I saw too little of Sebastian Barker. Our paths crossed every so often – at a lecture, a poetry reading or a party, at a College reunion in Oxford, or when I interviewed him for PN Review – and each time I came away with a glow, an elated feeling that I’d been with someone quite remarkable. But it wasn’t enough, because Sebastian was not just one of the most brilliant, but one of the most simply loveable people I’ve met. I should have spent more time with him; but somehow it was always postponed, and when I heard that he had been diagnosed with the inoperable cancer which he endured with such radiant equanimity, it was almost too late.
The list of his achievements is extraordinary: degrees in both Natural Science and English, FRSL, Chair of the Poetry Society, member of the PEN executive committee, editor (from 2002 to 2008) of The London Magazine, and an enormous catalogue of poetry books from publishers ranging from the well-known (Enitharmon) to the scarcely-credible (Friday Night Fish). And then there was the house in Greece, ‘a ruin in the mountains of the south west Peloponnese’, which Sebastian bought in 1983 for £780, and restored with the help of local villagers. It became, he said, his ‘home from home for the next 30 years’ – a result of, and ongoing foundation for, his love of modern Greek poetry.
Sebastian had a way of cropping up in my life just when I needed him. In the 1990s, when I started to write Touching the Earth, a kind of epic about the life of the Buddha, he founded The Long Poem Group, which held meetings and published a newsletter to discuss long poems: which ones existed, what their characteristics were, what they might do, how to write them. The group was a profound encouragement to me and other writers, and also a forcing-house of seminal ideas about poetry. Later, as editor of this very magazine, Sebastian (a courageous and innovative editor) published my fiction and poetry when I was taking controversial paths which made certain critics and editors uncomfortable.
I interviewed him in 2005 – a notable year, when he published three books in twelve months: two volumes of poems (Damnatio Memoriae and The Erotics of God) and a strange, complicated chronology of life, the universe, western culture and everything, The Matter of Europe, whose exact purpose and function I never quite managed to grasp but which was vastly important to Sebastian as a way of getting everything (its tables began with the Big Bang) into place and focus. We met in the cafeteria at the British Library and had a hilarious and fascinating discussion. But when I came to transcribe the tape – no easy matter, since it was hard to hear our voices over the clatter of plates and cutlery – I found that Sebastian’s learning, fluency and mental exuberance were such that every answer finished a thousand miles away from the question that had prompted it.
Asked about his having a book of Christian poems produced by a Communist publisher, Sebastian’s reply developed into an exposition of Heidegger’s Being and Time. A question about Nietszche (on whom he wrote a fine poem, The Dream of Intelligence) prompted an account of how Sebastian had been sent by a Franciscan friar to read an enormous book called The Catholic Confession. It all made perfect sense at the time, but gazing at the transcript a few days later I saw that to make a publishable version I should have to take the entire interview to pieces and restructure it like a collage. I did; and everyone (Sebastian included) said what a good inter- view it was.
Sebastian’s poetry was of two kinds. One was a rhyming, deceptively traditional verse; the other was free, long-lined, aphoristic. Though not in the least derivative, both had something in common with the poetry of Blake. Both reached their culmination in his last book, The Land of Gold (one might call it ‘books’, since Anvil also published part of it as a separate volume). The Land of Gold is a triumph: its poems virtually flawless in form, its outlook tranquil and yet not shying away in the least from the dreadfulness of fatal illness. It opens with ‘The Hunting Owl’, a serene, haunting poem that could almost be by Walter de la Mare or the early Robert Graves:
If it were possible to write
The words I know I knew I meant,
Not lie, half ill, throughout the night,
I would count myself content.
But as it is, true silence reigns.
The borealis tints the night.
The moon invades the windowpanes
And checks the floor with light…
And it confronts mortality without flinching, as in ‘The Ballad of True Regret’:
Never to tread on the forest floor
Mottled with pools of light.
Never to open the kitchen door
To walk in the starry night…
‘The Sotochori Poems’, on the other hand, are modernist, free-flowing, a little surreal – and very much situated in Greece:
The sink was blocked with a question even more tiring than money.
Where does the detritus go in the larynx of the drainpipe?
Will death make it a skylark?
Previous conceptions of death had died, and new ones took their places. Shades of the pomegranate tree fell across the garden. The erupting vine was bathing in the sky. Flowers serviced insects and insects flowers. And from nowhere came the stone seats of the philosophers, all gone…
The Land of Gold was a masterly achievement, and it was matched by the radiant equanimity of Sebastian himself, now in a wheelchair, at the book’s launch (where I last saw him) and at the Cambridge reading he gave soon afterwards, two days before his death on 31 January at the age of sixty-eight.
So exhilarating was his exit, with a superb reading from that last and best of all his books, that its glow tempted one to forget that his life had had its more difficult aspects. The obituaries noted that he was the son of poet George Barker and novelist Elizabeth Smart; none mentioned that George Barker had fifteen children by numerous women and did not live with Smart. Some of his half-siblings Sebastian probably never met; one made first contact, via the internet, only shortly before Sebastian died.
He had idyllic memories of his childhood at Tilty Mill in rural Essex, where he was often cared for by ‘The Two Roberts’, painters Colquhoun and MacBryde, whilst Smart was at work; and he came to regard his absentee father companionably. But it was perhaps not least as a kind of therapy that Sebastian wrote his strange first-person biography of the poet Eddie Lin- den, also born out of wedlock: on the first page of Who Is Eddie Linden (no question mark!) Barker makes Eddie say of his father, ‘He got clean away with it. There’s no official piece of paper linking him with me. How many men are there like this? How many sons like me?’ His childhood cannot really have been easy.
Sebastian’s book-jacket blurbs listed a bewildering range of occupations: antique-dealer, fireman, carpenter, rare book valuer. Partly these were attempts to find his feet after giving up the scientific career his mother had planned for him, before devoting himself to poetry. And there was a breakdown, or more than one: in our interview, Sebastian spoke of a ‘serious and terrible crisis’ preceding his conversion to Catholicism; of how he ‘kind of went mad’ himself after writing of Nietzsche’s madness. And there were three marriages. It was the third, to the poet Hilary Davies, that brought Se- bastian sustained happiness; perhaps because, married to someone whose work and spiritual interests closely matched his own, he at last felt com- plete companionship and understanding. With Hilary he explored, and fi- nally embraced, Catholicism, reading widely and profoundly in theology as he had earlier done in philosophy. At the end he asked ‘to be buried as a devout Catholic’. He made a final visit with Hilary to Tilty Mill, where ‘the sun on the wooden wheel /And the millstream arc through the air’, the day before his death.
An early autobiographical poem, ‘Lines for My Unborn Son’, contains the memorable line: ‘Each life’s a glass that’s rubbed enough to sing’. Glasses (usually holding wine, usually in the evening, usually in a garden) are plen- tiful in Sebastian Barker’s poetry. The image of life as the glass, and cir- cumstance as the finger that makes it vibrate and – with luck – draws music from it, is typical of his vision: romantic, particular, hopeful. His life sang all right; but it was rubbed harder than most of us realised. It was thanks to Sebastian’s courage, optimism and questing intelligence that, right to the end, what we noticed was not the friction but the music.