Bibliophilia Obscura: Ern Malley, Australian Modernism and Continuing Inspiration

Bibliophilia Obscura: Ern Malley, Australian Modernism and Continuing Inspiration

The Scene

This is a story about a dead poet who was posthumously immortalised from obscurity by a rising star with a passion for literature, poetry and art. This is a story of the two men who brought them together. This is the story of the most celebrated Australian poet that never lived and the greatest literary hoax in our history.

The Ern Malley Story

 Max Harris

Max Harris

It was 1944. Conservative wartime Australia was going through a modernist revolution as the young intellectual elite of Australia threw off the shackles of existing forms in the arts. A group of modernists – including some of Australia’s most celebrated artists such as Sidney Nolan – had come together under modernist literary and visual arts journal Angry Penguins which was founded by Max Harris in 1940 at 18. Harris himself was an avant garde modernist and rising star of the Australian literary scene. Ernest Lalor Malley was an English immigrant who had lived a working class life and died of Graves’ Disease in 1943. Yet Malley had, unbeknownst to even his Sister, been writing poetry. While she was going through his belongings she discovered a pile of poems and unsure of what to make of them she decided to send them to wonder boy Harris to be examined.

It was a fated match. Harris said that the ‘basic principle behind everything which I did in relation to Angry Penguins is to provide a channel of expression to creative writers in this country and to potentially creative writers in this country, literature which has serious artistic purpose behind it’. Harris quickly recognised the brilliance of the pyrrhic Ern Malley and dedicated an entire volume of Angry Penguins to his work. One of the poems Sweet William is extracted below with comment by Harris.  

Sweet William

I have avoided your wide English eyes:
But now I am whirled in their vortex.
My blood becomes a Damaged Man
Most like your Albion;
And I must go with stone feet
Down the staircase of flesh
To where in a shuddering embrace
My toppling opposites commit
The obscene, the unforgivable rape.

One moment of daylight let me have
Like a white arm thrust
Out of the dark and self-denying wave
And in the one moment I
Shall irremediably attest
How (though with sobs, and torn cries bleeding)
My white swan of quietness lies
Sanctified on my black swan’s breast.

Harris’ was affected by the work, which in his words

 Harris

Harris

 ‘discusses entirely a man at conflict within himself, without reference to anything else besides his mental condition. He has been subject to some image of desire symbolised by "the English Eyes" and he finds himself within a mental or almost schizophrenic conflict. "The stone feet down the staircase of flesh" is a reference or an associative image from Mozart's "Don Giovanni" where the stone statue walks. And it is used to symbolise the conflict between his emotions of desire and what he later calls "self denial" These two emotions are in conflict with each other, and the idea of the different mental aspects of the man struggling to destroy him is obscene in that dictionary sense which refers to "obscene" as "repulsive" and "rape" of course is used in its classical sense "rappio" to seize, and need not have any sexual connection at all’.

The Twist

But Malley had not written Sweet William. Malley hadn’t written any of the poems that appeared in the issue of Angry Penguins devoted entirely to him. In fact, Malley didn’t exist. Malley and his work were the invention of two conservative poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart. McAuley and Stewart lamented the decline of modern poetry and the modernist movement, the pair described their motivation as follows.

For some years now we have observed with distaste the gradual decay of meaning and craftsmanship in poetry, Mr. Max Harris and other Angry Penguins writers represent an Australian outcrop of a literary fashion which has become prominent in England and America. The distinctive feature of the fashion, it seemed to us, was that it rendered its devotees insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination.

Our feeling was that by processes of critical self-delusion and mutual admiration, the perpetrators of this humorless nonsense had managed to pass it off on would-be intellectuals and Bohemians, here and abroad, as great poetry.

However, it was possible that we had simply failed to penetrate to the inward substance of these productions. The only way of settling the matter was by experiment. It was, after all, fair enough. If Mr. Harris proved to have sufficient discrimination to reject the poems, then the tables would have been turned. What we wished to find out was: Can those who write, and those who praise so lavishly, this kind of writing tell the real product from consciously and deliberately concocted nonsense? (http://jacketmagazine.com/17/fact2.html)

And how were the poems written?

