Genius as Pariah: The Life and Poems of George Barker
Wadsworth, Bill, The Antioch Review
"To be so closely caught up in the teelh of things that they kill you, no matter how infinitesimally kill you, is, truly, to be a poet: and to be a poet in fact it is additionally necessary that you should possess the tongues and instruments with which to record this series of infinitesimal deaths."
--George Barker, "Therefore All Poems Are Elegies"
In 2001, Jonathan Cape in London published The Chameleon Poet, a biography of the English poet George Barker by Robert Fraser. The book has received a number of favorable reviews, among them a cover review in the TLS. Fraser, who edited the second edition of Barker's Collected Poems in 1987 and the Selected Poems in 1995, makes the case for reconsideration of Barker as a major poet of the twentieth century; he also recounts the outrageous exploits and charismatic qualities that made Barker, for a time, a larger-than-life figure in English poetry. Both the biography and the Selected deserve a wider readership, but unfortunately neither is in print, as of this writing, in England or America. What follows is intended as a plea and a provocation: to the reader, to track down the biography and the poems; to discerning publishers, to bring them back into print on both sides of the Atlantic.
I. To Be a Poet
George Barker was born in 1913, grew up with two sisters and a brother in a tenement district of London, and left school at fifteen. His English soldier father ("The Colonel") was strict and feared, his Irish poetry-loving mother ("Big Mumma") adored. He was educated by Jesuits, an immersion in Catholicism that laid the foundation of his character and saturated his sensibility as a writer, particularly through the influence of Cardinal Newman. At the time he dropped out of school, he was already a precocious poet, having written his first serious poem--an imitation of Spenser composed in the Faerie Queene stanza--at age nine.
Among Barker's formative literary influences were Blake, Hopkins, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Baudelaire, and Verlaine (Blake would prove to be his lifelong model). At twenty, he published a novel and 30 Preliminary Poems with Parton Street Press, a small press specializing in the discovery of fresh literary talent; he became known, along with his contemporaries Dylan Thomas and David Gascoyne, as one of the "Parton Street Poets." With help from Edwin Muir, Barker's work soon won the attention of T. S. Eliot, who pronounced Barker "a genius" and set up a fund to provide the young poet with much-needed financial support. In 1935 Faber & Faber brought out Barker's first full-length collection, Poems. That same year, Yeats selected Barker as the youngest poet to be included in the 1936 edition of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, declaring him the best poet of the new generation-better than Auden, and comparable to Gerard Manley Hopkins for "rhythmic invention." By the age of twenty-two, Barker--an interloper from the London slums with no formal education--had become a literary phenomenon.
His reputation soon became phenomenal in other respects. From the late' 30s to the early '50s, Barker was considered the most notorious of the "rogues and rascals" of bohemian London in its heyday. Called "The Master" by his drinking companions--who included Dylan Thomas, W.S. Graham, Louis MacNeice, Lucien Freud, and Francis Bacon--Barker held sway in the pubs of Soho with a golden tongue and a dangerous temperament. Like Byron, the poet to whom he was most often compared, he was both an uncompromising romantic and a lacerating satirist; and much to the envy of his rival Thomas, his Byronic glamour proved sexually irresistible to men and women alike. As Fraser puts it, he was "an enchanter of souls."
Barker's notoriety was in no small part enhanced by his disappearance for four years during the war, first to Japan in 1939, and then to the United States. Stories of his escapades proliferated in his absence: in Big Sur he had abandoned his wife for a beautiful Canadian heiress, with whom he was arrested by the wartime authorities as a fornicator and a spy; he had had other affairs with innumerable lovers, both male and female, and had fathered a litter of illegitimate children; he had plucked out his brother's right eyeball in a swordfight; he had collaborated on an avant-garde film, The Geography of the Body (which became a seminal influence on experimental filmmakers from Maya Deren to Stan Brakhage and Andy Warhol); he had made his living by writing pornography with Anais Nin and Henry Miller. …