In the mists of my early manhood (when searing emotions reigned and before the joy of dogged bitterness set in), I mixed with creative folk and found myself one day at a poetry reading in an arts centre in Berkshire, southern England. Three poets read at the session – John Heath-Stubbs, W. S. Graham and George Barker. I would think them now to be a very illustrious crew. Morever the reading had been arranged by Barker’s son Sebastian, who was writer in residence at the arts centre and no mean poet himself. Of the poems recited I can, alas, remember absolutely nothing, but the physicality and the images of these three poets are still etched vividly in my memory some 40 years later – the angular grey-haired Graham, the wonderfully monstrous block of the almost blind Heath-Stubbs and the bemused and deceptive diffidence of Barker.
Of these three poets, the one to whose works I kept returning intermittently was George Barker. Well, I say works, but it is one work in particular which has stood out for me and which has been a fairly constant companion. This is the marvellous long poem called The True Confession of George Barker which I had serendipitously found in a second-hand Penguin Poets volume I possessed at the time of the reading. This volume, entitled The Mid Century: English Poetry 1940-1960 was edited by David Wright, a fellow poet and acquaintance of Barker. Wright – happily for me – had decided to include in his anthology some exemplary long poems. George Barker was thus represented singly and singularly by Book I of The True Confession.
This Penguin edition was published in 1965, the same year that saw the publication by MacGibbon & Kee of Barker’s own volume, The True Confession, which also contained the first publication of Book II of the confession, written more than ten years after its companion piece.
It seems rather trite to say this, but George Granville Barker (1913 – 1991) was a true poet, a poet to the core. He never knew any other life. He was the embodiment of his fabulous flamboyant verse and verbal magic. He lived a mischievous, chaotic, Bohemian poet’s life, treading a littered trail of loves lost and found, leaving in his wake the many children he fathered in those embraces. His poetry, siren-like, lured women to him. He was passionate, physically argumentative, difficult and controversial, extreme, obscene and, at times deliberately one might think, cocking a snook by spoiling a good line with an outrageous pun. “I cannot bear poems that do not have dirty marks on their faces,” biographer Robert Fraser (in his book The Chameleon Poet) quotes him as saying in later life. And in his teens Barker was already declaring “I like poetry to be dirty with earthly mould, finger marks on it, and its napkin… not quite deodorised.”
Berated by poet and editor Geoffrey Grigson as a producer of “nauseating poems” and a “loose rhetorician”, Barker made his name initially in modernistic prose and free verse famously gaining the patronage of T. S. Eliot (who called him both “genius” and “a very peculiar fellow”) and, less famously, of Graham Greene. But he was also technically adept at form and rhyme, wanting to move away from “Latinate bullshit” towards rigorous simplicity. He was deeply impressed by A. E. Housman. “I wanted to write a hundred little poems of eight lines, rhymed. I did this, and I saw how terribly, terribly hard it is to do”. The rhymed eight-lined stanzas of True Confession exemplify this rigour while at the same time retaining a wonderful Whitmanesque declamatory extravagance and energy.
The sulking and son-loving Muse/Grabbed me when I was nine. She saw/It was a question of self-abuse/Or verses. I tossed off reams before/I cared to recognize their purpose./ While other urchins were blowing up toads/With pipes of straw stuck in the arse,/So was I, but I also wrote odes.
His True Confession is his take on the first forty to fifty years or so of his disordered life as an “Augustinian anarchist”. As well as rhyme, there is a persistent physical rhythmic quality to the poem, which may have taken a lead from the motions of travel. Barker routinely wrote the stanzas of Book I while journeying on a bus.
When I call devils from the deep/The damned brutes answer only too pronto,/skipping up out of the beds of sleep/Not at my call, but because they want to.
The first part of the “confession” dwells idiosyncratically on his childhood years, his early dalliances with sex and God, musings on morality and faith and his beginnings as a poet:
The literature that I prized/Was anything to do with the nude/Spirit of creative art/ who whispered to me: ‘Don’t be queasy./Simply write about a tart/And there she is. The rest’s easy.’//And thus, incepted in congenial/Feebleness of moral power/I became a poet.
He usefully gives a cryptic nod to his own exemplar Francois Villon:
I entreat you frank villain,/Get up out of your bed of dirt/And guide my hand. You are still an/Irreprehensible expert/At telling Truth she’s telling lies./Get up, liar; get up, cheat,/Look the bitch square in the eyes/And you’ll see what I entreat.
He writes of his first marriage and child. Moments of elegiac lyricism are followed by declamatory self-deprecation. He notes his ill-timed departure for Japan where the ridiculous and sublime blend together in typical Barker fashion:
I sat one morning on the can/That served us for a lavatory/composing some laudatory/Verses on the state of man:/My wife called from the kitchen dresser:/’There’s someone here from Japan./He wants you out there. As Professor./Oh, yes. The War just began.’
