When the parts are greater than the whole
I confess I hadn’t heard of Barry Tebb until recently. Nor of Brenda Williams. Nor Tom Blackburn, nor even the Irish poet James Simmons. But other names in Tebb’s poems are familiar: he deliberately mingles the Simon Armitages and Geoffrey Hills with the also-rans: the people who were excited and astonished by poetry in the sixties, one of whom was Tebb himself: ‘It was a surprise when I made it into Penguin Books; / Michael Horowitz busy then as now and madly idealistic / As me; getting ready for the Albert Hall jamboree, / The rainbow bomb of peace and poetry.’
So these poems are what happens when, despite the early encouraging signs, you haven’t become one of the top dogs. Your place on top of Parnassus is not assured. This applies to almost all of us. As Yeats says in his 1921 memoir, 'None of us can say who will succeed, or even who has or has not talent. The only thing certain about us is that we are too many.’
Tebb (according to his Wikipedia entry) had a twenty-year writer’s block, between 1970 and 1990. But there’s no doubt that as both poet and publisher, poetry has been a life-long driving force for him. He did not write on a whim or in a workshop. He wrote with a passion, and still does.
But I didn’t read this Selected and find a great undiscovered bard. What I found was work that seemed to me imperfect but in parts exceptionally good. It is emotive writing, and I was often startled by its sheer truthfulness. This is a poet worth reading, and the reading experience is intense.
Tebb often goes for longish poems. I could extract shorter lyrics from these that I think would stand up anywhere. I longed to save them from the sections that seemed to me over-intense (e.g. ‘Leaving us awake in a world of dark horizons and troubled days, / Our memory a cave of broken shards’) and present some of the gorgeous line-groups in their full force.
I'll exceed the usual OPOI length to conclude with a couple of these, to show you what I mean:
The rat we tried to frighten, trap or poison, saw us off instead;
It seemed as if it grew beneath our very skins and circled
With our blood and hammered at our heads and leered from specks
Of fluff beneath the bed. The wainscot was the worst, it seemed
No whitewashed wall was free from cavities that wound behind
And joined another maze of runs that opened to the boards of yet
Another floor, until the tiny house had grown to one great rat-run
Vaster than the universe, where that single rodent gnawed and slithered . . .’
(From ‘The Road to Haworth Moor’)
And what have I to show?
A few pamphlets, small Selected, a single good review.
Sat in South Kensington on the way to the Institute I wrote this,
Too frightened even to phone you.
Paper version available from Sixties Press, 89 Connaught Road, Sutton, Surrey, SM1 3PJ or 99p on Amazon Kindle.