George Barker

(February 26, 1913 – October 27, 1991)

ON A FRIEND’S ESCAPE FROM DROWNING OFF THE NORFOLK COAST

Came up that cold sea at Cromer like a running grave
Beside him as he struck
Wildly towards the shore, but the blackcapped wave
Crossed him and swung him back,
And he saw his son digging in the castled dirt that could save.
Then the farewell rock
Rose a last time to his eyes. As he cried out
A pawing gag of the sea
Smothered his cry and he sank in his own shout
Like a dying airman. Then she
Deep near her son asleep on the hourglass sand
Was awakened by whom
Save the Fate who knew that this was the wrong time:
And opened her eyes
On the death of her son’s begetter. Up she flies
Into the hydra-headed
Grave as he closes his life upon her who for
Life has so richly bedded him.
But she drove through his drowning like Orpheus and tore
Back by his hair
Her escaping bridegroom. And on the sand their son
Stood laughing where
He was almost an orphan. Then the three lay down
On that cold sand
Each holding the other by a living hand.

Submitted by Ted Dyck


About George Barker

Barker’s poem was recommended to me in the mid-60s by a Russo-Canadian named Jim in Minneapolis when I first considered a0a04ef3-68f1-4ee7-b3da-246e2a4e52e0_g_273writing poetry. I met Jim one night in the Triangle Bar just off the campus of the University of Minnesota where I was studying mathematics and he was organizing poetry readings. I went to a reading, said to myself, “I can do that,” and returned to the Triangle. No Jim, but after the bar closed I took an early breakfast in a diner of the type that catered to university students, and Jim appeared as if by magic. He saw me, staggered his way to my table just as the waitress was serving me, sat down across from me, reached over and slid my plate to his spot, said, “I’ll have that,” and fell face forward into my ham and eggs.

Sometime after that, Jim suggested I read a number of poets. Out of all the poets he recommended and out of all of their poems, George Barker’s “On a Friend’s Escape from Drowning” has stayed with me the longest and will stay with me the rest of my life. It is perhaps the finest poem I have ever read. Parts of Dorn’s Gunslinger run a close second.


About “On a Friend’s Escape From Drowning” 

The thing that first caught me about this poem was the sound of its language as I read it – Jim’s suggestion – aloud to myself. No point in describing that sound – take his advice.

The poem presents a simple narrative of a near-tragedy in a domestic situation – which is to say it is ultimately accessible to anyone, even someone totally unschooled in poetry, as I was then.

Memorable phrases – a running grave, for example, found in another context in Thomas – have reappeared in my own poetry, even quite recently, or 50 years later.

Its ear-perfect rhymes, unnoticeable on first oral readings, become clear on visual inspection, as does the exactness of its lineation.

Above all else, the poem’s rhetorical ingenuity in syntax drives its points home: Then she / Deep near her son asleep on the hourglass sand / Was awakened by whom / Save the Fate who knew that this was the wrong time: / And opened her eyes / On the death of her son’s begetter.

So the poem closes, fittingly for itself, on that simplest and deepest of all the figures of poetry, the family: Then the three lay down / On that cold sand / Each holding the other by a living hand.