Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Category Archives: George Barker

The canary that ate the cats

The best parody I can recall was one I heard in Battersea circa 1970, when a very small boy walked past me, singing to himself:

“Strangers in the night, exchanging panties …”

No further lines. That was all, and that was enough. With a wonderful economy of means – “panties” is very close in sound to “glances” – this opens up the very human realities behind the portentous lyrics of the song, as the strangers emerge from their fifteen minute fumble in the wrong underwear. Bert Kaempfert and Frank Sinatra get what they deserve, in six words.

On the other hand, anthologies of parodies seem to promise more than they deliver. Why are so many parodies written by the deservedly obscure and overly clever, seeking mistakenly to sink their targets by a piling on of baroque exaggerations? This seems true of many jabs at Eliot and Pound. (Henry Reed’s “Chard Whitlow” excepted. The Pound of the Cantos is maybe beyond parody, being, in his lurching obscurantism, already in a state of self-parody.)

canaryThe long unpublished (until 1977) comedy thriller The Death of the King’s Canary, by Dylan Thomas and John Davenport, involves the assassination of a Poet Laureate, and in the process takes a swipe at a good handful of British poets current in the late ‘forties, when it was written. (John Davenport is one of those highly interesting Fitzrovian characters who pop up around every corner, and my thanks go to Bill Bennett for pointing him out.)

Among the many prospective and parodied laureates surveyed by a bored prime minister at the novel’s opening are George Barker (“Albert Ponting, born Balham, 1910. Did Chemistry course at Polytechnic. Must read, but unsuitable”):

I, I, my own gauze phantom am,
My head frothing under my arm,
The buttocks of Venus for my huge davenport.
I orgillous turn, burn, churn,
As his rubbery bosom curds my perspiring arm –
The gust of my ghost, I mean …

W H Auden in ballad mode as a leftist Kipling (“Wyndham Nils Snowden. Very popular with the younger men. But a bit of a red.”):

Look, dead man, at this Empire, at this Eastscape of suffering,
Monocled glaucoma over India’s coral strand.
They can hear in twilight Ealing
The forts fall in Darjeeling
As the last White Hope is snuffed out in that dark-skinned No-Man’s-Land.

And of course T S Eliot (“John Lowell Atkins. Naturalized 1917. Very sound, but I don’t think quite right for the job.”):

Everything is the same. It only differs
in the subjective mind which is the same
being or not-being, born, unborn,
a wind among leaves deciduous or dead.
It does not matter where
it does not matter.
Windfall or wordfall or a linnet’s feather
in rank orchards where perpetual turns the worm.
It is not different …

After reading Atkins’s “West Abelard” the Prime Minister feels “queerly depressed” and reaches for the brandy. “That was a lugubrious poem; and the trouble was that it was true. Everything was the same. Dull, too. But it would never do to tell them so.” “West Abelard” is the more effective for being so worryingly close to the real thing.

But there is another side to Atkins; equally sharp are “the opening lines of a new light poem … another jingle for his latest dog-book,” discovered subsequently in the poet’s overcoat pocket:

Bubble and Bow-wow and Viscount Squeak,
The chow, the bullpup, and the peke,
Bound all day on a barkable lark,
Towsering round the peagreen park.

This very quick nod to Eliot’s Pekes and Pollicles, Pugs and Poms is affectionate in its clever way, but also more than enough to lay bare the soft underbelly of his modernism.

cats

‘Cats’: is it just me?

It’s just not done to dislike Old Possum, is it? No one is quite ready to be pointed at as a hater of small furry animals. I’ve owned cats (and a dog) in my day, and was fond enough of them as individuals, but I find myself very much revolted by the psychic weakness of our tyrannous English cat-and-dog culture, of which Lloyd Webber’s bizarre leg-warmer musical seems a horribly inevitable extension. Call me a snob, but the problem with Old Possum is that it’s exactly the kind of verse that J Alfred Prufrock would have approved of, between the toast and the tea.

Burns Singer, forgotten bad boy of British poetry

I’ve been meaning to do something on Burns Singer, aka Jimmy Singer, blond boy wonder / bad boy of the ‘fifties poetry scene, ever since the late Gordon Wharton confessed to me that he’d hit Singer with a bottle of wine at a literary party in 1955. Singer’s attack in Encounter on the poetry of William Empson is now on my Empson page, and I had thought of putting Singer on the W S Graham page, given that he was very much an acolyte of Graham’s. But Singer seems significant and interesting enough to deserve a page of his own, so here it is (or use the final tab above). So far, I’ve focused on his life, death and larger-than-life persona. For someone so universally and fiercely unpopular, he seems to have inspired an equally fierce affection in some. A look at the poetry will come later – it’s well worth looking at.

