The Big Sur Poet in an English Pork-Pie Hat

Sunset on the peak of Pico Blanco in the Ventana Wilderness. The Little Sur River is in the foreground.

When Pico Blanco wears sunset like a lion skin
On his granite shoulders
I have followed her down to the sea
Where gulls and cormorants burn like phoenixes,
The great ocean is possessed by light and sound.

From “Little Sur River” by Eric Barker

Story and photos by David A. Laws

Half an hour’s drive south of my home on the Monterey Peninsula, cliff-hugging California Highway One dips down into a shallow valley carved by the Little Sur River on its 25-mile dash to the ocean from the shoulders of the glistening peak of Pico Blanco. Every time I take the wide U-turn across a low concrete bridge that spans the creek, my mind conjures up images of the stocky, gnome-like poet Eric Barker, with a halo of white hair protruding from under his battered pork-pie hat.

Little Sur River mouth and beach. Highway One cuts along the cliffs beyond

In “Little Sur River,” Barker captured the essence of her journey (he uses the pronoun “her” in the quote from the poem, above) from stands of pine and redwood “where smoky sunlight lies tangled in brambles and ferns” through dense riparian groves of alder, cottonwood, and willow, to the coast. He knew this spot well, having lived within sound of the surf for more than two years as a caretaker on the El Sur Ranch in the early 1950s.

His line “Sun is not all. Here we drink fog like rain” from the poem “Fog Over Big Sur” acknowledged Barker’s stolid acceptance of damp, foggy, wind-blasted Central California coastal summers, in exchange for the freedom and solitude of his simple Big Sur lifestyle.

Eric, 1955. Image Copyright © 2021 Bullock Family Photography LLC. All rights reserved.

Barker was well known in the Big Sur art and literary community that included novelist Henry Miller, sculptors Harry Dick Ross and Gordon Newall, and artists Emile Norman and Emil White. He collaborated with Wynn Bullock on projects that matched the photographer’s expressive black and white images with the poet’s verse. Bullock’s portrait Eric, 1955 depicts him peering through the broken window of a tumble-down shack. Another features him playing chess with the photographer’s daughter. Both pictures appeared in many books and exhibits.

In Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, Henry Miller wrote: Near the Little Sur River, in a windy cove — a bitch of a place! — Eric Barker, an English poet, works as caretaker for the owner of a large cattle ranch.* The pay is meager, the task light, the hours are his own. In the morning he takes a dip in the icy canyon stream, in the afternoon in the sea. Between times he wards off fishermen, hunters, drunks — and rustlers, presumably. Sounds divine, if only the wind didn’t blow steadily twenty-four hours of the day nine months of the year.

Eric has been writing poetry, nothing but poetry, for twenty-five years. He is a good poet. A modest, humble one, who never pushes himself. Men like John Cowper Powys and Robinson Jeffers esteem his work. Not until a few months ago did Eric receive his first recognition, in the shape of an award. It may be another twenty-five years before he receives another award. Eric doesn’t seem to mind. He knows how to live with himself and with his fellowman. When he gets an inspiration he puts it down on paper. If he doesn’t feel inspired he doesn’t worry. He is a poet and he lives like a poet. Few writers can do it.

The asterisk is footnoted: “Since I wrote the above, he’s been fired.” As Miller was working on the book around this time, it is not clear if Barker was a better poet than a caretaker or was laid off when his services were no longer required after a change of ownership. Harry Hunt, who purchased El Sur Ranch in 1928 from the pioneering Cooper family of Monterey, sold the 7,000-plus acre property to Cortlandt Hill in 1955. Whatever the reason, Barker moved to a tool shed converted to a cottage on an estate where he worked as a gardener. It had everything he needed, including space for pictures, posters, a writing table, and a glimpse of the sea.