‘Our rules of composition were not difficult:
1.  There must be no coherent theme, at most, only confused and inconsistent hints at a meaning held out as a bait to the reader.

2. No care was taken with verse technique, except occasionally to accentuate its general sloppiness by deliberate crudities.

3. In style, the poems were to imitate, not Mr. Harris in particular, but the whole literary fashion as we knew it from the works of Dylan Thomas, Henry Treece and others.’

The Real Twist

But this was not what most shocks the modern peruser of the Malley story. Sure, this led to Harris being convicted of obscenity for publishing the Malley poems which were riddled with expletives. Sure, this dented and damaged the modernist literary movement in Australia for a time. But what is most surprising is that Malley’s poems continued to find support from Harris. In the transcript of his trail Harris’ enduring high opinion of the Malley poems is obvious.

Q. Do you consider the poems of Ern Malley to be great literary work?
A. I consider them serious literary work.
Q. Are they a major event in Australian literary history?
A. In certain respects. Their technique has not been developed before.
Q. How do you explain, what do you mean by the technique has not been developed before? What is there peculiar about his technique?
A. It is peculiar in that you can have assoc. imagery, but used in a detached way as against for example surrealism.
Q. What do you mean by in a detached way?
A. That can’t be explained, that is in the tone quality of the poem itself.

And why not? Malley’s work was an inspiration to Sidney Nolan for his Ned Kelly series who said it made him ‘take the risk of putting against the Australian bush an utterly strange object’. Indeed, while McAuley went on to found conservative journal Quadrant, Stewart and Harris continued to write it was Malley out of these four Australians who really endured.  Poet Kenneth Koch later wrote; ‘though Harris was wrong about who Ern Malley 'was' (if one can use that word here), I find it hard not to agree with his judgment of Malley's poetry.’ Critic Robert Hughes noted ‘the energy of invention that McAuley and Stewart brought to their concoction of Ern Malley created an icon of literary value, and that is why he continues to haunt our culture.’  And how? Harris explained in cross examination.

Q. If you knew that the authors never intended the poems to have any significance at all in serious way, would you still say that the poems have a literary significance?
A. No, I don’t judge poems by the intention of people who write it, but by the result.
Q. So that this is the position, is it not, that nothing would shake your faith as literary work in the Ern Malley poems?
A. No.
Q. When you read the first two Ern Malley poems, you were excited?
A. Quite, without knowing anything of it biographically of course.

A Continuing Inspiration

Along with the poetry itself, the hoax continues to inspire. One of the most well known modern hoaxes, the Sokal affair, was replicated by freelance writer Katherine Wilson. Sokal had an outlandish article published in order to show the world that, ‘at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy.’ Paying homage to Sokal and Malley, Wilson did the same to the Australian Right. Fittingly, her medium was none other than McAuley’s Quadrant. However it is worth noting that Quadrant has shifted from a lofty intellectual status to a pillar of the contrarian intolerant milieu that is finding renewed voice in figures like Pauline Hanson and Andrew Bolt.

 Garry Shead's Ern Malley

Garry Shead's Ern Malley

Wilson wanted to use ‘some of Quadrant's sleight-of-hand reasoning devices to argue something ludicrous, something like the importance of putting human genes into food crops to save civilisation from its own ills, and how this sort of science shouldn't be scrutinised by the media, because, you know, it's empirical.’ Wilson’s nom de plume of Sharon Gould employed many entirely unrelated or incorrect references to back up claims she was making about CSIRO plans to genetically modify livestock, mosquitoes and wheat with human genes. The current editor of Quadrant, Keith Windschuttle, has admitted he didn’t check the facts of the article and voiced his hopes that the whole affair will die. Windschuttle’s response is perhaps surprisingly that Quadrant ‘will scrutinise more closely the personal credentials of authors who submit freelance contributions to the journal’. Asked by David Marr if he wanted to reflect on the irony of the connection between the Gould hoax and Malley, Windschuttle responded ‘I don't want to go there.’

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