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TAKING THE POETRY ROAD

George Barker

So, crude though we are, we get to times and places
And, saving your presence or absence, will continue
Throwing our dreams and guts in people's faces.
Louis MacNeice: To the Public

 

In 1977 my eighth novel, The Drive North, finally appeared. That weary adverb relates more to its rejections by a dozen publishers en route to publication, than to the actual process (during 1973-4) of writing - which was made up of the usual strange mixture of obsession, difficulty and pleasure. But at least the book pleased me: I'd had fun, as well as a serious purpose, in trying accurately to describe episodes in the life of a freelance writer.

The problem was, my main character was a poet. I might have known that this choice alone, in the jargon of the day, "limited the novel's sales potential", but I blithely persevered and gave the book even more "minority appeal" - through including samples of work by this imaginary or composite poet. The poems ascribed to him, of course, were written by myself, in a variety of different tones and styles -satirical squibs, notebook fragments, "finished" pieces I hoped were strong enough to be read independently of their context, parodies of prevailing poetic fashions - and so on. I tried to hint at how a poet's mind worked, and how it felt to be a poet - both generally, and more specifically in that sadder, soberer decade which seemed to limp along in the wake of the Sixties. Perhaps The Drive North was rather too post-modern for its time and its own good: a novel about poetry, providing examples of various forms, together with numerous built-in criticisms of its own texts! And, while I did drive past somewhere called Long Marston once, my protagonist Lon Marston was also hommage to Jonson's friend and collaborator, the poet-dramatist of The Malcontent. Like his namesake John, Lon too is nothing if not critical, and never minds making enemies.

If attempting to write a fiction based on numerous "true" stories (though some reviewers also noted its "Chinese box construction"), then you might as well go hell for leather (and for broke): forget libel worries and literary pretensions alike, just write the tale(s) of a freewheeling freelance, in a kind of documcntary-road-movie. The single "invented" passage in my novel seems, disconcertingly, somehow to have been written into life, for it actually came about - or into being, and duly "happened" the very year the book was published. Which only increased my feeling that, however much you distance yourself from autobiography (even in a very deliberately third-person fiction), we are ourselves being written, all writing is autobiography, and (contrary to what one poet wrote) poetry does make something happen.

At any rate, the "reading circuit", such as I was describing it in the Seventies, had considerably expanded in variety of venue and scope, even if audiences mostly remained at an average of two or three dozen (top end of the scale) sliding down to a handful of the bemused and the faithful, friends and relatives foregathered in someone's front room. . . Poetry readings in some respects were still as rarefied and self-conscious as they'd been during the late Fifties and early Sixties - my student days - before Beatles and Liverpool poets opened up the performance scene. I remember that the first public readings I ever did were with aspiring jazz musicians (at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge) and committed CNDers (at the Partisan Coffee Bar in Soho): the audiences for these kinds of gigs declared their support by their very presence; you preached to the converted for a while; they listened or they didn't, then they went away. You didn't need to win them round, nor even (oddly enough) to entertain them. It was more in the nature of some obscure collective rite, less verbal communication than a vague form of mental osmosis involving almost arbitrary patterns of sound. This could cheer or depress any poet-reader, according to his or her mood. What sort of reaction, after all, did one want to arouse? Few were quite sure. "Get it over with and get paid" was the tacit motto of many poets I met.

But things weren't as easy as that. By the 1970's audiences were seldom absolutely torpid. They could be curious or aggressive, cloyingly cosy or just plain ignorant. A well known and neither frail nor elderly poet was once told: "I'm surprised to see you here this evening, Mr. Scannell. I thought you'd died in the Great War." Enough to drive one to drink - and most of us were tempted to knock it back on such occasions, through (as it were) sheer self-preservation. . . Sometimes indeed the Aspiring Local Poet, for whom ALP seemed an especially useful and apt acronym, became an - unscheduled - curtainraiser. ALP would then read endlessly, or might contrive to clog up question-time with ossified statements on rhyme, the Muse or Kipling. . . Readings seemed to attract every bore, brain-picker, halfbaked scribbler and contact-cultivator for miles around. To associate a name with a person and with words on a page was, apparently, a sort of challenge, a highly desirable opportunity for such persons, especially if they could manage to buttonhole, provoke or insult the poet. Never, of course, did they buy books. And why anyhow should they bother to read new ones, when there was Kipling?

