Hoaxes & Pranks
MYSTERY OF POET STIRS
'VARSITY Challenge Over 'Ern Malley'
The Mail (Adelaide, SA)
Date: June 17, 1944
Page Number: 6
Mr. Brian Elliott, lecturer in Australian literature at the Adelaide University, has challenged Mr. Max Harris to prove the existence of Ern Malley, a poet "discovered" by Harris.
The mystery of Ern Malley is causing concern in literary circles not only in Adelaide, but through out Australia. The reason is that the poems are good, whoever wrote them. Some of them were included in the anthology of Australian verse collected by the American poet, Harry Roskelenko, and published in New York by Henry Vinnal.
An alleged life story of Malley, together with all his poems, appears in the latest issue of "Angry Penguins," published by Reed & Harris.
Mr. Elliott was asked to review this issue for the Adelaide University Union publication "On Dit."
He sent, instead, a "Batrachic Ode," the first letters of each line of which spell "Max Harris Hoax." With the ode was a letter to the editor in which he said, "I promised to review the new 'Angry Penguins' for you. The task is beyond my humble capacity. I ask you to forgive me. Some splendid poems (e.g., Davies' about Joshua) are bound to be eclipsed in the 'Darkening Ecliptic,' by Ernest Lalor Malley. This sequence of poems, some of which I understand, fires me to passionate admiration."
In a postscript Mr. Elliott added: "Malley is the goods. Nothing better has been written since the 'Vegetable Pie.'"
"The Darkening Ecliptic" consists of 17 poems. They are published in "Angry Penguins" with an introduction and a biography of Malley by Max Harris.
Harris says: "Recently I was sent two poems from a Miss Ethel Malley, who wrote saying they were found among her brother's possessions after his death on July 23, 1943. Someone suggested to her that they might be of value, and that she send them to me for an opinion.
"At this stage I knew nothing about the author at all, but I was immediately impressed that here was a poet of tremendous power working through a disciplined and restrained kind of statement into the deepest wells of human experience."
Story of Life
Harris adds that at his request, Miss Malley then sent him, from Sydney, the complete manuscripts of her brother's poems, together with a letter telling her brother's life story as she knew it.
The introduction then quotes verbatim from the letter. According to this Malley died of Graves disease at the age of 25. He was born at Liverpool, in England, on March 14, 1918. Their father died of war wounds in 1920, and the family then came to Australia.
They lived in Petersham (a Sydney suburb), and Ern went to the Petersham Public School and the Summer Hill Intermediate High School.
In 1933 he left school and went to work as a mechanic in Palmer's garage, on Taverner's Hill. Later he went to Melbourne, where his sister believed he was selling policies for the National Mutual Life Insurance Co., living in a room by himself in South Melbourne. Later he returned to Sydney, where he died. The letter ended with, "As he wished, he was cremated at Rookwood."
Adelaide University students who have seen the original of this letter and the original poems say that if it is a hoax it is an elaborately prepared one, as these documents appear to be genuine.
"On Dit," in commenting on the controversy, says: "Superficially, Malley's work and opinions could be taken as belonging to Mr. Harris they are in true Penguin's style.
"Mr. Harris sincerely insists that he is not hoaxing anyone: there is nothing to gain from doing so; but on close examination Malley has left clues of literary knowledge which to the learned and initiated indicate Adelaide as the source of the poems, and if not Harris then a close friend of his."
Mr. Elliott said today that he was firmly convinced that Max Harris wrote the poems. He said that he had heard a rumor that they might have been written by the professor of English literature (Professor J. I. M. Stewart).
"I think it absolutely incredible," he said.
Students who discuss the rumor that the poems may be the work of Professor Stewart point out that he is keenly interested in modern poetry.
Professor Stewart is also the detective novelist Michael Innes. He said today that he had heard of Em Malley and of Max Harris, but he did not wish to comment on either of them.
Ern Malley Hoax
Cover of the Autumn 1944 issue of Angry Penguins; cover art by Sidney Nolan. The art relates to the quoted matter (cover, bottom right)
from the poem "Petit Testament", below, as follows:
I said to my love (who is living)
Dear we shall never be that verb
Perched on the
sole Arabian Tree
(Here the peacock blinks the eyes
of his multipennate tail.)
John Innes Mackintosh Stewart (30 September 1906 12 November 1994) was a Scottish novelist and academic. He is equally well known for the works of literary criticism and contemporary novels published under his real name and for the crime fiction published under the pseudonym of Michael Innes. Many devotees of the Innes books were unaware of his other "identity", and vice versa.
"ANGRY PENGUINS" WILL BE ANGRIER
The Mail (Adelaide, SA)
Date: June 24, 1944
Page Number: 6
Last week "The Mail" told the story of Ern Malley, the poet "discovered" by Mr. Max Harris, and introduced to the literary puplic in 30 pages of the "Angry Penguins."
This week it can be told that the Ern Malley poems were one afternoon's work for two Sydney University graduates, now in the Army, who set out to debunk pretentious modern poetry because, they say, "its devotees are insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination."
How the works of Ern Malley were deliberately concocted without intention of poetic meaning or merit was told by their authors to "Fact," a section of the supplement to the Sydney "Sunday Sun."
