Taking the Poetry Road
So, crude though we are, we get to times and places
Louis MacNeice: 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 making enemies.
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?
Poets naturally 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.
Sometimes, though, 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
From Smiles Above the Platform (Poets in Public) ed Diane M Moore - Goldring Books 1996
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 Mizzi.
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 Gail McKenna.
The Sun's 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 temerity.
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 fruitful stimulant.
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".
From Acumen May 2002