The Chameleon Poet: a life of George Barker by Robert Fraser

Rhyme, women and song - and 15 children
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It was, you say a typical cliché of any poet's life – messy, turbulent, penniless, anarchic. The only difference was that George Barker lived such a life, from first to last.

He was born in the back streets of Fulham in 1913 to an Irish mother, who believed fervently in Irish nationalism, and a British soldier of a father. The first Barker loved to the bottom of his capacious and sometimes mawkish heart; the second relationship was altogether more awkward and feisty.

His formal education was scanty: he left school at 15. Like DH Lawrence and Dylan Thomas, he both took pride in the fact that he was an autodidact, and feared, mistrusted and loathed the academy. He also despised literary criticism and was most reluctant to stray into its sullied waters. "What is the meaning of this poem? What is the meaning of the sea?" he once asked, and waited for an answer. His intellect was nourished on Catholic theology, and he remained a blaspheming Catholic renegade all his life.

The quality and distinctiveness of Barker's poetry (he started writing at nine and seldom did much else thereafter) was recognised early on by TS Eliot at Faber & Faber – in itself quite surprising, given that much of Barker's early work is so torrentially visionary and polysyllabic. For all that, Eliot recognised a special case – and a bit of a case into the bargain.

Eliot dealt with the first by publishing his books and with the second by helping him to find the cash to stay alive. Another early supporter was WB Yeats, who chose poems by the young Barker for inclusion in his wilfully perverse Oxford Book of Modern Verse of 1935. Yeats liked him much more than the Auden gang.

The messiest part of Barker's life was his relationship with all those women. There were the ones who stuck around, among whom we must include his first wife Jessica, his lover Elizabeth Smart and his second wife Elspeth, with whom he spent a relatively tranquil last quarter-century, and many others, some fly by night, others less so. The catalogue of his moral misdeeds is endless, and Robert Fraser's account of it leaves you reeling both at the man's energy and his sheer gall. The only surprise is that this boisterous old satyr should have ended up with as few as 15 children.

Barker thought that no one would have the ability to write a biography of his life. There were just too many twists and turns, and his own accounts could be so wilfully misleading. Fraser has done very well, though the book is still much too long – do we really need to know all about the family pets, for example? What Fraser excels at is knitting together biography with criticism. Barker's poetry is is not easy to write about pithily and sensibly, and Fraser manages to do so, at the right, telling moments.

He also makes plain a fact that may not have been obvious to those who followed Barker's career during his lifetime, through almost half a century of collections of verse. The truth is that Barker's poetry suddenly got much better after the age of 50. All that raging verbal excess began to fall away, and the poems came to seem more disciplined, better crafted, sweeter, altogether purer.

The early verse reveals a maddening and often almost unreadable intoxication with words. Barker squeezed them so hard to himself that he smothered them. Later on, as with his later children, he seemed to be standing apart from them, and learning to appreciate them for what they truly were – something other than what boils up out of the self.

Words had lives of their own. They belonged to the world – and to other people. He sailed into calmer and more cogent waters. Eliot may have been right after all when he called him a "genius". Of course, as with so many others, Barker was born at the wrong moment; 20th-century poets had to be academics as well or, at the very least, they had to pretend to be. Barker was never one of those, so the academy generally shunned him. Now all we need is a new edition of his selected poems from Faber to help us to appreciate the merits of this sometime roaring boy of Soho.