The Norfolk poems of George Barker
‘A love poet of the highest order’ is how playwright Harold Pinter characterised George Barker. When Barker the poet published his Collected Poems in 1987, Pinter the dramatist described it as ‘a great book’ in which ‘the landscape is never ending.’
Love and landscape are fused together in the verse of George Barker.
During nearly sixty years as a poet he created, by twist and turn, maps of the wounded heart entangled with an emotionally resonant geography.
Until his move to the village of Itteringham, Norfolk, in 1969, George Barker’s life had been a fast running river of people and place.
Born in Loughton, Essex on 26 February 1913, his parents moved to London when he was six months old.
He was to know many London addresses from the first family home in Battersea Park to a marital address in Islington.
There were also false starts at country living in Dorsetshire and Sussex interspersed with periods living and working in Japan, America, and Italy.
Alongside these travels and an ever-present, intense commitment to his life as a poet, love brought Barker both joy and pain. He experienced the failure of a first marriage, having married at the age of twenty, and the end of a long relationship with the Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart. Smart subsequently wrote the best-selling novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept based on their life together. There were also the spluttered passions of briefer affairs.
Moving to Norfolk with his second wife Elspeth marked the beginning of calmer although not necessarily quieter times. Their home soon filled with five children, and a sometimes militant menagerie of animals. Saturday nights were distinguished by friends who mixed poetry reading and drinking in furious measures. Even Elizabeth Smart who had herself moved to Flixton, near Bungay, Suffolk in 1966 became a frequent and welcome visitor to the Barker household.
Barker now in his mid 50s and with over fifteen poetry collections already published continued to write up to his death in 1991. North Norfolk, which he described as ‘bare but mysterious’ offered not only a final love affair with landscape but also a canvas on which to reflect upon his past. Poems of Places and People published in 1971 reveals how suddenly and passionately he fell for the dramatic charms of Norfolk.
In ‘At Thurgarton Church’, he writes of the sun burning ‘the winter clouds over/the gaunt Danish stone.’ Here, ‘the sky is red and cold/overhead, and three small /sturdy trees keep a hold/on the world and the stone wall/that encloses the dead below.’ The village of Thurgarton is only four miles from Itteringham and its mediaeval church was one of many that George Barker would visit as he drove around the Norfolk countryside in an old blue Mercedes. To read ‘At Thurgarton Church’ is to feel the sharp winter wind whipping around you on bleak December afternoon.
‘Morning in Norfolk’ has a gentler tone. It is another December day, yet it arises amid an early morning mist on the ‘secret/untainted little Bure’ offering a ‘landscape of winter dreams.’ The sun appears and ‘the crimson /December morning brims over/Norfolk, turning/ to burning Turner/this aqueous water colour idyll.’
However, these are more than simple poems of rural retreat. Both poems reflect on mortality, and the need to give and receive forgiveness. ‘At Thurgarton Church’ is dedicated to the memory of George Barker’s father. George Barker senior had not approved of his son’s poetic vocation, telling him ‘you’re wasting your time writing poetry… what are you going to do with your life?’ It was a lingering estrangement unresolved at his father’s death.
Yet ‘At Thurgarton Church’ offers a meditation on memory and regret, ‘the lost spirit that grieves/over these fields like a scarecrow. /That grieves over all it ever/ did and all, all not/done….’ The landscape in ‘Morning in Norfolk’ invokes a similar sentiment; ‘the home land/ of any heart persists/there, suffused with/memories and mists not/quite concealing the/identities and lost lives off those loved once/but loved most.’
George Barker’s memories of his father also included the frequent, involuntary unemployment he had to endure during the 1930s. This too found its way into Barker’s later, Norfolk written verse and he wrote of his ‘mother every Wednesday/pawning her wedding ring’, his father’s, soul ‘being slowly and mercilessly torn out of his body/and thrown to the dogs in the gutter.’
But it had been poetry that gave George Barker a perspective on life beyond the pawnshop. By nine, he decided he was going to be a poet and was encouraged by his Irish born mother, Marion Frances, who ‘could recite poems by the hundred’. One of his most well-known and anthologised poems is ‘To My Mother’ who he described as ‘Most near, most dear, most loved…’
Despite leaving school at fourteen, Barker read widely from poets William Blake to T.S. Eliot who he met in 1934. T. S. Eliot was then in charge of the poetry list at Faber and Faber and become his publisher, as well as his mentor and occasional financial backer. Eliot believed in Barker’s ‘genius’ but told him to be prepared to be ‘acclaimed late, if at all’.
However, Barker’s fame came early and up to the mid 1950s, George Barker was a poet as well known as his contemporary Dylan Thomas. It was obscurity that came later and Barker’s extensive range of verse is now mostly out of print apart from the posthumously published Street Ballads and a soberly slim Selected Poems. However, here at least you will find ‘At Thurgarton Church’ and ‘Morning in Norfolk’. Poems that illustrate that when we become transfixed by Norfolk’s mysterious landscape, laid out under the broadest of skies, we may be brought closer to a resting-place within us.
George Barker died 27 October 1991.
This is edited from a dissertation about the Norfolk years of the poet George Barker written for a Life Writing MA from the University of East Anglia.