Collected Poems 1964 – 2016, Barry Tebb, Sixties Press, 978-1-905554-31-7, £10.00
Barry Tebb is something of an outlier when it comes to the history of British poetry over the last 50 years. His career began apparently riding the wave of 1960s counter culture enthusiasm, only to collapse into a quarter century of silence, followed by 20 years of intense writing and publishing activity on the margins of both the mainstream and alternative poetry ‘scenes’. It’s a trajectory that can be mapped now thanks to this welcome Collected Poems, published, as most of his mature writings have been, by his own Sixties Press imprint.
Tebb is an interesting figure for a number of reasons, not least of which is his position in, but not of, the Northern working class milieu of 1950s Leeds, a world which was to become the ground on which his poetry rests. This ground is apparent in the first poem in his 1966 collection, The Quarrel With Ourselves, ‘School Smell’, a poem which, presciently, Michael Horovitz was to include in his seminal 1969 anthology The Children of Albion. This poem, a memory of the poet’s Leeds childhood sense of ‘outsiderness’ prefigures his later work, but is absolutely untypical of the three volumes he published up to 1970.
Much of this early verse is apprentice work, a young poet’s idea of what poetry should be, with many of the poems being about artists and musicians, and the poet’s sensitive reactions to them. The importance of ‘significance’ is over-emphasised:
Lodged in some deep recess of the soul
Poems are waiting for me to write them
It is interesting to see they young Tebb absorb the modified Surrealism of the 1940s so-called New Romantic poets in poems like ‘Everything in its Place’:
The blackboard is cleaning itself behind me,
Making my neck prick as it scattered dust
There are also a number of short, haiku-like Imagistic poems, along with echoes of Eliot, Yeats and, more surprisingly, Browning:
But my father called, I left my people
With a sot who embarrassed the Bishop.
I was not long in my see, two Popes died quickly
And my father’s whispers never ceased, Rome called
And I was Cardinal at last.
(from ‘The Cardinal Looks Back’)
And through all these influences, the patient reader can detect traces of Tebb’s original voice emerging:
Slumped in action
A matrix of motion
Left and right
Gathers them in, sucking
Gently round blind corners.
(from ‘Absent Enemies’)
And then, 25 years of writer’s block intervened, years in which Tebb says he was ‘unable to write’, a silence which was brought to an end by a dream of his first love, Margaret, who called him back in space and time to the Leeds of his childhood. The work which followed his return to writing is at times uneven, but almost always interesting, the ear which was latent in the earlier work blossoming into a unique voice full of assonance and alliteration:
As soon as we entered Yorkshire
Hughes’ voice assailed me, unmistakeable
Gravel and honey, a raw celebration of rain
like a tattered lacework window;
(from ‘Hughes’ Voice in my Head’)
There is a greater emphasis on the personal, and even those later poems that deal with art and artists feel earned in a way the earlier work doesn’t. There are a number of poems, probably too many, on the state of contemporary poetry politics, a not unnatural result of Tebb’s sense of being excluded, but these are more than outweighed by the honesty of the personal poems, especially in those dealing with his troubled marriage to poet and mental health activist Brenda Williams, most notably ‘The Road to Haworth Moor’:
We were wrong from the beginning, you always said, wrong
To be together, wrong to go away or perhaps, as Hobsbaum said,
‘It was the place’s fault. If we’d made it to Haworth as we
Dreamed, standing on the moor top, the heather muffling your tears,
The wind sighing its threnody, crying its cradle-song, whispering
Promises of its care to come, its breath caressing the very stones
We sat on, lost beyond the ken of any guide, beyond the signatures
Of time and place, beyond, beyond…
This passage might be seen as typical of Tebb’s method, with the preponderance of trisyllabic feet and concomitant preponderance of unstressed syllables contrasting with the intrusion of occasional adjacent stresses acting as counterpoint to the patterns of vowel and consonant sounds; ‘Dreamed, standing on the moor top, the heather muffling your tears’. It’s a distinctive and fascinating voice, adaptable to a wide range of tones and styles.
At the heart of Tebb’s achievement is the long autobiographical poem that is the direct outcome of his dream, Bridge over the Aire. Despite internal nods to a number of 1940s poets, this poem seems to me to owe a great deal to Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts. As with Bunting, Tebb’s return to poetry is also a return to a lost childhood love and to its associated state of prelapsarian simplicity.
