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The Chameleonís Dish

The Chameleon Poet : A Life of George Barker
by Robert Fraser
Jonathan Cape, 2002, 574 pp., £20.00

After reading this compendious, copiously detailed life of George Barker, you will reel at the way he ploughed through life, writing and publishing poetry (some twenty volumes), begetting children (fifteen or so), travelling from wife to mistress, sometimes across the AtlanticÖ and yet, never quite winning promotion to the first rank, though a Faber author for over forty years.

Like Hamlet, he ate the air, promise-crammed, somehow existing on the charity of others, never holding down (for long) an ordinary nine-to-five job, disappearing from the map of modern poetry, anthologies and syllabuses. At present, of his many volumes of poetry, only the last, Street Ballads (Faber, 1992) and a more recent Selected Poems (Faber, 1995) are easily available; the Ďschoolí he belonged to, the 1940s ĎApocalypseí grouping has long since evaporated, being mostly only a convenient, inaccurate, critical label for Barker, W. S. Graham, Dylan Thomas and other Fitzrovia revellers.

Yes, Barker led a roaring, Dionysian life; hence this tome of over 500 pages, wherein author Robert Fraser, who edited Barkerís Selected Poems referred to above, gives all the gory, irresponsible details. It should sell well, given the current appetite for biography: it would make a very entertaining film, with Barker as an ĎOld Devilí, still capable of exercising his charm and charisma on young women in his seventies. What, however, about the poetry? This was, after all, Barkerís raison díetre, and his unswerving allegiance to this calling (for he came to view it in religious terms) caused everything else to stand or fall around him. What of the poetry ?

My first experience of Barkerís poetry came from Street Ballads, his posthumous collection, and a few scattered anthology pieces lurking in Penguin collections and the like, dating from the 1940s and even earlier Ė Yeats, for instance, included the young poet in his 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Later, with the help of second-hand booksellers, I worked my way back, picking up such volumes as Eros in Dogma (1944) which contained sonnet-sequences, including a famous poem to Eliot, and the later, excellent Villa Stellar (1978) and Anno Domini (1983). Barker produced a bewildering variety of poems, some dashed-off and mediocre, many others thought-provoking, questioningly religious and elegiac, particularly in his later, mature collections. Robert Fraserís biographical study links these carefully with his turbulent, rackety life and mercurial personality.

As a biography, this certainly sets out the main contours of Barkerís life: the women he loved (then abandoned), the aggressive character facets, the endless children, the existing on grants and brief lecturing jobs (which usually ended in disaster Ė Barker could not comfortably fit into academia). Even more importantly, it adds to what we already know about his famous relationship with Elizabeth Smart, herself a distinguished writer and literary figure. Most affecting are the last few chapters when the religious side to Barkerís character comes to the fore, amid a degree of domestic calm in Norfolk, reflected in the poems in Poems of Places and People (Faber, 1971), and Street Ballads.

Scattered throughout the book are passages of brief literary commentary on the poems Barker produced at the time, and Fraser is a knowledgeable guide to these. Sustained criticism is not always evident, and would perhaps seem out of place, but commentaries on the poems of the 1940s are very useful, and Fraser is enlightening on why Barker chose to write childrenís books later in his career, and how this fits in with the other poetry. The strained relationship between Dylan Thomas and Barker provides some of the most interesting sidelights early on in the book. Barkerís works, however, are rarely subjected to detailed literary critique, though Robert Fraser seems keenly aware of the excesses of the Apocalyptic verse: perhaps the way now lies open for a more comprehensive study.

This biography could be said to trample a path for others to follow: it would be interesting, for example, to compare Barkerís very early verse with his contemporaries Auden and MacNeice, or discover more about the literary relationship between Barker and W. S.Graham, who plays a brief, but important role in his life. There are two glaring omissions: firstly, a complex dynasty like Barkerís really deserves a brief family tree for readers to refer to, and secondly, a single page given over to a proper bibliographical list of Barkerís books could probably be provided in a tome of over 500 pages; neither are given. Nevertheless, Robert Fraser should be congratulated on making sense at length of a wild and undisciplined life lived in the grain of the literary world. If there is a market for this expensive hardback, would it be too much to ask Faber to bring a volume or two of Barker back into print, beginning with Eros in Dogma ?

††††††††† © Martin Caseley 2002