I first learned of Barker from Pacific Grove playwright and art gallery owner, Steve Hauk, who knew or writes about some of the most creative characters who fill the rich pages of Monterey County history. Painters E. Charlton Fortune and Armin Hansen, writer John Steinbeck, and software pioneer, Gary Kildall, have all been subjects of his fluent pen.

He recalled meeting the bard atop a bar stool in a down-market Carmel tavern. In a quiet, carefully-modulated English accent tinged with a subtle lisp lubricated by deeply-savored pints of black and tan (a blend of pale ale and Guinness), Barker spoke of his long, strange journey from the suburbs of London to the wilds of Big Sur “seeking a path that would lead me to the sea by sun and moon on the far shores of my mind.” [1]

Intrigued with Steve’s recollection, I located several slim volumes of Barker’s work at the Harrison Memorial Library in Carmel. From “I saw this sky in England” to “For a dancer on tour” (dedicated to his wife Madelyyne Greene), to ideas inspired while working in his garden, or the scratching of his cat Catlin’s unsheathed claws on the window ledge, everything was grist for Barker’s mill. But the spare verse of his poem Big Sur emanating from a solitary life perched on slopes above the boiling surf touched me as his most memorable and evocative.

Big Sur (originally published in Directions in the Sun)

Anthology published by October House in 1964

I lose faith in words in this country.
Better to leave unsaid
The poems that cannot describe the highest arcs
Of turning and turning hawks, the mountainous
Voyaging leisure of animal-changing clouds.
What words released from this granite shoulder
Can return like a cliff-falling gull
Translating a mood of the sea?
Or strike such wild notes as two hawks now
Down-circling their hazardous air?
Better let the truth be spoken
By what inhabits here from birth:
The autochthonous voice
Interpreting its own environment.
Better to stand and listen
To sounds not alien here.

Writing of the same rocks, trees, rugged mountains, and tempestuous ocean as his better-known admirer Robinson Jeffers, he saw them from a less despairing and tragic viewpoint. The patriarch of Big Sur poets, Jeffers commented that “His poems please me more than any others that are being written at this time. They are natural and quiet … There is nothing artificial in it, no tricks, no self-conscious vanity, but the natural man speaking beautifully.” [2]

Henry Miller said, “I associate him in my mind with the masters of haiku because I see in him the connection which is so markedly missing in most modern poets … He lives blindly and serenely, floating rather than walking, dreaming rather than doing, singing rather than talking. The job which keeps him is one even a boy could hold down. It keeps his pipe filled and gives him his cup of tea. … Who could ask for a better life?” [3]

Barker remained true to Miller’s characterization when he declined to review a best-selling book for the San Francisco Examiner because it was written by a non-writer. On being nominated for the post of Poet Laureate of California, he demurred “after mulling it over for a long time, staring at my cats, and waking at last to a sunny morning … I don’t want to be poet laureate of California or anywhere else.” [4] “There has never, to my knowledge been a poet laureate … worthy even of the name of poet. I remember Jeffers saying ‘Write and be quiet.’ Such good advice for a poet!” [5]

I never met the poet, who died in 1973, but I did see him walking over the hills and dales of his beloved “wide country I have named my own” on an aging VHS tape in the archives of the California History Room at the Monterey Library. [6] His appearance and voice reflected those I had conjured from Steve’s recollection and my reading of his verse. A tanned balding pate, ragged white mane of hair, straggly eyebrows, and long, impish nose, invoked images of Pan.

Barker’s is the image that springs to mind whenever I cross the Little Sur River on Highway One. With fleeting views of the granite shoulders of Pico Blanco in one direction and the sand bar at the beach, where she meets “the great ocean possessed by light and sound,” in the other, lacking legal public access I accelerate up the hill towards the heart of El País Grande del Sur.

