Not too much survives of Paul Potts (1911-1990), Canadian national, self-styled “failed poet”, friend of George Barker and George Orwell, plainly spoken versifier on behalf of socialist causes who hawked his poems in broadsheet form around the pubs of Soho where he became a trenchcoated fixture, latterly a disillusioned Zionist: a rambling autobiography published in 1960, “two not very big volumes of not very good poetry”, a portrait bust by Barry Flanagan, some crumpled contact prints by John Deakin, and a posthumous volume of “selected writing”.
Potts died penniless. In 2008 his surviving notebooks and letters of 1939-48 were offered at auction for £1,750. The previous year a strip of Deakin photos, ex-Elizabeth Smart, went at Christie’s for over £11,000.
Paul Potts by John Deakin
Barker described Potts as “that criminal whose felony is to love everything a bit too much, that lost revolutionary with the sentiments of an Irish tenor”, and placed him firmly within “the hierarchy of humanitarian martyrs”. The poet David Wright, in a leading article on Potts in Poetry Quarterly, published by Wrey Gardiner’s Grey Walls Press, for Winter 1950-1, characterised his poems as “technically the worst verse ever written by a poet, but much preferable to the polished masturbations of some versifiers”. (Potts himself declared that “a good bad poet is more of an artist than a bad ‘good’ poet”.) Wright wryly titled his appreciation “Instead of a Poet”, and like others after him, hailed the quality of “memorableness” in Potts’ prose, rating him as “one of the few excellent writers of English prose today”, and valuing his contributions as “a literary critic pure and simple”.
One such contribution was Pott’s piece “The World of George Barker”, written for the Summer 1948 issue of Poetry Quarterly. Wright noted that though this purported to be
a long article about the poetry of Mr George Barker, Mr Barker’s poetry was scarcely discussed. But as an essay on the nature of a poet it was of the first importance, and a greater compliment to Mr Barker than the recent New Statesman review which waved the poet to an empty chair between Mr T S Eliot and Mr W H Auden.
Potts in his later years
Indeed, Potts did not quote Barker’s poetry once. But it is well worth the effort to wade through “The World of George Barker”, not only for Barker but also for Potts’ verdicts on Dylan Thomas and David Gascoyne. The weaknesses soon become apparent – neglectful paragraphing, sheer lengthiness (maybe Gardiner paid him by the yard for this), the urge to digress, a tendency to allow sentences to be hijacked by subordinate clauses and then driven into brick walls. Entire passages are little more than strings of mixed aphorisms that sometimes teeter on the edge of the sentimental or platitudinous. But as Wright noted, the corresponding strength of this style is Potts’ ability to think in striking and wonderfully memorable images, poetic images in fact:
His world is a large, generous, going concern, full of big sixpences within an expanding emotional economy.
But he is still waiting for the cock to crow whereas, according to the calendar of his achievement, he should be getting ready for the gift of tongues.
Poets used to carry fire in their hands; these writers only pack contraceptives in their clichés.
An echo of Fitzrovian bar talk, maybe. There is much more of the same. Wright mused that “It may seem surprising that a man who can write such prose is unable to publish a book of it”, but attributed this to the “unclassifiable” character of Potts’ writing. And most certainly it is not lit crit as we know it. But here it is.
I have inserted a couple of explanatory footnotes, and have noted the typo’s – mostly proper names.
THE WORLD OF GEORGE BARKER
The full value of any poet’s work depends on the man inside the poet and not ultimately on the poet within the man. It is meaning and feeling, hurt, happiness and sorrow that will count longer in the end, than rhyme and rhythm and metre. If it was not for what was inside the technique and the sprung rhythm, Hopkins’ fame would not have been more than the sensation of a literary season. When the leaves started to fall the absence of the branches would have been noticed. George Barker got off to a good start. His beginning was a triumph. His very earliest poems were praised by Yeats and dismissed by Mr Geoffrey Grigson. His world is a large, generous, going concern, full of big sixpences within an expanding emotional economy. It is populated with people he has loved and crowded with those who love him. It is irrigated by friends, by his own kind and consanguinity. It is a world revolving around his own hunger, its fixed star his need to love, yet its boundaries are spread abroad between ‘the wall of China and my heart’. His world is a long row of confessional boxes where the forgiving priests are his own poems. Rarely is he refused absolution. Each new sin finds another priest. It is a world, where for all his hurry, he is very much alone. Standing sandwiched between oppressor and oppressed. It is a wide world with boundaries in many dimensions. Its first sea was the rain falling on an evicted farmer’s face along a country road in County Monaghan. The vision of England and the news from Spain mix with the smell of Japan and the noise of America. The seasons don’t conform to any calendar. The constitution of his republic is the language of the church, yet it is a world always in full rebellion. The man is a poet and has made his poems out of his life. His muse knows how to forgive. His sins are his sonnets, his litany, his elegies. George Barker is, together with David Gascoyne and Dylan Thomas, one of the three major poets of that generation whose work is the central concern of this quarterly. They have actually very little in common beyond the following facts. That they are all very good. That they are poets on a larger scale than their more publicized immediate predecessors were or show any signs of ever becoming. And that their first work was published by the Parton Press. This will cause that small publishing house to be of interest to future literary generations to whom Poetry London and New Writing will convey absolutely nothing. David Gascoyne’s most important work may lie in the direction of Kierkegaarde and Leon Bloy rather than in that of a poet, yet there is no body of work in modern English literature by any poet under thirty-five to compare with that of these three.
