Simon Jenner on
A Biting Barker
George Barker (1913-91) has suffered an oxymoronic fate worthy of himself. Much of his rhetorically intellectual achievement was overlooked in the days when in the 1940s, he was best celebrated and felt most attuned to an era still misunderstood. And not least by himself, with his incapacity to stop burying this achievement with a wealth of puns and poesy. And again in later decades, when his period was forever fixed by the watershed of The True Confessions of George Barker (Part 1, 1950); and later work overlooked as the prosier effusions of a writer responding to later astringencies, and damned for that too.
Although celebrated as an influential master of rhetoric with colloquially-grounded argument, caricatured as a kind of clearer Dylan Thomas, his own dazzle blinded many to what else his coruscating puns and marshalling of stanzaic extension amounted to. Of course it was partly his own fault, and particularly the occasions when his work convinced one he could never be capable of any such thing. At least Confessions in itself is recognized and read. It's just symptomatic of Barker's fate that the stature of the work should be shrouded by its own qualities. Again, the power it calls upon the reader, its claims upon 'a biting Barker' as Heath-Stubbs celebrates him, in 'The Triumph of the Muse' (1958) to deliver his fairground ride, are difficult to stop. Such are his stanzaic leaps and metaphor-bounded calls upon his own life that one is swept in the fire of its execution. As criticism, in a time when both poets seemed fading from fashion, Heath-Stubbs's commentary perhaps lives as the most astute contemporary appraisal of Barker's gifts, and in this poem, marshalling not a little of Barker's own virtuosity:
But next there came to seek her high decision
A biting barker with a coloured coat,
In tatters slashed - yet oddly, with precision.
A chimera, blent of lion, snake and goat -
Or was it St John's seven-headed Beast? -
Followed his steps, and had him by the throat;
Half Mephistopheles, half spoiled priest
Or spoiled child - a man none could agree on,
Yet, at this levee, he was not the least.
The muse presented him a loud carillon
Of sounding words, with which the Beast to tame,
And let him find a place by François Villon -
(John Heath-Stubbs, Collected Poems 1943-87 (p. 610))
Such criticism, calling up 'Holy Poem IV' (with 'St John on Patmos of my heart') neatly encapsulates Barker's self-dramatised polarities. This demon-doubled poet rises as only the comic double of Barker's own dramatic self-divide, the oxymoronic double-binds and puns that litter, alliterate and power his arguments.
Criticism has rightly concentrated on the formation and sustaining impulse of Barker's qualities from the Thirties through to say, 1951, when the shorter mature poems in News of the World hotly followed Confessions (both 1950). But the conscious sequels to Barker's masterpiece are more than overdue for examining on their own gnarled terms, even if this does telescope many collections into glancing half-lights, passing through them.
Some additional grace-notes to Barker's poetics help to underline the ontology behind the outrageous, though. Eros in Dogma (1944) for instance signalled the kind of punning subtlety lost behind the unsubtle nature of puns. 'Sacred Elegy V', stanza IV, contains two such. The end famously expostulates 'O dog my God!' God's palindrome (decently taken up as a whole poem by Carol Ann Duffy in 'The Dyslexic Philosopher' some index of Barker's greater pressure) hides another: 'O dogma God', an aural pun worthy of, after all, the title of the collection. Earlier in the stanza comes another instance of if not pun, then the mesmeric traps Barker was well aware he was creating. 'Fiend behind the fiend behind the fiend behind the/Friend.' This is a dark enough reading, God as a fell sergeant as the trope began. Still, reading it twice enacts the kind of reversal Barker springs at the end with his dog/God. 'Fiend, behind the fiend, behind the fiend behind, the/Friend.' The line break places the Friend more firmly behind the fiend than the initial visa versa, so one returns to it as a resolution. 'Behind' becomes an indicative, such as 'Behind is.' Again, this is subtler than Thom Gunn's 'I know you know I know you know I know.' But even Geoffrey Hill learnt much from Barker (and even more from Sidney Keyes). 'Genesis' with its 'trigger claw' and much else is thoroughly indebted to Barker's 'The private parts, haired like a trigger' encoded in its overall stanzaic force and Crashaw-coloured fervour; naturally Hill's High Anglicanism later refracted this through sootier stained glass.
