[from a file named ‘works deserving redistribution’]
Letter to a Deaf Poet
No, it is not that I think you so unfortunate in that affliction. (There was once an old woman, who, when she found that she could hear, wished she was deaf again because people said such banal things to one another.) Nor of course do I think you fortunate. It must be bad enough to hear, as the veritable poet does, those hyenas of self-destruction, accusation and insanity howling on all sides and at too many times: but even from such unnatural molestations you are not protected. Far from it: in the silence of the ear, you (I have witnessed this in your face and read it in your verses) apprehend all the more clearly those extra-terrestrial diatonics that transcend the senses and shatter not only glasses but lives also. What are they? It is not the silence of those uninterrupted spaces that frightens me, it is the voices that, like fire-balls, sweep out of them into our perceptions. I am speaking, you will see, of the subject of poetic inspiration. What purpose can it serve us to deny or disavow the incomprehensibility of the machinery from which a god descends every time we do anything of which we are incapable? (Like loving one another.) Because you are a poet you will accord to all such Eleusinian Mysteries the honours that properly belong to them. You will not seek to discredit the sufferings of the unicorn simply by breaking off his horn, or of the angels by pointing out that anyhow they have no hearts: for you are continually surrounded by the mystery of all mysteries, the silence that is so much harder to understand than any of the utterances or communications that may momentarily illuminate it. For the poet is a man who performs upon silence—the silence that preceded and will succeed all existence—exactly the same operation as the painter performs upon darkness or the architect upon space. He colonizes it.
What more condign image is there than the shell in which we hear the ululations of the sea? When, in truth, what we are really hearing is the silence echoing in a stone. And why the sea? Is it because, when we hear the silence, we hear the silence of the Tuscaroran Deep from which, one disastrous morning, a protoplasm with intentions arose? Such speculations are not more ridiculous than, at this late hour, any and all speculations upon our own nature can most properly be. For it is clear that somehow someone has gone very wrong. At a certain point, heaven knows when, a man somewhere acceded in the notion of probability. He saw that certain things happened more often than other things, that certain events occurred with greater regularity than other events; and therefore were more likely to go on occurring. But the point, my friend, is this: he merely envisaged the repetition of these probabilities. I want to assert the rights and the responsibilities of all those events and occurrences he did not envisage at that baleful moment when human affairs surrendered to the law of averages. Outside the reasonable jurisdiction of the intelligence extends the vast territory of what we cannot know. For, if you start measuring the circumference of an optical illusion or a sin or a vision, with a footrule, you are not going to get the right answer. One is, after all, a conditioned observer. The important thing is to find out exactly what conditions govern us when we try to ascertain the nature of our conditions. And the answer seems to be that we are governed by the condition of a reasonable creature. Therefore all those extraordinary transcendentalities that elude the mechanics of reason because they are, in themselves, absolutely not reasonable, these mysteries will always evade our analysis, but will always, nevertheless, exercise their operations of influence upon us, like the unborn. I give you a little fable. There was a man, a very reasonable man, who lived by a river. This river, one winter, rose and flooded his house. It did all sorts of things it should not have done. It was a criminal river, and, finally, when it drowned the man’s wife, a homicidal river. However, this man, who knew how to treat mad dogs, motor-cars, escaped murderers and all things that move suddenly and dangerously, very reasonably took up his gun and went out and shot the river.