Poets naturally retaliated, some displaying visible contempt for their audiences, others boring them witless. (Just to show I'm both broadminded and impartial, I should add here that two of the most boring readings I ever attended were given by Allen Ginsberg and Craig Raine.) Some poets played most servilely to the audience, sinking in their search for the lowest common denominator to the nadir of fake populism; others were lofty and elitist and unremittingly obscure. Some I read with had a set "patter": this included jokes, carefully timed pauses and apparently impromptu asides and fumbles with papers. These bards stuck to a clock-watching and invariable routine but you only sussed them if you'd read with them on different occasions; audiences were never likely to notice. Well, at least the Play-It-Safe performers had actually thought up, and worked out, a programme. Far too many poets proved embarrassingly amateurish, inaudible or just surprisingly nervous the big names often as culpable as any.

Yet still ego ran riot: one slim volume (sometimes not even that) and anyone might take the stage, smirking in self-congratulation. Self-belief though, cannot be equated with either sensitivity or professionalism. The fate of Cinna should be familiar to every writer: the terrible subtext is that we can tear ourselves apart. Frustrated poets, those who feel neglected or in some way poetically unfulfilled can be bothersome, as Hugo Williams's hilarious yet sad account of being heckled and lectured by the late Harry Kemp when reading makes clear. Different characters, styles and generations: even now, I feel relief I wasn't there having to witness, or perhaps mediate between, people I knew and liked - poets wrangling in an absurd situation, itself poignantly close to something like a new form, spiritual slapstick.

Sometimes, though, the boot was on the other foot: you had to be an organiser yourself to realise quite how "difficult" other poets could be. When, for instance, as Writer-in-Residence at Loughborough Art College in 1982-3, I was able to book a season of readings, I ensured that each poet was paid well, on the night, and treated with all due hospitality. The occasions were enjoyable and generally successful, except for the visit by George Barker. Barker was around 70 then. I'd always admired his work, and had insisted he be paid more than usual. But what a miserable complainant was the former Fitzrovian roaring-boy! He turned up late and drunk, despite my detailed map plus written and telephoned instructions - and it was my fault. He therefore refused to begin unless and until a bottle of Scotch was provided for him. The students' bar wasn't yet open, so a teacher duly drove post-haste into town to purchase the necessary lubricant. Barker then delivered a spirited reading, slurred only at the very end. No question of any questions afterwards, but he was crushingly and needlessly unpleasant to every art student who tried to engage him in conversation. (These were appreciative, polite and guileless kids, alas.) A female English teacher and I undertook to escort the old curmudgeon on the obligatory pubcrawl. She, driving, had to stay sober. I reckoned if I drank one to Barker's two I'd get through the rest of the evening. . . Unfortunately he continued aggressive and his gamesmanship was wearisome: agree with him on any subject and you'd. be called a yes-man or a sycophant; disagree, and he'd rant, "How dare you contradict what I say? Who d'you think you are? I was writing poetry before you were bloody born." We'd resort to silence or attempt a neutral sort of nod: to giggle, one felt, might have courted swift disaster. This Impatient Mariner's briefer monologues ran roughly thus: "When I was 16, sixteen, I had tea with T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound." There was an interminable pause while he fixed us with a bleary yet ferocious stare. "What d'you think of that then, eh? What d'you think of that?" It was probably true, but by then we were too tired either to assent, argue or express the required reverence. The teacher had to collect her 12-year-old daughter from a friend's house, before dropping Barker back at his hotel. Unfortunately, Old Obnoxious roused himself from his backseat stupor only to grope the young girl and reduce her to tears. . . A last view of him, lurching up the hotel steps, later prompted me to some verse speculation I rather doubt he would have appreciated:

L'esprit de l'escalier

Why must a bard so blessed with memorable voice and splendid wit
become, when Bacchus rules, merely a miserable, mortal shit?
The barbed thought might have struck me then, in bars where we were sitting:
Who did George Barker think he was? But was that question fitting?

From Smiles Above the Platform (Poets in Public) ed Diane M Moore - Goldring Books 1996