falling in love with a poet: a brief history of Elizabeth Smart and George Barker

March 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

“I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire […] he for whom I have waited so long, who has stalked so unbearably through my nightly dreams, fumbles with the tickets and the bags, and shuffles up to the event which too much anticipation has fingered to shreds….”

— Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

Here the Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart describes her first glimpse of the English poet George Barker, a poet she had fallen in love with three years earlier after coming across a book of his poems in Better Books on Charing Cross Road in London, August 1937. She decided then he would be her lover and her muse, knowing nothing more about him in the days before Googling than the language of his poetry, and his age (gleaned from the author’s blurb in the book — about the right age, close enough to her own, she thought). [1]

Sending her own poems to Lawrence Durrell in 1939, in his guise as editor of his Paris-based magazine Booster, she happened to mention in a letter to Durrell that she admired Barker, “About my favourite younger poet is George Barker. He excites me most, even when immature…” (quoted in Rosemary Sullivan’s By Heart 120). Durrell, knowing Smart came from a wealthy Canadian family, gave Smart Barker’s address, and told her that Barker might be willing to sell her some of his poetry manuscripts. And so she contacted him, and bought her first manuscript from him — the poem “‘O Who will Speak from a Womb or a Cloud?'” — for $25.

They continued the correspondence; Barker unwittingly seeing in Smart a wealthy patroness; Smart seeing in Barker a future lover she was determined to have. The war intervened. The two still hadn’t met. Smart returned to North America. With the help of T.S. Eliot, Barker was offered and accepted a job as Professor of English Literature at Sendai Imperial University in Japan, leaving for Japan in November 1939. But he quickly found himself very unhappy there, and unable to write poetry. He decided to write to Smart, asking for her help — to rescue him and send two tickets so he could come to North America. In return he would provide her with his gratitude, and the manuscripts of his journals.

Two tickets? Smart hadn’t realized that he was married. This was a set-back, but Smart was determined, and managed to raise the money to buy two tickets for Barker and his wife, Jessica. Smart was staying at this time in an artist colony at Anderson Creek on Big Sur, where artists lived in shacks that had formerly been occupied by convict-labourers used to build the Carmel-San Simeon highway. Rosemary Sullivan describes the colony:

“It was a spectacular setting. The cottages were perched on a cliff, a thousand feet above the sea. Jack London had gone there in the old days and Robinson Jeffers lived nearby; Elizabeth used to say you could almost see him brooding on his cliff. Henry Miller would describe Anderson Creek six years later as a region where extremes meet, a region where one ‘is always conscious of weather, of space, of grandeur, and of eloquent silence.’ The coyotes howled at night and mountain lions ranged the far ridges. The landscape was prehistoric and apocalyptic” (p.149-150).

Barker and his wife arrived in Vancouver in 1940, and travelled down to Monterey to meet up with Smart for the first time. The epigraph to this post is taken from the opening to By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Smart’s beautiful, sensual account of the love affair she had with Barker. In this passage she describes their first meeting, so skillfully rendering both her own desire, and her cold feet:

“I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire […]  he for whom I have waited so long, who has stalked so unbearably through my nightly dreams, fumbles with the tickets and the bags, and shuffles up to the event which too much anticipation has fingered to shreds….”

Her first impressions of him did not live up to her imaginings. In her introduction to By Grand Central Station, Brigid Brophy notes how difficult it is to record the extremes of passion as they encounter the tedium and the sometimes bleak reality of every day existence; and how beautifully Smart manages this nonetheless, in a language more poetry than prose, in the rhythms of the King James version of the Song of Songs.

Smart took the Barkers to Big Sur, where they stayed for a time, and the affair between Barker and Smart inevitably began. Smart, in By Grand Central Station: “Under the waterfall he surprised me bathing and gave me what I could no more refuse than the earth can refuse the rain.”  Barker, in a diary entry of 23 July 1940: “The harmonics of all music and the mathematics of suspension bridges cannot equate the angle of this head as it leans to one side under the summer of its own coronals…Oh My Canadian” (quoted by Sullivan p.155).  And they were off.

The affair lasted many years; although Barker remained married to his wife Jessica, Smart had four children by him, and raised them alone. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, begun even before she had first met Barker, was completed two weeks before the birth of their first child, in Pender Harbour, a remote B.C. fishing hamlet where she had retreated to be alone. The book (copies of which her mother burned whenever she found them) was published in 1945. [2]

I admire Elizabeth Smart’s nerve in pursuing George Barker, and her willingness to risk rejection for love, even if at first it was more the idea of love that motivated her, and a desire to change her life, rather than Barker himself. And it doesn’t really surprise me that she did in the end fall in love with him through his poetry, before ever having met him, as there can be nothing more intimate than a poem.

I admire her even more for writing By Grand Central Station, stark écorché of her desire.

“O the water of love that floods everything over, so that there is nothing the eye sees that is not covered in. There is no angle the world can assume which the love in my eye cannot make into a symbol of love. Even the precise geometry of his hand, when I gaze at it, dissolves me into water and I flow away in a flood of love.


But how can I go through the necessary daily motions, when such an intense fusion turns the world to water?

The overflow drenches all my implements of trivial intercourse. I stare incomprehension at the simplest question from a stranger, standing as if bewitched, half-smiling, like an idiot, feeling this fiery fluid spill out of my eyes.

I am possessed by love and have no options.”

[1] Details of the love affair of Smart and Barker come from Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of Elizabeth Smart, By Heart (1992).

[2] Smart’s mother, appalled by the contents of the book, arranged to have copies suppressed and burned in Canada: “Louie [Smart’s mother] had learned that six copies of the book had been seen at Murphy-Gamble’s, a local dry-goods store in Ottawa; she immediately rushed down, bought, and burnt those books also. Louie was always thorough. She then approached her friends in External Affairs and requested them to ensure that the book would not be imported into Canada. She could call in old debts incurred in her days as a great Ottawa hostess. Whether it was officially banned will never be certain, but for decades the book was effectively kept out of Canada” (By Heart p.229).

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