My point is this: we think that the river is dead, because, of course, sooner or later, it subsides. And an elementary acquaintance with the laws of cause and effect shows us that it subsides because it was shot. I am saying, I hope simply, something like this: that when Robespierre formally executed God, so that even now we can look up, if we feel inclined, and see that idea lying dead across the human intellect, it is still possible that we are victims of a confusion of categories. (I do not introduce the unreasonable contingency of resurrections.) And, what is more, we can never know whether or not this is so: we can never know whether we are the victims of a confusion of categories because we are not permitted by our conditioned nature to enter and inhabit all those categories, but only some. The trouble, the real trouble, is that, from the altitude of all those categories of intellectual and spiritual interpretation which we in fact inhabit, we can perceive, even though remotely and obscurely, the illusion and mirage of superior categories—illusion and mirage because we can never inhabit them. But from such uncolonizable regions as those visionary removes—and this is where I began—undecipherable communications and etymologies may sometimes reach us. The void gibbers. What ensues, for us, takes on the appearance of a revelation or an inspiration. The voice of the unknowable has spoken out of a cloud of unknowing. ‘This unknowing that knows nothing is so potent in its might that the prudent in their reasoning can never defeat it; for their wisdom never reaches to the understanding that understands nothing, all science transcending.’ That is St. John of the Cross. I believe, for instance, that the sculptor who cut the Cerne Giant in that Dorset Hill had himself heard the first words of God to humanity: ‘Go forth and multiply.’ And what had hitherto been an obscure, passionate and terrifying obligation of animal physiology became from that moment onward a ritual and liturgy of praising the human body. That huge figure with the gentle head and a torso transfixed with an iron erection, the enormous club also elevated, commemorates that moment before which sexual love had been a reflex action like sneezing and after which it became a responsible action like killing. ‘We become,’ said Matthew Arnold as he turned into salt, ‘what we sing.’ And we sing what the powers of the air dictate to us. But:
Did she put on his knowledge with his power?
We do not know—among so many other matters—what destiny these powers keep in reserve for us, what accumulations of apocalypse and revelation and innovation they will load upon our heads until we become, like the Atridae, walking examples of the horror and tragedy of the Elect. All that we know is that we must become this, or nothing. For it seems likely that the fate of the creature will be to perish from knowing not too much, but too little. And the piece of information it will not accept—the knowledge that it will never acknowledge is this: that what cannot be known and arrogated to us may nevertheless exist and operate; may, even, determine what we are and what we will become.
And before this tremendous paradox the poet, only after the prophets and the saints, has from the beginning gone down on his knees and venerated. This is why, when Socrates asked the poets whence they got their marvellous affirmations, they replied that they did not know. The spirit has its reasons, of which the heart does not know. But there is no democracy within the individual, only a fiscal tyranny of the intellect, with irregular insurrections of the hand or the heart or the sympathetic nervous system. This is why so many great poems make so little sense.
If the Sun and Moon should doubt
They’d immediately go out
—this is an assertion the factual veracity of which we can never corroborate. It happens, whether we like it or not, to be out of the sphere of our pragmatism. It is a perceived axiom, not a proven axiom.
Thus I have always found the finest act of intellectual humility to be that dedication by the Greeks of an altar to the Unknown God. I think that few examples exist of a greater spiritual arrogance (this god cannot make himself known to us, but we can make ourselves known to him) and at the same time of so deliberate an intellectual humility.
And this is the paradox of the poem. For the poem affirms spiritually what it cannot possibly declare intellectually. Every poem is thus a making known of ourselves to the Unknown God, and a dedication of its altar to him. If the poem could declare in so many words all those things that it affirms in between the words and the lines, then it would not be a poem, it would be theology. I remind you that the oldest of all poems, the great Rig-veda, signifies by its title Poem of Praise. For we praise before we theologize, just as we believe before (but not necessarily until) we know.
So that your silent existence seems to me really a kind of local unknowing, which operates, as I believe, in your spiritual favour. It surrounds you with a world of which part must always remain accepted without question by you. And to what creatures are the rest of us, the ‘hearing ones’, in the same position as you are to us? For this silence of yours is not silence: it is simply a degree of intimacy into which only those words of greater weight can enter. You hear love and pride and hate and pity in your silence: you do not hear the quarrel of the sparrows. We hear the quarrel of the sparrows, but do we hear the love and the pride and the hate?
