The letters in the seventh volume of T.S. Eliot’s massive correspondence — written during 1934-35 when he was a director of Faber and Faber and chose the poets to be published — reveal several ideas related to the publication and promotion of literature, and the rise and decline of certain reputations. Already established as the greatest living English-language poet, and being the editor of the literary magazine The Criterion, as well as a publisher, Eliot attracted followers from both sides of the Atlantic, with many young poets submitting poems to him which even to have rejected by the great poet was not a small distinction.
In some of his letters, we read Eliot replying to aspiring poets in a sympathetic, encouraging voice; and sometimes when he found the submitted work an embarrassing imitation of his own, diplomatically advising the writer to develop another stylistic approach. Whenever he spotted a poet who showed exceptional promise — as he did with W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Marianne Moore — he invited them to be published by Faber and Faber. Sometimes he went out of his way to find, encourage, publish and promote a new poet — which leads me to the interesting case of George Barker.
Responding to his work in April 1934, Eliot said in a letter to Barker, “I am very much impressed by these poems”, encouraged him to put a collection together, and published Barker’s book, titled Poems, in 1935. Eliot followed that by publishing several more of Barker’s volumes in subsequent years. In order to make sure that his high opinion of Barker’s work was widely shared, Eliot mentioned Barker to several of his regular correspondents — such as the high society hostess Ottoline Morrell — making laudatory references to his poems, so that word spread among his contemporary literary gossips that there was an exciting new young poet named George Barker.
It happened that Barker was unemployed and, though only 21 years old, already a father. He had no education that would have made him suitable for a desk job and, besides, it was the time following the Great Depression. Deciding that this promising young poet had to be rescued for art, Eliot persuaded his richer friends — who included the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes — to subscribe to a secret fund and created a bank account with instructions to send an anonymous payment each month to Barker, who thereby was freed of money problems and was free to spend all his time writing poems — and to having more children (he had 15 by the time he died aged 78). Knowing that the secret fund could not go on indefinitely, Eliot went out of his way to secure Barker’s future and wrote to several universities, and finally got him a job at a university in Japan.
In brief, it was not long before Barker was established as a famous poet, a reputation that had been cultivated by Eliot who — though a generous supporter of younger poets — was not without a personal interest as a publisher, in that he very much wanted the books he had accepted to have the largest possible sales. As a director of Faber and Faber he needed to prove to his fellow-directors that the books he chose did not lose them money.
Barker’s 1950 collection, The True Confession of George Barker, had made him a prominent name by the mid-50s when I arrived on the London literary scene as a young undergraduate. At that impressionable age, when one is highly predisposed to follow the latest trends, I was duly impressed on reading Barker’s books, and when Fabers brought out his Dreams of a Summer Night in 1966, I purchased a copy as soon as the book was published. And now, half a century later, on reading Eliot’s letters and seeing how highly he valued Barker’s work and the extraordinary lengths to which he went to promote him, I took down those two of Barker’s books still in my library and reread them.
No general summary can describe a poem, for poetry is an experience of the sublime that has no rational equivalence; an imagery engages the reader’s mind with a surface reality that suggests a graspable meaning, but what the mind experiences as poetry transcends that meaning and, the finer the poem, the more it continues to release visions whereof we cannot speak. Conversely, an inferior poem is easily summarised and quickly understood, its meaning absorbed as a commonly observed idea, and the whole soon forgotten. The True Confession of George Barker falls in the latter category. It is composed of seven sections that add to the idea of the human condition as a mindless wallowing in filth: “…Guzzle and copulate and swill until/ You break up like a jigsaw puzzle…” in “the dirty street of life”. One is born as an excretion, grows up learning bad habits, only to “waver between reality/ And unreality” like “infinitely pitiable/ Ghosts”. Barker’s approach is to tell it as he sees it. Tell it; not create. A gossip tells; a poet creates. And sometimes, when the gossip remembers that he’s writing a poem, he bursts out in a sudden apostrophe composed of deep-sounding abstract words that usually sound grand, but are invariably a cliché, as does Barker towards the end of one poem: “O memory/ Let the gilded images of joys known/ Return, and be consolatory!”
It’s hard to imagine that Eliot thought such juvenile writing impressive. We know that Eliot was overworked, was constantly being asked to attend public functions for which he had to prepare speeches, and to serve on committees. These were also the years when, in his private life, he was extremely tormented by his disastrous first marriage. It is quite amazing that he could suppress all that pressure on his brain and turn up at Fabers in the morning and evaluate the work of other writers. He read so much inferior verse submitted to him, that one can understand how Barker’s comparative superiority must have impressed him. Most of his literary criticism remains central to our understanding of poetry while that of the distinguished academics of his time — such as F.R. Leavis — has long belonged to the shredder, but there are a few lapses in Eliot’s judgement, of which one is his pushing of Barker until an unquestioning public saw him as a major poet.
Barker’s Dreams of a Summer Night was published in 1966, a year after Eliot died, and contains Barker’s elegy on him that, if read aloud without regard to the line breaks, sounds like a conventional obituary. He says of the poet, “Now all his odd disguises are divested/ And he stands before us for what he truly is:/ A memory reminding us at all times/ Of our responsibilities”. Is that what he truly is? And what on earth are our responsibilities? This is what immature poets do, throw out abstract words and expect their readers to interpret them as inexplicable deep thoughts without either the poet or the reader recognising that what’s said is empty gibberish. To give one more example, in another poem Barker writes: “Intensity of spirit, that energy with which/ Energy creates itself, is indestructible”. Yes, and so what?
A lengthier and more detailed analysis of Barker’s poems will show more examples of these empty gestures that impress the casual contemporary reader as profound ideas. The inflation of certain reputations is sometimes very deliberately manipulated for reasons unrelated to literature, and sometimes societal changes influenced by a liberation from long-held prejudices raise writers to prominence during the years in which the particular cause they serve is the focus of public attention. But beware, dear reader: whatever opinion you hold of today’s writers, there are eclipses and earthquakes in the long-range forecast to cast some in total darkness or to be swallowed up by Time’s merciless nemesis: oblivion.
The columnist is a poet, novelist, literary critic and Professor emeritus at the University of Texas. His works include the novel *The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions,* Veronica and the Góngora Passion.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 25th, 2019