As many people will know, the poet Sebastian Barker died on 31 January. Sebastian was a splendid character, a real individual and a delightful person to spend time with. We’d known each other for many years, though only meeting at fairly long intervals.
His last book, The Land of Gold, is a masterpiece, in my opinion the best thing he ever wrote. I was lucky enough to be at its launch in nOvember, and Sebastian, though already very ill with lung cancer and using a wheelchair, was radiant: there was a sense that his work was done and he was facing the end of his life without fear, and full of love for the many friends who were gathered there with his children and his wife Hilary Davies to celebrate a great achievement in living as well as writing.
I hope to write more about Sebastian in future, but or the time being, here is the interview I recorded with him in 2005, which was published in PN Review and gives some flavour of his marvellously entertaining and inpsiring conversation.
SEBASTIAN BARKER IN CONVERSATION WITH GREVEL LINDOP
GREVEL LINDOP: You’ve three books coming out within a year: a collection of poems, Damnatio Memoriae, in October 2004; what seems to me an unclassifiable book, The Matter of Europe, just out; and another volume of poems, The Erotics of God, due this autumn. Did you conceive of them as a trilogy?
SEBASTIAN BARKER: No. But I believe they are structured as a trilogy, with The Matter of Europe in the centre, Damnatio on the left and Erotics on the right. The fact is that all three books came out of the same series of studies which I’d been conducting for many years.
GL: What kind of studies?
SB: To do with the problem of references in writing poetry. From 1982 for about ten years I did a lot of research for a poem on Nietzsche, The Dream of Intelligence, which was published in 1992. There the references were easy, because it was essentially biographical in conception. When I’d finished that, I’d been through hell and I ended up in a serious and terrible crisis in which I was led by way of my wife and various friends to a Franciscan priest. He put me under instruction, and in the course of this instruction I staggered across a vast body of knowledge which I call ‘the Matter of Europe’. That’s why I published that particular book, because it documents and makes accessible to the reader this vast inheritance.
GL:What was the crisis?
SB: When I’d finished being a writer in residence in Berkshire I’d really covered everything that I wanted to do in terms of poetry. But I’d discovered the Greek poets and in 1982 I thought, right, I’ve got to go to Greece and I’ve got to build a house somehow or other. I took everything I’d got, put it all into a car and drove there. I realised that the person I was going to work on was Nietzsche because of his profound love of the art of tragedy, which is Greek, and the way this relates to the problem of suffering. I really built the house to write the poem. I wanted some philosophical premises! I spent £780 buying 500 square metres of land. Most of it was cactus and a pile of stones. But I had the freehold.
GL: Did you speak modern Greek at the time?
No, and they didn’t speak any English. It was in the Greek mountains. There were no tourists around, nobody, nothing. They saw this mad Englishman – I was either mad or I was a smuggler – but after three weeks some of them became curious. And then the whole village became involved. At one point we had 27 people working on the house. After nine months the whole house was a shell, but liveable. But then came the glorious part, of living in this fabulous place! It’s unbelievably beautiful.
SB: When I was coming to the end of The Dream of Intelligence, where Nietzsche goes mad, I kind of went mad myself. But because I’d built the house I knew where everything was, so when my mind started to go I could feel walls, I could feel where the loo was or the bed so I felt safe, and when I got the ending of the poem right, this extraordinary sense of repletion, of finish, came over me. The most glorious feeling in the world is the feeling of artistic repletion.
GL:And then you came back to England?
GL: And you met the Franciscan.
SB: He sent me away and told me to go and buy a book, The Catholic Catechism. Twenty-five quid hardback. So I walked down the Embankment and I bought it. I was profoundly sceptical; but I read it, and I read it, and I was staggered! This is the most gorgeous beautiful book: and I realised that it was beautifully structured. It didn’t have an index, it had a list of people who’d been referred to, going back hundreds and hundreds of years, two thousand years and further. So I read all these books, and I realised that this was a vast cultural inheritance, the core of which had been forgotten. That’s why I called the first book Damnatio Memoriae – ‘Erased from Memory’.
