While George Barker was quite popular in Great Britain during the 1930s and 1940s, he seems to be better remembered for his numerous love affairs and fifteen children by several different women than for his very large body of poetry. One of these affairs is chronicled in the 1945 autobiographical novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart, a Canadian writer with whom Barker had a protracted and tumultuous relationship involving a great deal of deceit on his part and a great deal of credulity on hers. Barker’s version of the affair can be found in his 1950 novel The Dead Seagull. As I have often written, neither the meaning nor the value of a writer’s work is determined by his or her biography, but Barker’s life is a fascinating read in itself. He was the very definition of the modern bohemian, who built a life around flouting social and sexual mores.
From what I can tell, Barker was never much read in America. Despite his early success as a poet, in Britain he was somewhat overshadowed in the 1940s by the Auden circle’s discursive, socially oriented verse, and was rather dismissed in the 1950s by the Movement, which, reacting against what it saw as the Romantic excesses of the Forties, sought a sober, prosaic (even when written in traditional forms), “realistic” decorum to which Barker’s poetry is the antithesis.
Yeats included Barker in his highly idiosyncratic Oxford Anthology of Modern Verse 1892-1935, in which he called him a forerunner of a future literary revolution. Philip Larkin (a leading figure in the Movement) also included Barker in his only slightly less idiosyncratic Oxford Anthology of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973). But Barker’s work is not included in any of the three editions of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, nor in the recent Oxford Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry, edited by Keith Tuma, which takes as one of its aims the restoration of forgotten or neglected poets to public attention. His absence from the latter is especially notable, since such contemporaries working in comparable exploratory modes as Dylan Thomas, the English Surrealist David Gascoyne, Nicholas Moore (founder of the New Apocalypse movement), and W.S. Graham are included.
George Granville Barker was born in 1913 and died in 1991. Barker came from a poor background in a period of intense class-consciousness and class stratification; he was largely self-educated; having left school at fourteen and worked at a variety of jobs before finding literary patronage and early success as a poet. His first “official” volume, Poems, was published in 1935 by Faber and Faber under the aegis of T.S. Eliot, who became Barker’s patron, literary and financial, though Eliot considered him “a very peculiar fellow.”
Barker’s poetry, like that of Dylan Thomas and the somewhat younger W.S. Graham, is dense, musical, highly lyrical, romantic, visionary, and frequently mingles mysticism and sexuality. All three have been characterized as both New Romantic and New Apocalypse poets, though Barker and Thomas were more influences on than members of those movements. Their work certainly is romantic with both a small and a capital “R,” and apocalyptic in the original sense of the Latin and Greek words “to uncover” or “to reveal.” Strongly sound-led, Barker’s work eschews or leaps over linear logic in favor of the logic of associations, imagistic, verbal (he’s very fond of puns), and musical. “I now no longer wander wondering who.”
Barker’s highly dramatic work can be overly rhetorical, even oratorical, and his diction and phrasing, while usually surprising yet apt, can sometimes be slightly archaic or overly “poetic.” He was highly prolific, and does not seem to have edited himself much. But his work is never complacent, never content with what has already been done; his was a restless and exploratory sensibility. Even when he writes in traditional forms like the sestina, the sonnet, and the ballad, there is in Barker’s poetry an excess and a disregard for literary propriety very rare in British poetry. His best work (which to my mind is mostly found in his earlier books) has a passion and intensity that is almost overwhelming. Barker’s is a unique and idiosyncratic voice that deserves to be heard again. In its verbal and emotional extravagance and even recklessness, the American poet whose work his most resembles is his near-contemporary Robert Duncan.
The most recent edition of Barker’s Collected Poems, a volume of over eight hundred pages edited by Robert Fraser, was published by Faber and Faber in 1987, but now seems to be out of print. Fraser's substantial biography, The Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker, also appears to be out of print. Perhaps this is appropriate, as Barker was convinced that his biography couldn’t be written: “I’ve stirred the facts around too much. It simply can’t be done.”
The poems in this selection are taken from Barker’s Collected Poems 1930 to 1965, published by October House (New York) in 1965. I present them in chronological order. I have been unable to reproduce the indentations in "Daedalus."
Like the enormous liner of his limbs
Remain behind, look on
What’s left of what was once in blighted remains.
That imponderable body
Smote my desire, now smitten
I lift his head, his death dampens
The moist palm of my hand like handled fear
Like fear cramping my hand
Remain behind, entertain posthumous fear.
Come where no crowds can trouble us divert us
No acrobats hawkers bottles or street musicians
No towering necks like buildings overlook
I take your hand
And steadily lead you
Across morning haunted lawns in earlier
Days, and show
With a reversal of our growing older
How it began, what caused, the germ of time.
Where florid in the night pregnant nightdresses
Proceed sedately down unlighted stairs
Like people. And in the garden
Large lake unreal. Hark, I hear visitant
Swans, and the moths in the trees
Like minor caverns humming. There he draws
Antennae from paralyzed spiders, weapons
In his warlock fingers brandished: or runs
Engendering the eventual major strength like engines
Preparant. I cannot discern you in the leaves or in the
Undergrowth, when starting down the steep hills
He flies precipitate: Spectre, Spectre, where
If among these early places lie you, do you lie?
He fell, not then. Recently sure has fallen from that high
Platform. Formed in fearlessness, has fallen
Like through thought’s clouds through fear, as You stood
Waiting with wanting breast to catch, he in his fall
Evaded. Passed towards a grave straight through.