Few things seem so clear to me, now, as the constant and imperative duty of the poet to disregard the frivolities and delights in which for so long the poem has hidden its head and its responsibilities. It is no longer good enough to provide cosmetics for all the daughters of music; this served well enough in those remote days when Housman would decorate a finicky nihilism with a verb at the beginning of almost every line. For if in truth a glass of beer is better than Paradise Lost at explaining God’s ways to us, why on earth didn’t Housman drink a lot more and write even less? Because, of course, the remark is a half-truth; a mild and bitter half-truth, a specious and melancholy variant upon in vino veritas—but not a serious assertion. He wrote poems in a world where half-truths could claim to possess at least a little dignity. In that era of red-eyed imperialism and decayed altars, of pseudo-emperors, crypto-gods and ludicrous dynasties, at such a time the half-truth carried half a cross. On a dying star the one-eyed maxim is king. But such excuses do not operate in the world we now so precariously inhabit. For we have been led by such half-truths into a wilderness full of hallucinations and seemingly squared circles: now only the figure with its eyes bound knows what to do. In this desert made up of grains of information the deaf can best hear the logomachy of the heart, the dumb utter the most lucid judgements, and the wild ass best find its way.
For, finally, it is not the pathos of our essential incommunicability, the silent loneliness of every individual, that seems so total; but our conviction that this isolation of every creature is really only relative. For, sometimes, we feel, if only briefly, that we can speak to each other: this is the pathos. And when George Berkeley proved the totality of this delusion, when he showed each of us that no one existed, he demonstrated at the same time the suicide of his own proposition. For, although he has persuaded us of the intellectual immaculacy of his own conception, he has not brought it home to the common heart. And why? Because the common heart of every single creature (a term I make deliberately paradoxical) is absolutely incommunicable in its loneliness. (I think that I speak, but whom do I speak to?) The heart of every man is in Coventry and can be reached by one operation and one only, and this is the working of love. I am so convinced of this truth that I would define love simply as the equation, the only equation, which proves that there are other people in the world besides oneself. It was a noble head that defined religion as ‘what we do with our solitariness.’
And in the universal incommunicability of kind, this state of Lucretian isolation in which all men freely exercise their ostracism, in this silence we all share, my friend, with you, what communications reach us? Not these we most want to hear, the ejaculations of personal love, the confidences that endow us with the illusion of momentary power, the assurance of mutual purposes—we do not hear these and suchlike things. We hear only the vast suspirations of a power continually dying and continually reborn in the interstellar spaces, the demiurge who, if not itself destroyed, will destroy us with a petulant snapping of galaxials. Against this monster of darkness who is the evil in our own nature, it is the destiny of the poem to contend. The darkness that prevailed before the annunciation of the Logos is again illuminated each time a poem is written:
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to Men.
But it is not that the poem offers an improvement upon the ways of God in contending with this power of darkness; no such absurd and egregious notion moves the poet to speak. It is that the poem echoes and repeats in an infinitesimally smaller but still lucid voice, the Vox Creator, the original imperative: Let this be. Towards this imperative conception of the poem that generative word gives that body without which the conception itself is formless and not to be. Just as we do not know what succubi emerge from the deeper regions at those invocations so frivolously uttered in drawing rooms by theosophists.
I will call devils from the vasty deep
But will they come when I do call for them?
The privilege and price of your deafness is that you do not have to press your ear to the grave (as we do) in order to eavesdrop upon those demoniac personifications: this is so terrible a privilege and so onerous a price that no one would blame you for not listening anyhow. But the anguish of the poet and the deaf have this in common: they cannot help but hear the appalling uproar of the silence that surrounds all we do not know, the silence in which exist and evolve all those enigmas never to be elucidated, perhaps never to be perceived, and, but for such men as you, a deaf poet, never to be heard, and never, ever, to be placated.
On the Death of Dylan Thomas
It was on the worst day of this or any other month of the year that he died, and no one knows why. I find it very hard to write about his death, perhaps because, for the time being, the language is at a loss, as well as we. In time to come, if there is any worthwhile time to come, much will be said about him that we do not know how to say now, not only because he was a very great poet , but because he was also a very great person. But, writing this as I do so soon after his death, I have to think about him in a way which those who will write of him later may not do: I mean as a living man whom one cannot believe to be dead, because he had no right to die at this time. Why has he died?