Barker's relation to the world is often too spell-bound, and like certain fantasists he can live too wholly in the world of metaphor and allusion, not grounding himself in the colloquialisms he so often brought to undercut the too-inebriating Catholic God-yearnings (as Martin Seymour-Smith said of Lionel Johnson) in Confessions. Here, the balance of narrative, rather than sheer meditation as in elegies he wrote of dead-drunk friends - or even of the earlier, platitudinous 'Three Memorial Sonnets... for two young seamen lost overboard' of January 1940 - touches the fundament as one might put it,
of Barker's life: 'we are excreted, like shit' is an exhilarating breakthrough into a hyperactive Crashaw; indeed one not removed from Francis Thompson's paler attempts, 'twixt heaven and Charing Cross', with which one might substitute Soho for the later (lapsed) Catholic. Living in a sometimes metaphrastic world, rather like Sci-Fi, has rendered some of his shorter lyrics - the 'Cycle of Six Lyrics', for example - too vague of impact; the translation of one world into another hasn't quite taken.
Here, no particularity of incident (death does rather concentrate Barker) strikes away from the lyric body and catches light. This begets a world less energetically resided in by his quasi-disciple Jeremy Reed, who similarly lives in trope, but with less panache if more precision (not slashed, however, which would do him much good), and with tenements more locally haunted.
Barker in a sense yielded to his best suit, the longer poem, even the long one, and the three volumes, In Memory of David Archer (1973), Villa Stellar (1978), and Anno Domini (1983) all trek towards a final integrated statement, more public than Confessions, which is the province of the last-named. Anno Domini is a summa and benediction, religious plea and politically-charged tract in one. After that, he understandably reverted in the posthumous Street Ballads (1992) to shorter forms.
Sometimes Barker's vision bifurcated as it diversified. Poems of religious rhetoric and increasingly frothy mythic imagery jostle with more surreal or even magic-realist scenarios more loosely handled, fictions calling on a flatter delivery. Subsequently, some limpid poems emerge of a remarkable imaginative freedom, such as Barker had indeed developed from the 1950s, perhaps fully flowering in Villa Stellar. Vignettes, narratives imagined or reprised, strayed in from his work as a novelist, now suspended. Often these are juxtaposed like a mosaic in a work (like Dreams of a Summer Night) to suggest if not enact imaginative integration. 'Roman Poem III (A Sparrow's Feather)' of a sparrow dying amongst mechanical birds ('the analogies a re too trite', recalling The Dead Seagull of 1950) from The View From a Blind 1 of 1962, or some sections of Dreams of a Summer Night (1966). XI envisages a ghosted England ending:
As I approached the Colonel stood up and extended his hand to me
Out of the past, and I held it not briefly, knowing that
Sometimes, but only too seldom, we can take tea with the dead.
In Memory of David Archer is an uneven work, cast in a magma of formal elegiac measures and conversation poem, with its litanies and refrains couched as device and (slightly drunk) solo chorus. The first poem with its irregular pulse, varying but usually short stabbing lines envisages a conversation piece oozing out of its formal urn: 'You lift a hand/to those who
have gone before us... to whom only death can restore us:'
to lift a hand in farewell
for them at the black hell
neither you David or I
found this a hard thing to do -
for they, most of them, died
in a sort of twisted pride
or as they lifted up
the whiskey in the cup
or turning a handsome head
in honour among the dead...