Of Course You Knew, for saw his comet face
Approaching downward like irresistible.
I mourn him. Him I mourn, from morn to morning.
Where once he trod
I cannot tread;
From the home he is gone from
I am prohibited:
We cannot be
While he is gone from being;
While he is not with being
I am as well miserably unloving;
Totally bereft I too am totally absent,
Appearing here, although
Bruisable and buriable seeming, am too bruised
In my dead
Spectre who spreads
Dividing the unit army of the body
To coward forces,
Since I have brought
To these private places
Sick with his not being, with his recalled
Reverberant fleet blooms of doing and coming,
Empty with his going, since accomplished, entertained,
Shown choicest hothouse blossoms, phenomenal
Plants he acted on the air like dances lasting,
Since he is not here but where you know with doom—
Where wander those once known herons
Or rabbits here
With shattered entrapped forepaws pitiable in crimson
Killing have known,
And seven-year-old boys locked among ominous
Have known, and are
At the unmerciful onrush of determined seas
Gathers small craft
There the acquainted faces of the dead sailors
Sight that sees
Where those once known herons fled in fear, to where I
Like lonely herons
The abandoned heroine
Go. With mild gradual descent
Burden the memory
Not as he fell, in anger, in the combat
With forms invisible intactual fought
On that mortal rooftop: not with celestial
Speed brought down, in meritorious
Defeat no beating, but like lamed
Herons or birds in wounded slope
Descending down to lamentable homes
In scraggy caves, borne down by death, I come
Drawn down to earth, and underneath
The earth, like one drawn under
Lethal water by an unknown weight
Unseen invisible, but not unknown is fear.
My tired lips received that morning
Their first kiss, so stirred the mind
Cannot subside for days for weeks or months.
That slim mouth upon mine held firm complete pressure,
Keeping mine for the inconceivable period
Between meeting in dream and meeting the unknown person.
Therefore for days or months I examined all faces
That slip between me and the exit to forget;
At political meetings at parties and at festivals
Every unrecognizing face, the features of every unrecognized face, refused
To be that face, assumed adverse reaction,
Closed its cold eyes on the air, and was removed.
Traveling through a fine evening in a car
The attentive line of my own face was at intervals caught
From the sunlight in outline—the chin’s framed curve,
Lips, jaw’s asseveration—on the windscreen;
The reproduction on, the reality through
I now no longer wander wondering who.
“O Who Will Speak from a Womb or a Cloud?”
Not less light shall the gold and the green lie
On the cyclonic curl and diamonded eye, than
Love lay yesterday on the breast like a beast.
Not less light shall God tread my maze of nerve
Than that great dread of tomorrow drove over
My maze of days. Not less terrible that tread
Stomping upon your grave than I shall tread there.
Who is a god to haunt the tomb but Love?
Therefore I shall be there at morning and midnight,
Not with a straw in my hair and a tear as Ophelia
Floating along my sorrow, but I shall come with
The cabala of things, the cipher of nature, so that
With the mere flounce of a bird’s feather crest
I shall speak to you where you sit in all trees,
Where you conspire with all things that are dead.
Who is so far that Love cannot speak to him?
So that no corner can hide you, no autumn of leaves
So deeply close over you that I shall not find you,
To stretch down my hand and sting you with life
Like poison that resurrects. O remember
How once the Lyrae dazzled and how the Novembers
Smoked, so that blood burned, flashed its mica,
And that was life. Now if I dip my hand in your grave
Shall I find it bloody with autumn and bright with stars?
Who is to answer if you will not answer me?
But you are the not yet dead, so cannot answer.
Hung by a hair’s breadth to the breath of a lung,
Nothing you know of the hole over which you hang
But that it’s dark and deep as tomorrow midnight.
I ask, but you cannot answer except with words
Which show me the mere interior of your fear,
The reverse face of the world. But this,
This is not death, the standing on the head
So that a sky is seen. O who
Who but the not yet born can tell me of my bourne?
Lie you there, lie you there, my never, never,
Never to be delivered daughter, so wise in ways
Where you perch like a bird beyond the horizon,
Seeing but not being seen, above our being?
Then tell me, shall the meeting ever be,
When the corpse dives back through the womb
To clasp his child before it ever was?
Who but the dead can kiss the not yet born?
Sad is space between a start and a finish,
Like the rough roads of stars, fiery and mad.
I go between birth and the urn, a bright ash
Soon blazed to blank, like a fire-ball. But
Nothing I bring from the before, no message,
No clue, no key, no answer. I hear no echo,
Only the sheep’s blood dripping from the gun,
The serpent’s tear like fire along the branch.
O who will speak from a womb or a cloud?
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.
Turn on Your Side and Bear the Day to Me
Turn on your side and bear the day to me
Beloved, sceptre-struck, immured
In the glass wall of sleep. Slowly
Uncloud the borealis of your eye
And show your iceberg secrets, your midnight prizes
To the green-eyed world and to me. Sin
Coils upward into thin air when you awaken
And again morning announces amnesty over
The serpent-kingdomed bed. Your mother
Watched with as dove an eye the unforgivable night
Sigh backward into innocence when you
Set a bright monument in her amorous sea.
Look down, Undine, on the trident that struck
Sons from the rock of vanity. Turn in the world
Sceptre-struck, spellbound, beloved,
Turn in the world and bear the day to me.