet J.H. Prynne, and his apparently tireless critical champion, Robert Potts, current managing editor of the inscrutable Times Literary Supplement, and a former editor of Poetry Review. But the title plays impishly on a supplemental item, which is quoted after the title: ‘“The Sunday Times had no trouble snatching an impertinent photo of him cycling down the street a few weeks ago…” [Robert Potts on ‘the famously obscure poet Jeremy Prynne’, The Guardian, April 2004]’. It’s perhaps no surprise that Lykiard has little truck with anything approaching highfalutin Obscurantism in poetry –the poem has some of the biting qualities of Barry Tebb’s verse invectives:
Professor Prynne receives, at length, the fulsome praise
of explication, broadsheet prose. He is reviewed
with fitting, baffled awe. Prynne’s hard to understand.
Cutting-edge stuff. And avant-garde. It can’t be panned
lightly. So what’s with his staunch acolyte, R. Potts?
Ah, Potts, pretension and obscurity in Academe
are often deemed ‘significant’, not viewed as traps!
Critics may lap up sourly intellectual cream,
fool a few poet-readers for some time perhaps.
‘Dumbing-down’ is derided. An acute malaise
recycles dictionaries skimmed in better days:
so consciousness runs dry and silts its own quick stream.
Due space is always found for peddling of a pseud…
Po-faced effusions from odd toadies, Doctor Potts,
puff up each poetaster: there of course are lots
whose self-importance swells, great with ingrowing praise.
Prynne is as nice, bright as R. Potts, for all I know,
but Lit. Crit. should enlighten, sharp and sure – not slow
to prune endangered Poetry before it rots.
(I also like what I suspect to be a play on the oft-used and oft-pejorative term ‘mainstream’ at the end of the second stanza). But even more ‘Tebb-esque’ is the following poem, ‘As In Dull’, in which Lykiard makes no bones about his opinion on a contemporary prize-winning poet, Louise Glück, whose surname is truly perilous in the hands of a less-than-enamoured rhyming poet:
‘Flow Bare was Ur reek loose’.
Grim stuff in flattest New World Poet-Voice,
while not dead-airtime, clogs the BBC.
Its toneless owner clucks as if home free,
and comes on like a faintly silly goose.
Reclusive Flaubert, more gregarious Joyce,
felt saintly lust for words, yet took great care
lest best intentions be construed foursquare.
Critics work hard still to pronounce in vain
upon such gems, choices reviewed again…
‘A Winsome Woman’, subtitled ‘or, La Belle Dame Sans Souci’, takes aim at the more affectedly prurient, ‘sexed-up’ aspects to contemporary poetry, via a public reading by an apparently rather coquettish young voice –this verse drives itself on lengthy rhyming lines:
Hackneyed verse so pregnantly voiced betrays unending confidence.
She’s attractive and keen enough to charm her captive audience
of mainly female hangers-on. They’re egregiously vain, alike,
and fidget impatient and wait their own turn at the Open Mic.
After the cod hesitation and the insignificant pause
come chronicles, most scurrilous, all angling for scanty applause.
The performer tries to decide: her lovelife must surely enthrall;
within a fancy blue folder she starts to forage, simpering.
[And then a perhaps inevitable parody of Keats’s cited ballad:]
(A hapless drone lies drained and prone, alone and palely whimpering…)
While she reckons Win some, lose some, alert critics know Less is more:
the slow water-torture of readings drives commonsense out of the door.
Next up for the Lykiardian treatment is ex-poet laureate, Andrew Motion, who at least had the humility to publicly admit that he suffered frequent bouts of ‘poet’s block’ while his creative juices, far from being fermented, stultified in that frigid, inspiration-sapping office –but in his punning ‘Motions Past’, subtitled almost in Gillray & Rowlandson-style lampoon, ‘or, Literary Litter’, Lykiard is resolute in his criticisms, closing with an impish half-pun on ‘blank verse’:
Dog-mess and nice Princess Di proved bathetically miserable themes
for dismal excretion, sad stuff, descents to rhetorical slime.
What if the singular, demanding Muse thus seems
disposed to thwart poor Laureates of wettest dreams?
The blankest occasional verse courts banality every time.
Next up for satirical stick, though, detectably, with a spice of affection and respect, is self-described “anti-capitalist” Australian poet John Kinsella (who, alongside Alice Oswald, commendably bowed out from a recent T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist due to objecting to the Arts Council-disinvested Poetry Book Society, which facilitates it, taking up sponsorship from a private hedge fund company), in ‘Down Under and Up Above’:
Stealing the thunder on R3
bold John Kinsella, digger don,
showed listeners to the BBC
so Poms might hear and ponder on
that brainfund ransacked to discuss
Ned Kelly’s band and banditry.