And he confesses to his “Good God” of his omissions and commissions (“Every man knows well/He rides his own whores down to hell.”)
I confess, my God, that in/The hotbed of the monkey sin/I saw you through a guilt of hair/Standing lonely as a mourner/Silent in the bedroom corner/Knowing you need not be there.
Book II of the confession takes us to his time in Italy, the end of the war, the atomic bomb and original sin (“What, has the Ideos gone quite mad/Not to be frightened of the Atom?/I hear its joke, both rude and bad:/’Sir, it was I split the Adam’). He notes the birth of a son. He dwells on his deep preoccupation with St Francis of Assisi, contrasted with the Italian penchant for roasting song birds. And there are some remarkable part reverential, part irreverential ode-like verses to Cardinal Newman, who loomed large in Barker’s Catholic upbringing. He muses on art, religion, pagan gods, Bacchus and drink. And in this context introduces us to Louis Macniece and Dylan Thomas and that “deaf poet” (is this David Wright?) “whom the fishy/Girls upon their ragged rock/Chant vainly to, and close their ears”. He records the death of love (and the death of a love affair). Death, love and sin merge in one embrace:
“The lovers lying at their ease/Like coldblooded snakes that creep/And curl together half asleep/Eating each other by degrees/Until these heart-shaped heads of Satan/Stare bodiless at each other:/So, fattening as we’re being eaten,/ We devour one another.”
There is a diatribe from this ever-poor poet about moneyed poets (‘Three great bards, whose Income Tax/(What with Professorships and perks)/Filled more pages than their works”); a nod to the Jesuits and the confession ends.
O bed of roses! Let the man/Here in the prisons of the Night/And dreaming with a second sight/Look up to see, like Aldebaran,/The gold sunsetting mask of God/Christening us with our day’s/Apotheosizing blaze/Like Death on fire overhead.
As biographer Fraser rightly notes, this True Confession is far from autobiography. What we have here is a poetical reflection from a mature and practised poet, with biographical elements a kind of motivator, a skeleton around which Barker threads and shreds his “psychological history” and “theological disquisition”.
Eliot at Faber wouldn’t publish it. When, in April 1953, Barker was broadcast reading passages from Book I of the poem on the BBC’s Third Programme, there was outrage. The Daily Sketch – keen to get at the broadcaster – branded it “gilded filth”, sending reporters down to Barker’s home to garnish their offering. “Dirty thoughts are presented under the guise of culture. It is a challenge to basic dignities, a sexual meandering. It commits blasphemy in a condescending prayer.” The poem even featured prominently in Parliament where, in a debate in the House of Lords, Barker’s “piece of pornography” was used as a stick to beat the BBC.
Barker didn’t leave us with a similar take on the last 30 years of his life. Though perhaps he did, because his output never flagged and anyone dipping into any of these volumes will find a confessional treasure trove, be it the cleverly turned dialogues of Gog and Magog or the epistolary odes to fellow poets such as David Archer and Heath-Stubbs.
There is a cornucopia of prosaic philosophical reflection on love, life and death formulated in free verse – more reminiscent of Pascal than St. Augustine. (One remembers Grigson’s strictures.)
Indeed the volume Dialogues etc has a free-verse poem entitled Pascal’s Nightmare; and yet in the same collection, we have the perversely playful rhymed quatrains of Dialogue VIII where the stopped heart becomes a cuckoo clock with the cuckoo fled to cloud cuckoo land and poem itself beats to berate the silent heart:
‘There there is no sun arising/or circles of the moon,/there is no kiss in the morning/and no gun at noon./ There is no river running into a future tense;/ and long though you look down, it bears no image hence… The waves are always breaking/although they never break/and the footprints of the wind have gone/from the surface of the lake./There the suns hang for ever/in the eternal tree./ – The cuckoo will never call again/for you, my love, or me.’
Barker could be truly offensive and deliberately outrageous. The anecdotes of his life can read like a Dostoevsky novel. At one moment he is as perverse as “the underground man”, at another point his antics are reminiscent of a scene from The Idiot. He takes umbrage when he decides (second wife) Elspeth is smirking while reading verse from his Villa Stellar and he grabs the completed typescript of the collection and hurls it on to the fire. An appalled visitor tries to retrieve the burning manuscript only for Barker to clout him on the head with a coal shovel. On another occasion son Christopher describes Barker’s explosive and furious reaction when this son’s attempt at reconciliation ends with the poet – in tears – smashing his fist down on a vinyl recording of Ave Maria as the record plays on the turntable, and storming out, declaiming “How dare you! How dare you!” As a young man Barker had the misfortune accidentally to put out the eye of his brother in a play sword fight (recounted later in poem XXXVII of the In Memory of David Archer collection), an act which he dubbed “an enormous natural calamity”. He must have been both joy and despair for those who knew him.
