O Wyoming Whipporwill

Claire Harman

  • The Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker by Robert Fraser
    Cape, 573 pp, £25.00, February 2002, ISBN 0 224 06242 5

Fame came early to George Barker, but not so early as to take him by surprise. He designed his own ‘crypto-Renaissance catafalque’ at the age of 13, just to be on the safe side, and a year later was writing in these sophisticated terms of his own literary strengths and weaknesses:

I am certain that my mind is made if anything for self-contained imaginative work: critical activity of any kind is alien to me, alien and dissonant. The values structuring a critical work must be either impersonal or strange; the individuality of the critic, except emotionally, is to be nullified. Such nullification I cannot affect. Either I am without an important analytical intelligence, or my imagination is monstrously oversize.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this piece of youthful dogmatism is that Barker continued to believe it all his life. He came to treat ‘analytical intelligence’ as if it were a mortal threat to imagination and individuality, and clung to whatever was ‘self-contained’ and self-generated. Poets, in his view, should be both hieratic and ‘at heart anarchic’, required to make and keep themselves exceptions to the rule. ‘If I am anything, I am a poet,’ says the narrator of Barker’s first novel, Alanna Autumnal, written between the ages of 18 and 20: ‘I stress this, or want to stress it, to exculpate myself from the miserable little ambiguities which one is certain to make in the sustained prose perambulation of life.’

Barker’s precocity was impressive, and attracted the attention and patronage of John Middleton Murry, T.S. Eliot and Edwin Muir. Murry gave the 19-year-old poet two books to review for the Adelphi on the strength of some pages of diary (later worked up into the first novel) and Barker had published in New Verse, Criterion and the Listener at an age when most of his contemporaries’ ambitions only stretched as far as Isis. Whether his success was more or less surprising given his poor, South London background and short, patchy education is hard to tell. The middle-aged literary grandees who took him up were all university-educated and may have found Barker’s unschooled eloquence refreshingly different, or simply been stunned by his confidence and good looks.

Alanna Autumnal, published in 1933, contained a characteristic piece of bravado, citing under ‘By the Same Author’ one as yet unpublished and one never finished book. Having anticipated a lifetime of literary achievement, Barker presumably saw no harm in getting some credit in advance. Not that the scales needed weighting: by 1936, when he was still only 23, he was regarded as the leading poet of the new generation, with three real books to his name and selections of work in the two most influential anthologies of the time, Michael Roberts’s Faber Book of Modern Verse and Yeats’s Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Eliot was a sincere admirer and generous patron; Yeats was delighted with Barker’s ‘lovely subtle mind and a rhythmic invention comparable to Gerard Hopkins’. What could possibly go wrong for this golden boy?

The fact that Barker fell completely from public esteem long before his death in 1991 begs the question whether he was any good in the first place. It is one of the few questions not addressed by Barker’s acolyte and devotee Robert Fraser in this over-long, over-respectful first biography. Fraser starts from the premise that Barker is self-evidently a major writer: ‘George Barker was a poet of outstanding gifts, an enchanter of souls, a verbal magician with a pot of gold beneath his tongue’; but readers looking for corroboration of this in the biography’s generous quotations are more likely to conclude that Barker’s was a scatter-gun talent with hit-and-miss results. He wrote a lot and revised little, placing a high value on spontaneity – or the appearance of it – and the untrammelled voice. His style is rhapsodic, intoxicated, heavily reliant on aural effects and off-the-cuff puns. Energy is always more in evidence than meaning and his Collected Poems, at a mighty eight hundred pages, probably contains more vocatives than Swinburne and more ejaculations than Byron.

Fraser’s uncritical attitude to his subject’s works goes hand in hand with a nit-picking thoroughness about the facts of his life: we are told at one point that ‘Barker stayed in British Columbia for almost exactly one calendar month.’ At every stage in the career of this extraordinary sponger, barfly and serial heartbreaker, Fraser is there to count the pints for posterity. Perhaps if he downs enough of them, Barker will qualify as a great character, and then the poetry will just slip into place behind him? For the fading of Barker’s star puzzles and depresses his biographer: ‘the extremity of his behaviour should have delighted the public,’ he laments, ‘instead, they had forgotten him.’