Literature is not a competition. Yet poets will invariably be compared both with their contemporaries and with their predecessors. Barker’s verse is not so perfect as Dylan Thomas’s, nor is his vision so intense. Yet his range is wider; his feeling not deeper, but more general. For this reason his achievement may not be so obvious. It may not even be so completely attainted[sic]. But if the daisies and the buttercups are plentiful and perfect, a rose is none the less a rose for having a thorn where the petals should be. What really makes a man a real poet, except the size of his soul, is very difficult to say. But it is as equally difficult to fail to realize it, when a writer turns out to be a real poet. George Barker is a real poet just as surely as Patric Dickinson and Maurice Lindsay are not. Criticism is really poetry once removed, for whereas poetry is the joy and the understanding of life, so criticism is the joy and the understanding of that poetry.
George Barker is much more difficult to cope with than either of the other two important poets – Dylan Thomas and George Gascoyne – of his own literary generation, whose work was to fill the decade and which started out on its journey with the label of the Parton Press. Dylan Thomas is the easiest to access. In the whole range of English poetry, from the beginning until yesterday, and here one means that it is all one whole, whether it was written by a Dublin clergyman, Dean Swift, or by a New England farmer, Robert Frost; by a negro, Langeston[sic] Hughes, or by a white South African, Roy Campbell; by a peer of this realm, Byron, or by an insane pauper, John Clare. In English poetry, the adjective qualifies a language, not a place. No one can fully grasp the immenseness of English poetry without being conscious of Whitman, of Burns, and of Yeats. Dylan Thomas may indeed be something very small, when put next to Shakespeare. But even when seen from this neighbourhood, he is something very perfect. His poems are the very zenith of that kind of verse in which George Herbert and Henry Vaughan, Thomas Threherne[sic] and John Clare excelled. It is something for our generation to have done so much so soon. While Gascoyne, who has been more ignored than the two others, as men of his kind always are, as Kirkergaarde[sic] and Leon Bloy were, as Ignazio Silone is. Yet it is easy to see where his strength lies, what the destination of his fame is to be. George Barker, however, offers the most difficulty to anyone of his generation looking at the work of their contemporaries. I am going to digress for a moment, and I believe that the three men I am talking about will join me in this digression.
For one of the features of our generation has been the presence in our midst of a large number of European exiles – not all were victims of the Right. And among these there were those who were writers. One of them, Fred Marnau, who has lived and worked here for a decade, is the one writer in this country and of this literary generation whose work forms a part of the best of the period. A prose-poem entitled ‘A Winter’s Journey’, which is a fragment of an exile’s autobiography, is undoubtedly of a texture made familiar to the readers of the great prose of William Butler Yeats. Genius is a commercial word used by non-literary advertising men; it seems so soiled by misuse as to be almost an insult now. But Fred Marnau is a very great artist indeed, and his presence in this country has added great dignity to the generation to which he belongs.
Unlike any other poet of his generation whose work is at all mentionable in the same sentence as his, George Barker’s prose is not of any great stature. It is only fair, not only to Barker, but to the reader of these notes, to point out that Edwin Muir’s opinion of his prose is quite the opposite. But for one of his readers at least he must stand by his verse alone. The quantity of this is considerable for so young a poet. He has already published five books of verse: Thirty Preliminary Poems (The Parton Press), Poems, Calamiterror, Lament and Triumph and Eros in Dogma, all published by Faber & Faber. This year he is bringing out a new book of poems entitled News of the World, and an autobiography in verse entitled The True Life of George Barker.
