Taking the Poetry Road
So, crude though we are, we get to times and places
And, saving your presence or absence, will continue
Throwing our dreams and guts in people's faces.
To the public
In 1977 my eighth
novel, The Drive North, finally appeared. That weary adverb relates more
to its rejections by a dozen publishers en route to publication, than to the
actual process (during 1973-4) of writing - which was made up of the usual
strange mixture of obsession, difficulty and pleasure. But at least the book
pleased me: I'd had fun, as well as a serious purpose, in trying accurately to
describe episodes in the life of a freelance writer.
The problem was,
my main character was a poet. I might have known that this choice alone, in the
jargon of the day, "limited the novel's sales potential", but I blithely
persevered and gave the book even more "minority appeal" - through including
samples of work by this imaginary or composite poet. The poems ascribed to him,
of course, were written by myself, in a variety of different tones and styles
-satirical squibs, notebook fragments, "finished" pieces I hoped were strong
enough to be read independently of their context, parodies of prevailing poetic
fashions - and so on. I tried to hint at how a poet's mind worked, and how it
felt to be a poet - both generally, and more specifically in that sadder,
soberer decade which seemed to limp along in the wake of the Sixties. Perhaps
The Drive North was rather too post-modern for its time and its own good: a
novel about poetry, providing examples of various forms, together with numerous
built-in criticisms of its own texts! And, while I did drive past somewhere
called Long Marston once, my protagonist Lon Marston was also hommage to
Jonson's friend and collaborator, the poet-dramatist of The Malcontent.
Like his namesake John, Lon too is nothing if not critical, and never minds
If attempting to
write a fiction based on numerous "true" stories (though some reviewers also
noted its "Chinese box construction"), then you might as well go hell for
leather (and for broke): forget libel worries and literary pretensions alike,
just write the tale(s) of a freewheeling freelance, in a kind of documcntary-road-movie.
The single "invented" passage in my novel seems, disconcertingly, somehow to
have been written into life, for it actually came about - or into being, and
duly "happened" the very year the book was published. Which only increased my
feeling that, however much you distance yourself from autobiography (even in a
very deliberately third-person fiction), we are ourselves being written, all
writing is autobiography, and (contrary to what one poet wrote) poetry does make something happen.
At any rate, the
"reading circuit", such as I was describing it in the Seventies, had
considerably expanded in variety of venue and scope, even if audiences mostly
remained at an average of two or three dozen (top end of the scale) sliding down
to a handful of the bemused and the faithful, friends and relatives foregathered
in someone's front room. . . Poetry readings in some respects were still as
rarefied and self-conscious as they'd been during the late Fifties and early
Sixties - my student days - before Beatles and Liverpool poets opened up the
performance scene. I remember that the first public readings I ever did were
with aspiring jazz musicians (at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge) and committed
CNDers (at the Partisan Coffee Bar in Soho): the audiences for these kinds of
gigs declared their support by their very presence; you preached to the
converted for a while; they listened or they didn't, then they went away. You
didn't need to win them round, nor even (oddly enough) to entertain them. It was
more in the nature of some obscure collective rite, less verbal communication
than a vague form of mental osmosis involving almost arbitrary patterns of
sound. This could cheer or depress any poet-reader, according to his or her
mood. What sort of reaction, after all, did one want to arouse? Few were quite
sure. "Get it over with and get paid" was the tacit motto of many poets I met.
But things weren't
as easy as that. By the 1970's audiences were seldom absolutely torpid. They
could be curious or aggressive, cloyingly cosy or just plain ignorant. A well
known and neither frail nor elderly poet was once told: "I'm surprised to see
you here this evening, Mr. Scannell. I thought you'd died in the Great War."
Enough to drive one to drink - and most of us were tempted to knock it back on
such occasions, through (as it were) sheer self-preservation. . . Sometimes
indeed the Aspiring Local Poet, for whom ALP seemed an especially useful and apt
acronym, became an - unscheduled - curtainraiser. ALP would then read endlessly,
or might contrive to clog up question-time with ossified statements on rhyme,
the Muse or Kipling. . . Readings seemed to attract every bore, brain-picker,
halfbaked scribbler and contact-cultivator for miles around. To associate a name
with a person and with words on a page was, apparently, a sort of challenge, a
highly desirable opportunity for such persons, especially if they could manage
to buttonhole, provoke or insult the poet. Never, of course, did they buy books.