Barker’s drunken and disorderly life turned out to be exactly that exculpation from ‘prose perambulation’ he sought for himself. Born in 1913, the third child in a close, half-Irish, Catholic family, he was educated by priests and had a short spell at the Regent Street Polytechnic, leaving at the age of 15. Somehow he avoided being set seriously to work, instead he had a series of casual jobs he took pains to be bad at. The buses to work all passed the National Gallery ‘and it seemed to me then and it seems to me now an unpardonable waste of time to test radio transformers or design bad wallpaper while great paintings, like dolled-up women, wait to be admired.’ Barker developed this specious argument into a philosophy of life and became a remarkably successful full-time freeloader, never doing any paid work for long and if possible doing no work at all. Surprisingly few of his friends and family objected to this, though it clearly caused his ex-soldier father grief (the two eventually came to blows over it). Everyone else seemed prepared to underwrite the genius, especially the women he took up with.

The first of these was his sister Monica, closest friend of Barker’s youth and collaborator in his early literary attempts, who typed out his poems, wrote to publishers and commiserated over rejections. She was the model for Alanna in Barker’s first book, and a languid portrait of her by him appears on the cover. The sibling narrators of Alanna Autumnal are like psychic twins and it is hard not to read the book as a fantasy of incestuous marriage. Alanna is pregnant by a husband who has left her; Edward is a poet immobilised after an accident. As her pregnancy progresses, Alanna’s lyricism becomes feverish; ‘Edward, Rock in an ocean of delirium, succour me! Secure me with your stark arms, male hard arms, which bend across soft winds and push absolute objects from your path.’ There is only one way down from here: Alanna dies in childbirth, the baby is stillborn and Edward, having burned his life’s work, commits suicide.

What impressed Middleton Murry and others about this extravagantly flawed short novel was not just the nerve of the thing, but its counter-Modernist parries. Watching a thrush, Edward soliloquises sadly: ‘I found myself filling with a sort of repressed lyricism which forced itself through my eyes and made of the thrush a symbol of all the rural things I long to write about but must not, such is the discipline and preventative strength of fashion.’ A similar struggle goes on in many of Barker’s poems, but he makes a virtue of it, leaving his contradictory Modernist and romantic impulses fully exposed. Typically, Barker withdraws from moments of swelling lyricism with a recanting gesture, a change of register or braking cadence, such as the ending of ‘Elegy IV’: ‘Azrael, Azrael,/Enters with papers of pardon releasing/The idiot poet from a biological cell’ or the gruff curtailment of ‘Roman Poem III’ (about ‘rural things’, a dying sparrow) ‘for my part,/I hope the whole unimportant affair is/quickly forgotten. The analogies are too trite.’

This self-consciousness about his own excesses, coupled with a refusal to abandon them, is one of the most interesting things about Barker. Eliot seemed to like it very much, perhaps recognising someone steeped in his own work. (Could he have failed to catch the echo in Thirty Preliminary Poems: ‘What have we done wrong/What wrong have we done’?) ‘Ash Wednesday’ had been a watershed for Barker, as he recalled: ‘my childhood came to an end on that day in nineteen hundred and heaven knows what when I spent my lunch money on a poem which seemed to me so great that for two or three days afterwards my own poems disappointed me.’ Eliot, for his part, seemed to respond readily to the strains of an antique flute in lines like these from Barker’s early poem ‘The Amazons’:

Pallid the mirages, the palaces
Appearing brilliant on the mountain tops, pale
The whispering sibilant fields and pale
The phantasmal countenances female
Haunting our progress: in all climactic places
Appear the brilliant and distraught and pallid faces.

