SCHOOLED FOR LIFE Shoestring Press 2015 ISBN 978-1-910323-41-0
This new collection is concerned with outgrowing, surviving and trying to transcend, or even learn from, a variety of educational disciplines and experiences. In A Case Of Samples (1956), Kingsley Amis — in my view a better poet than novelist - remarks how "Docility, of feature or of mind, /Is glad to wither when the tongue is free". His poem Lessons also concludes that "... out of school, all ways the hand will move,/Forget the private hour, and touch the world..." The writer seems here to sound a belated cautionary note to teacher and pupil alike, greeting with wry relief the end of restriction and restraint, yet also aware that there may be much that all of us eventually need to unlearn.
Satirical and satyrical, extramural and intramural studies: Alexis Lykiard’s ‘Schooled For Life’.
One’s first impulse on reading Alexis Lykiard’s latest verse collection, Schooled For Life, is to adapt Wilhelm Busch’s famous dictum Ist der Ruf erst ruiniert, lebt es sich recht ungeniert and remind ourselves of its possible converse: Wird der Ruf erst mal geehrt, lebt’s sich gaenzlich ungeniert. In other words:
Once your reputation is won,
For there is no doubt here that Alexis, having claimed his bardic laurels to join the pantheon, is having a great deal of fun at the expense of a number of cockshies, including settling old scores for slipper-thrashings from the missile-throwing pedagogues and catechising clergymen of his schooldays, as well as taking well-aimed pot-shots at vaunted British poets of a certain vintage and at pundits who have earned his opprobrium, not forgetting his risking lese-majesty with broadsides unleashed to singe the monarch’s kin.
Bitingly satirical and mischievously satyrical by turns, but always classically-Attically aphoristic (Alexis’s signature grace note), these poems may be enjoyed for their allusiveness just as much as for their neatly turned wit and banter. Witness, then, his chronicling of the privations of prep school life, where the nascent poet was . . .
. . . definitively marked for life.
Marked for Life — despite, we suspect, his schoolboy essays most likely scoring Alpha Plus — was no doubt an alternative title the poet spiked for this verse collection. In fact, such a poignant phrase captures the mood of Alexis’s troubled post-war childhood of exile and assimilation, as he seeks reassurance, recording the past in B-movie monochrome; how he was:
. . . desperate to fit in, own up, and
accept my fate . . .
A mood he countered, we learn, by his immersion between Chapel and Corps (organ music was a sonorous bore) in eclectic reading matter, including the novels of Charles Kingsley, a boyhood taste shared by a poet of enviable metrical brilliance from an earlier generation, Roy Fuller. In fact, Fuller’s account of reading Hypatia* is to be found in his fine novel of 1959, The Ruined Boys, in which he charts lost innocence much as Alexis does here in his own verses . . .
New troops of ruined boys fall in now, older soldiers gone . . .
and, of course, both poets appropriate the Master’s foreboding voice of 1930, Auden’s They gave the prizes to the ruined boys.
Readers of Alexis’s verses have learned to be alert to such allusive ludic nudges to his confraternity of pantheonic heroes born of his omnivorous appetite for the bon mot. When he isn’t head-butting sycophantic laureates and other toadies or savaging ‘Faberized’ fellow-travelling poetasters and flâneurs, this hircine omnivore is — satyr-like — more characteristically in Dionysian pursuit of the teasing evidence of bliss or of the true life [that] goes on forgotten. (A quest for the cleansing truths he admires in fellow poet D J Enright, which prompts Alexis’s penetrating and touching tribute, Master of His Arts.)
It is due to that same omnivorousness that Alexis has absorbed the finesse of favourite precursors in his verses, we are pleased to find, particularly in a suite of poems documenting Alexis’s recollections of prison life as writer/teacher-in-residence in the 1980s, with such redolences as . . .
. . . before this rapid cloudburst’s done
In Captive Audience the observation of barracking inmates is demotically spot on:
. . . Young dopers relish any whiff of farce . . .
These witty poems of reluctant pedagogy where roles are reversed, with pupil turned educationist or even graduating to Brit. Council bratpacker, recall to mind the night classes taught by sometime Movement poet, Laurence Lerner, whose Those girls, those girls . . . (who imbibe a knowledge they believe to be / objective: not about themselves or me) is still remembered with fondness, an unresolved conundrum of Socratics that also calls to mind the case that the works of pedagogic poets comprise an actual genre in the classification of verse and here, in Alexis Lykiard’s Schooled For Life, there’s a respectable portion of it.
