Skinned alive

John Bayley

  • Collected Poems by George Barker, edited by Robert Fraser
    Faber, 838 pp, £27.50, May 1987, ISBN 0 571 13972 8
  • By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept by Elizabeth Smart, introduction by Brigid Brophy
    Grafton, 126 pp, £2.50, July 1987, ISBN 0 586 02083 7

Amusing, and perhaps instructive, to think of great paintings whose voyage into mystery and meaning seems to depend, in the first instance, on a technical trick: a separation of planes so that the head of the principal figure lives in a different world from that of the body, and the rest of the picture. Rembrandt’s ‘Polish Rider’ travels serenely on a pantomime horse, deftly accoutred with his bowcase, his shapka, his shapely uniform of red and white. But the face is that of a beautiful woman, smiling quietly in some secret satisfaction, disembodied from the soldier’s quest. Botticelli’s Venus is a Peruginesque Madonna with no clothes, posed on a pagan shell. The formidable eyeballs of Piero’s risen Christ, separated from the cornea in their upward gaze, forbid any offering from the spectator of devotion or reciprocity. The smile of Leonardo’s famous portrait is wholly hermaphroditic. Most striking of all, the upside-down face of Marsyas, in his agony at the surgeon’s hands of scientific Apollo, expresses a refined and sexless being lost on the solitary verge of pleasure, while Midas-Titian gazes tearfully not at him but at some other terror.

In her introduction to By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept, written for its republication by Grafton Books in 1966 – it first appeared in 1945 – Brigid Brophy stresses the idea of metamorphosis, which is also the aesthetic factor in the composition of these great pictures. Metaphor and metamorphosis – the same Greek preposition signalling an act of change. She calls this short book one of ‘the half a dozen masterpieces of poetic prose in the world’, and one in which the status of universality is achieved by its actors effortlessly becoming ‘metaphors of something beyond themselves’. The book’s title metamorphoses the modern age into bitter exile beside the waters of Babylon; its poetry mixes the Psalms and The Song of Songs with the Greek legends of love’s affliction. All the reviewers stressed the book’s skinless quality, as if the writer had submitted to being flayed alive by her emotions in order to be able to write it. Being torn from oneself, as Ovid makes Marsyas call the experience, authenticates the rhetorical cry into which the experience is transformed for us to read about it.

Or at least that is the idea. In his poem ‘Apollo and Marsyas’ the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert imagines a new sort of howl which might come out of that musical contest. The tone is cool, a little sceptical and very Polish, well aware of the nature of experiences which art can or maybe cannot encompass. At any rate, the kind of art that knows it is art. By Grand Central Station is indeed a Marsyas howl, transformed into the kind of words that Apollo knows how to use. The best metamorphoses leave both states unchanged; the tormented flesh and the singing head remain separate, even in coincidence.

Elizabeth Smart was born in Ottawa in 1913. She was in London before the Second World War and read, in a bookshop, some of George Barker’s poems. She fell for him in print. This was a visitation of love as the ancients knew about it, a sudden incurable and unconquerable malady. Or that was how it seemed to the victim, and how she presents it to us. She got to know Barker, who was married and had no money, and invited him and his wife to a cottage in California, paying for them to get there. Her book begins with this ménage à trois, but no details are given and the figures remain shadowy; only the emotion is vivid. Like a psalm, the book has no plot, but includes a visionary humiliation, caused by the lovers attempting, no doubt for immoral purposes, to cross a State line together. It ends with an equally visionary separation – ‘My dear, my darling, do you hear me where you sleep?’ – and by that time the reader has certainly become engrossed in the writer’s misery, and in the strength of her abandonment to it.