His influence on poets younger than himself, notably on Tom Scott and Maurice Carpenter, has been of more use to them and more beneficial than Dylan Thomas’s influence on other younger poets. This is probably because his work is more in the main stream of English poetry. Whenever one reads Barker, it is almost impossible to avoid the suggestion in one’s mind of the cow who kicked over the bucket of milk it had just given. The most natural poem is sometimes spoilt by a stupid pun, like the one in the last line of the huge poem to his mother. Barker is a Byron who hasn’t got a Greece. He is a knight errant without a sword, or, to be fairer, the sword is there all right but his hand is paralysed by the trouble in his heart. By this it must not be understood that he is unaware of what has taken place during the years which have contained the first half of his writing life. For the most part these happenings find no place in the work of Dylan Thomas. Gascoyne is too much of a mystic to concern himself with the results, his interest is with the causes. Barker, who has a great talent for humanity, has been left somewhat in the air, not ignoring them, but not being able either to cope with them or to assimilate them into his work. He was too much of an artist to offer us easy slogans. Because his feelings were deeper, because simply he was more of a poet, he didn’t jump on to political platforms during the ‘thirties like those poets of the literary generation that immediately preceded his. After all, it took more courage for a poet of Eliot’s standing to publish a book about cats than it did for an intellectual to be anti-fascist in a non-fascist country, where the whole public opinion of the circles in which he mixed was anti-fascist.
The only artists who organically belong on left-wing political platforms are those, like Maxim Gorky, Ignazio Silone and Sean O’Casey, whose work is made from the material out of which socialism itself is carved. It has been said before that his ‘Elegy on Spain’, dedicated to the photograph of a child killed in an air-raid on Barcelona, could just as easily have been written about a child killed by the other side. To which it is probably correct to answer that any real poem so dedicated would be able to pass through the enemy’s lines. After all, it wasn’t only the Republicans who enjoyed Lorca, let alone one particular brand of republican. Barker, too, seems to refute the adage that to be sexually successful is also to be spiritually poverty stricken. One prefers to think of him as an exception to prove a rule.
The great thing about the work of a true poet is the atmosphere which it creates in the mind of the reader. This is as difficult to define as it is impossible to miss. It has a great deal to do with technique and with style, but only in so far as they are an integral part of the feeling and thinking that go to make up a poet’s work. They are no use if they are superimposed on top of it. A good bad poet is more of an artist than a bad ‘good’ poet. Any real artist, and among them Dylan Thomas, George Barker and David Gascoyne, will agree to this, whereas most literary jobbers will not. That real poetry has enemies even in literary circles is proved by the remarks of Mr Patric Dickinson when dismissing that body of verse which W H Auden could read aloud in an hour and a quarter as ‘alien bits’; alien to what? Surely not to this language or to the openness in the human mind. Or by another remark of Mr T R Fryel’s which is an enemy to any real socialism or true culture, when he said that the West End should be the cultural shop-window of a Socialist Britain. O shades of William Shakespeare and John Ball!
Poetry is a mutual thing, but it needs an audience worthy of it. Barker is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is real tea all right, brewed with a mixture of waters, the one from a young clear stream running down the side of an Irish hill, the other is the tears of the hunted and it has been stirred by the poet’s own vagrant identity that never for a moment seems to have been tempted by the prizes of mediocrity. The size of his failures is the measure of his worth. No small writer could have made such huge mistakes. He does not belong to the fixed rows of suburban security so fashionable in some literary circles. As Eliot has recently said of Ezra Pound, Barker perpetually gives the impression that he has just packed his bag and is about to move off to another place. He is a vagrant, the only place where he is a fixture is in the poetry of this language. All the requirements of real poetry set forth in the great critical tenets of Coleridge, Walter Savage Landor and Ezra Pound are to be found, without much searching, in his verse. Many kinds of men have written true poems, a king and a thief, a Jesuit and an Irish pagan, rebels and radicals, peers and Victorian gentry, but no man has written real poetry and no man ever will (the word ‘man’ in this context is of both genders) who has not seen the sun stop the earth for an instant in its journey, that it may shine more brightly on truth, on honesty and justice. He may not have built a small, tidy bungalow, but he has already laid the foundations of a huge edifice. His is the carelessness of greatness. He has the sure confidence of a true artist, meaning he is confident about the right things. He is steeped in his craft. He has worked as only a man of enormous vision is capable of working. He may have stopped dead, but he has never wandered off into the alleyways of easy fame or polite flattery. He is a victim as any proper writer must always be. Yet he can never escape giving the impression of being in control of his own misfortune. In this he is unlike most of his contemporaries, who are as much of an artist as he is.