And why anyhow should they bother to read new ones, when there was Kipling?
retaliated, some displaying visible contempt for their audiences, others boring
them witless. (Just to show I'm both broadminded and impartial, I should add
here that two of the most boring readings I ever attended were given by Allen
Ginsberg and Craig Raine.) Some poets played most servilely to the audience,
sinking in their search for the lowest common denominator to the nadir of fake
populism; others were lofty and elitist and unremittingly obscure. Some I read
with had a set "patter": this included jokes, carefully timed pauses and
apparently impromptu asides and fumbles with papers. These bards stuck to a
clock-watching and invariable routine but you only sussed them if you'd read
with them on different occasions; audiences were never likely to notice. Well,
at least the Play-It-Safe performers had actually thought up, and worked out, a
programme. Far too many poets proved embarrassingly amateurish, inaudible or
just surprisingly nervous — the big names often as culpable as any.
Yet still ego ran
riot: one slim volume (sometimes not even that) and anyone might take the stage,
smirking in self-congratulation. Self-belief though, cannot be equated with
either sensitivity or professionalism. The fate of Cinna should be familiar to
every writer: the terrible subtext is that we can tear ourselves apart.
Frustrated poets, those who feel neglected or in some way poetically unfulfilled
can be bothersome, as Hugo Williams's hilarious yet sad account of being heckled
and lectured by the late Harry Kemp when reading makes clear. Different
characters, styles and generations: even now, I feel relief I wasn't there
having to witness, or perhaps mediate between, people I knew and liked - poets
wrangling in an absurd situation, itself poignantly close to something like a
new form, spiritual slapstick.
the boot was on the other foot: you had to be an organiser yourself to realise
quite how "difficult" other poets could be. When, for instance, as
Writer-in-Residence at Loughborough Art College in 1982-3, I was able to book a
season of readings, I ensured that each poet was paid well, on the night, and
treated with all due hospitality. The occasions were enjoyable and generally
successful, except for the visit by George Barker. Barker was around 70 then.
I'd always admired his work, and had insisted he be paid more than usual. But
what a miserable complainant was the former Fitzrovian roaring-boy! He turned up
late and drunk, despite my detailed map plus written and telephoned instructions
- and it was my fault. He therefore refused to begin unless and until a bottle
of Scotch was provided for him. The students' bar wasn't yet open, so a teacher
duly drove post-haste into town to purchase the necessary lubricant. Barker then
delivered a spirited reading, slurred only at the very end. No question of any
questions afterwards, but he was crushingly and needlessly unpleasant to every
art student who tried to engage him in conversation. (These were appreciative,
polite and guileless kids, alas.) A female English teacher and I undertook to
escort the old curmudgeon on the obligatory pubcrawl. She, driving, had to stay
sober. I reckoned if I drank one to Barker's two I'd get through the rest of the
evening. . . Unfortunately he continued aggressive and his gamesmanship was
wearisome: agree with him on any subject and you'd. be called a yes-man or a
sycophant; disagree, and he'd rant, "How dare you contradict what I say? Who
d'you think you are? I was writing poetry before you were bloody born." We'd
resort to silence or attempt a neutral sort of nod: to giggle, one felt, might
have courted swift disaster. This Impatient Mariner's briefer monologues ran
roughly thus: "When I was 16, sixteen, I had tea with T. S. Eliot, W. B.
Yeats and Ezra Pound." There was an interminable pause while he fixed us with a
bleary yet ferocious stare. "What d'you think of that then, eh? What d'you think
of that?" It was probably true, but by then we were too tired either to assent,
argue or express the required reverence. The teacher had to collect her
12-year-old daughter from a friend's house, before dropping Barker back at his
hotel. Unfortunately, Old Obnoxious roused himself from his backseat stupor only
to grope the young girl and reduce her to tears. . . A last view of him,
lurching up the hotel steps, later prompted me to some verse speculation I
rather doubt he would have appreciated:
L'esprit de l'escalier
Why must a bard so
blessed with memorable voice and splendid wit
become, when Bacchus rules, merely a miserable, mortal shit?
