That Alexis Lykiard, in his rousing new poetry collection, Getting On, name-checks tragic lovers George Barker and Elizabeth Smart (The Biters Bit) is a not wholly unintended evocation of a general mood, it seems to me, when considering the whole complex web of personal thematic strands that are braided to make this book of verses that often chart his perplexing amours.
As to the combative yet tender personas of the poet, there are many. Take his streetfighter stance. One starts to think of the cojones of Norman Mailer or Vernon Scannell, both professional bruisers with LOVE tattooed on their knuckles when the gloves were off. As to the sophistication of the refined demotic, other eminent comparators spring to mind: Roy Fuller (‘confused senescence’ definitely has Fullerian resonances from his late manner), likewise Gavin Ewart at his most pithy, or Thomas Blackburn, say, at his arctic iciest, or, indeed, the cruel mockery of Edward Pygge (and his sister Edwina) in their many guises as scourges of the literati.
So Alexis’s own gold standard for a poem is as challenging as any the dedicated connoisseur might encounter, even among the ‘Faberized’ poets disdained so pitilessly on page 72. (‘Tall story man or Thirties schoolboy-pretender.’ You supply the rhyming couplet.) It’s an altogether daunting benchmark, then, he has set himself. Because I notice Alexis turns to Empson to define his model for vitality in the ‘singing line’ of economic yet memorable verse: ‘…narrative, wit, musicality …’ all of which he exhibits in poems of considerable range and ambition. Yet, despite the caustic social observation, the biting satire, the skewering of media show-offs and the ‘brilliant frauds’ of the so-called fine-art market of our times, I personally cleave to those poems where musicality and thought are yoked together in felicitous counterpoints. And here one is reminded of the masterly crisp lyrics James Agee composed for Candide … Oh! Where was Lykiard in Leonard Bernstein’s hour of greatest need!
I mention Agee and Empson as models for the diction of almost Nietzschean aphoristic compression that can turn humdrum matter into highest carat gems. Well, certainly Lykiard is their match. Neat specimens of his dry wit? ‘So life turns, page by page,/Toward whatever solution will mark the end of age.’ ‘John Addington Symonds … this handsome scholarly invert/became fully aware how for him and s-/ome others, the male form of Sin hurt.’ ‘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.’
But don’t let me take this poet at his own worth, because he suggests his poems are to be measured by poets whose eminence is beyond question: ‘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?’
Well, these masters are, alas, no longer with us to judge Getting On, yet I am sure their praise would have been unstinting. I am certain, too, they would have relished this antepenultimate Age of Man … the age so aptly expressed by Picasso when he etched himself as an ancient satyritic monkey contemplating his naked muse. And take special note, too, of Lykiard’s Poets Cornered segment of this collection; the venom he reserves for certain overweening versifiers among us is in so many cases wholly deserved.
When the invective hits the fan Alexis takes no prisoners. For readers with strong stomachs and a taste for Rabelaisian scatology there is a groaning table of pungent scurrility here.
To be sure Lykiard invites you to share a bitter, self-lacerating mood of the tempo di profanazione – the time of desecration described by Moravia in his late novel, La vita interiore – but it’s also an exhilarating mood of ‘irascible’ mischievousness, heedless of any comebacks. In other words, the anecdotage of a randy goatage … but here with the wit, brio and the raw honesty of essaying to recall ‘those rites of innocence in gathered lust’, which, as Alexis proves, have not yet faded from view and sense but can be restored by the vitality and sparkling intelligence of his verse.
Poems by Alexis Lykiard
ISBN: 978 1 907356 46 9