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Thursday 24 April 2008

George Barker

Breakfast time last Saturday (19th of April '08) and as on most Saturday mornings at breakfast I open The Guardian to look for "The Saturday Poem". It is from Villa Stella. I read:

"The children are gone. The holiday is over.
Outside it is Fall. Inside it is so
quiet that the silence seems inclined to
talk to itself. They will not recover
the summer of seventy-seven again, even
though they become, in turn, their own children.

I sit in my sixty odd years and wonder
how often before in this old house a man has
sat thinking of what is now, and what was.
But can it serve a serious purpose to ponder
upon the imponderable? There, there beyond a
fall glimmers the long-lost garden

That garden where we, too, as in a spell
stared eye into dazed eye and did not see
that suddenly the holy day was over,
the flashing lifeguard, the worm in the tree,
the glittering of the bright sword as it fell,
and the gate closing for all time to be."

It is a magical moment, a déjà vu moment - and are not all deja vu moments magical in some way? The difference between now and before is that this time I know who wrote it: George Barker.
I came across the poetry of George Barker soon after I had begun to take a serious interest in poetry, but at that stage was in the seductive grip of Dylan Thomas (who famously dismissed Barker's poetry as "masturbatory monologues") and the still-fashionable T.S. Eliot, who had sponsored Barker's work. In fact, like a shopper at Blue Water on a Bank holiday, I was bumping into people at every turn, poets who seemed to be saying things that chimed with me at some level in some significant way. In the melee I decided that Barker's work was too intellectual for me. How come I thought he and not Eliot was too intellectual? Don't ask, for I have no sensible answer to offer you. It was several years later that in a magazine in a dentist's waiting room I read a passage from "Villa Stella". These three verses stayed in my mind. To me the final two have an almost undefinable beauty. I read them without knowing who had written them. When I came to the realisation that it was Barker, I knew I had some serious reading to do. End of story? Not quite, for I was still coming across poets and works faster than I could assimilate them. I must have been like a small child let loose to explore the great wide world on his own for the first time: what to have a go at next? Somewhere along the way George Barker was lost to view - until my déjà vu moment. Today I almost put him in the same bracket as W.S. Graham, in that he sacrifices linear logic and grammatical conformity to verbal and emotional extravagance. There is an slightly eccentric diction and a strong musicality. I say almost put him with W.S.Graham, for he is impossible to categorize; he belongs to no school.
It would seem that the world in general has treated Barker in much the same way as I have, for he was poorly received in the early days then encouraged by John Middleton Murray, which encouragement led to his first collection being published by David Archer's Parton Press, he was then promoted by T.S. Eliot, who, with one exception, would publish his work from then on. He became easily forgotten though, when the fashion changed. It would be nice to think that the analogy could come to be drawn more exactly with a revival of interest in his work. He became the youngest poet to appear in Yeats's Oxford Book of Modern Verse, and his two collections, "Lament and Triumph" and "Eros in Dogma", were to attract critical acclaim. Yet the promised "breakthrough" seems never to have happened. It is difficult to avoid asking why. We have been here before, I know, most recently in discussions of Ezra Pound and his work, but the thought will not go away that maybe the apathy is due, not to the poetry, but to the man. This, after all, is a poet who was thought by Yeats to be the finest of his generation, better than Auden and as rhythmically inventive as Gerard Manley Hopkins. Eliot seems to have been in at least partial agreement, for he initially rejected Auden, but apparently had no reservations where Barker was concerned. Could the fact that Barker's incipient popularity never did take off have had anything to do with his Bohemianism, his outrageous behaviour, his drinking and his proclivity for throwing heavy objects at guests and family - as, for example, when he threw a heavy ashtray at Elspeth, his second wife, for daring to venture the opinion that she hadn't enjoyed his most recent volume as much as the earlier ones? He fathered, according to one family member "around seventten" children by four women, though he was only married twice - to the mother of his first child, she being the first of his four long-term relationships, and to Elspeth, after the death of his first wife. He never divorced. In fact he didn't actually get around to leaving any of his lovers, preferring to drift in and out of relationships as he cooled towards one and (I suppose) warmed to the other. But he would pop back months later, unannounced, and expect all to be as he had left it. He once told the Sunday Times:" It is a woman's duty to be beautiful. When we have a civilized society, they will put down ugly and stupid women." There is much more, but you get the idea... Most of us would agree that such considerations should not influence our view of his poetry, but perhaps they do, by some sort of osmosis, get into the cells where judgements are made, for he has never been fashionable, and for someone so prolific, there is surprisingly little of his work to be found on the internet - and little enough biographical material. When I checked him out on Amazon they had a few books: one copy of his "Selected" (new), three "collected"s (new and used) and some copies of his "Street Ballads"; they also had 4 copies of biographical books and a copy of his "True Confessions". Not much, you might think, for a poet who was once highly regarded by the likes of Yeats and Eliot. "True Confessions" is a long autobiographical poem, and is the one not published by Eliot, who thought it too sexually candid for public taste. Maybe he was right, for when broadcast on radio by the B.B.C. it resulted in angry condemnations in parliament and in outraged accusations of pornography. It is the only book of his poems which Amazon has in plenty!
The fact is, though, that when the fashion was (as it still is) for a distant and ironic voice, when it was cool to be cool, when the trend was for linear logic, Barker wrote poetry that had much in common with Dylan Thomas's in that it was neo-romantic, exuberant and imagistic and had that commonality with W.S. Graham in being, yes, intellectually challenging, though perhaps more in its use (some would say abuse) of language than in its content. But not always. Here he is speaking of his mother:

