The Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker by Robert Fraser - review by Ruth Padel

Ruth Padel

Why did the Bitch Have to Leave Him?

The Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker


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This life of George Barker does something every poet’s biography should do: it relates the poems, in knowledgeable and lively detail, to the life. It was a long life, and there were a lot of poems. Robert Fraser has worked hard and lovingly; it must have taken ages. But readers also need independent, responsible, objective judgement, and this is a bit thinner on the ground. The author edited Barker’s work, collaborating with the poet, and clearly fell under his spell.

Fraser’s style, gleaming with abstract nouns and grandiose metaphor, echoes Barker’s as faithfully as his interpretations reflect their subject’s views – of people and of poetry. Barker was born poor, in 1913, and his poems got noticed earl y. In 1932, he began to make his literary connections, meeting Middleton Murry, David Gascoyne, Geoffrey Grigson and – his rocket launcher – T S Eliot, who published him at Faber. By twenty-six, Barker had written several books (poetry and novels) and was known as an aggressive autodidact poet like Dylan Thomas (with whom his relationship was competitive), in contrast to university-educated types like Spender and Auden.

‘We patronised them,’ said Spender, ‘but were afraid, really, of dirty boots on the carpet.’ Barker left school at fourteen to be a poet; thereafter he read, passionately, alone. Part of the appeal of his poetry and persona was a blend of exhibitionistic rant and instant lyricism. All his poems

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