I won’t call this a review, because it is not, it is more a selection of extracts from what was George Barker’s last collection of poems, published posthumously in 1992, the year after his death. I don’t know whose idea it was to give it that particular title – chosen, I suppose, because the collection includes five separate poems named Street Ballad – but they are not what one remembers as one closes the book on the final poem and sits back and thinks.
What stands out and lingers forever in one’s memory are the poems about other poets – poets who were his contemporaries but have now left here and gone to the great Mermaid Tavern in the sky, where he himself will soon be joining them.
The book opens with Ben Bulben Revisited – for Yeats, of course. It is a longish poem that begins with these lines:
Lie still, old man, lie still,
Nothing’s here to disturb you.
The ghosts are gone, the heroes
Lie snoring under the hill.
And the sea-bedded hoydens
That used so to perturb you . . .
Sleep on, old man, among
The ruins and the echoes,
The small lies and the great rimes,
The stones and the rocky poems,
For they at least belong
To the Ben Bulben of dreams.
Most of the poets Barker remembers here are Irish. Barker was born on the outskirts of London to an English father, but his mother was Irish and he has a great feeling of kinship with Irish poets, another of whom, Patrick Kavanagh, is the subject of the next poem Vale Kavanagh:
I remember a foul-mouthed Irish labourer
with a head like a prophet’s
and a tongue as racy and as dirty as
his personal habits.
He was as dishonest as only an honest
man can be
who finds himself dying between the devil and
the Irish Sea.
Birds of a feather we were, my dear Paddy,
my own nest just as foul
as yours or indeed as any man’s
with half a soul.
Then there is The Borstal Boy, which I suppose may be for Brendan Behan, another Irishman and the author of the autobiographical Borstal Boy, but as I am not sure we’ll leave that and go on to the fourth poem, For Patrick Swift, yet another Irishman, and though Swift was not a poet but a painter, it is his mastery of words, his “golden tongue” that Barker eulogises here:
The brush that he held in his hand
sign and symbol, instrument and
artillery of his graphic will
never, for me, performed as well
as that bright goldfishing diver
his tongue [. . .]
The dawn comes up as I write this
and in its own way this verse is
to thank Ireland for her gift
to us of the painter Patrick Swift:
for Kavanagh’s honesty, Yeats
for the great images he creates
for Synge, for MacNiece, for Joyce
for Sam beckett and all warty boys.
Yes, let some decent praise be sung
and for Swift, the Golden Tongue.
Then come various other poems, and when he returns to poets he has known, it is to something a little different: the quintessentially English W. H. Auden and, like a shade standing behind him, A. E. Housman. The poem is Rain at All Souls. It is a longish poem and you really need to know something of the lives of Auden and Housman to appreciate it, but a few lines will give you the idea:
Rain at All Souls. Exile in a cloud.
What consolations can his verse provide
For tears sad Housman was not allowed?
There, there they are, the poems like an organ
Capable of consoling all of us
As they could not him: an organ that
We shall not hear the like of again
Next there is a poem to John Heath-Stubbs who, though still alive when Barker wrote this, had by then been completely blind for several years.
My dear blind John, it begins – and finishes:
For you have
walked with your immolation in
a valley where the shadow was
all that a living eye could find –
no house, no double line of trees,
no sign, no moon, no road, no star,
only the lover in the shadows
standing like a statue of
the blind and mutilated heart.
And then there is the poem To Whom Else – and that must be Elizabeth Smart, poet and author of the classic By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept (in which, of course, Barker is the lover who remains unnamed):
Had I more carefully cultivated the Horatian pentameter, then
this verse would live longer in your remembrance than
things being what they are, I suppose, it briefly will.
Or do I think these verses may survive you, and, well,
do I really care? I do not give a damn.
For I know that if you read them you will condemn
them simply because they were made by that over
devoted zealot who was once, not briefly, your lover.
And for now let me finish with the two last stanzas of the Paddy Kavanagh poem, which I omitted before:
Let them wash you white as they will, Kavanagh,
we come from dirt and from dust
and the dust and the dirt animates us all
as thank god it must.
Fortunately poets, like poems, are often dirty
and brutish and short
but somehow I think that the gods, perhaps,
may spare us a thought.