To My Mother

Most near, most dear, most loved and most far,
Under the window where I often found her
Sitting as huge as Asia, seismic with laughter,
Gin and chicken helpless in her Irish hand,
Irresistible as Rabelais, but most tender for
The lame dogs and hurt birds that surround her -
She is a procession no one can follow after
But be like a little dog following a brass band.

She will not glance up at the bomber, or condescend
To drop her gin and scuttle to a cellar,
But lean on the mahogany table like a mountain
Whom only faith can move, and so I send
O all my faith, and all my love to tell her
That she will move from mourning into morning.

My own feeling is that you could trawl the archives of poetry for a long time and not find anything as movingly beautiful as "To My Mother" or those three verses from Villa Stella. But now, in somewhat different vein, some extracts from two poems dated 1934.
First, the opening two verses of

The Leaping Laughers

When will men again
Lift irresistible fists
Not bend from ends
But each man lift men
Nearer again.

Many men mean
Well: but tall walls
Impede, their hands bleed, and
They fall, their seed the
Seed of the fallen.

And some verses from:

Elegy Anticipating Death

Within abysmal catacombs lie
Branches of flame in darker trees,
The figures of precedented I.

As I under wander, these
Forms which crouch in alcoves
Clasping their cadaverous knees,

Glare down on me.
Later comes:

A third in speaking knows it says
No sound; a fourth chews air; and another's
Loins lack love's artifices.

Numberless countenances all brothers
To mine confront me at each turn
So that I an dead in the death of others

Yet all are myself; here they learn
The ossified restrictions I
Foresee must make my spirit burn

Only the more intense, when the soul-racks die
Not to loose dust but to the icy
Pain of bone laid immovably.

