(Author's note: this article first appeared in issue 82 of NAWG LINK and has had a couple of minor modifications to make it up-to-date)
The search for a new Poet Laureate last year threw up some predictable names. As well as Carol Ann Duffy, who eventually accepted the post, a string of well-known poets including Simon Armitage and Wendy Cope were tipped as possible successors to Andrew Motion. But one surprising name was added to the list of contenders through the unusual mechanism of a Parliamentary petition: that of a certain Les Barker.
This isn't a name you are likely to find on the poetry shelves in Waterstone's. Les Barker doesn't judge poetry competitions, keeps out of the literary journals, and for many in the narrow world of English poetry, his name is unknown. Yet Les is one of Britain’s most successful poets. He regularly packs out concert halls and collaborates with some veritable legends in the music and entertainment worlds.
Les is a true English eccentric. He spent the early part of his working life as an accountant before giving it all up to become, in his own words, "a professional idiot". He is also the power behind Mrs. Ackroyd Enterprises, his own very small press and independent record label. On stage, grey and cardiganed, he shuffles through his poetry collections as if bewildered by the poems. The deception lasts about thirty seconds.
I want to talk about Les Barker because he’s a wonderful example of an alternative road to success as a poet. The established career path for most professional poets (and many good amateurs) involves literary journals, competitions, poetry readings, festivals, an Arvon course or two. But this isn’t a road that suits everybody. For those who thrive on the adrenaline buzz of live performance, the rarefied world of "traditional" poetry may well be a disappointment.
Les created his niche by a different means: through the subculture of Britain's folk music clubs. He is a natural songwriter; his poems lend themselves well to musical arrangements. His repertoire of "filk-songs" – comedic or satirical re-workings of well-known folk or popular songs – has almost cult status. Many have now become part of the folk tradition in their own right (The Hard Cheese of Old England, recorded by Martin Carthy, is a fine example).
Britain’s folk clubs share a sort of "bush telegraph" where news of great performances travels faster than the performers themselves. One small but successful gig can spawn dozens of recommendations. For Les, this has meant an ever diversifying audience; writers' circles, literature festivals and the Eisteddfod now regularly succumb to his unique brand of insanity. He is a headline act at most of the UK's folk festivals, drawing audiences of hundreds. Few of today's professional poets can boast of such crowds.
What of the poetry itself? It's true that some purists would probably sneer at the notion that Les's many filk-songs and rags deserve to be called "poetry". This work does however showcase two distinctive aspects of the Barker craft: a surreal sense of humour which compares favourably with another enormously popular poet, Spike Milligan; and a faultless ear for puns and word-play. A poet can have no better preparation for their craft than to be in love with words, with the absurd sounds they make and the intriguing similarities which ring out when they are placed together. Les Barker is a master here.
His repertoire isn't restricted to filk-songs. Les's gift for rhyme has spawned a vast body of original, absurdist poetry in the grand tradition of Milligan, Stanley Holloway and Hilaire Belloc. His comedic characters – such as Cosmo the Fairly Accurate Knife-Thrower, Spot of the Antarctic, and Jason and the Arguments – have become legendary. Famous names such as Terry Wogan, Roy Hudd, Mark & Lard, and even Ian McMillan have recorded their tales on CD. Barker fans wait breathlessly for new instalments in the lives of these characters ("Cosmo, Prince of Denmark" made a recent appearance…). One of his most celebrated works – Have you Got Any News of the Iceberg?, the tender story of a polar bear looking for his family, missing on the iceberg that sank the Titanic – was turned into a graphic novel by cartoonist Bill Tidy.
A poet has to have a fine eye for small, incongruous details, and Barker's is magnificent. Undeterred by the niceties of convention, he tackles such subjects as the eating habits of mangetout peas, the temporal irregularities of occasional tables, and the question of how to experience déjà vu for the first time. The results are some of the finest performance poems I've ever heard, and a masterclass in how to hold an audience spellbound.
Although a Les Barker gig is generally a laugh a minute, the poet has a serious side. Now and then, a piece of barbed satire will slip through between the jokes. War, human rights and global warming often feature on the agenda. His poetic critiques of George W. Bush and the so-called "war on terror" are compelling in a literary sense, as well as a political one. His many musical collaborations include the libretto for the folk opera The Stones of Callanish. More recently he has won several prizes as a writer of poetry in Welsh.
So why won't we ever see a Les Barker collection in Waterstone's? Well, mainly because his many collections of poetry are self-published (through the ubiquitous Mrs. Ackroyd imprint). They lack the luxury of smart covers, and are higgledy-piggledy in their selection of material. However, these collections sell in their droves at gigs and through his website (www.mrsackroyd.com). A newcomer to Barker will find an excellent introduction to the essential works through the Guide Cats for the Blind audio CD series, too.
Les Barker, in short, is a beacon of hope for those poets who really do move to the beat of a different drum. His success is self-made, and all the more impressive for it.
There is still a chance that one day, one of the "serious" poetry publishers may give his repertoire the credit it deserves and take a chance on publishing a Selected Works. But even if that never happens, I don't think Les will be disappointed. That strange combination of eccentricity and business acumen ensures that the Mrs. Ackroyd brand stays more than merely viable. His diary is generally booked up a couple of years in advance; even heart bypass surgery seems not to have weakened his appetite for performance. And he's one of the only poets I can think of who is pretty much guaranteed to sell out every venue he performs.
An unlikely candidate for Poet Laureate, perhaps – but a candidate whom the Poet's Soapbox was proud to support.