Aire is 80-odd pages long and divided into six named books, each consisting of shorter numbered sections. The whole progress in a kind of spiral, with themes, scenes and emotions recurring, but at a different slant on each occurrence. The tone ranges from dense sound patterning to child-like simplicity:
I began this prayer of poetry in poverty
And this never-ending song started in silence
After the bells quietened and Sunday was in
Church or still in bed as I watched the tusky
Growing in the fecund darkness. The shed was
Holy, warm and in wonder I felt it move and
On my scooter I flew over the holy stones of
Jerusalem the Golden.
(from Book One)
White donkey stone”
Auntie Nellie scoured
Her door step, polished
The brass knocker
Till I saw my face
Bunched like a fist
Complete with goggles
Grinning like a monkey
In a mile of mirrors.
(from Book Three)
Book One, Against the Grain, which is the longest of the six, maps Tebb’s reconciliation with his past, with Leeds, with remembered first love, and with poetry. At the core of this deciding for poetry and for love is a thirst for simplicity:
It’s been a problem ever since
With everyone, no-one else was
So simple, always wanting more or
Less than I could give, when all
There was to follow was more of
The reconciliation with childhood involves an invocation of his pre-pubescent love of Margaret, and the book ends with a physical encounter (whether real or imagined is not entirely clear) between her and the narrator, their love finally consummated.
Standing In Eden, the second book, opens with twin images of the young Tebb claimed by poetry and of Homer singing the nostos of Odysseus, before moving to a fragmented delineation of the Edenic Leeds of 1950s working class community, as seen through the eyes of children. Tebb is aware that things were not so ideal for all his neighbours:
For fish and chips
We went past ‘The Mansions’
Half a dozen enormous
Victorian houses abandoned
To the poorest of the poor
With front steps missing
Holes in the halls so big
You had to jump and
Rats the size of cats.
The children who lived there
Pushed coal in broken prams
Their jerseys had more
Holes than wool
They had impetigo
We passed them quickly
On the other side.
The tone soon turns to lament; slum clearance meant that homes, shops and trades, an entire way of life, have been eradicated in the space between the now and then of the poem. This is Eden demolished, if not entirely eradicated, to be rediscovered only in the smallest of things:
In the May dawn silence
I walk the cobbled road,
The houses gone for sixty years.
A single wallflower grows
On the ravaged bank.
This clearance also meant the movement of people. and the separation of the young lovers of the poem. Tebb moving to the suburbs, grammar school, teacher training college, outwards and upwards, Margaret to who knows where.
Book Three, The Kingdom of my Heart, moves from the mythic and communal to the personal and historical. The kingdom in question is both the emotional terrain of first love and the Anglian realm of Deira. It’s an urban landscape transformed by the twin powers of love and poetry:
The park itself will blossom
And grow in chiaroscuro
The Victorian postcard’s view
Of avenue upon avenue
With palms and pagodas
Lakes and waterfalls and
A fountain from Versailles.
And these powers are inextricably entwined:
Margaret, now we’ll see
What truth there is
In dreams and poetry!
I am at one with everyone
There is poetry
Falling from the air
And you have put it there.
The fourth book, Land of my Childhood, brings the reader back to the poem’s present, and at its core is Tebb’s recognition of his ‘outsider’ position: ‘My trouble was I’m not/Really working class’. This sense of difference extended to his preference for playing with girls rather than boys, a distaste for football, and, now, for the sanitised new Leeds of the planners’ dreams:
This is no land for me
I who have seen Excalibur
Pulled from the living tree
I who have drunk the wine
Of Margaret’s memory.
The Mooring Posts of Book Five are the landmarks of the gone world, ranging from the bridge of the poem’s title to local shops. Death, clearance and the brave new world of 1950s suburbia, with its shiny Formica and bright interior décor are folded into each other to signal the Fall, the end of innocence and the loss of love.
The closing book, The Walk to the Paradise Gardens, which circles around Bonfire Night 1954, is both coda and a closing of the poem’s spiral. The poet finds himself returned to an Eden he never really left, thanks to the power of art. It’s an ending of quiet hope, based on the premise that what is made well and with love endures:
The Hollows stretched into darkness
The fire burned in the frost, sparks
Crackled and jumped and floated
Stars into the invisible night and
The log glowed red and the fire we
Fed has never died.
Bridge over the Aire is a singular achievement in the same way that Briggflatts is; a poem unlike anything that Tebb’s fellow Children of Albion have, or could have, produced. As with most long poems, there are some flat moments, but overall it is a poem of great accomplishment as well as being a remarkable document of a world that has melted away before our very eyes. There is much to admire in this Collected Poems, but this poem makes it a book to treasure, a book to return to. Tebb is, above all else, a survivor of a gone world, a world of hope based on a firm sense of community and of social democracy in all its messy glory. Read it.