Perhaps to remake a point already made, George Barker published twenty-two books of poems. Of the twenty-two Google turned up no references to four of them, and many of the references that I did find were to second hand book suppliers, ebay, to books out of print and to Antiquarian Books. Furthermore a high proportion of the references were to the title only, with no quotations from, or comments on, the book. It maybe that my searches were not as exhaustive as they could have been, but it seems inconceivable that I could have drawn as many blanks on any other poet of his status, even on one so out of fashion. The twenty-two works are:

Third Preliminary Poems. 1933
Poems 1935
Calamiterror 1937
Lament and Triumph 1940
Eros in Dogma 1944
Love Poems. 1947
News of the World 1950
The Truie Confessions of George Barker 1950
A Vision of Beasts and Gods 1954
The View from a Blind I 1962
Dreams of a summer Night 1966
The Golden Chains. 1968
Runes and Rhymes and Tunes and Chimes 1968
At Thurgarton Church 1969
Poems of Places and People 1971
In Memory of David Archer 1973
Dialogues 1976
Villa Stella. 1978
Anno Domini 1983
Collected Poems 1987
Seventeen 1988
Three Poems.


Rachel Fox said...

I will be honest - I'd never heard of this poet before. And I have to admit..that thing about beautiful women doesn't make me want to rush down to a library to look him up. It's not that good poets can't talk crap (we've been having exchanges re Larkin elsewhere on a similar theme) but at the same time there are a lot of poets to read and hear (old and new) and only so many hours in the day. I can't say any of the poems in your post persuaded me over to your view of him either. But I enjoyed your enthusiastic plea for the defence!

Conda Douglas said...

This poet surprised me as well, especially as how my main focus of study in college was the poetry of Yeats. So I much of the poetry of other poets he commented upon. Yeats also once stated something about "women's job being beautiful" but of course, these are poets of another age. And he wrote some delightful love poetry, so I've forgiven him the sentiment.

Dave King said...

Thanks for the feedback. What can I say, but "fair comment"?

Dave King said...

Thanks for the comment. One of the aspects which interests me is the gulf there appears to be between the judgments of poets of the calibre of Yeats et al and, if you like, the rest of the world. I think Conda's remark very apt, that there is so much to read and a finite time in which to read it. Maybe that says it all.

Lucy said...

It does sometimes all seem rather arbitrary who survives and who doesn't...

I like the first poem that you found in the Guardian very much, especially the last verse with the minute details of the holiday experience next to 'the bright sword as it fell/And the gate closing for all time...', but the others aren't so inviting.

Dylan Thomas wasn't such a paragon of virtue, but of course he died young, which redeemed him instantly, and though Larkin was an offensive old so-and-so, he was generally more accessible (which I don't see as a perjorative term in poetry!), and his solitariness somehow made him more sympathetic too.

Dave King said...

Thanks Lucy,
Yes, I was really captivated by the verse you mention. I must admit that I have not come upon much else of his that has appealed to me as that poem did. Maybe I lived a bit in the afterglow of that, so far as he was concerned. Two points to make, though: there was never a representative selection of his work available - so far as I could discover; and how many great poems must a poet write to be a great poet?
Dylan Thomas, the suspicion is, was just a touch jealous of him.
Thanks for a really good and thought-provoking comment.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to confess that I was also unaware of George Barker but he is only one in a very long queue of poets whose names I don't even know let alone their work in fact it often embarrasses me how little poetry I have read over the years and how little I actually own. I did have a look at AbeBooks.com for his poetry with some success. I put in the author's name and 'poems' as a keyword. That seemed to work.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that Jim.
I would have to go along with Rachel when she points out that there is so much to read (there are so many poets) and only a finite amount of time to read them. I still come across poets I can enjoy, but have not heard of before. Sometimes they are American poets who have not been published here before, but, yes, there is always a tinge of guilt when that happens.

Unknown said...

It's a delight to hear anyone write (if one can "hear" writing) about Barker these days. I had the fortune to be a student of George's when he was visiting lecturer at UW=Madison back in the 70s. I must admit I've always found his writing uneven, though improving with age. Once he got past (mostly) the pyrotechnic early work I think he found his voice. I must say his public persona was a far cry from the domestic George I saw in Itteringham - and I would say he was a remarkable teacher outside the classroom. Many thanks for reminding me. scott

Dave King said...