The barbed thought might have struck me then, in bars where we were sitting
Who did George Barker think he was? But was that question fitting?
From Smiles Above the Platform (Poets in
Public) ed Diane M Moore - Goldring Books 1996
HAVING A POETIC TIME IN THE SUN
Poetry has seldom been a sexier
occupation, or so the spin-gynaecologists and occasionally even the tabloids
would have us believe. As to whether its writing is proper job or profession —
let alone whether the art-form can and should be taught at all - such arguments
continue to be contentious. What's clearer is that huge numbers of would-be
wordsmiths flock to writing courses and workshops, whose participants are
prepared to pay for this privileged advice. Although relatively few ever read
contemporary poetry and fewer still actually buy the stuff, very many people
take pleasure in calling themselves poets.
Is versifying just the latest hobby, DIY
for its cognoscenti? At any rate, not since the scribbling and screwing days and
nights of Byron has poetry seemed so dangerously attractive. Ironically it is
the madder, badder side of the whole Byronic business that's come to
predominate. However blindingly deceptive the emphasis, however blandly
threadbare the phrase, plenty of carnal if not spiritual mileage, plus a certain
glamour, goes with 'being a poet'. The gratifying, best-publicized rewards of
poetry—a clutch of prestigious prizes, fellowships and grants that ensure a
modest yet coveted stardom for the luckiest few - have by now become
disproportionately enticing. Our ill-informed and anti-elitist ethos encourages
numerous tyros to believe that they too should stand a decent chance of winning
the current literary lotteries. They also dream of being big fish in a
comparatively small publishing pond. So where better to start: what more
comforting and comfortable arena in which to acquire the knack of the Mysteries?
What better fast-track route to fame, than on a Creative Writing course?
And there indeed, nestling in the
special hothouse atmosphere of a supposedly supportive yet jealously competitive
group, cupidity and concupiscence are bound to rub more than mere shoulders.
Within such a group, particular individuals will always be tempted to take
shortcuts while engaged in searching for their very own elusive success-story.
Consequently, it's everyone for themselves - never mind the quality, cop a feel
of your tutor. Some of the latter's sweet smell of success, that subtly
fragrant, appealing secret formula might, as it were, rub off. Forget
pheromones, freewheeling creativity's the thing... Given our new, less inhibited
century, what luck Dylan Thomas, George Barker, Robert Lowell and co - those
lecherous drunks and rhymers of legend, who'd charm the birds off any literary
tree - could have now, what field days and nights! Under such propitious
circumstances, it rarely requires great skill for any teacher of either sex to
seduce an already halfway available student, and vice versa.
Unfortunately, even consenting adults
turn into resentful children if things don't turn out quite as they have
dreamed. American author David Mamet pinned down the syndrome of who actually
comes on to whom and why, in a devastating play about sex-political correctness,
Oleanna. But it's a couple of living poets on either side of the Atlantic
who have been more newsworthy where arguments over harassment, stalking, sexual
pursuit and tutorial responsibility are concerned.
As for Derek Walcott and Andrew Motion -
allegations against whom were widely reported (even in the broadsheets) - both
high-profile professor-poets were duly exonerated by their Universities. It
remains doubtful though, whether the views of the women concerned -the other
side of these vexed sex questions - can ever be calmly and creditably
represented, in or out of the media or a courtroom. Meanwhile notoriety is no
bad thing for poets, since it only enhances rather than tarnishes their
glamorous aura which initially made them appear both aloof and available,
attractive yet vulnerable. Who's to tell if the poetry - which like it or not is
the product of the life — may be adversely affected? Nobel-winner, Poet
Laureate: the women at least, if one is to accept that the advances were
unilaterally theirs, showed dogged if improper ambition. The poets, holding
positions of trust and power, should in any case have been more circumspect and
mature. While some of Walcott's work will last, doubt surrounds most of
Motion's. In the light of a sycophantic little doggerel-ode on the death of the
Blessed St. Diana (paparazzi and press hounds "snapping at your heels" etc), it
seems quite primly proper for the present UK Laureate to have portrayed himself
as Action-man Motion - pursued by, or anyway not himself pursuing, a Ms. Laura
Fish. Immaterial, perhaps, who first shoots their fictional line and who gets
hooked, but our piscatorial poet's dictum (in the unlikely context of the
Automobile Association magazine, June 2001) runs thus: "as soon as I see the
Dart I know that I'm about to go fishing". Fans of gossip and kitsch alike may
now anticipate future collections fit to be angled for by the immortal J.R.