GL: In that book, and even more in The Erotics of God, you’re using a very formally simple verse, aren’t you? It reminded me of Blake’s Songs of Innocence: it seems that you’re trying to make very direct statements.
SB: The way lyric poetry cuts into the mind I would not say it’s directly under the control of the writer. It’s rather like a bird that flies into a tree and then flies away again. If there’s a directness and a simplicity that is because the poems wanted to be written that way.
GL: But also your style, your language in these books is very unusual, because there’s a mixture of the learned and the coloquial – I mean at one moment you’ll be talking about ‘the anamnesis of the true irenics’ and at another point you’ll be calling a poem ‘Dickhead’. There’s a fantastic range.
SB: If I hear or feel lines coming, whether it’s ‘Dickhead’ or ‘the true irenics’, I don’t mind: I will go with it. My father [George Barker] used to say, The words tell you, you do not tell the words! And that is really important.
GL: Did you discuss the process of writing poetry with your father?
SB: Yes, we only had two subjects really: theology and the writing of poetry. My mother [Elizabeth Smart] wasn’t so interested in theology but she was more interested in what you might call love, which of course is theological in the extreme.
GL: I’m intrigued by the title and conception of The Erotics of God. One might expect much more explicit reference to the erotic than there seems to be.
SB: True, but it is concerned with love. The erotics of God is a subject I stumbled on when I was reading Origen, and it’s a really interesting, serious subject, in fact there’s an academic industry going on around it, especially in Australia and America. The idea starts with God’s love for Israel, and the Song of Songs: God being the groom and Israel being the bride. It’s taken over by St Paul and Bernard of Clairvaux and Richard Rolle and so on to Teresa of Avila. And St John of the Cross. GL: It’s something quite different from the erotic in the usual sense, though I think it includes that, but it’s got a classical calm about it. On the other hand, I was struck by the grim Hopkins epigraph to Damnatio Memoriae: ‘Only what word/wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban/Bars…’ That seems very pessimistic, more so than the book itself.
SB: The deeper you believe, the more terrible the prospect that it’ll be a load of rubbish. This is why one poem in Erotics – ‘I cannot tell you how the Greek within my temples burns’ – is about the absolute worthlessness and uselessness of all knowledge, of all faith and everything. Any true believer knows exactly what it is to feel that sense of disbelief.
GL: Both this book and The Erotics of God have extensive prose notes – what you cal, in fact, an Exegesis. Why is this?
SB: What set me up on this, believe it or not, was a letter from Michael Schmidt. I sent him a manuscript of Damnatio and he wrote me back a really articulate and interesting letter talking about hooks. How do I as a reader of modern poetry get into the poem if I can’t hook into the language, if there aren’t enough hooks there for me to get my intellect and my passions and all the rest of it involved? So I saw that there was a problem here, to do with references as such. So I worked and worked and it took an entire summer to find all these references, so I could write down these references, what I was talking about. I’ll give you a concrete example of what I mean. ‘Damnatio Memoriae’, the title poem of that book, it’s actually cast for 145 different voices. These are all historical figures and they’re all speaking in their own words, some by way of translation.
GL: And you don ‘t feel that this amount of exegesis is an admission that the poetry is not managing to communicate?
SB: No, it’s the other way round: the poetry is formed by the act of being a poet and being a maker of the thing. But if it’s incomprehensible to an adolescent boy or girl, or to a literary editor of great distinction, there’s something wrong. You can’t change one, and you can’t get away from the other. So if you put the two together something might happen.
GL: I wonder whether in these books you’re somehow continuing a project that your father might have initiated, because he also was preoccupied with spirituality and the question of evil, wasn’t he?
SB: O yes, because after all I was brought up by my parents like everybody else, not just my father but my mother too, I adored these people and we got on very well. And at the heart of it all was the question, What is art, what is it for? And what’s good, what’s evil? I spent ten years talking to my father about whether there was something we could say was evil, categorically as such. And we came down to a conclusion that there was.