Welcome, and many thanks for that and for taking the time to provide the feedback. Always good to have. I guess his work was a bit uneven, but then I think a poet (or any other artist) should be judged by his best, not some averaging ot of his work.

Anonymous said...

I came to works of Barker two years ago and have never been fascinated so taken (at least in recent years) by any poet's works in the absolutely enraptured way that these works enveloped me. I have had to scour sellers to obtain his works, and I now have something of a collection. Some of Barker's books come up under titles but not in an author search! I've had to rely on looking at the "other works" pages in texts when they finally arrive (usually from the UK) to see what else he has written that is not common knowledge. There are woeful bibliographies on the internet, woeful for being so incomplete. I recently blogged about Barker's poem, "The Ring-a-roses tree," though its sub-sub work compared to your own. Barker is undoubtedly offensive to many, but he was a grand poet nevertheless. I hope readers will truly rediscover him. Most people only know "The True Confessions of George Barker" and forget that this is the same man who wrote the children's book of verse, _The Alphabetical Zoo_. Everyone should rediscover a man of such divergences.

Best, and thank you for your post,

P. S. If you're interested in my illiterate rambling about Barker, you can find it if you dig around a bit at:


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

The only thing I see missing from your bibliography of Barker's works follows:

Street Ballads 1992

Best, and, again, a great post,

Anonymous said...

Another addition to the bibliography:

To Aylsham Fair

I will send year of publication information upon the book's arrival. It is, however, another book of poems for children.

Unknown said...

I think a poem with feeling, I liked the part that mentions the beautiful women, is a poet who appreciates the beauty of the world,and last but not least there is some
buy viagra that is a huge relief!
God bless!

Save My Relationship said...

Very interesting poet indeed! Got to love how he will be himself in his work!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your notes on Barker. I'm just discovering his work and found your information useful. I have also just read his book of 'Essays' from 1970, which I'd highly recommend (I've been cheeky enough to re-publish two of the pieces at my online journal The Fiend; www.thefiendjournal.wordpress.com as this book is very rare). Also, Robert Fraser's biography.

What are my general feelings about Barker? I think it is a kind of ecstatic bemusement. I am not yet familiar with his later poems (am reading through 'The Golden Chains' at the moment) but hear that, of Barker's presently small readerships there are two conflicting initial summations, that 1/he gets better as he gets older 2/he gets worse as he gets older (!!!!) from pages of commentary I've found on the internet... which immediately intrigued me!

Although this may be a red herring. My initial feeling is that those two earlier volumes; 'Lament and Triumph', and 'Eros in Dogma' are great great books... but then the variety of poems, and their growth through the 50s and 60s, is deceptive of those first summations, and makes too explicit the presumption of him Failing too often, later on... he MAY fail, but he EXPERIMENTS widely (and far beyond Dylan Thomas, if only in being blessed with a much longer writing life) and we know via people like D.H Lawrence that success and failure are not so much a concern for a great writer, or reader, but, instead; growth, experiment, becomes the watchword.

He DOES seem, as he goes on, to be seeking greater and greater simplicity of expression... which is intriguing, since someone like Joyce's trajectory seemingly goes in the opposite direction.

(He may also have benefited from Eliot's death in '66, in that the work opens out more, innovates, takes strange risks, has a kind of oblique candour etc). What I like less is that many of his later poems are more elegiac and 'occasional' (after Coleridge?) Those inclinations, in him, I like less, I think.

But I also concur with 'Save My Relationship' on the genuine-ness, or the sincerity, or (even!) the intensity/passion of purpose Barker's poetry always has. This strikes me as the hallmark of certain of the thirties poets (Thomas, Graham, Gascoyne? possibly)... now sadly absent from contemporary poetry (or, at least presently PUBLISHED poetry).

In the U.K, we now seem stuck with descendants of the Hughes, Hill or Larkin lineages (suffice to say; none of these poets really float my boat).

Anyhow... those are my thoughts so far in my reading of Barker. Thanks, again, for triggering them!

Andrew O'Donnell