Art can portray a moment or two of Marsyas’s flaying but scarcely the whole operation. By Grand Central Station is about the right length – that is to say, pretty short. Even so, it takes time to get into the misery, so to speak: the reader is irritated at first, not only by the difficulty of seeing what is happening, but by the excessive fussiness and literariness of the style. On the California coast ‘the Pacific in blue spasms reaches all its superlatives ... Under the waterfall he surprised me bathing and gave me what I could no more refuse than the earth can refuse the rain.’ Is the wife having a bad time too? Yes. ‘On her mangledness I am spreading my amorous sheets, but who will have any pride in the wedding red, seeping up between the thighs of love which rise like a colossus, but whose issue is only the cold semen of grief ?’ Surely this is just very bad? A touch of humour, that great solvent of passion, and even of misery, could blow it all away? And the strained seriousness is compounded by continual borrowings from other myths and writings, from Syrinx, and Rilke (‘Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?’), to Heathcliff and Macbeth (‘There is nowhere and never a time for such a word’) and the haunting cadence of Beddoes:

If thou wilt ease thine heart
     Of love and all its smart,
   Then sleep, dear, sleep.

Apart from all this, the reader may receive an illusive impression that the whole thing must have been translated from the French, in which language it would at least sound very much more natural.

And yet, amazingly, the emotion, the true and abject affliction, come through, and begin to move the reader, and even to awe him. The style and the feeling seem two quite different things – how separated it’s impossible to say. Marsyas was probably no great shakes as a performer, which is why the judges had no trouble in awarding Apollo the prize: only when his skin was gone or going did his cry become a new kind of art. More than that, he needed the artifice of his former piping to set off the strength of his present howl. Quoting the poignant suicide note of an illiterate lover, Aldous Huxley opined that sincerity was mainly a matter of talent, but that is misleading. The talent may get everything wrong, but the passion may come through pure, in spite of the wrongness, or even because of it. I doubt whether this applies to paint. A great painter achieves those effects of separation by vision and technique, not by force of emotion. Elizabeth Smart may have caught some style from reading those poems of George Barker, along with the fatally virulent lovegerm, and it may have triggered her capacity to cry out so movingly. ‘My dear, my darling, do you hear me where you sleep?’ Of course that was not the end – in life it never is – though it was right to make it so in art. From the cover of her book we learn that she has had four children by George Barker, and from the title dedication of one of his poems the couple would seem to have been married, either notionally or in fact.

He was going on with his poems while she was writing her book. And whereas in her case the feeling detaches itself from the manner, and remains alive and moving today, in his the manner that seemed so urgent and original in 1937, or thereabouts, has now set into a kind of quaintness:

My nine-tiered tigress in the cage of sex
I feed with meat that you tear from my side
Crowning your nine months with the paradox:
The love that kisses with a homicide
In robes of red generation resurrects.

That, from Eros in Dogma (1944), is a fair sample of its manner, which seems to be celebrating with equability – the poet with all his singing-robes about him – the kinds of event and emotion which were elsewhere taking such painful shape in By Grand Central Station. It was an idiom of the time, mostly invented by Dylan Thomas, whose voice is heard in lines like ‘My pig-faced kingdom with tongues of wrong’, but exploited by George Barker as a continuous rhetoric. Some of Thomas’s poems eclipse and perfect the manner, rise above it into perfection, rather in the same way that Elizabeth Smart’s book rises into feeling: but in Barker’s case the poetry remains poetry, in the sense that bards and skalds produce it by the yard. That in itself is no bad thing, and reminds us that we have largely lost the taste for, and the response to, production poetry: the kind that old men in the rural communities of Catalonia or Montenegro were said at one time to be able to recite by the hour. We are conditioned now to the brevity and the breakthrough of intimacy, the poem that has contrived not to sound like a poem but to make its verbal status invisible.

Calamiterror (1937), Lament and Triumph (1940) and Eros in Dogma, which came out towards the end of the war, accept as part of their function the vocabulary of protest: about Spain (‘I rose and felt the throes of Spain ... Continually the women weeping in Irun’s ruins’), about Jarrow (‘How can he cease/From political fight, how can his word sleep in his hand?’), about crystal Stalin and the Austrian corporal. But poets often are, and perhaps should be, like Dr Johnson’s butcher who as he told you his heart bled for his country ‘felt no uneasy sensation’. Bards in heroic households took their function as a matter of course, not as one of personal feeling; and though England before the war was far from heroic, Barker borrowed the proper visionary accents, seeing the ghosts of Blake and others, crying out from the past.

