John Berger: a tribute to the poet

“In story-telling everything depends upon what follows what. And the truest order is seldom obvious. Trial and error. Often many times.”– John Berger, The Poetry Review, 95:4, Winter 2005

John Berger in 2009.John Berger, critic, novelist, artist and film-maker, who died aged 90 on 2 January 2017, is less well-known as a poet, though his poems and writings on poetry appeared in The Poetry Review and elsewhere. Until very recently, his only collection was Pages of the Wound (Circle Press, 1994), which, when it was reviewed in The Poetry Review, was praised for poems that were: “elemental, stripped down to essentials… [creating] a powerful atmosphere of the landscapes of France and the people who work the land” (Vol 85, No. 2, Summer 1995). Though Berger always wrote poetry, often smuggling it into essays such as ‘And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos’ or books such as The Seventh Man and The White Bird, his poems were not collected in English until Smokestack published his Collected Poems in 2014.

Smokestack editor Andy Croft describes meeting Berger on the page as a student forty years ago when he read G, Pig Earth and Ways of Seeing. Croft later corresponded with Berger when was writing a biography of the poet Randall Swingler, whom Berger knew in the 1950s. “John was incredibly helpful in answering my questions, and his account of Swingler’s personality helped to illuminate the otherwise plodding pages of the book. Over the years John was a good friend to Smokestack Books, writing generous back-cover blurbs for several Smokestack poets. I was very proud to have published first John’s Collected Poems and then The Long White Thread of Words, a big international anthology of poems edited by Amarjit Chandan, Gareth Evans and Yasmin Gunaratnam to celebrate John’s ninetieth birthday last year.”

“Collected Poems reflects Berger’s longstanding concerns with art and politics, love and war, history and memory, emigration, immigration and the life of the European peasantry. His poems are like perfectly framed still-life images, both plain and sensual – delicate sketches of hard lives caught between the provisional quality of language and the permanence of things,” says Croft.

Berger was born in Stoke Newington, London, on 5 November 1926. He studied art at Chelsea School of Art and Central School of Art, and later exhibited his work at the Wildenstein, Redfern and Leicester Galleries in London. He was called up to serve in the British Army in 1944 and, after he was demobbed, taught drawing at St Mary’s teacher training college at Strawberry Hill, Twickenham. He began working for the BBC World Service and from 1952 was the art critic for New Statesman magazine. He remains best known for his 1972 BBC series and book, Ways of Seeing, a landmark in art criticism, the 40th anniversary of which was commemorated with a series of talks and at a major conference at King’s College London in 2012. His other writings on politics (he was a lifelong Marxist), history, memory, community, emigration and immigration have made a lasting contribution to the way we think about them.

Berger won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G. He also wrote the trilogy Into Their Labours (1992)and To the Wedding (1995). Other publications include: Permanent Red, A Painter of Our Time, From A to X, The Seventh Man and The White Bird.

In 1962, he moved from England to the remote village of Quincy in the Haute-Savoie, France, which was to inspire many of his subsequent writings. He was awarded the Golden PEN award by London PEN for a lifetime’s contribution to literature in 2009.

4 January 2017.