Hartley by I himself: Laura's Laureate; Petrarchal Attitudes or even
perhaps The Complete Dangler.
One shouldn't mock the addicted,
however, since from time to time we humbler poetry junkies also get pilloried by
the press for real or imaginary sexual peccadilloes. I'll vouch for the fact
that it's a rather dubious form of flattery to be attacked in public for poetic
licentiousness, even on literarily factitious grounds. So though my sympathies
in some respects lie with poor hapless Professor M., as fellow poet I can
nevertheless claim a vital and unique distinction. For several days in a row I
once managed to withstand the weight of Murdochian litcritical mass, provoking
incidentally a peevish Editorial in that comically illhumoured organ The Sun.
Without a trace of spin on my part, nor indeed any devious intent, I found
myself spread out across the tabloid's infamous Page Three. How does one survive
such trauma, retaining sanity, modesty and reputation? Ah, thereby hangs the
rest of this sleazily absurd tale.
At a recent reading I was requested to
sign a poetry book. After I'd done so, the young woman buying my collection
asked how I'd managed to obtain such a fabulous quote for the back cover. She
wasn't referring to the opinions of Ted Hughes or Maya Angelou, nice though they
were. No, the heavyweight laureate pair from the UK and US couldn't top the
dazzling populist appeal, nor the authoritative rant, of that righteous hanging
judge of literature. The Sun.
I explained that the comments weren't
invented, but was somewhat nonplussed when she gleefully and very audibly read
out to her woman friend The Sun's ringing denunciation: "Lykiard sits on posh
literary panels and his work is reviewed by highbrow critics. But much of it is
so filthy you wouldn't wrap your chips in it. In fact he penned one pair of
ditties we wouldn't publish in a family newspaper like The Sun."
Should I have reacted coolly or with
renewed self mockery? Or perhaps even with some residual embarrassment? Pressed
to reveal details of the sequence of events lying behind that mass-market-place
public shame - my hilarious if not nefarious exposure - I politely declined and,
as they say, made my excuses and left. It seemed ages since I'd acquired the
epithets of "nasty bard", "mucky bard", "dirty old bard" and even "the rudest
man in the West". But I felt my bookbuyer was owed a fuller account, the story
I'd promised her I'd write one day.
Now, thirteen years after the events
next described, I hope I've grown wiser as well as even ruder. And very
definitely so when it comes to tackling those genuinely difficult tasks faced by
every writer -the giving and taking of criticism.
In 1988, a distant era when there still
existed Regional Arts Organizations employing Specialist Advisory Boards and
Literature Officers, I'd be given occasional freelance work via the local
outfit, South West Arts. This involved reading and reporting on MSS sent to SWA
by would-be writers in the region.
But the system then newly set up by SWA
didn't aim to discover worthy works, let alone promote or publish them. It was
seen as one more means of increasing literacy, an additional attempt to arouse
interest in books and writing. At the same time, the team of writers invited to
form SWA's reading panel would thus be modestly supported. Since funds for
grants, residencies and so on were invariably minimal, local authors couldn't
expect much other assistance, nor indeed any realistic, substantial subsidy
while writing their own books. So SWA proudly publicised a free Reading Service,
Second Opinion - open to all and sundry within its half dozen counties. Along
with some basic guidelines for submission went the small-print warning that any
criticism from the professional readers would be both detailed and candid.
Whoever reads the small-print though?
Not, apparently, the average Sun-lover, for whom those bold Page 3
headlines are designed. After neighbours informed me with some amusement that I
was 'in the papers', I could hardly miss POET WHO LASHED ROOKIE WRITES ABOUT
NOOKIE. And there too in black and white was a passport- size photo from an old
bookcover, now bafflingly captioned - LYKIARD... "mucky". This barely
recognizable, blurred headshot perched on the right of the page, opposite the
larger, barer bust of that day's 'Chirpy Cockney' bird, pert young Miss Suzanne
The answerphone - a relative novelty
then in most homes, mine included - began to prove its worth. Journalists from
various local and national papers, assorted Sun persons being especially
persistent, left messages every ten minutes. One cheery chap suggested I speak
to him, since it was in my interest surely, to have accurate reporting of the
proper facts. (As opposed to improper ones, I gathered.) He insisted a short
exclusive interview was therefore perfectly reasonable: we wouldn't want
mistakes to creep in, would we?