Let’s hand it to the swagman, he
brandished one word to menace us –
‘Revaluations In The Poet’s Pub’ is a longer, loosely rhyming verse continuing in the vein of this section with its sustained disdain for careerist poets and/or those perceived to have compromised their initially ‘radical’ promise by gradually melting into the opportunity-honeycombed establishments. The targets for criticism are all rather cryptically depicted without being named, except for the last:
Our cheerful group debates the ‘worst Poetic Crime’,
bent on linking
offender and sad lines, as hindsight often shows
how some dead poetaster ended second-rate.
The bubbles in the glass keep winking,
threaten to spill into most splendid rhyme,
enrich us, help us laugh at penury we chose.
Each vows, mock-serious, to sing and praise perfection,
shun the hour of karaoke, chase perception
until the bland finale – unforgiving Close
of Play. Forget good work, if keen to cultivate
contacts, sell out, or flatter for a fee.
Careerists all betray their slender gifts. You name
one such who compromised the sacred flame,
was duly celebrated, soon and late.
Born charmer, lovely chap, too smooth to hate –
how fortunate the fellow-travelling apostate
should end up safely Faberized, Possum’s old mate!
Thus did a disingenuous, well-connected creep
engender verse whose very bathos might seem deep.
Tall story man or Thirties schoolboy-pretender?
Banal white knight of the soul, Sir Stephen Spender
was a talent surrendered to Caesar, one long lifetime
spent in thinking
“continually of those
who were truly great.”
Last in this section is ‘The Biters Bit’, composed in four rhyming tercets, which focuses on those often thorny, emotionally –even physically– violent but as often productive poet-nuptials, and deserves quoting in full:
Muse and poet alike get bitten, each is not
always love-drunk. Smiter or smitten cries So what
game do you play – Demon-Bard or Dangerous Sot?
Smart fought with Barker, found the nerve to give him lip –
forty stitches – still, theirs was a full lifetime trip,
The End never signalled. Moustache disguised that nip…
Plath promised fervour, first meeting and biting Hughes
over booze. Which showed cheek enough, having him choose
poetry’s bitter route, sharp blood-gift none refuse.
Rebellion, provocation, short or long lives – tales
dryly retold by scholars of wild furies, injured males,
whose parlous squabbles endure. Good old squalor never fails.
The somewhat ‘masochistic’ quartet of poet-couples under Lykiard’s microscope are of course George Barker and Elizabeth Smart (whose celebrated 1945 novel, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, was based on her long affair with Barker, which produced four of his fifteen children, but was never sealed in marriage), and Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath; and as Lykiard mentions in his Notes for this poem, he ‘knew and admired three of the four writers in question’.
The fifth and final section in this collection is titled Chip Wrappers, paraphrasing ‘a 1988 verdict passed on my poetry by that jocularly moralistic arbiter The Sun… : “much of it is so filthy you wouldn’t want to wrap your chips in it”’. The appropriately titled ‘Matters of Taste’ is another poem made up of irregularly rhyming tercets, this time eleven in all; its target for opprobrium is the more complementary medicine-end of today’s rapacious pharmaceutical industry, in particular, those numerous aphrodisiacs and ‘miracle cures’ –often touted with the hyperbolic evangelicalism of 18th century travelling quackery– offered for such maladies as ‘erectile dysfunction’, along with all the advertising bumf that comes with it. Here are some snippets from this infectiously punning poem:
Here be pills and herbal remedies, liverish all sorts, panacea,
buff-envelope guff, gratuitous, fresh from the Channel Isles,
morning cures for erectile dysfunction, put on a par with piles.
Encountered within plain covers – coy economy? honest truth? –
are restoratives flogged for the jaded and cures for faded youth,
that promise to cleanse the colon or swiftly to dry out diarrhoea.
Old codgers with dodgy prostates, erratically spilling their seed,
are also pledged satisfaction, achieved through the aid of junk mail
that comes on crude erotic waves, a flood of ecstatic spunk. Male
orderers are reassured – anonymity guaranteed,
proof of the sender’s discretion and duly respected. But guys,
these ads bear truly glad tidings! (Most miracle aids must be lies,
fanciful claims boosting gizmos whose mysteries urge wild surmise).