At this period, 1973, one might be expected to be picking amongst the ruins of a Soho voice. Elegy shifts obliquely but inevitably to one for himself, and the wider shores of dream self-accusation. XXXVII graphically enough depicts his taking out his brother's eye with
the stair upon
which her own blood dripped, the hand on the rail,
the dangling eyeball, the lowered head of
the sacrificial offering, the red hand of her eldest
and halved vision of her youngest son,
and she stood still.
Again, ths could have emerged from an earlier novel. Transparent craft contains the delicate myth-forging apparatus, though the habitual mosaic of loss, guilt, atonement and (inevitably in a long poem seeking closures) adjustment lives in too many longeurs and frame-jumps. As discrete as Barker needed to cast his segments, it's inevitably in seeking closure that Barker most intensifies, in LIV:
The words are always as
strange and dead as those
fragments and oddments that
the wave casts up on the shore:
I stand in the sea mist
gazing down at the white
words and odd bits of wood
and wonder what they were for.
I think that they were not
ever intended to do
what, when we seek to speak,
we believe that they may:
they cannot bear us up
the frothy words and like
wings at the lame foot
lift us out of the clay.
LIV, like a passacaglia, repeats a litany of wrack - 'odd bits of sea-blanched wood' - on Overstrand in this tacked, measured argument with words, registered with a precision shorn, not slashed, of afflatus. Wrack, and 'all ceremonial evidence/attesting that we love/simply because we must' induces a religious synaesthasia familiar to most Catholic apologists; Messiaen in music for instance. Barker's force lies in the manner he circles the singular bits and oddments, snatching more than a detritus of agument, almost figuring Tielhard de Chardin in a kind of Catholic Darwinism. The tone is differently nuanched, less personal and sexual than earlier Barker creationism (as it were) - that our freedom to be damned as he also puts it, comes of sex.
Why do I hear them cry
out from the far side of life,
those forms and impulses
unborn beyond the sky?
Why should they hope and seek
above all else to be?
Tonight on Overstrand
I know for one moment why.
Archer needs selection, which doesn't detract from its real successes. Dialogues, Etc (1976), like Poems of Places and People (1971) collects several small-scale success, which itself enshrined longer ruminative poems of his father, most significantly 'At Thuragaton Church'. Villa Stellar five years on from Archer breathes more contentment, and despite Barker's attempt to inject the urgency and agency of loss and childhood, reads this. Less uneven and delighful in many instances, it reverts to the ground of Dreams of a Summer Night, but more evenly thewed in argument; pre-figuring Anno Domini in a tonal consistency that Barker often twitches to avoid monotony. Envisaged as a quartet, to record 'biograhical instances.. and frames of mind' it tries 'to describe the changing colours of the memory, as the dolphin might, if it could, try to descibe the altering colours of its skin as it dies.' Anno Domini literally caught up with this plan. One of his real successes is revitalising his short-lined lyrics with the work of the his children's books, like To Aylsham Fair (1970) and such work as 'January jumps about'. XXXIX or playfully suggests 'to put the matter a bit too wittily/passing through Hell on ym way to Italy.' XLIII and XLVII invoke the older elegaic lyricism, occasionally the less successful kind in 'Cycle of Six Lyrics', and improving on them. Barker often turns snarling on those who suspect, rightly, lyric pressure has dropped:
If my images seem a little dusty it is merely because the
mirrors get cloudy the more we breathe upon them.. (XLVIII)
And revives himself. LVII with its 'You want the moon? That is what you will have', and the final LVIII's realisation that 'Inside it is so/quiet that the silence seems inclined to/talk to itself' moves Barker to familiar, but now poignant perorations.