The literary historian, if not the critic of poetry, will be interested to note that the principal poets of the generation immediately preceding Barker’s were all upper middle-class, public school and Cambridge or Oxford men. Whereas Thomas, Barker and Gascoyne all finished their schooling somewhere inside the curriculum of various suburban secondary schools. It is also of great interest to note the deep courtesy, deep chivalry, and true human dignity, not the dignity that is merely the cellophane wrapping around a five-cent cigar, expressed by them, both in their behaviour, and in their writings. When Thomas or Barker write a poem to a girl, that poem is of its very nature the kind of poem that any man could read to any woman. Compare this, for instance, to the work of two of their contemporaries who were educated at major public schools and senior universities, who in their poems addressed to women and frequently dedicated to them by name, give their readers a geographical survey of that lady’s physical charms, whose verse is, in fact, a publicized Cook’s tour of their women’s bodies. Poets used to carry fire in their hands; these writers only pack contraceptives in their clichés. This far has a class fallen. The work of these three poets is a proof, beyond all question of politics, that the courtesy and good taste of the race now only exists for the most part in other places than among our governing and privileged and educated classes. No important poet under thirty-five has been to a senior university, no real poet of our generation is what a film-script writer would call a gentleman.
Barker is almost as completely unpolitical as it is possible for a contemporary to be. Yet, like Byron, he goes far beyond the conventional poetic subjects for his material. He is neither as mystical as David Gascoyne nor as religious as Dylan Thomas. The things that worry a politically-concerned person often trouble him. Yet the trouble does not lead to revolt, much less to a desire for power. He wants to understand, sometimes to escape. He identifies himself with such varied forerunners as St John the Divine and François Villon. He is capable of spoiling a good poem by a noisy line, but never of trying to make one out of any emotion that is not an integral part of his own deep feeling. If Gascoyne gives to his readers the impression of a great chef trying to make a feast out of a badly stocked larder, Barker leaves them with the feeling of an ordinary man who is very hungry trying to cook a meal in the kitchen of a king. George Barker is among the outstanding poets of his generation. That company consists of Thomas and Gascoyne, and the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh. He may have achieved least, but he has certainly suggested more; for a man of his age this is part of his achievement. To travel with George Barker is not to arrive, but it is to be very excited about the destination. He may leave one unsatisfied, but he has created a hunger that no one else has even suggested.
The world of George Barker is a place for sinners. It is not a street of barricades, nor is it a house where one prays. Yet the nature of the poetry in him is the plentifulness of forgiveness. He is original without being unique. He is very much of this world, in so far as it is a vale of tears, without being seduced by worldliness. His technique is in advance of his maturity. He is married to poetry; he is not having an affair with brightly-coloured words. But he is still waiting for the cock to crow whereas, according to the calendar of his achievement, he should be getting ready for the gift of tongues. If the work of the first half of his writing life can serve as a measuring instrument for the second, he will have proved that Yeats was a good judge of those who were about to begin as he himself was coming to his own great finish. Yet as nearly all creative artists only have about fifteen years or so during which they are capable of reaching to the allotted heights of their own most intense creation, this may not be his half-way house, it may well be only the front-door. Whatever verse, however, his muse may have in reserve for him, and he for the steadily increasing number of his readers, that poetry which he has already written, punctuating as it does his unplanned and wandering journey, prove[sic] beyond mere praise that he has embarrassed this language and these years with The tremendous gentleness of a poet’s kiss.
 In the event, News of the World was first published by Faber in 1950, and The True Confession of George Barker the same year by Fore Publications.
 Patric Dickinson (then Poetry Editor at the BBC), “Poets, Publishers and the Public”, The Tribune, 14 May 1948: “One Wednesday evening some weeks ago, about three hundred people gathered at a hall in the Vauxhall Bridge Road to hear a recital of poetry organised for W. H. Auden. They were able to hear him read (imperfectly, for the passing trams and his delivery forbade perfection) from the American edition of his Collected Poems … not yet published over here. It is unlikely that more than a dozen of the audience had read these alien bits before … Most people had come to see as well as to hear Auden; or to hear how he reads his own poetry; which he does with rather more than the usual measure of incompetence expected from poets who appear in public without a public technique.”