Far from a prurient poet, Lykiard is, however, no shrinking violet when it comes to depictions of sex, going more for the explicit approach than Lawrentian fruit metaphors (see the latter’s ‘Figs’, for instance), but still with a brilliant attention to the use of language –it’s a poetic approach which might be a little too piquantly spiced for more prudent palates (the duplicitous Sun included, whose columnists presumably believe their own page 3’s perpetual preoccupation with mammary glands is choreographed with all the sublime grace of Botticellian nudes…?!):
A squirt from a can’s all you need: while aerosols don’t preclude Soul,
they invigorate sluggish loins. By applying a splash of Erexin®
prior to inserting the member – a ‘thicker and harder!’ sex in
the requisite bullseye desired, whatever the chosen hole –
each user is sure to attain long-lasting delight. ‘Simply spray
Erexin® direct on the organs, commencing without delay!’
‘Clinical trials have proven’ enhancement of sexual play
upon spraying this grand, brand-new nostrum. (Viagra’s so yesterday!)
‘A delicious sensation’ is promised for ‘your partner’s private parts
(more precisely, on her clitoris)’ since it’s ‘Perfect for women too!’
One need hardly practise or know any arcane amatory arts,
when cunning use of a spraycan means fucking fulfilment for two.
Ask not whether application across the whole sexual turf
renders less pleasant, for instance, the tried-and-tested soixante-neuf,
and dampens such trusty pleasures, above and below the waist,
discouraging oral explorers numbed by some synthetic taste.
Abandon quim-nibbling quibbles, cock-gobbler stuff, flippant queries,
Erexin® dispels primal fears, attests to the latest theories:
the product’s a great orgasmic opportunity none should waste.
Doubting John Thomases, BUY NOW, with utmost unseemliest haste!
[The French phrase soixante-neuf means ‘sexual position’]. In ‘Enda Gut, Alles Gut’, Lykiard, as previously mentioned, an atheist and distruster of all organised religions, takes aim at the Roman Catholic Church; in particular, its alleged attempts to cover up what seems to have been something of a paedophile epidemic among its priesthood over several decades –most contentiously of all, the papal expedient of ‘relocating’ culpable priests, rather than defrocking them (though, as alluded to in this polemical swipe of a poem, its justifiable bile is aimed at the papacy of the former Pope Benedict, aka Joseph Ratzinger, so pre-dates what many Catholics hope will be a far more transparent and compassionate period for the Vatican under the distinctly egalitarian Pope Francis, aka Argentinian-born Jorge Mario Bergoglio –and I’d truly be intrigued to read a Lykiardian take on him). Here are the closing five lines:
Absolve those black and blatant misdeeds if you can,
smooth pillar of the church-cum-saintly businessman.
Back to your German boss (that arch-prevaricator), go!
Bad faith’s grim emblem and the poor child’s foe:
good riddance to the Papal Nuncio!
The cryptic ‘Victoriana’ is an impishly composed piece, wherein Lykiard forms one end-of-line near-rhyme by one of his occasional prosodic signatures of mid-word enjambment:
John Addington Symonds
described the guilty ‘Classical’ yearnings
of those he dubbed Urnings.
Then this handsome scholarly invert
became fully aware how for him and s-
ome others, the male form of Sin hurt.
There follow two translated sonnets, dated 1881, by nineteenth century ‘Decadent’ French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans –both are under the umbrella title, ‘A Couple From J-K. Huysmans’. Both pieces appeared to be structured in something resembling blank verse (i.e. un-rhyming) Petrarchan/Italian sonnet forms. Huysmans is perhaps most famed for his highly controversial 1884 novel, À rebours (Against the Grain or Against Nature or Wrong Way), which gained further notoriety as having been cited as an example of “sodomitical” literature by the prosecutor in the trial of Oscar Wilde some eleven years after its first publication. In-keeping with the aforementioned subject is a depiction of what used to be termed, with a certain vulgarity, ‘sodomy’, in the accomplishedly composed ‘Masculine Sonnet’, which is undoubtedly the most visceral and explicitly phrased of all the poems in this collection:
Curtains all sullied with a tosser’s snotty slime
Hung about the bed. – Full of water a bidet
Lay in waiting. The old guy entered – put his gift,
Five francs, in a zinc mug – and the bumboy
Turning his back proffered his buttocks’ curves,
Love’s demijohns, for cork of client’s cock.
With grease a great aid, he was quickly fucked
Inside that fleshy vault where odours reek
Of saltpetre and shit: this prick kept slipping out,
Frantic, between his fingers! After long effort
It plumbed the innards of that yawning hole
And anus, spitted, sounded its sweet flip-flap.