Quite certainly Barker now wished for an integrated summa. His too easy reliance on multi-faceted sequence called for an intellectually charged corrective. This is perhaps the clue to the grey glinting power of his last major work. Anno Domini opens in small case, like a long subordinate clause, recalling contemporary button-holing poems using the title as the opening of a poem, and recalling in these large measures the strategies of Drummond Allison, with his long subordinate clauses dangling over a resolution. It is, in fact, a distended prayer, unvarying in metrics, broken only in a few sections, continuous over thirty pages, a kind of Kaddish, though infinitely more nuanced and disciplined than say, Ginsberg. The material is more bluntly presented, not unlike an Auden list, again recalling later Auden, MacNeice, or the Audenesque work of such poets as (again) Drummond Allison who recruited his list procedures in comic perorations, as in the uproarious 'We Shall Have Company' (1941). Prosier, certainly, but with an underlying grip over the cornucopia of damns and damaged riches pouring into a Thatcherite post-Falklands Britain, with Barker's now sharply politicised admonitions towards the unemployed. The curious construction is announced in the first paragraph (which then runs on without a break for three pages), which therafter moves in large sentences:
-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 demigods.
Later Barker turns after 'visions of a blue/Fra Angelican clarity' to
Turn your hand not away
from the wilfully unemployed
because they employ the state
as not those from whom the state
only too wilfully employs. Mitigate
the frenzy of the erotic system
in the heart of those who outlive
their time; transmute the ferocity
of the fanatic into
a purpose conscious of moral proportion...
Barker here has transmitted a lariat sequence of concerns for the downtrodden of Thatcher's Britain, his own very personally realised sexuality, and reflections on chiefly the Ayatollah, concerns at which were to be differently refuelled twenty years later. After the argufying of the end of Archer, and some of Villa Stellar, not to mention Confessions, this at first sight appears grey and lachrymose, and tensed to its clauses, doesn't make very easy reading. It's framed after all as a large-scale plea, and the paragraphs are so large that one sinks the sense of the author's grip in the litany of protest.
As if a homeopathic drop of LIV ofArcher had been infused into the welter of political driftwood of the later work. But it is there, and realised on a strange cumulative scale, which does not falter. It's significant too, that Robert Fraser in the Selected Poems of 1995, includes it entire, the only such poem apart from Part 1 of the Confessions. The problem with claiming cumulative strength is that it always sounds like special pleading for boring long poems, and this can't altogether be avoided in Anno Domini. Barker succeeds because he is aware of just such a cumulation, and is impressive because he knows the limits and ends of extended arguments, hasn't been boring before (windy at his worst), and never relaxes into that flaccidity betraying the Truly Boring Long Poem. But the slower rhythm, quite deliberately realised even in a local way, dulls the edge of the Confessions-fed reader. Nevertheless, this is still the acerb, politically aware but not ridden Barker glimpsed in the Thirties, for instance, and in the Confessions, but never quite as here.
Earlier, doling out a generality of evils, Barker slips happily into the genealogy of his tropes:
Strike the lamb dumb
if it should Ego sing
and poleaxe the bull
if it should bully the lamb
or bugger the powerless. When
the knife of kisses excoriates
the flesh that it loves the best
let the knife and lover be forgiven
and perhaps even the flesh.
Hide, if you must, your face
from the homicidal maniac
so that, although blind, he sees
you are not gone away, but only
like the moon turned away
from the crime which we cannot
as yet understand, but must,
blind mystery of justice,
believe to be somehow involved
in the exonerating epicycles of your will.
Barker's powers of analogy and instance are undiminished in the same intellectual force of, say again, LIV of the Archer poem. And he can still be fuddy-funny: 'Teach us not to despair on Tuesdays/when all things seem to recede/into temporal mirrors...' But the form, epic and ambitious as it is, has attenuated his lyric moment, which causes the force to leak occasionally at the margins. Anno Domini is an exasperatingly rewarding poem. One of its rewards is Barker's final benediction, yet again like LIV coming full circle like a hellish tape loop (or, here, a telegraph pole) after a far wider
compass, and now capitalising the word that began the poem:
Why are heroism and devotion like
great works of art? Because
they have no object beyond themselves?
Why do poets stand around
like telegraph poles? Because
all they can do is pass on messages?
At a time of bankers
to exercise a little charity -
Simon Jenner © 2008