ERIC BEACH – An Appreciation

by BILLY MARSHALL STONEKING

I don’t care what anybody says; most of the poets I know are crazy. That’s why I like them. They know the world isn’t as safe or as respectable as it pretends to be. Sometimes it’s only our egos that keep us going. 

 
The poet, Eric Beach, used to have a calling card that said:
 

                                                                 Eric Beach
                                                                       Poet
                                                         No Fixed Address

It was meant to be funny, but it was also true. I suppose it’s true for any number of poets.

Most of the poets I know are outsiders. Oh sure, they might have a house to live in, or friends they can stay with, but there’s no way they can ever settle down, or if they can they never feel completely at home. Writing and performing poetry is their way of trying to recollect the world, a way of trying to retrieve what’s been lost, an attempt to find their way home, wherever home might be.

The best poets thrive on paradox. And the poetic vision can be liberating so long as you don’t let the past get you down. Since the early 1970s, the Melbourne (Australia) poets have been a highly experimental and confronting literary force within Australian society, and the poet who seemed most confronting of all was Eric Beach.

Eric was the sort of person I would’ve taken home to meet my mother even though she probably wouldn’t have liked him. Judging by appearances, he was completely uncouth. The small, ex-pat Kiwi poet with bed-sit eyes and long black eyebrows seldom brushed his teeth or combed his hair. He was also famous for never changing his socks. But none of this had anything to do with any lack of self-esteem. He just had more important things on his mind.

In his legendary autobiographical poem, Nobody Thinks That I Look My Best, Eric described his own life with wry and sometimes brutal irony:

“I was unfed & forcibly educated, but luckily I won a scholarship to a bodgie gang, who were rather like scouts… during th night I worked in a cemetary & during th day I tried to cough up blood… i didn’t come to australia, I just left new zealand…”

Around the time his teeth started to rot and fall out he received a substantial literary grant from the Australian government. He reckoned he’d be able to concentrate a lot more on his writing if he could rid himself of the pain his teeth were causing him, so he used the grant money to get them fixed.

Eric’s clothes had a life of their own. The way they arranged themselves around his body, you got the impression they were looking for a place to sit down. Even when they did fit, they still didn’t look right. The long-sleeved shirt was permanently unpressed; the shirt-tail was always out; and the brown corduroy jacket which had become his trademark was a rainbow of stains.

In the late 70s, he’d turn up at poetry readings looking like he’d spent his life inside a wind machine. He used to carry his poems around in his pockets on crumpled-up scraps of paper – butcher’s paper, paper bags, sheets torn from exercise books; he’d use whatever was at hand, Every pocket had a wad of poems, and some of the scraps had worn so thin you could almost see through them, Others looked as if they’d been retrieved from a rubbish bin. Every time he wanted to give a reading, he’d have to search himself, usually while standing at the microphone.

“the rain it is yellow, th street it is grey
just where I am I can’t say
once had a home, well didn’t we all?
I’m on my way to th malnutrition ball.”

from malnutrition ball
by Eric Beach

It was riveting theatre, like you were right there with him, discovering each poem as it came out of his pocket. You never knew what he was going to find. A blues poem, a dialogue poem, a monologue. As he finished reading each poem, he’d discard it, like a tree losing its leaves. By the time he’d finished, he was up to his ankles in paper.When it came to writing poetry, Eric was one of the best. Not that it paid the rent. Being the best at something in Australia didn’t mean you could make a living out of it.

In the early days, Eric survived on a diet of toast, sardines, advocados and dim sims in black sauce. He also drank a lot of beer. Eric’s drinking bouts were infamous. A lot of his poems were about drinking in pubs. Poems about guys who’d been stabbed in the gents’ cos they’d played the jukebox while the female singer sang. He had a great ear for the way people spoke, especially drunks and crazies.

“call me crazy, call me mad
lock me up I must be bad
ask me questions tap my knee
give me pills & turn th key
they don’t know what I’m about
th doctors have to let me out
who ?
me ?
i’m the man who talks to trees”

from I’m the man who talks to trees
by Eric Beach

Sometimes you’d think he wasn’t paying any attention, that the booze had gotten to him so bad he couldn’t possible be aware of what was going on, but then two or three weeks later he’d come out with a poem and it was all there – the voices, the gestures, the images – right there on the page, exactly as you remembered it.

The first time I laid eyes on him was at the Montsalvat Poetry Festival in the hills north of Melbourne. Everyone who was there kept telling me about this poet named Eric Beach; in those days he wrote it “eric beach”. People were talking about him like he was the greatest poet in Australia.

I was scheduled to read on the last afternoon of the festival – an outdoor reading round a big, Roman swimming pool. It had rained all morning but by midday it had stopped and the sun was out. Just in time for my bracket.

As I stepped up to the microphone, a short, scruffy man came out of the crowd, saying how he’d heard me at the open reading the day before and was wondering if I’d mind if he accompanied me on harmonica. I gazed out over the audience, brain-dead from three days of continuous poetry, and thought, why not?!

Almost as soon as I started, I knew it was a mistake. He jumped in on the off-beat and stayed there, hunched over his instrument, caught up in his own world, blowing notes chosen at random, musical decisions arrived at in mid-air, then lost in a pause for breath on the downbeat, oblivious to the words, to me, to everyone. It was terrible.

When the poem ended I told him thanks, but no thanks, but he was only warming up. “C’mon,” he said, “let’s do another one.”

So I tried again, and this time it was even worse. The noises coming out of the mouth organ had nothing to do with what I was saying. He may as well have been playing in another country. I wished he was.

When I finished the second poem, I told him: “That’s enough. I’ll do the rest on my own.” He looked crestfallen. He said we siounded great together. But I wasn’t going to read another word until he left. When he finally realised I wasn’t going to change my mind he shuffled off.

A few days later, the poet, Pi O, took me around to meet the legendary Eric Beach who, I thought, I’d managed to miss at the festival.

A tired looking man in a brown dressing-gown with a matchstick between his teeth opened the door. It was, of course, the same guy who’d playing harmonica.

“You!” he said.

“You two know each other?” Pi O asked.

Eric took the matchstick from his mouth and sucked his teeth. “This is the one who kicked me off the stage at Montsalvat.”

We went inside and drank coffee. No one had ever kicked him off a stage before.

Of all the poets I got to know in the late ‘seventies, Eric was the one who had the biggest influence on my writing. Every time I was in Melbourne I’d go and visit him, to show him the new stuff I was working on. He was a great teacher. He could spot a bad line a mile away.

“You don’t need this,” he’d say, sipping a beer while indicating an overly poetic phrase. “Too many adjectives,” he’d complain. “Too many similes. Make it simple.”

So I’d explain to him in very simple language what it was I was trying to say, and when I was done he’d tell me that that was how I should’ve written it down. It proved to be excellent advice. Listen to yourself. Listen to the sound of it when you’re not trying to be “poetic” or “literary” or someone other than yourself. Poems are made out of the voice of the poet – the true voice – not some jumped up idea of HOW poetry should sound.

Read Eric Beach’s poetry at THE WRITE STUFF

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