Eliot’s enthusiasm was confirmed by extraordinary patronage: when Barker was still only 20 and barely in print, Eliot signed him up with Faber and organised a group of backers to provide him with a small regular income. Barker had just married his sister’s friend Jessica Woodward and gone to live in a cottage in Dorset, but it isn’t clear if Eliot knew why. The reason given was that his new bride was consumptive; the truth was she was pregnant and they were trying to conceal the fact from her strict Catholic family. Their marriage seems to have made the young poet restless and dissatisfied from the start: the baby was adopted at birth, but Barker had more difficulty detaching himself from his pious and devoted wife.

By 1937 even Eliot was beginning to think Barker should get a steady job, and wrote cancelling the allowance with some temperately worded advice to ‘scrap a good deal and publish little’; ‘You ought to . . . cultivate an attitude which would enable you to observe the prosperous parade of more facile and accommodating talents.’ This Barker was unable to do. He was highly aware of his rivals, Dylan Thomas in particular, and fashion-conscious in ways that were not always helpful; his experiments with surrealism around the time of the 1936 exhibition were unsuccessful and his attempts at a noirish tone in the 1960s weak.

Just before war broke out, Barker was offered a post as visiting professor at Tohoku University and accepted it in preference to being called up. It was a disastrous period: he seems to have hated and feared the foreignness of Japan (later describing the Japanese as ‘sub-human’) and his lectures were fiascos, some lasting only a few minutes. He left at the first opportunity, fleeing to California at the expense of an as yet unknown young Canadian admirer called Elizabeth Smart. Smart had read Barker’s poems and fallen in love with their author at a distance, determining in advance to bear him children on the grounds that they ‘would all be wonderful poets’. Her fixation might have been harmless if she hadn’t had money; as it was, her dollars prised Barker’s marriage apart. Within months, he and Smart had run off to New York City and begun begetting the wonderful poets. The relationship ran in tandem with his marriage, sometimes farcically, and was characterised by rows, drinking and wordy reconciliations. But for all his relishing of power over his wife and mistress, Barker easily tired of domesticity, was particularly likely to do a bunk when the women were pregnant and at one point ran away from them both with another lover, John Fitch.

In the early part of Barker’s career he was often bracketed together with Dylan Thomas and did what he could to encourage the association. In 1937 he suggested that they exchange letters in verse – obviously with a view to publication – but though Thomas replied politely enough to the real letter, Barker’s verse epistle went unanswered. Thomas in fact hated Barker’s verse and took every opportunity to deride it. To Keidrych Rhys of the magazine Wales he wrote: ‘I won’t write to Barker asking for a poem. One of the outstanding things about Wales is that, so far, it has not printed one of Mr Barker’s masturbatory monologues – as every other verse magazine of our time has done with disgusting frequency’. Three years later, Thomas parodied Barker as Albert Ponting, author of Claustrophosexannual:

I, I, my own gauze phantom am,
My head frothing under my arm,
The buttocks of Venus for my huge davenport,
I orgillous turn, burn, churn,
As his rubbery bosom curds my perspiring arm –
The gust of my ghost, I mean –

This was pretty restrained, given the weaknesses of Barker’s 1937 collection, Calamiterror (‘Where, O Wyoming whipporwill where/Search for or seek for if long lost!’). Thomas had reproduced all Barker’s worst tics: the insistent first person, the line-filling repetition, empty, ornate vocabulary, extraneous word-play. Barker’s response to the squib is not recorded and perhaps he never saw it. His enthusiasm for Thomas continued undented and when the Welshman died Barker wrote a heartfelt tribute: ‘He has not died because there was no more life left in him, but because the world as it is had become an intolerable place for such a man, and insupportable to such a spirit.’

‘Every poet is more people than he seems to be,’ Barker wrote in the same piece on Thomas. His Essays, published in 1970, is a surprisingly entertaining book. The prose lacks either clarity or precision, but always gets somewhere. He misuses (perhaps even misunderstands) words, becomes lost even within sentences and never sustains an argument, but his wit is ready for anything and when he manages to hit the target, it is almost always a bullseye. Here is his judgment on Stephen Spender:

His destiny is to prove that a poem with an impediment of speech, a club foot, and butterfingers, can nevertheless enunciate, hold and pursue the poetic affirmation. His poems are thus good poems because and in spite of the fact that they are bad ones . . . There is no danger of his poems going to Hollywood but a reasonable chance that they will finish up in hospital.