I took the point: no point playing hard
to get, they'd get me anyway. The only thing I was sure of however, was to
ignore the pack for the time being, at least until I discovered the origin of
the story and the cause of all their excitement. A quick trip to the reference
library confirmed my appearance on The Sun's Page 3 the previous day,
when I'd simply been dubbed "pompous poet" by their woman Sue Evison. Her
initial piece about me accompanied the smiling features of the great all-rounder
Ian Botham ("accused of assault after an amazing midair rumpus aboard an
Australian jet") and the equally prominent all-round features of Golden Girl
sudden surge of interest in poetry and poets displayed a sublimely simple logic.
I'd dared criticise the verses of one of its faithful readers, remarking perhaps
rashly that her banal effusions would "cause extreme nausea in anyone who does
not buy The Sun". Unfortunately for me, an assistant at SWA failed to
remove my pencilled initials from the supposedly anonymous reader's report, and
so gave the outraged versifier — a Mrs Edgar of Plymouth - enough of a lead to
identify me and run complaining to The Sun. As for Mrs E, I now recalled
her manuscript with dreadful clarity. It was a gruesome submission, a wilted
bouquet of jingoistic drivel, cloying odes in praise of royal babies, fluffy
animals and our heroic lads in the Falklands - insulting both commonsense and
art. There was no way an objective critic could or should be kind to such
indecently sentimental stuff and nonsense. Perhaps it proved the last straw that
broke this literary camel's back, but I would certainly be taken to task for my
During that first week, so friends
informed me, Mrs E. went on being outraged and went on TV; on radio, Robert
Robinson's guests chatted breezily about the affair. Meanwhile most of SWA's
personnel (including some bemused finance and accounts people) were themselves
pestered by the press. Yet how, even with the best ill-will hi the world, could
SWA staff have commented with any certitude on my presumed moral turpitude? In
fact the Literature Officer defended me vigorously; she "did not think it was
personal and we do say in our leaflet that the criticism is honest". SWA's
Director called me "an exceptional reviewer and a good poet" and trusted I'd
"continue to offer criticism for us for many years". Various other, still less
close or clued-up acquaintances and neighbours, were also quizzed by the hacks,
two of whom halfheartedly doorstepped us until eventually overcome by boredom.
The feeding-frenzy continued as the
regional press kicked in: I was attacked by the Western Morning News and
the Plymouth Evening Herald, only to be stoutly defended later by
smaller, independent publications like Exeter Flying Post, Event
Southwest and even the Bulletin of the Welsh Academy. The Sunday
Independent (an egregious west country tabloid, not to be confused with the
Independent on Sunday) bore the front page headline: ALEXIS WHO? The
rudest man in the West, that's who (And he writes mucky poems!) The same old
photo was annoyingly reproduced alongside far more gruesome pictures of lynch
violence in Belfast and Mrs Thatcher herself ("There seems [sic] no depths to
which these people will not sink".)
This front page story about my own
violent literary onslaught on Mrs E. spilled over, as if inevitably, to page 3,
and the reporter, an Andy Barding — whose surname struck me as rather apt —
carried on about my "vivid descriptions of fondling" and "dirty rhymes". (Did
he, I conjectured, mean off rhymes?) Barding revealed to his breathless
readership how certain poems of mine had been found to "deal with drugs and sex"
(gasp), while others described (gulp) "oral sex".
The latter activity also caught the
feverish eye of Sun scribe Victor Chapple. Chapple, moreover, picked up
on a reference to nipples - that very particular Murdochian leitmotiv - and
added reflectively: "His novels are filled with the same muck." (I wondered
uncharitably whether this cheeky chappie had read any, all or only the barest
essentials of the nine novels I'd published.) Readers were urged also to flip to
Page 6 to see what The Sun Says. There, in an Editorial headed BARD NEWS,
I was further harangued. The lecture's heavy conclusion was rather illogically
underlined: "Mr Lykiard, who writes all sorts of obscenities, could do with some
lessons in manners. And if he is such a wonderful bard, how come that nobody
seems to have heard of him?"
