GEORGE BARKER’S “Street Ballads”

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 . . .
And finishes:
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.

Patrick Kavanagh statue alongside the Grand Canal in Dublin

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.

George Barker by Patrick Swift

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.

From VILLA STELLAR: XIII (by George Barker)

Yes, it is heavenly here. But I think of the misted November
evenings and clouds coming up over the Cairngorms

And there in the May Borghese Gardens with a foam of
blossoming flowers around us as we sat at a small table
she with a hat like a huge waterlily and a glass of iced
lemonade sweating in sunshine and the Roman sky like the
interior of an enormous pearl, and semi-precious lizards scooting
among the hibiscus. I said: ‘It is pleasant here.’

She answered: ‘The sun is not Scottish. I feel faint.
Yes, it is heavenly here. But I think of the misted November
evenings and clouds coming up over the Cairngorms
and the violent gusts of rain and the cold amber streams jumping
among the lichened gullies and the rowans hissing in rain
and a single horned sheep standing still as stone against the sky.’

Hill of Allargue viewpoint at Corgarff

from IN MEMORY OF DAVID ARCHER (by George Barker)

“I cannot see. The place is not the place where
I was supposed to be. Who are those people …?”


I cannot see. The place I do not know.
Who is that person standing by the wall?
Why do you ask the date on which I died?
Where is the house to which I am asked to go?
What was the question you put to me when
I happened to be listening to that child
Crying for god knows what outside the door?
Who is it calling me again and again
From my own chamber like a person lost?

I hear the dead man calling from the desert
But never the love, never the love, never.
I saw you. I saw you there. You were the other
Side of that window always hidden in shadow.
I cannot see. The place is not the place where
I was supposed to be. Who are those people
Whispering, with heads together, in the corner?
Why do they speak when they should be silent?

I think that I see, walking in the moonlight
The Magus Zoroaster and my dead father
Talking together. What is this heartbroken
House? Is this my home? Why do you look at me
As though I had no parents? Who is at the window?
You? Is it you? I saw you pass, your hand
Covering your face in shadow, and, in the moonlight,
Falling, seven wounds, like stars.

from IN MEMORY OF DAVID ARCHER (by George Barker)


The life I shed upon the ground
looks up at me, looks up at me
and in its scarlet lake I see
my face of yesterday lying drowned
and smiling as in sleep it seems
cradled among rocks and dreams
of what will never be.

Early in the dawns of May
under the Medusa tree
I shall stand and you will see
my transfigured head of day
hanging in a bleeding dream
as the serpents hiss and scream
and eat eternity away.


“Now he sleeps alone instead
Of many a lie in many a bed”

I sent a letter to my love
In an envelope of stone,
And in between the letters ran
A crying torrent that began
To grow till it was bigger than
Nyanza or the heart of man.
I sent a letter to my love
In an envelope of stone.

I sent a present to my love
In a black-bordered box,
A clock that beats a time of tears
As the stricken midnight nears
And my love weeps as she hears
The armageddon of the years.
I sent my love the present
In a black-bordered box.

I sent a liar to my love
With his hands full of roses
But she shook her yellow and curled
Curled and yellow hair and cried
The rose is dead of all the world
Since my only love has lied.
I sent a liar to my love
With roses in his hands.

I sent a daughter to my love
In a painted cradle.
She took her up in her left breast
And rocked her to a mothered rest
Singing a song that what is best
Loves and loves and forgets the rest.
I sent a daughter to my love
In a painted cradle.

I sent a letter to my love
On a sheet of stone.
She looked down and as she read
She shook her yellow hair and said
Now he sleeps alone instead
Of many a lie in many a bed.
I sent a letter to my love
On a sheet of stone.

TO MY MOTHER (by George Barker)

“She will not glance up at the bomber, or condescend
To drop her gin and scuttle to a cellar”

Most near, most dear, most loved and most far,
Under the window where I often found her
Sitting as huge as Asia, seismic with laughter,
Gin and chicken helpless in her Irish hand,
Irresistible as Rabelais, but most tender for
The lame dogs and hurt birds that surround her, –
She is a procession no one can follow after
But be like a little dog following a brass band.
She will not glance up at the bomber, or condescend
To drop her gin and scuttle to a cellar,
But lean on the mahogany table like a mountain
Whom only faith can move, and so I send
Oh all my faith and all my love to tell her
That she will move from mourning into morning.

from IN MEMORY OF DAVID ARCHER (by George Barker)


To lift a hand
to those who have gone before us
those friends and
oddfellows to whom
only death can restore us
(I have heard
as in day dreams
them calling sometimes for us
out of a silence that seems
like a dead chorus)
to lift a hand in farewell
for them at the black bell
neither you David nor I
found this a hard thing to do –
for they, most of them, died
in a sort of twisted pride
or as they lifted up
the whiskey in the cup
or turning a handsome head
in honour among the dead
so that, with the wave
of a hand toward the grave
you and I, as they went
down out of the present,
could seem to call:
‘Stand up and speak well
in the empty hall
of heaven or empty hell
for us all’.

But, David, I am at
such a loss, such a loss
that I cannot, I can not
lift a hand or a word
as you descend
the under ground
and one way stair
to that dead end
the friend is found.
Are you there
now? Dear friend
it does not matter where
you are for better or
worse where you are
there can be there
no more of the withering
belief (O withering arm
and withering leaf!)
or the withering Upas tree
of life,
no more ever again
of that pain.

The decent dirt
David unlike the lovers
will not desert you nor
the grave stone hurt
you but with love convert
you into stone, into
the dust and earth
of which both life and death
know the worth.
The dark streets at night
echoing our tread
seem for a moment bright
with what we said
and what we might
even have done, but the light
or dream of those times
is gone
and it was not done.

The familiar vision faded
and is forgotten in
our failure, so degraded
that ideal by
our delusion, so humiliated
we by what we knew
was both foregone and fated,
that in the end
what you saw, my friend,
was that life itself
was the vision
that you hated.

All the gifts of red
roses and blank
cheques and bed
fellows grew rank
and went bad
and you and they
sank down in the grey
ends of a day
that stank as it died
in the guttering
palace. I think
that all you leave
behind you in the evening
is a darkened room
empty save for old
newspapers and cigarette ends
and in the gloom
the enormous gold
urn of your heart
in which lie the ashes of your friends.