So an English education, both private and state-run — in all its incarnations and incarcerations, extramural and intramural — is Alexis’s overarching theme. Alexis’s atavistic Greekness and his relish for the niceties of English idiom are especially apparent in his first memories of school in 1946, when hors de combat on the . . .
First day at day school,
and he becomes even more the Hellenist when invalided out of school . . .
. . . as lapsed Stoic,
This canny adaptability of the chameleonic émigré — alert to local colour — is confirmed later when [following a kangaroo court in the dorm] . . .
Holding fast under duress,
A representative example of his narrative voice is his Chaps in Chapel and its elegiac conclusion that hints at immanence when recapturing his awkward past . . .
The Truth did not belong to some religionist
However, this callow crisis of belief apart, it is difficult to quite see why Alexis the Dionysian maker of verses — whose flannel shorts stayed up via serpent-clasp elastic belt — dismisses the motto of his old school as obscure. (Radley: Sicut serpentes, sicut columbae. ‘Be wise as snakes and gentle as doves.’)
Surely there is no better motto for summoning up the uneasy duality that haunts the exilic poet?
Catherine Isolde Eisner
As a proud Grammar school boy I have little sympathy for the Public school Tom Browns who moan about how awful it was to be privileged, endure the elitism of Oxbridge, and suffer the agony of powerful and well paid jobs in the Establishment... 'God save the Queen — and us!' ... My Cromwell-founded school was a breeding ground for muscular Republicanism par excellence - so Alexis Lykiard's new collection Schooled for Life (Shoestring, £9.00) describing his time as a schoolboy at Radley College (and later reflections upon) was not necessarily going to interest me much.,. But of course, Alexis Lykiard was, and is, an angry young man and the poems describing his school experiences have all the polite, and not so polite, bile, anger and contempt comparable with a pacifist mistakenly finding himself recruited into the Marines. The refugee Greek boy was processed by the Public School system, but rather like the hero of 'Brave New World', something went wrong, and a unique hybrid was created: a socialist writer who knew his enemy intimately. . . What saves this collection from being a poor poetic version of Lindsey Anderson's film 'If’, is the author's pity for his tormentors, and the redeeming humour generated by observing and experiencing the logically absurd.
The poetry is clever, engaging, and very easy to read. Most of the poems are quite long, but each tells a story that would be crushed by prose and yet flies as poetry. . . To quote extracts misrepresents the cumulative effect of the detail and characters brought to life in the poems. . . So here is a complete poem 'Religious Instruction' that will have to represent the whole:
Just as well the Bishop was of Winchester
This book is I think the best Lykiard I've read for long time. I loved the power of its time-travelling detail, the analysis of the psychology used to condition young minds, the innocence corrupted by world-weary educators, aware - or tragically unaware - of the hypocrisy of it all... It's a brilliant bit of writing, and is (in my opinion), some of the best autobiographical poetry I've read for a very long time, saving, as always, Larkin. Shoestring books are well made and clearly printed - this, combined with the quality of the poetry - makes it a worthwhile purchase for any poetry lover. . .
Kevin Bailey Haiku Quarterly No 46 25th Annversary Issue
Here he is nostalgic in an ironic and wry sense. Perhaps this book exemplifies Proust's dictum that reality takes shape in the memory alone. Lykiard is putting in reviews those early experiences of schooling which helped make him what he is:
Little else the
offers me now.
he writes of the experience of breaking his arm on the first day of school as a six-year-old.
learned what, or what was taught to whom,
:There is a lovely sense of the absurdity of the Public School system, in spite of its cruelty and inability to inculcate much beyond what to regurgitate in which exam., but none of the sentimentalism of, for example Alan Bennett in his depiction of a paedophile master as just an eccentric who must be tolerated if you want to get to Oxbridge.
knew how homesick foreign, oddly named
captures what we put children through for the sake of what we call education.
The second section moves away from school days and contains some witty and thoughtful lines on writing classes and workshops but its outstanding poem is Master of His Arts in memory of D.J. Enright. Writer writing about writing writers can sometimes seem unduly inward but here the poem is full of both generosity and insight, lifting it beyond any sort of back scratching:
Quite a feast
Lykiard succeeds in all three.