He has died not because there was no more life left in him, but because the world as it is has become an intolerable place for such a man, and insupportable to such a spirit. And yet I do not think that he would ever have acknowledged this intolerableness of the world in so many words, for, as I saw him, he loved everything as much as anybody ever could. But I think he did so in spite of what everything was, as well as because of what it was. And this antimony is a killer.
The pathologist’s opinion that he died ‘of a brain ailment of unknown origin’ simply illustrates the undisguised intervention of the powers of darkness in our affairs: for this is one of their greatest as it is their latest triumph. With this sleight-of-hand assassination such powers now openly operate among us.
Why should I try to disguise the pessimism with which his death affects me, personally? For many years, since we were both young, our names have, intermittently, been put together, his, as it should have been, foremost, for he goes before me in poems as he does in dying. We managed once to take each other’s overcoats as we left a drinking party—and I knew whose coat I had got from the dog-eared Penguin I found in the pocket with a line of unmistakable poetry written on the back:
The lovers scorched to ashes on the green park grass.
As I see his death it would be a dishonouring of him if I were to try and write this note about him as though it would be quickly disremembered. For, although I am at a loss what to say, the poets of this time will feel at a greater loss how to be. He showed how to walk along the street with a poem as though it were a wife and not a whore for the night or a kept-man’s angel. He had married the art of poetry not in a registry office or a library or a lecture room, but in church. Heaven only knows what in the end they will say he died of—but one of the causes may have been the knowledge that he had done some of the things he set out to do. The poems as they are make up a complete and working body, a natural organism, a shape and pattern fulfilled and functioning, like a fly’s eye or a stellar system, so that, retrospectively, one could believe that he had not died too soon. But we are not left with fragments of tremendous mementoes, like the poems of Keats—the truth is that, just as this fable evolved in front of our eyes the wings and fire that proved a whole new dragon of poetry had been born—just as soon as he had done this, he died.
But does one fly straight to the insurance office when one hears of such a death? I do not know why this particular death is, for me, more than the eclipse of a single life—perhaps because every poet is more people than he seems to be—but I do not think that he himself would have claimed an over intelligible familiarity with it—but this principle has to do with the conservation of the spiritual privileges of all those things we do not know, and can never know.
He speaks of this most nearly in the little note prefixed to the Collected Poems. ‘Man was born to serve, reverence and praise God,’ —this is the first sentence of the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius Loyola. ‘I write for the love of man and to praise God’ —this one of the last sentences of Dylan Thomas’s. And perhaps what I mean when I say that his death has darkened a great principle is that, from now on, the praise will be a lot thinner without that voice which has, at last, welshed on us.
[undated: presumably sometime soon after Thomas’s death in 1953]
George Barker (26 February 1913 – 27 October 1991) was an English poet and author, born in Loughton, near Epping Forest in Essex. His poetry was published by Faber and Faber during the editorship of T.S Eliot through the 30s, whose assistance helped him secure a position as professor of English Literature at the Imperial Tohoku University, Japan, in 1939. (Eliot described Barker as a genius, and W. B Yeats also praised his early work, comparing it to Hopkins).
In 1940 he went to the United States, met the poet Elizabeth Smart (by whom he had four of his fifteen children), and subsequently returned to England in 1943. A fictionalized account of his time with Smart, ‘The Dead Seagull’ (corollary to her own well known book-length account; ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’) was published in 1950.
From the late 60s through to his death in 1991 he lived with his wife Elspeth Barker, the novelist, in Itteringham, Norfolk. His ‘Collected Poems’ were edited by Robert Fraser, and published by Faber in 1987, and a biography; ‘The Chameleon Poet; A Life of George Barker’, by Fraser, was published in 2002.
These essays, in book form, were published in 1970, the jacket from which reads: “George Barker is a major writer whose reputation is greater in America. That he has never been fashionable is a tribute to his poetic integrity.”
[Author drawing by Geoff Stevens].