That’s good, eh, little chap? – Oh harder, yes, go on!
Wait – stop – leave off – hey! How they heard the crack!
This is poetry at its most uncompromisingly explicit and viscerally evocative (bringing to mind, for example, that legendarily controversial poem about a grimly baptismal act of necrophiliac onanism over the crucified corpse of Christ, ‘The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name’, by the late James Kirkup (d. 2009)) –but few can doubt Lykiard’s sheer linguistic gusto, and if some of Lykiard’s work is indicative of a kind of latter day neo-Decadent poetics, then it is an incredulous and didactic ‘Decadence’.
The second piece, ‘Sanguinary Sonnet’ depicts cunnilingus, and Lykiard appears to relish the quite visceral task of its translating:
Like a broken heart your tail bleeds, little slut.
The monthlies are flowing in great gouts and, craving
Love and mucus, an enraptured faun,
I daub myself with wine you bleed, and slurp it up.
The lips of slimy carmine together gum
Moustache and tongue alike. – Glued to your shorthairs
by melted clots, I’ve so often caught
A briny whiff; yet you’re astonished if
I guzzle your gluten without disgust?
– But that’s just the right time for a man of taste
To dapple his mouth with the rags’ red sap
Even as the painters are cheerfully in!
Some ergot, quick, to spur and stir the flux.
For best is the gift of tonguing, better far than fucks!
Whether or not Lykiard’s translation is a fully authentic reproduction of Huysmans original is by the by: it is an exceptionally composed and –albeit explicitly– evocative verse, and the final –though, ironically, incongruous, given the vague Petrarchan character of the sonnet– rhyming couplet is, if not inspired, then highly spirited, and draws some comparison with the more sensually inclined of John Donne’s sonnets, a poet who also delighted in the use of puns).
‘There’s A Plenty’, subtitled ‘[trad. air]’, is an irregularly rhyming sing-song verse which continues in the vein of what one might euphemise as more visceral ‘Ovidic’ verse –the first phrase of the initial foray into foreplay would appear to allude to cunnilingus again, and in this context, placing an interesting multi-juxtaposition of the purposes of the human tongue, as conductor of language, taste-sampler, and, for more adventurous lovers, clitoral stimulator:
Linguist and glutton, besotted yet cunning,
persistent, persuasive – each lad who would get
a tender agreeable lass truly wet
and render her more than warm and willing.
Futile some forward young fellow filling
her long before she feels herself ready:
the preferred caress is light but steady.
So coupling’s prepared, both play slow and loose.
First fruits are squeezed, suave libations running
quite copiously next; these ought to please,
be teasing toward the conclusion – release
of utmost reciprocity, climactic juice.
No haste to resolve what grows still more thrilling;
lovers are lavish, delay in the spilling,
till bodies are brought to that source of all ease.
Eros enshrined, well-watered too, is amply fed
as best becomes divinity, given full head.
‘Top of the Morning’ appears to be a lament on the withering libido of bodily ageing, even impotence, as well as a nostalgic reflection on the habitual masturbations of youth:
Absent – what an obstreperous old blade
used once in his spent youth, quite carelessly, to call
the early morning hard… How soon dreams fade
from view and sense, energies dwindle! All
that was valued formerly seems vain pretence.
Those joys barely recalled, the rites of innocence
in gathered lust, prime juice desired and felt,
pale by stark contrast with the card that age has dealt.
It’s a curious poem to close this collection on, and yet, in some senses, perhaps appropriate, since it deals both with imagery of youthful virility and elderly impotence –fitting then for a poet with such authorial vitality as Lykiard, whose voice resonates so forcefully, and whose ‘poetic personality’ is, indeed, coursing with ‘life force’; a deeply experiential, epicurean, passionate, well-travelled, but, above all, ‘lived-in’ voice. And though the title of this highly accomplished collection no doubt alludes to the poet’s sense of having now reached, at 74 years of age, that summit-sighting maturity that has passed the realms of mere ripeness, one feels from Lykiard’s muscularly sensual and richly nourishing verse that here yet, in spite of age, writes a poet in his prime –and it’s a ‘prime’ which is as potent as it is prolific.
Alan Morrison © 2013
Alan Morrison on
Peter Branson and
Two Volumes, A Dozen Years Each:
Peter Branson’s Red Hill and
Alexis Lykiard’s Getting On
Shoestring Press, 2012