The prestigious Times Literary Supplement has just hailed E.J. Thribb as a master of "minimalist clarity and compression . . . one of the most promising young poets at present writing in South London."
Listeners to BBC Radio's weekly celebration of the arts, "Kaleidoscope," heard that Thribb's repeated use of the word "so" is "like the tolling of a great bell."
The Sunday Times, the most important weekend paper here, devoted no less than four pages of its color magazine to examples of Thribb's work, a sketch and a critiaque of the artist. In a boldface introduction, the paper called the publication of "So. Farewell Then . . . ," a collection of Thribb's work, "a major literary event." The poet, who almost always signs himself E.J. Thribb (17)," was even said to be "a front-runner for the Oxford poetry professorship."
The New Statesman, a weekly distinguished for its literary criticism as well as its socialist politics, praised the poets ability to convey large areas of embarrasing information . . . in that superficially laconic style which is Thribb's imprimatur."
His complete oeuvre , 48 poems of which 36 begin with the famous "So," have been published by Hamish Hamilton. This noted house has also printed the works of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Rod McKuen.
The whole affair, of course, is a quintessentially British gag that has run its course through wide sections of the literary establishment here. E.J. Thribb (17) is the creation of Barry Fantoni (38) and Richard Ingrams (41). Ingrams edits and Fantomi is his chief deputy at Private Eye, a satirical fortnightly that specializes in spoofs of writers and politicians.
A vintage Thribb, faintly reminiscent of E.E. Cummings, goes like this:
You are the
Last of the
Had little in
You were a poet.
Though how you
To write poems
In addition to
Running a country of
800 million people
In the land of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, a taste for nonsense verse is hardly surprising. What is remarkable is that some of the most important publications in the country have gleefully joined in legitimizing the joke.
Fantoni, the Private Eye parodist, has scored a considerable success "standing in" for an invariably stricken Thribb (17) at poetry readings to mostly delighted audiences in Chelsa, Hampstead and other London haunts of the literati. Fantoni claims to have packed a house at the Chelsea Arts Club where 100 persons paid 3 pounds each to hear "SO" poems for Morarji Desai, W. Somerset Maugham and Anna Ford, a lovely brunette who reads the 10 p.m. television news.
There have been only a handful of objectors. An elderly man at one Fantoni reading walked out, snorting "Rubbish."
The Sunday Times printed a letter from a man in Ashton-under-Lyne complaining that Thribb "was a joke. . . in questionable taste." Another, from southwest London, called the stuff "unutterable drivel."
But private Eye readers, who have been enjoying Thribb (17) for six years, and many other Britons think that satirizing pretentious poets and critics is good fun. Why has Thribb tickled the national risibility?
"I will tell you the truth simply. We dod not have Jewish comedians."
And, "I think everybody enjoys a laugh in that business, the business of literary criticism. It's pretty dull stuff."
The British delight in deflating the pompous. They also love their language, and Thribb is one way of expressing indignation over its misuse at the hands of the solemn and the professional.
Thribb is due to appear again this week in Private Eye with a poem on the death of the pope. It begins characteristically:
Pope John Paul
But the future of South London's most promising young poet is in doubt. On the BBC's "Kaleidoscope" editor Ingrams said that Thribb is dying. Fantoni is depressed at the thought and hopes to keep his creation alive, but editors have the last word here as elsewhere.
Ingrams did offer BBC listeners one consolation. Thribb, he said, has written his own obituary. It begins:
E. J. Thribb.