Alone on the dark beach I stood.
The teeth of the seas tore the shore.
‘O immensely sad land,’ I said, ‘where
Only the ghosts are good.’

He had a point there. Auden was saying much the same, and with the same flair for what was suitable: but Auden’s idiom, on which Barker like other poets of the day naturally drew, had not only an overriding personal authority but the thrilling secrecy of a special game. Barker seemed then, and seems still more today, one of the lads, one of the poets in the pubs of the time.

But he has all the virtues of this bardic status. Never mind the sorrows of England or the nine-tiered tigress in the cage of sex sublimating into verse his domestic problems. When an occasion called for a poem he provided a good one, the family rhetoric suited to an event, and it is instructive to compare his poem, ‘The Death of Yeats’, with Auden’s on the same topic. Auden says important things, but Barker declaims in the style that is exactly proper to an important occasion. Nearly forty years later he was writing on the suicide of John Berryman with just the same suitability.

I have heard the sigh
Of Berryman as he
Exhaled his everlast-
ing breath and leaped out-
ward and down. That sigh
hangs in the air I breathe
for ever and will hang.

Fellow bards with connoisseurship will admire the contemporary version of the quos ego formula, in the interrupted words played against the rhythm and the action it mimes. Even better are the lines he wrote on two sailors swept overboard in mid-ocean, which I remember first reading in 1942, I think in Poetry London, that famous wartime magazine.

The seagull, spreadeagled, splayed on the wind,
Span backwards shrieking, belly facing upward,
Fled backward with a gimlet in its heart
To see the two youths swimming hand in hand
Through green eternity. O swept overboard
Not could the thirty-foot jaws them part,
or the flouncing skirts that swept them over
Separate what death pronounced was love.

It is a most subtle use of archaism, in diction, properties and propriety – lamentation and comfort joined in a satisfying and moving way – and it sounds just as well now as it did more than forty years ago. As with all bardic poetry, it is the tradition that determines the effect, and not the poet’s personality. The jaunty tone of the two ‘True Confessions’, professional jobs in the manner of Villon, unfortunately leaves the personality both inadequate and exposed; bardic length is here an embarrassing aggregate. But the dialogues and memorials, epigrams, odes and elegies, sonnets to friends, kept on coming, as they should, and always in a workmanlike manner. There is a special feeling for syntax – that ‘not could’ in the drowning elegy, for instance – as if the movement of French or Irish underlaid it, a feeling perceived no doubt by T.S. Eliot when in 1934 he accepted for the Criterion a poem by the 21-year-old George Barker called ‘Daedalus’, a poem which today seems remarkably to combine the flavour of the period with an already complete mastery of this linguistic ‘glide’.

Where florid in the night pregnant nightdresses
Proceed sedately down unlighted stairs
Like people. And in the garden
Large lakes unreal. Hark, I hear visitant
Swans, and the moths in the trees
Like minor caverns humming ... Spectre, spectre where
If among these early places lie you, do you lie?

The young poet seems unconsciously to have realised that ‘Modernism’ could as easily be suggested by language that sounded archaic, translated (‘Large lakes unreal’, ‘lie you, do you lie?’), as by the more conventional Modernist expedient of direct quotation from a Classical or foreign language. The same adroit sense features in the dedication of the second ‘Confession’ (1964) to Elizabeth Smart Barker, but here the effect is designed to mime incoherence or verbal inadequacy.

I suppose it’s possible that we forget
  The things we’d rather that we never
Ever remembered, but, although we’re very clever,
  We’re really not all that clever, yet.
When I call devils from the deep
  The damn brutes answer only too pronto,
Skipping up out of the beds of sleep
  Not at my call, but because they want to.

By Grand Central Station never approached that verbal cunning, in which spontaneity and muddle are mingled with an epigrammatic twist. In the prose book style and sorrow remain separate, the first providing no skin for the second to wear. But this poetry can be all skin, covering everything flexingly over.