By Peter Wilby
TS Eliot declared him a genius, he was the unnamed lover in By Grand Central Station, and he fathered 15 children by four women – the poet George Barker lived as extravagantly as he wrote.
About 10 minutes’ walk from my home in Loughton, Essex, a blue plaque on a modest semi-detached house announces the birthplace of “George Granville Barker, poet, 1913-1991”. It is not a place of pilgrimage. Barker is one of those poets you struggle to remember. Today, hardly anyone reads him, most of his work is out of print, and he is barely mentioned in literary histories.
Yet this was no minor poet. His work was passionate, intellectually challenging and highly original, his language incantatory and often hypnotic. There are echoes of Blake, Housman, Verlaine and Barker’s contemporary, Dylan Thomas. At 22, Barker was a literary phenomenon. TS Eliot declared him a genius, accepted his first work for the magazine Criterion, commissioned him to write a volume for Faber (where Eliot was then poetry editor) and persuaded wealthy friends to set up a support fund. Yeats thought him the finest poet of his generation – better than Auden (whom Eliot initially rejected) and comparable in “rhythmic invention” to Gerard Manley Hopkins.