Barker was born in Loughton, Essex, on 26 February 1913, and raised by his Irish mother and English father in Battersea, London. Having left school at an early age, he soon found he wanted to pursue a career in writing. Encouraged by an elder sister, he sent the text of a recent journal to John Middleton Murry, editor of The Adelphi, who then gave him reviewing work and an introduction to other literary figures of the time. Aged just 20, Barker published his first book of poetry - Thirty Preliminary Poems - with Parton Press. The same year, he married his childhood sweetheart Jessica Woodward, and they moved to a cottage in Worth Matravers, Dorset. They would have three children together.
Barker soon came to the attention of T. S. Eliot at the publishers Faber and Faber, who supported him with advice and money, and published his next collections of poetry, Poems (1935) and Calamiterror (1937). Eliiot also helped him to get a position in Japan, in 1939, as Professor of English Literature at Tohoku University. But he hated the job, even his inaugural lecture went wrong, when his notes ran out with an hour still to go (see diary entry below). He then travelled to the United States, where he began a liaison with a Canadian writer, Elizabeth Smart, who had been pursuing him for a while. In 1943, Barker returned to England, leaving his wife and her children in New York, and joined Smart who had relocated to the Cotswolds. In 1945, Smart published her now famous autobiographical novel - By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept - about her affair with Barker. In 1950, Barker responded with The Dead Seagull, describing his view of the affair.
By the 1950s, Barker was living in London with the film-maker Betty Cass, and spending some weekends with Smart, though Smart, in fact, spent much of her life filled with resentment towards Barker. By the end of the decade, Barker was living in Rome with yet another woman, Dede Farrelly, who would bear him children (three sons). In 1963, he met the young Scottish writer Elizabeth Langlands with whom he lived in Norfolk, and with whom he had five more children. He continued to produce books of poetry every few years, and to teach occasional semesters in the US. His Collected Poems were edited by Robert Fraser and published in 1987 by Faber and Faber. He died in 1991. Further information is available from Wikipedia, London Grip, The Guardian and Richard Warren’s blog. Also worth reading is Christopher Barker’s article in The Observer about his parents.
Barker does not seem to have left behind a diary of any significance, but there are a few mentions, and even an occasional quote, from Barker’s ‘journal’ or ‘diary’ in Fraser’s biography, The Chameleon Poet, published by Jonathan Cape in 2002. Unfortunately, Fraser does not provide any source for Barker’s diary, and the references to it peter out in the early 1940s. The University of Victoria library, in British Columbia, Canada, which has a significant archive of Barker’s literary remains, lists a ‘Manuscript Diary for 1968’: ‘Not a busy year, with probably less than 1,000 words of entries. Covers somewhat stained, as usual with Barker’s books.’ Otherwise, Fraser’s biography relies heavily on Barker’s letters, and, to a lesser extent, on the published diaries of Elizabeth Smart: Necessary Secrets (Grafton, 1991) and On the Side of the Angels (HarperCollins, 1994). For more on Smart’s diaries see The Diary Junction; her own centenary will be later this year, on 27 December.
Here are two extracts from Barker’s diary as found in The Chameleon Poet, the first about his inaugural lecture in Japan, and the second about Elizabeth Smart. They are followed by several about Barker from Smart’s published diaries.
6 February 1940 (Barker)
‘So I began to improvise a speech on the inveterate incomprehensibility of poetry - this is true anyhow - until, in the middle,, my mind fused and I went blank and knew that I would just walk out if nothing happened to stop me - so I held my heart, apologized for palpitation, drank some more water and saw the double line of absolutely negative faces and went on talking nonsense for an hour.’
22 July 1941 (Barker)
‘The grammar of glorification is demonstrated at the flick of her head in the candlelight and at her smile the foundation of vocal admiration collapses in the magnificat. Mythology, in a poverty of raiment, cannot clothe her and god almighty on his throne of grace serves only to adorn the ring on her little finger. O my Canadian!’
14 May 1944 (Smart)
‘In the evening we walked to Longborough, and I had 1½ pints of cider and was nicely drunk. On the way home I dashed into the prickles because George made a tit-for-tat remark about dedicating his book [. . .]. I lay among the prickles along the hedge and wanted to cease. When I got home, George was having supper and reading. He got into bed, and neither of us said anything, except George who made a few caustic remarks. But when I got into bed we made love.’
16 May 1944 (Smart)
‘George went off on his bicycle to go to . . . to catch the train to London. Georgina [born 1941] cried brokenheartedly. She’s consoling herself with ‘George’s going to bring me a present’. After he had gone she stamped her feet and screamed.’
28 June - 4 July 1944 (Smart)
‘All those days George sulking and hating me [. . .]. Nothing will ever be right until he wants more children, not necessarily per se, but necessarily and because of the nature of love. I know I know I know he’s only trying to keep the situation OPEN for Jessica so his misinterpretations, (I mean lies) will work out. O hell. O Heaven. O horror and he expects me to take this merely marking time and call it love and be willing. Of course I can’t really write in this book because he reads it and takes offence throwing up continually the fact that I wrote, “I am going to leave George.” I know that I am not a wise woman, or I could wait wisely, or say nothing and never want to see his letters or know to whom he writes or what he does in London or how he feels about J. But it is four years ago today since we met, and it is still as messy, if not messier than ever. The trouble is, for me, that there is always hope, i.e. either J. is a wonderful woman, in which case a terrible solution might be possible, or she is not, and he might eventually realize it. As for me, I feel myself getting less and less wonderful, and I shall certainly not be able to make any more noble omissions, or stand any more chicaneries, or sit back while he stands on his head to get back to devotions. If only, even for this limited period, he were really given to me and loving me without always (wondering!) whether he’ll be able to camouflage what he’s doing.’
26 April 1945 (Smart)
‘It is unbearable loving George. I always knew he (wouldn’t) couldn’t come and yet I always expect him and sit in that insane fever of anticipation no matter how I keep telling myself his coming is out of the question. What can I possibly do? I really can’t bear it. It gets worse, not better. He won’t let me leave him, yet he won’t stay with me. he won’t settle my difficulties, and yet he won’t let me try and settle them for myself. I love him desperately, but he continually ruins my hopes that we are going to lead a happy married life together. I always believe that this time it will really happen and there is never anything but the same disappointments and frustrations. He never comes when he says he will. He always stays away two or three times as long as he says he will. He always vanishes and lets me sit waiting for him in my best clothes, relishing the hour to come. O God George, can’t you see that I can’t bear this life of continual frustration and solitude? Suddenly one day I will crack, snap, break in two and BE GONE.’