ern malley:empty concoctions?

(see link at end)…It wasn’t long between the publication of the Ern Malley poems in the Autumn 1944 issue of Angry Penguins, and the revelation in the Adelaide and Sydney newspapers that they had been dashed off as a joke by a couple of clever young men one idle afternoon, who wanted to prove that even meaningless codswallop could get taken seriously by the avante garde. The immediate fall out was the humiliation of Max Harris, the passionate champion of modernist poetry who had published the poems with great praise.

To add insult to injury, Harris was then successfully prosecuted for publishing ‘indecent matter’ as some of the poems were found to be under the South Australian Police Act. Taking a longer view, the prank arguably undermined the cause of literary modernism and experimentation in Australian literature. The great irony is that the poems endure as popular literary works in their own right, and have continued to inspire generations of artists, writers and imitators.Read More:

…the Ern Malley affair continued to shake the underpinnings of faith in some quarters. Thus, in November, 1944, the New Yorker complained that the McAuley-Stewart caper “spoils anyone for modern poetry for the rest of his life.” This proposition failed to be borne out by events. It was further proved wrong with respect to Malley himself, since Fraud though he was, he became the first Australian poet to win a considerable readership outside his homeland.

—At the time of the hoax McAuley and Stewart were both in their mid-twenties. They had attended the same high school in Sydney, and were now working together in an army think-tank in Melbourne. Each had flirted with Modernism before renouncing all experimental art, from Picasso to Joyce, and metamorphosing into ardent traditionalists. They especially despised Surrealism, reserving particular contempt for the New Apocalypse school (Dylan Thomas and Co), whose influence was just beginning to register on the Australian literary scene, mainly thanks to the only avant-garde journal of the time, Angry Penguins.—Read More: image:

In the United States, Karl Shapiro and James Dickey acknowledged their debt to him, and critical studies of his work appeared in learned journals. In Britain, when the Penguin Book of Australian Verse came out in 1958, the absence of his poems was remarked by several reviewers, including the poet laureate John Betjeman.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the wounds inflicted on tender sensibilities healed. In 1960 an enterprising producer with the Australian Broadcasting Commission set out to re-create on tape that cause-celebre of sixteen years earlier by interviewing McCauley, Stewart, Angry Penguins editor Max Harris and the other participants, including Sidney Nolan, who had since won world acclaim for his paintings. The immediate result was a popular radio documentary that was later broadcast in Britain and the United States. Another result, wholly unforeseen, was that Ern Malley sprang dramatically back to life.

—Ern Malley was to be considered as “one of the two giants of contemporary Australian poetry”, or so said Adelaide’s Max Harris, novelist, poet and editor of the literary journal Angry Penguins. Malley was dead at 25 from a neglected illness and his sister, Ethel, submitted Ern’s poems, which she found after his death, to Angry Penguins. Harris was impressed and published Malley’s complete works with artwork by Sidney Nolan, inspired by the tragic poet, in the autumn 1944 edition of Angry Penguins. Not everyone was as excited by Malley’s work, believing it derivative and of little literary value.
In June 1944 it was revealed that Ern Malley had never existed. He was fabricated by James McAuley and Harold Stewart. McAuley and Stewart were non-combatant soldiers who detested modernist literature, finding it pretentious and incomprehensible, and wrote the poems to expose the emptiness of such works. They claimed that they spent longer concocting the details of Malley’s life than they did composing the poems.—Read More: image:

Before long, Malley’s Darkening Ecliptic appeared as a paperback book with an introduction by Max Harris, excerpts from the radio documentary, and an account of the trial; a blurry photograph on its cover purported to show the author, looking gaunt, unkempt, and appropriately pop-eyed. The edition quickly sold out.

The years later, the book was re-issued, but soon, that edition too, was exhausted. This was followed by another edition in 1974 of Ern Malley’s poems to coincide with the Adelaide Festival of the Arts. The hoax that wouldn’t die. In this edition, the cover bore an abstract drawing by Sidney Nolan,Harris and his friends having apparently decided that a gag photograph would no longer do to represent a myth figure of such great, and growing, stature.

— Albert TUCKER
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1914 – 1999
Movements: England, Europe, United States of America 1947-60
Sunday Reed and John Perceval 1943
gouache, watercolour
image 21.0 h x 27.4 w cm
Purchased 1976—Read M


(see link at end)…‘As to whether I’m sick of the nonsense, words fail me,’ James McAuley confessed at the end of November 1944. He and Harold Stewart were eager to put the hoax behind them. Early in 1945 McAuley went to Canberra [Australia’s federal capital] to help prepare future administrators of New Guinea for their tasks, and he continued with this work in Sydney after V-Day. Stewart served out his war in the directorate. Both men began to seek their separate truths in religious experience, in search of a metaphysic with millennia behind it. In particular they were reading René Guénon, the French scholar in comparative religion, and the Angle-Sinhalese, A. K. Coomaraswamy, who worked for thirty years at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and who wrote extensively on Eastern art and religion until his death in 1947.

For Stewart, especially, who was learning Chinese and reading deeply in Taoism, these men showed the way. After he was demobbed [demobilised from the army] he stayed for a while with his old friend Alt Conlon in North Sydney, who was finishing his medical degree and would later go into practice. But towards the end of the forties Stewart went back to Melbourne where he lived for the next quarter century, working in a bookshop and writing his poetry in isolation. His audience was tiny, and to most he was known dimly as the co-creator of Ern Malley. His literary identity in Australia progressively diminished, and his influence on other writers was nil. Stewart had loathed the way Ern Malley thrust celebrity on him and the result was that he became invisible to the public. ‘I made a firm resolve that I would simply withdraw from the whole literary world in Australia and have nothing further to do with it,’ he told me, ‘and I never have. You stop being a private person, you can no longer have any solitude and silence to get on with the real business of writing poetry, you’re a figure of fun, pestered by journalists morning, noon, and night. I’ve gone out of my way all my life to avoid fame.’
In 1956, Stewart published a sequence of poems based on Orpheus and Eurydice, the last time he touched Western themes. A Net of Fireflies and A Chime of Windbells, two highly successful collections of haiku in translation, appeared in the sixties. Each sold in excess of 50,000 copies….Read More:

Night Piece

The swung torch scatters seeds
In the umbelliferous dark
And a frog makes guttural comment
On the naked and trespassing
Nymph of the lake.

The symbols were evident,
Though on park-gates
The iron birds looked disapproval
With rusty invidious beaks.

Among the water-lilies
A splash — white foam in the dark!
And you lay sobbing then
Upon my trembling intuitive arm.

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