One may prize
the few such sceptic humanists,
Lykiard is a sceptic humanist too and not a writer to curry favour with those he might fear. He has been known to comment on some of the bland or pretentious poetry which finds its way into the pages of respectable journals of wide circulation, and you can see why the poses and postures of wilful post-modernists, determined to seem too-cool-to-care and whose self-conscious juggling with words, words, words are not to his taste. His writing is rooted. It has something to say and seeks for the most interesting and honest way to say it.
His "career" is perhaps salutary: he was once a best-selling novelist but is now shunned by the big publishers. He is living testimony to the way foolish commercialism can lead to serious and good writers being almost ignored. Thankfully his is appreciated by a small but discerning audience. He will be for a long time.
Alan Dent MQB 8 May 2016
Private schools – euphemistically termed public – are still a real barrier to fairness and equal opportunity in British culture. In spite of Labour Party policy of not segregating students into separate institutions on the basis of dubious examinations such as the eleven-plus, private education continues to flourish and supplies the majority of our M.Ps, senior managers, judges and army generals. Comments such as Tony Blair’s “bog standard comprehensives” did little to remedy the inequality or promote educational and social justice.
It is refreshing therefore to see Alexis Lykiard tackling the problem head on against his old school, Radley, in his latest volume of poems Schooled for Life. His introductory comment in Author’s Notes sets the tone: “None of the names and initials in Schooled for Life have been changed in order to protect anyone, ‘innocent’ or not, and the memories are as accurate as this septuagenarian can still recall and describe.”
The volume is divided into “Early Learning” and “Better Late than Never” with an apt couplet echoing La Fontaine:
If life then
seemed unfair, fools only should complain,
The poems are based firmly on the poet’s personal experience; the narrator is falsely accused of cutting up a rug on his first day of boarding school (aged eight!) for which he is beaten with a slipper:
bare-bottomed by the bed while he,
The individual experience is vividly described with more than a hint of the salacious. There are too wider generalisations on the whole system, pulling together the religious and the military:
Corps, involved just one more drill.
I like that “checking wristwatches for the umpteenth dismal time.” It’s a small, accurate detail which we all recognise but may miss reporting. Alexis Lykiard’s language is capable of swinging from the highfalutin to the down-to-earth vernacular which can be effectively dismissive as in his conclusion: “Fuck knows what any twelve-year-old believed.” It’s a rasping and abrasive voice that occasionally becomes ironic but more typically has a rough humour like the Viyella hairshirted penitents in detention, a tightly packed diction that does not set out to be deliberately “poetic” although there are occasional touches of the lyrical – hot summer days that cannot come again. Alexis Lykiard’s real strength is in the poetic narrative, a gift for spinning a yarn. He tells stories and revives the poetic narrative which has been neglected by contemporary poets. The stories are often carried along with the kind of deliberately comic-awkward rhymes similar to those Byron employed in his “Don Juan”
enough from books, from boys behaving badly.
The second section entitled “Better Late than Never” opens out to the wider world where the satirist is appalled not only by school-style bullying but by the slackness and vagueness of language which infects the whole of society. Like Swift who was also disturbed by the misuse of the English language Lykiard castigates the distortion of language in popular culture:
Chaos invests, and then sorely infects, our verbal marketplace.
There is a connection between sense and verbal responsibility which computers and the electronic revolution have done little to help:
In the internet
world anyhow, words grow inert, get misused,
Modern pundits are an especial target:
Now every dunce
is equal, nothing’s really wrong or right,
We have here the beginnings of a modern Dunciad and Lykiard might well be encouraged to tackle the whole corrupt edifice of newspaper headlines, computer porn, television quiz-games, political speeches and junk advertising. Compared with Pope there is an avalanche of material which is increasing daily. The underlying energy is a moral judgement moving out from the parochial bullying of a minor public school to a wider sphere that engulfs the whole of society. Past the Education Block deals with work in prisons; in Forms and Classes capitalism becomes the specific target :
practices wholly unjust, it persists as evil, absurd
As is evident in this quotation, Lykiard is able to find fresh phrases for old topics. His words are energetic, coiled – sometimes a little tricky to unravel but never employed for wholly aesthetic reasons separated from sense. The last poem in the volume Slow Learning Fuse ends with an attack on “callous Authority” and war – the connecting thread between his school education with its Corps and hypocritical religion and violence:
It’s not just
lack of love and sense;
Review by John Daniel -