Remarkable that Singer links so many personalities peppered across this blog: Empson, Graham, Wharton, Dylan Thomas, the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde, Benjamin Creme, and George Barker … Though I guess the ‘fifties bohemian scene was something of a small world.

This is the world’s starvation centre.
I sit with Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde
Listening to letters Sydney Graham once sent or
Barker shook down when words stuck in his side.

Paul Potts on Robert MacBryde and Jankel Adler

Just caught up with the 1960 autobiographic collection, Dante Called You Beatrice, by the trenchcoat-wearing, tyewriter-stealing, broadsheet-hawking People’s Poet, the penniless Paul Potts. My 1961 copy is a book club edition; extraordinary that Potts went in one move from utter obscurity to Readers Union choice of the month. Included are very readable short pieces on painters Robert MacBryde and Jankel Adler, which I’ve added to the Two Roberts page – the MacBryde bit at the very top and the Adler bit at the very bottom, so easy to find.

Potts may have been a dodgy poet, but he wrote wonderful prose. Rather than advancing in steps by argument, his mind seems to have hammered out his world in aphorisms, so that every sentence has the quotability of a punch line. To save my summarising Dante, there’s a nicely readable appreciation of it here by Robert Latona – recommended. And Potts on George Barker is still here.

Jankel Adler, mentor to the Roberts

My lengthy page on the Two Roberts, painters Colquhoun and MacBryde, has been rounded off (for the time being) with a short thought on their mentor, the exiled Polish painter Jankel Adler. The Roberts are said to have borrowed much from Adler, so it’s hardly fair to peg him as their follower. Though I wonder if the borrowing wasn’t more two way? I know very little about Adler’s work, but I am struck by the way that his painting techniques at this time seem to have borrowed from the experimental processes of etching he would have encountered during his collaboration with S W Hayter in Paris.

Anyway, use the Colquhoun and MacBryde tab at the top or click here if you’re interested, and then scroll way, way down. The paintings are sumptuous.

George Barker by Mervyn Peake

My first page of fragments on George Barker updated with an image of him by Mervyn Peake, artist, illustrator and author of the Gormenghast trilogy. (When will the BBC get round to repeating the excellent TV adaptation of Ghormenghast broadcast in 2000?) The Jessica Dismorr image of Barker on the same page makes an interesting comparison to this charcoal drawing by Mervyn Peake published in the London Mercury for June 1937. There seems to have been no particular connection between Barker and Peake, though both were in London at the time, and Peake wrote to Barker in the same month, presumably in connection with this. Peake was an inspired illustrator, and this is a pleasing image and a good likeness in its way, though with Peake’s portraits one feels that living people are seen through a lense of authorship, somehow tending towards the condition of characters. In effect, everyone is slightly Gormenghastified. Here, Barker could almost be a benevolent and sensitive elder brother to Steerpike.

Dylan Thomas by Jessica Dismorr

My first page of bits and pieces about George Barker included a somewhat idealised portrait drawing of the poet as a young dreamer by Jessica Dismorr, abstract painter and ex-Vorticist, dated to 1935. Here (left below) is a companion piece by Dismorr (given as 1934/35) of Dylan Thomas as a cherubic twenty year old, marked “DT” and initialled(?) by Dismorr. The technique is equally slack, and the effect equally Hollywood, but this is maybe a better likeness than the Barker. One wonders how many other bright young poets she sketched, perhaps in a back room at David Archer’s Parton Street Bookshop – David Gascoyne? John Cornford?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dismorr’s portrait paintings get away with it by virtue of their painterliness and superb colour sense, qualities that are not there to save the drawings. Nice little biographical curiosities, though. The Dylan Thomas is available at Wilson Stephens Fine Art, and you’d still get a bit of change back from two grand.

Paul Potts on ‘The World of George Barker’

Paul Potts

New page added here (or use the tab above) with the full text of a 1948 article, “The World of George Barker”, by the extraordinary Paul Potts, together with a bit of an intro. Also of interest with regard to Dylan Thomas and David Gascoyne.

Images of George Barker by Patrick Swift and Geoff Stevens

Bits on two portraits of George Barker added to the “more fragments” page – tab up the top, or go here, and scroll down.

George Barker: T S Eliot as police inspector

Second page of Barker fragments (to save scrolling down forever) added – press the tab above (“more fragments”) or here. This kicks off with a short look at Barker’s rather wonderful characterisation of Eliot as a police inspector, illuminated by another dip into the scans of drafts in recent offerings of Barker’s papers on eBay.

George Barker and the exaggerated death of David Gascoyne

New piece added to the ‘George Barker: fragments’ page, on a variant draft of Barker’s “Elegy” that indicates that at one point he had believed his friend and fellow poet David Gascoyne to be dead. Here or via the Barker tab at the top of this page, and then scroll down.