About Eric Wilson Barker (1905–1973)

Born Eric Wilson Barker in Thames Ditton, Surrey, England in 1905, he moved to San Rafael, California, with his family at the age of 16 where his father was a commercial artist. In 1936, he married dance teacher Madelynne Greene, who was instrumental in founding the Folk Dance Federation of California. After a varied career spanning newspaper reporter to train dispatcher, in 1953 he moved to Big Sur to commit himself to poetry. He was awarded the Borestone Mountain Poetry Award, the top US poetry prize, in 1956 for his book Directions in the Sun, and the Shelley Memorial Award in 1962 from the Poetry Society of America. His work appeared regularly in the Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, the Saturday Review of Literature, and poetry books and magazines worldwide. He died shortly after a heart valve operation in 1973.

About the Little Sur River Beach and Beyond

With public access denied by high fences and copious “No Trespassing” signs, Little Sur River Beach is one of the most attractive and intriguing of those listed on the Best Beaches You Aren’t Allowed to Visit in California website. The California Department of Fish and Game says the river is the “most important spawning stream for steelhead” on the Central Coast. Monterey County has designated the area a “coastal resource of national significance.” With rampant overcrowding of the whole Big Sur coast today, maybe it’s OK to fence out “the barbarians.” I am happy for the Hill Family, who still own and raise cattle on El Sur Ranch, to continue Barker’s assignment to ward off “fishermen, hunters, drunks — and rustlers,” and today Instagrammers (surely, he would have a few choice words to say on that topic), to protect this land in a manner that preserves its pastoral beauty.

Other Big Sur locations frequented by writers and poets are also private property and inaccessible to the public. Henry Miller’s home for 18 years overlooking the ocean on Partington Ridge still exists. So does Beat Generation poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin compound in Bixby Canyon, where Jack Kerouac lived in an alcoholic haze for months in 1960, as described in his book Big Sur.

Miller initially stayed at a cabin, built in the 1940s by Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, as a guest of novelist Lynda Sargent. It was later converted to the Nepenthe restaurant. Here Eric Barker was known for standing on the bar to recite bawdy limericks. Frequented by generations of celebrities from all aspects of the arts and entertainment, from Dylan Thomas and Man Ray to Clint Eastwood, today it is one of the most popular dining spots along the coast. Famed for its extraordinary view of the coastline, and for hamburgers slavered in Ambrosia sauce, the parking lot is typically full before midday.

Emil White’s mailbox stands outside the gate to the Henry Miller Library at 48603 Highway One, Big Sur CA 93920

Miller dedicated Oranges to his artist friend Emil White with these words: “One of the few friends who have never failed me.” A year after Miller died in 1980, White transformed his cabin home into a shrine to Miller. The Henry Miller Memorial Library is a book store focused on the writer’s work and legacy but also much more. Located in a grove of towering redwood trees, it is a gallery for local artists, an intimate concert setting for live performances, and an event space for the denizens of Big Sur. A mailbox marked EMIL in bold yellow letters still stands by the gate.

Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn and the counter-culture wellness retreat Esalen Institute are also places where writers and poets congregated. Deetjen’s landmark roadhouse, a cluster of rustic wooden structures built in the style of the owner’s native Norway, was a haunt for both Jeffers and Miller. Recently rescued from a near-death experience due to fires, landslides, and COVID, the inn’s buttermilk pancakes and funky, rustic amenities continue to resonate as a reminder of simpler times.

While writing his first novel, The Rum Diary.Hunter S. Thompson worked as a caretaker at the lodge at Slates Hot Springs, the complex that later became the Esalen Institute retreat center, for a few months in 1961. Poets Gary Snyder and Alan Ginsberg presented seminars at the center in 1964.

Sources

[1] “The Country of the Mind” The Ring of Willows p. 36
[2] E.A. Fitzpatrick, Alta Vista Magazine (10.24.93)
[3] Henry Miller Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch
[4] B. Gartshore, Monterey Herald (4.11.91)
[5] Monterey Herald (2.8.73)
[6] “Continents End and Eric Barker in Big Sur” Video recording

[Rev: 3.27.21]

Originally published in “From the Library.”

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store