Of course, it’s not his real name, though I am led to believe one half is real; the other half, as he once remarked, is “an act of concealment.”
I first came across Eric Eric in 1986 when I was editing my then magazine joe soap’s canoe. A chap I know, Richard Catchpole, sent me some of Eric’s poems. In the course of a long and rambling letter catching me up on his recent doings (he thought I was interested) Catchpole told me he had been working temporarily for a company doing the catering for a telephone engineers’ conference, and he had “fallen in” with a chap attending the event who wrote “weird little poems”, and he thought I might like to see some of them.
One of the first poems I read, and subsequently published in joe soap’s canoe 10, was this:
The air is where
The air is. And where
The air is, is where
There is a stinking bus.
I was pretty much bowled over by what at first I thought to be a somewhat individual take on a minimalist approach to poetics, but I mainly fell in love with that sledgehammer of a final line that made me laugh out loud at the same time as realizing the poet and I at some point in our lives had experienced the same kind of bus service. This, for me, placed the poem absolutely in the everyday world, though it came with a dollop of questionable sanity for good measure. But I also initially assumed Catchpole was messing with me – he has his playful side, and I would not have put it past him to try and trick me into publishing a figment of his somewhat self-indulgent imagination. In fact, I was only finally convinced of Eric’s real existence when I met him briefly in Nottingham in 2008. We had kept in very occasional touch since I shut down the canoe, and he was visiting the city on some kind of training course to do with his work. He was still a sort of telephone engineer but now did something I vaguely understood to be to do with mobile phones; he said he was too near retirement to be much bothered to learn anything new, but it was a few days in a good hotel, and the financial subsidies he was getting for being away from home were excellent. Knowing I was back from China and working as the Royal Literary Fund’s Writing Fellow at Nottingham Trent University, he suggested we meet up for a drink. I knew enough about him by that time to know that, if he was indeed real, this was an uncharacteristically sociable move on his part, and I jumped at the chance to meet him. It’s an hour and ten minutes of my life I will never get back, but they do say it’s not always a good idea to meet your heroes.
But I am jumping ahead of myself.
To step back to the 1980s, I had published Eric in a couple of subsequent canoes, but then he kind of fell off my radar until a few years later, by which time I’d shut down the magazine. But he had evidently decided that trying to goad me into opening it up again would be something of a mission for him, and his first few communications during the early 2000s somewhat harped on about it. But eventually he gave it up as a lost cause, and our contact settled into his sometimes telling me a poem of mine he’d seen was good, bad or indifferent, and sometimes letting slip an opinion or two about poetry in general.
I had learned that the poems I had published in 1990 were among the last he had written: unbeknown to me at the time, he had announced, in the personal columns of London’s Times, that he wished to devote the remainder of his life to finding the perfect corduroy trousers. Eric had also shown himself to be well-read but highly opinionated. He shared my liking for the poets of the New York School: he said he admired their brains and their wit. But he also once said that John Ashbery’s poems sometimes annoyed him, although he'd be able to find it in his heart to forgive if Ashbery would only respond to his invitation to go for a swim together next time they found themselves in the same city. I was never quite able to get to the bottom of that one. As for current British poetry, he told me when we met that he’d more or less given up on it. His withering assessment of some of the country’s most well-known and “much-loved” contemporary poets should probably not be repeated here (do libel laws apply on the internet?) and he said he was currently more interested in delving into the world of the pre-17th century sonnet. When I asked him if he was writing sonnets he got up, in what I gather now to be true Eric fashion, and went in search of the pub’s toilet.
When my friend Rupert Mallin and I announced Rupert’s new art and poetry magazine, Decals of Desire, Eric pounced like a cat that had been lurking in the bushes waiting for its moment to catch a sparrow (though anyone less cat-like than Eric Eric is hard to imagine). It turned out that earlier this year he had taken up the pen again because, and I quote: “I am needed.” I had often asked him why he had never published anywhere other than the canoe, and he had simply said it didn’t interest him, and that he would probably still severely restrict what he called his “public appearances” – I had long since understood from some of the things he said that Poetry World as a whole struck him as not much more than a club for mutual back-scratching involving (with some honorable exceptions) people whose back one would not want to touch.
But anyway, he sent me a little group of poems with a note that he asked be added to them if we published: “This is some poems about people. I have others about animals, but they’re not as good.” This was quintessential Eric, and I was smitten. The first thing I noticed was that his style had not changed at all in the last 30 years. Here are a couple of the poems:
Sometimes I think
I am the door
And sometimes I know for sure
I have feelings
I have feelings
I have feelings (and some paint)
Minimalism is obviously (and somewhat paradoxically) a pretty wide-ranging and at times contentious field – a minefield, even – and how it’s poked its head in the poetry door since the early years of the last century has surely been the topic of all kinds of books and essays and arguments. For me, it’s a debate in which I’m not very interested, insofar as I don’t care how long or short a poem is, or what’s been left out or left in: let’s face it, we have even had poems with no words in them at all. Call me old-fashioned, but I respond mainly to an elegance of language and the wit and intelligence of a writer, to something subtle and elusive in a piece of writing that makes me want to be alive and thankful for having had the privilege of sharing the experience of a particular poem, no matter its form or provenance. I’m not sure if that makes me sound like a moron or a genius, but no matter.
Eric’s minimalism, by which I mean his poems’ brevity, is not about itself (as some so-called innovative poetics seem to be) and it’s not a pose or a posture or the obvious result of a definitive and reasoned poetic. Yes, Eric understands line breaks and rhetoric, and even a little bit of French (and probably some Klingon), but he understands also that some things come naturally. I once asked him how much time he might spend writing a poem, and how much he edited and/or cut down. His answer was aptly brief: very little time, no more than ten minutes including drinks and toilet breaks, and absolutely no cutting down. They start short and stay short. It occurs to me that Eric’s brevity extends not to the point where what there is to be said has for poetic reasons to be only an oblique utterance uttered obliquely, leaving the reader to bring to the text what they will, but instead reaches with a workmanlike confidence only what it considers to be its point and where it’s satisfied there’s nothing else to say. And, if there were something else to say, Eric is certainly not the man to say it. And if he were the man to say it, he wouldn’t say it in a poem because that’s not what poems are for: if he wanted to say it he could write a letter to the newspaper, or start a blog, or bang his head against a Facebook wall, or troll around on Twitter. But he’s almost certainly better than that, and would rather spend time in his garden and grow his own onions.
I don’t think anyone else is writing poems quite like Eric Eric. For more than 30 years he has followed his own path (or fallen asleep on it) and if he had been bothered he could even have become a household name. But he isn’t bothered. He can’t even be bothered to be unknown. I love him for that. At the risk of over-exposing this somewhat retiring character, we are almost certainly going to feature him in the next issue of the magazine, too. He has sent some more poems, including this one:
Do you think?
Is this –
This little poem at first seemed to me almost inane in its simplicity, but the apparently unnecessary dash and parentheses are a wry nod towards a lack of necessity that makes us think, paradoxically, of necessity. One of the other poems he sent is about a glove puppet frog called Fred. It’s really good.
Note: Eric Eric’s poems in joe soap’s canoe can be found online at http://martinstannard.com/jsc/jschome.html - they are in issues 10, 11 and 13.
Decals of Desire is at www.decalsofdesire.blogspot.com
- Martin Stannard, Zhuhai, China, November 2016