Eric Wilson Barker
Life in Elmbridge
Barker was born in Thames Ditton, Surrey in 1905. He spent his childhood in Thames Ditton, attending the Old Church School in Church Walk. His family emigrated to America in 1921 when he was sixteen years old.
However, Barker returned to his birthplace in 1959. Barker wrote to a friend during his return to Thames Ditton stating: "I revisited an ancient pub, The Old Harrow near Weston Green. I always remember the lines on the signboard of that Inn when I was a kid... There it was too and the old weatherworn sign with the letters a bit dim but still legible!"
After his return to Elmbridge, Barker wrote the poem 'In Thames Ditton', which is found in his 1964 collection of poetry 'Looking for Water', and revolves around the poignant image of the weatherworn sign above The Old Harrow pub:
"In Thames Ditton I remembered a sign,
Rhymed and creaking in the wind,
Inviting thirst inside The Harrow"
In the mid 1980s, the sign was replaced by a modern black board but with the same writing:
"Come my dear Brother,
Let's comfort each other,
Here's Rum and good Ginn,
And Brandy Within,
Cyder and twopenny fit for a King".
Life beyond Elmbridge
Despite being born and educated in Elmbridge, Barker spent the majority of his life in California, USA. He lived in Carmel-by-the-Sea in Monterey County, San Rafael in Marin County, and then a small apartment on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco in California, USA (Barker, 'Clark Ashton Smith', 1978). From the age of sixteen, Barker had numerous jobs including: a truck dispatcher, a gardener, a signal tower operator in a railroad yard and a caretaker. However, Barker referred to poetry as his "real work". Many of his poems explore the poetry he found in the workaday language and landscapes around him. In 'Poet in a Garage' he writes:
"He works an eight-hour shift, dispatching
trucks from three importunate phones -
(Leavenworth and Hyde, 51 Chevrolet sedan,
Dorothy Jordan, membership number, expiration date,
Please hurry, got to make the airport in fifteen minutes)
and the instinct at the back of his skull
has told him there is poetry here too,
(if he can find its elusive essence)
in the smell of gasoline, the roaring exits,
the cheerful profanity, in the mechanical
dexterity of hands swiftly solving
the underhood mystery."
(Beloit Poetry Journal, Winter 1951-1952 Vol. 2 No. 2)
In Carmel, Barker became part of the famous artists and writers' colony that was founded around the poet George Sterling (1869-1926). The writer Charles Warren Stoddard discovered the hamlet of Carmel as a place of artistic inspiration, and by 1905, the 'Carmel Arts and Crafts Club' had formed to support and produce artistic works, hold exhibitions, lectures, plays, and recitals in Carmel. After the 1906 earthquake destroyed San Francisco, Carmel was overrun with writers and painters who sought temporary refuge in the established artist colony. Amongst them was the poet Ina Coolbrith, whose house was destroyed by fire in the earthquake. The arrival of Ambrose Bierce and George Sterling made Carmel the west coast centre of American poetry. Both were mentors to many younger poets. Among the noted poets and writers living in Carmel were: Mary Austin, James M. Hunter, Ambrose Bierce, Nora May French, Upton Sinclair, Jr., Robinson Jeffers, and Sinclair Lewis (the 1st American winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature).
Barker wrote several collections of poetry. His first was 'The Planetary Heart' in 1942, followed by 'Directions in the Sun' in 1956, 'A Ring in the Willows' in 1961 and 'Looking for Water' in 1964, published by Crighton House Inc. New York.
Barker married Virginia Elizabeth Ault whilst in America. The couple married on 24th June 1927 in Santa Rosa, Sonoma. Eric Barker also married the folk dancer Madelynne Greene in 1937. The following year they became friends with the American poet, artist, and fantasy, horror, and science fiction writer, Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961). Clark is best remembered today as one of the most famous contributors to the fantasy and horror pulp fiction magazine 'Weird Tales'. Madelynne died suddenly during a dance lesson on 9th February 1970.
Eric Wilson Barker was awarded many prizes for his poetry; amongst them was the Shelley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America in 1963. He was also offered the Laureateship of California but he declined the award.
- Eric Barker, 'Clark Ashton Smith: In Memory Of A Great Friendship' in Donald Sidney-Fryer, 'Emperor of Dreams: A Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography', (Donald M. Grant Publisher Inc.,1978).
- Eric Wilson Barker, 'Looking for Water', (Crighton House Inc., 1964).
- Beloit Poetry Journal website: www.bpj.org
- Thames Ditton and Weston Green Residents' Association website: residents-association.com