Back in the early 1980s, in my youthful self-centred arrogant naivety I paid too little attention to what went on round about me. The blind Heath-Stubbs could see clearer than ever I could. But a life lived is a life learned and to anyone in reflective mode who wants help in wondering what the hell happened, I heartily recommend George Barker’s True Confession.
And so in my East Anglian travels this past summer, I found myself embarking on two pilgrimages on the same day. In the morning I drove across the Suffolk/Norfolk border to Walsingham and visited the Anglican and Catholic shrines of Our Lady. George Barker who struggled all his life with Catholicism and original sin and whose verse is deeply, at times angrily, imbued with this struggle must also, surely, have made this trek. From Walsingham I drove a few miles east to the easily accessible but curiously remote village of Itteringham – the English equivalent of “France profonde”. And, as the sun was setting, and some forty years after my one and only encounter with the poet, I visited another religious establishment, the Itteringham village church where in the far end of the graveyard lies buried the mortal remains of George Granville Barker.
Like his verse, the handsome tombstone has both solidity in form and flamboyance in expression with its white lettering and the carving of a bird, immediately recognisable as a phoenix rising from flames and ashes. And beneath all this – the Latin word “RESURGAM” – I shall rise again. Barker, who had battled with – and against – his faith throughout the whole of his life and told the priest who married him to Elspeth that there was only one of the ten commandments he hadn’t broken, pledges he’ll be back.
The image of the phoenix is no random choice, of course. And I do not know whether this was Barker’s doing or the act of his family and friends. But the phoenix – the bird that rises from the flames and ashes of its predecessor, this universal symbol of renewal – was the emblem not only of D H Lawrence.
Barker and his younger brother Kit in their creative adolescent years – and with an expressedly clear nod to Lawrence – had set up a pottery in their garden shed and – as biographer Robert Fraser recounts – “devised a logo of a stylised phoenix rising from some equally stylised flames, which they stamped on the base of their pots.” “They called the enterprise the Phoenix Pottery.” And as they acquired a printing press and began to publish their own works, this enterprise soon transmogrified into the “Phoenix Press”. This tombstone looks like its last production.
I stand by Barker’s tomb, loath to move on, quietly paying my respects and thanking the dead poet for his verse, but my wife urges me away, sets off back to the car and then suddenly reappears accompanied by a tall silver-haired man. “This is the church warden,” she says. “He knew George Barker.”
And so, for ten minutes I am privileged to hear some reminiscences of the poet’s time in the village and yet another anecdote about his outrageous behaviour and his banishment from the local pub. After he died the Itteringham church was used for a commemorative reading of his verse. “It was packed full!” my interlocutor tells me in disbelief. “Packed!”
I drive back as darkness descends, reflecting inevitably on faith, life and death. I think of Barker’s own mock epitaph in his True Confession. “Essex gave me birth, and Sex/Death. I lie here, poet/of hawkers, bottles and bad cheques”. I think too of the terrifying scope of Barker’s self-taught knowledge and wide reading. The asides, allusions and references in his work range with ease through the vast halls of thought and culture, ancient and modern. The reader reels with vertigo as these dizzying horizons unfold. Beliefs, ideas, thoughts vie in his verse with an emotional honesty and force.
Barker lists in True Confession a pantheon of poets ancient and modern ascending the heights of the “Matterhorns of intelligence”: “…at/A crevasse in the icebound soul/Cowper sits imbibing tea;/Pound whistling in an iron cage/over an avalanche; Eliot/Roping down an untamed gale,/ And old Yeats, frozen in majesty.” Byron, Pope, Clare, and Catullus (inevitably) are there, “old Blake/Like a bald prophet on a tricycle/Riding the Trinity…” and Leopardi. I am surprised at the absence of Housman. But, then, who is this – the last on this list of pioneering poetical mountaineers, the one nearest the summit?
“…the good guide Thomas Hardy/Lost in vast mist; and the metaphysical/Fury assaulting them all alike.”
Typical Barker. Goodness me! The great man Hardy – his leading mountaineer of poetry, last in the list. And so good a guide is he, that with life’s little ironies and with a satire of circumstance, he is lost in the mist.
Robert Fraser’s splendid biography of George Barker is titled: The Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker, Published by Jonathan Cape, London 2001
Peter Wilby published a most informative short account of Barker’s life in the Guardian newspaper in 2008
See also the piece by Christopher Barker published in the Guardian
An interesting piece by poet Paul Potts who also knew Barker – “the world of George Barker is a place for sinners…”
See also the blog – the diary review