GL: I suppose your idea of evil would be typified by the poem in Erotics called ‘The Nuthoods ‘. In that poem you say ‘The nuthoods fear no consequence/in hel they’re those you’ll meet/As ordinary and as kind/on any suburb street’ and that ‘They live in hell by force of will…Usurping God.’
SB: This refers to Heidegger. This colossal mistake which he made in the 1930s of identifying the Nazi cause with the divinity of God and the divinity of nature. He realised his mistake later on, but I call this the Heideggerian mistake and it features prominently in The Erotics of God. It’s a sort of modern symbol of the fall of man.
GL: The question of history certainly dominates the central book of the trilogy, The Matter of Europe. I find that book quite unclassifiable. It seems an attempt to encompass the whole of time. You have these eight diagrams or tables. One of cosmology, one of human evolution, then six ‘Cultural Sketches’ of closer and closer focus, the first running from 5 million BC, the last just of cultural figures aged twenty and over in the year 2000. I suppose it’s possible to see it as a vast foundation or footnote to the two books of poems, isn’t it? Because it connects with the exegeses in both volumes.
SB: Dead right. And there’s an index of selected names, and there are lots of great minds that I go into there with a little explanation of what and who they are.
GL: So what kind of book is The Matter of Europe?
SB: I call it a reference book. Often myself I’ve wanted to have this to hand – like if I go to Pembrokeshire, and see these rocks which are millions of years old, but where exactly do they fit into the scale of time? These seven ages are all set in the same scale. Each page leads into the next, there’s a logical sequencing so that if you come across anything in history or prehistory you just have to take a quick flick to this book and you can place it immediately. So it’s a book to be used.
GL: And how if at all do you see this relating to your work as Editor of The London Magazine?
SB: Well, if you want to know what my editorial policy is, just read The Matter of Europe because it is absolutely derived from it.
GL: So you’re trying in The London Magazine to embody that sense of our having a place in a huge tradition, a huge cultural world? Do you look for indications that writers are aware of that inheritance?
SB: I think it will come through. It’s something to do with ‘What is the language using us for?’ in the W.S. Graham poem. I read lots and lots of manuscripts and I know exactly what I’m looking for. Sometimes your mind sort of fudges over and blanks out because you’re not reading anything – there’s nothing there, and then suddenly you’ll come across a young poet like Helena Nelson for example: beautiful lyrics from Scotland, and I think ‘Wow!’ because that’s the tradition. And then she writes to me because I query a line or two, and she says it’s from an old Scottish ballad, and I see it’s come straight out of the conduit of tradition.
GL: Do you feel that you’ve discovered any particularly significant writers while you’ve been editing the London?
SB: I think all the ones I get involved with and take the trouble to live with and to publish I regard as in some way significant. Some of them are well known, some of them are young. They come in from all over the world. I’m just a talent spotter, that’s what I am as an editor. So… Some young writer like Swithin Cooper – Tom Crowther is another young man at Oxford – Vanessa Austin Locke, 21 at Sussex University – and there are others whose names I know like Lynn Wycherly but for their ages I don’t enquire…
GL: And do you judge ultimately by intuition?
SB: Well, I call it the furnace, the critical furnace. All the work that’s submitted to me is examined in this room, and it’s pretty hot in there! It either burns up and it becomes nothing, or else it survives and it glows – rather like the heart of a tilley lamp which is made of silk and in the fire it doesn’t collapse, it glows and sends out the light. So I think, ‘Ah, this I want to live with!’ And like all editors I’m hungry for the real stuff. But also there was something I wanted to say about all three of these books. I saw Ruth Padel quoting Michael Donaghy in PN Review recently. He was talking about a poem by George Herbert called ‘A Wreath’ and Donaghy – God rest his soul – said, ‘This is no mere puzzle-box but a labour of intense devotion.’ That’s what I do. All my work is along the same lines. It always has been since I took up this road in early youth.