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Poetic pyrotechnics


RECENTLY in London I picked up a biography of George Barker, The Chameleon Poet, by Robert Fraser. Looking through it, I found myself mentioned and quoted several times. This surprised me, since neither the author nor the publisher had approached me for permission; but perhaps I should have expected it, since for 10 years Barker and I were very close friends. He died in 1991. At the time of his death, he had a small circle of admirers, but had been forgotten by the limited public that reads poetry. This must have come as a bitter shock to him.

Yeats and Eliot, separately from each other, made identical observations about him as a young man: Barker, they said, was not simply talented, but a genius. He came of a working class family and left school at 15. At 20, he could make English words leap for him like dancers. His early poetry was a cascade of images and language that dazzled and overpowered his readers. He was linked to Dylan Thomas, but he was more intelligent than the Welsh poet, whom he disliked intensely. One could even say that Barker's was a poetry of ideas. Through the 1930s and 1940s, he was known wherever English poetry was read. In the 1950s, some of the richness of style deserted him, and so, gradually, did his admirers. He was still well known, but he was not read.

By the time he died he was neither read nor well known. It was a pity; in his last years he used short, laconic lines to sardonic, often brilliant effect, and produced some of his best work. But it was so different from his earlier pyrotechnics that it seemed that another George Barker had written it. His former readers could not adapt to it and it was too late, in a sense, for him to pick up a new lot. But he remained a figure deeply respected by other poets and, in the end, I think that mattered most to him.

George was fairly tall, with a ruggedly handsome face and piercing eyes. They were the shade of blue that Lombroso said indicated criminal tendencies. He habitually wore shabby tweeds and a cloth cap of the kind favoured by Cockney barrow boys, also by country squires. His behaviour, like his cap, sometimes suited a guttersnipe and sometimes an aristocrat. He also had a convoluted and elaborate manner of speech that many thought pretentious. Fraser reports my first meeting with George. "He fixed Moraes with his hypnotic blue eyes and said, `So you write verse too, baby. We are honoured. There are few Hindu princes among us versifiers.'

"The immense, lumbering form of David Wright appeared. When Dom began a staccato resume of his career for the sake of the newcomer, Wright turned to Barker for an explanation. `No offence,' Barker said to Moraes. `No offence. Our South African friend here is as deaf as the womb'."

This was how George talked all the time I knew him. It may have been pretentious, but he did not put it on. It was his natural manner of speech. After that first encounter he read some of my poems and liked them. I was pleased because I thought him a brilliant, if erratic, critic and he didn't like much poetry apart, of course, from his own. We began to meet regularly in various pubs. As we did this, I found out more about his life. It had its incredible aspect.

By the time he died, he had lived with six women and had had 15 children, none of whom he supported. I knew all these ladies, and was in the Queen's Elm pub when he first met Elspeth Langlands, who was with him for the last 25 years of his life. Elspeth was a leggy, beautiful Scots girl, 23 then. George was about 30 years older. She lived with her parents in a castle in the Scottish Lowlands, and George drove there to court her.

He took me with him. Fraser says: "When they arrived late one afternoon her father came to her (Elspeth's) room and announced, `Your friend Mr. Barker has arrived. I have instructed his Indian manservant to put his bags in his room.' Moraes had apparently complied, even while snarling over his shoulder, `George, I'll get you for this'!"

Robert Fraser's book brought back good memories of George. There were not that many bad ones. The only quarrel we ever had proved to be the last. It was on some trivial issue that he magnified incredibly. Eventually the rift became so wide that we never met again. That was around 1966. I did not see him for the next 25 years. Then he died. I was very grieved by his going.

His criticism, and simply to live with that glittering, baroque mind, had a very definite and positive effect on the poetry I wrote. Under his tough tutelage, moreover, I learnt a good deal about how to handle the world. I never learnt how to handle George. I do not think I have ever met anyone else quite like him.

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