And here his view of Celticism: ‘I have yet to meet a true Celtic poem with its eyes entirely dry.’ The Celts’ histories ‘are calamitous for the same reason as their poetry is sad – they like grief more than they like delight, they enjoy sorrow. They went out to battle, but they always fell, because it looks better.’

Barker spread his net wide: he had to. In the late 1940s and 1950s, he tried his hand at verse drama (pretty clearly in imitation of Thomas), and seemed unabashed by his failure. His association with Douglas Cleverdon at the BBC led to the broadcast in 1953 of The True Confession of George Barker, an autobiography in verse which contains long passages of doggerel (rhyming ‘tender’ with ‘lend a’, ‘protoplasm’/‘orgasm’, ‘villain’/‘still an’, ‘hejiras’/‘admirers’) and so much explicit writing about sex that it earned the distinction of being cited in a House of Lords debate about the introduction of commercial broadcasting. Lord Balfour of Inchyre quoted eight lines of the Confession ‘to debunk some part of the assumption that everything is so perfect with the BBC, and that the standards of commercialism will be so much lower’. The poem was also reviled in the press as pornography: it was probably the most attention Barker ever got.

The chaotic private life that fuelled The True Confession makes grim reading. Never has the verb ‘to father on’ carried such a bleakly transitive meaning. Barker fathered three children on his first wife, four on Elizabeth Smart, three on Dede Farrelly and five on his second wife, Elspeth Langlands: 15 in all. His treatment of women was almost always bad and it is hard to accept Fraser’s complacency about it. Fraser seems amazed that the women got mad at being abandoned (‘feminine anger and resentment closed in . . . from every side’) and virtually colludes with his subject to play down the worst behaviour. Betty Cass, the only one of Barker’s lovers to leave rather than be left, had to go into hiding for fear of his fury. Fraser earths the significance of this with a fatuous link: ‘the sensation of having been abandoned himself had brought Barker closer to poets for whom thwarted passion had been a theme.’ Similarly, there is no mention of Barker’s break-up with Dede Farrelly.

Though Barker never had ‘any goddammed money’, he had a pretty easy life, holding court in Fitzrovia, Italy, France, Ireland and New York at other people’s expense. In his later years, he attracted some bizarre sinecures: the entrepreneur Clive Sinclair paid him £1000 a year to be ‘cultural adviser’ to his Cornish computer business and a Norwich tailoring firm made him their ‘cultural consultant’. Barker did some teaching at North American universities in the 1970s and had several poetry residencies in England, but otherwise nothing, apart from hangovers and rows, interrupted the production of his 19 volumes of verse.

Can many reputations survive such prolificity? I doubt it, and doubt that Fraser was wise to try to make a case for Barker as overlooked genius. His best poems are his least characteristic ones, such as the sonnet ‘To My Mother’ and the late poem ‘At Thurgarton Church’:

I hear the old bone in me cry
and the dying spirit call:
I have forfeited all
and for once and for all must die
and this is all that I know.

The first ten lines of ‘Anno Domini’ are resonant and arresting:

at a time of bankers
to exercise a little charity;
at a time of soldiers
to cultivate small gardens;
at a time of categorical imperatives
to guess about clouds;
at a time of politicians
to trust only to children and demi-gods.
And from those who occupy the seats of power
to turn, today, away . . .

But the rest of the poem – hundreds of lines – only dilutes itself and ends with a repetition of the opening words as if in acknowledgment of having gone horribly astray. But Barker was always indulged. ‘It’s mi chawm, my dear Robert, just mi chawm’, his biographer reports Barker saying when asked how he had managed to lead such a varied life. Perhaps nothing is so perishable.