Next day, "pompous poet Alexis Lykiard"
was obliged to hang his head in shame, after "his come-uppance from
culture-loving Sun readers"... The Sun had contrived to reprint,
misprinting and mangling its ten lines en route, an old poem of mine. As ever,
the teasing tabloid was keen to put things into context: "it was one of those he
wrote when his mind wasn't on nookie". That much must have been self-evident,
since the poem was about polydactyl cats. As for the sensitive Mrs E, she'd felt
bold enough meanwhile to risk sending her own feline verses to The Sun,
exposed there for avid millions to read.
My own bloody but uncowed opinion on
such pure catterel couldn't have been printed and was by then irrelevant. Mucky
I may remain, but a nice sense of propriety in metrical matters, not to mention
a wholesome respect for copyright, precludes any verbatim quotation from Mrs E's
arguably undervalued work. The opening line of her poem ‘The Cat', however,
wherein the animal concerned astonishingly enough does sit on the mat, provides
ample proof of the poetess's own bardic skills. At any rate, culture-lovers were
urged to phone in and vote WHICH IS BEST? And when the 881-155 result was
gloatingly announced, I was scarcely surprised to limp home second. It served me
right for all my alliteration and sneaky scansion and any other highbrow
nastiness. But just byway of consolation, the good-clean-run Sun
sportingly concluded: "Hard lines, Alexis".
My publisher wasn't so amused, though.
The Sun had used the poem without permission, payment or acknowledgement.
He subsequently entered into a futile correspondence with the solar legal
eagles, who only deigned to reply to his letters after ten months' silence and
threats of being reported to the Press Council. "I think that the manner in
which your newspaper dealt with my author in the first instance, was disgraceful
and I think the manner in which you have failed to deal with my correspondence
is frankly deplorable".
But what should poets expect from a
superior, culture-loving family newspaper like TheSun. Something,
evidently, on the lines of its eventual response: "The particular article in
which Mr Lykiard's work was quoted was, of course, a critical review inasmuch as
it consisted entirely of comment on the nature and quality of his poetry. As
such, it constituted fair dealing for the purposes of copyright. Sufficient
attribution, ie. clear identification of the author, was given." A suitably
weasel-worded adjudication, without benefit of Phone-in at that. Heartwarming
as ever, a law unto itself, The Sun shines on.
In compensation, I retrieved a clutch of
memorable quotes from the whole absurd affair. I didn't get burned by The Sun,
nor did the unexpected publicity exactly swell my head. Yet for all that, I
shall wear my badge of filth with pride. And I have experienced in all its
awesome inevitability the operation of the First Law of Journalism, the one that
runs (and runs): The more reticent or reclusive the quarry, the more persistent
and ravenous the pursuit. These sexagenarian days, I can sympathise even more
fully with dedicated scribblers devoting themselves to both sex and art - I plan
to do likewise for as long as I'm able, whether or not I need bask in The
Sun's blazing disapproval.
Since classical times, it's been almost
an axiom that the baying mob lies in wait, ready to tear apart any unwary bard.
Good, bad, or average; sinner and saint; Orpheus or Cinna alike - down we all
must go. So whether Walcott walks free or Motion dallies with Fish, it comes
back to this: poets will readily and shamelessly continue to chase, chat up,
coax and stalk "the necessary angel", whichever personal and private Muse seems
Poets are no more inherently sexual
creatures than others, although a good poem is itself a distinctive, shapely,
exciting creation and thus, at best, an object/ive to engage all the senses.
Poetry, however, goes on being viewed as both a private and public affair,
something risk-taking and incurably romantic, as well as a dangerously playful
and inevitably sexy occupation. Of course poets get things wrong from time to
time, in relationships as in writing, whether or not called to account for their
mistakes. But in the end the only thing that matters is the revealed truth
behind an individual obsession — the perpetual, honest pursuit of the memorably
singing line. Where poetry is concerned, the proper behaviour of poets must
exist solely on the page: it's the harshest rule - no indulgence. What poets
themselves most esteem is the poem made to last, enlightenment gained in the
making of literature. And literature, in Pound's wise definition, was and
remains "news that STAYS news".
Acumen May 2002