The Malley writings were published in a special "Ern Malley" commemorative issue of the Adelaide literary journal, "Angry Penguins," which ranked the fictitious Ern Malley as "one of the two giants of contemporary Australian poetry," and devoted 30 pages to an allegedly posthumous poet who had never lived.
The "works of Ern Malley," were written in collaboration by two Australian poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart.
Stewart, who lived at Croydon, New South Wales, is a corporal at present in a military hospital. He is 27.
Lieutenant McAuley, A.I.F., lived at Homebush. He is 26.
Both are from Sydney, where they were educated at Fort Street High School, and attended Sydney University. They are attached to the same Army unit stationed at Melbourne.
The identity of Ern Malley and the merits attributed to the writings under that name provoked Australia's most remarkable literary controversy.
Co-authors McAuley and Stewart this week made the following joint statement and explanation. "We decided to carry out a serious literary experiment. There was no feeling of personal malice directed against Mr. Max Harris, co-editor of "Angry Penguins."
"Nor was there any intention of having the matter publicised in the press.
"For some years now we have observed with distaste the gradual decay of meaning and craftsman- ship in poetry.
"Mr. Max Harris and other "Angry Penguin" writers represent an Australian outcrop of a literary fashion which has become prominent in England and America.
"A 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 proceses 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.
"Their work appeared to us to be a collection of garish images without coherent meaning and structure, as if one erected a coat of bright paint and called it a house.
Testing a Theory
"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?
"It was our contention, which we desired to prove by this experiment, that they could not.
"We gave birth to 'Ern Malley.' We represented Ern through his equally fictitious sister, 'Ethel Malley,' as having been a garage mechanic and an insurance salesman who wrote but never published the 'poems,' found after his tragic end at the age of 25 by his sister, who sent them to 'Angry Penguins' for opinion.
"We produced the whole of Ern Malley's tragic life work in one afternoon with the aid of a chance collection of books which happened to be on our desk the Concise Oxford Dictionary, collected Shakespeare, dictionary of quotations, etc.
"We opened books at random, choosing a word or phrase haphazardly.
"We made lists of these and wove them into nonsensical sentences.
"We misquoted and made false allusions. We deliberately perpetrated bad verse and selected awkward rhymes from Ripman's rhyming dictionary.
"In parts we even abandoned metre altogether and made free verse cacaphonous. Our rules of composition were not difficult
"1. There most be no coherent theme, at most only confused and inconsistent hints at meaning held out as a bait to the rader.
"2. No care was taken with verse technique except occasionally to accentuate its general sloppiness by deliberate crudities.
"3. In style, poems were to imitate not Mr. Harris in particular but the whole literary fashion as we knew it.
"Having completed the poems, we wrote a very pretentious and meaningless 'preface and statement' which purported to explain the aesthetic theory on which they were based.
"Then we elaborated the details of the alleged poet's life. This took more time than the composition of his works.
What it Proves
"MR. Harris and Mr. John Reed, co-editors of 'Angry Penguins,' Mr. Harry Roskolenko, American poet in the United States Forces, who had some 'Ern Malley' poems published in New York in an anthology of Australian verse he collected, and others, accepted these poems as having considerable merit.
"However, that fact does not, as it might seem to do, prove their complete lack of intelligence."
"It proves something far more interesting. It proves that a literary fashion can become so hypnotically powerful that it can suspend the operation of critical intelligence in quite a large number of people.
"We feel that the experiment could have been equally successful in England. Apparently it was in America to the extent that the publisher was taken in.
GROWTH OF SCHOOL
"A literary movement such as the one we aimed at debunking began with the 'dadaist' movement in France during the last war.
"This gave birth to the 'surrealist' movement, which was followed in England by the 'new apocalypse' school, while the Australian counterparts are 'Angry Penguins.'
"This cultism resembles on a small scale the progress of certain European political parties.
"An efficient publicity apparatus is switched on to beat the big drum and drown opposition.
"Doubters are shamed to silence by the fear of appearing stupid or worse crime if anyone raises his voice in protest, he is mobbed with shrill invective.
"The faithful, meanwhile, to keep their spirits up, shout encouragements and slogans, and gather in groups, so as to have no time to think.
"For the Ern Malley poems there cannot even be as a lost resort any valid surrealist claim that, even if they have no literary value, which it has been said they do possess, they are at least 'psychologi cal documents.' They are not even that.
NO LITERARY MERIT
"They are the conscious product of minds intentionally interrupting each other's trains of free association; and altering and revising them after they are written down.
"So they have not even psychological value.
"And, as we have already explained conclusively, the writings of Ern Malley are utterly devoid of literary merit as poetry.
Corporal Stewart, subsequently added: "The first three lines of the poem, 'Culture Is Exhibit,' were lifted straight from an American report on the drainage of breeding grounds of mosquitoes.
"They were quoted to indicate that they had been lifted as a quotation.
"The alleged quotation from Lenin heading one of the poems. 'The Emotions Are Not Skilled Workers,' is quite phoney."
Among the writers named in "Who is Ern Malley?" conjectures were Professor J. I. M. Stewart, of Adelaide University, who is also a detective novelist, Michael Innes, Douglas Stewart (Sydney writer and poet) and "Angry Penguin" Max Harris.
James Phillip McAuley (12 October 1917 15 October 1976) was an Australian academic, poet, journalist, literary critic and a prominent convert to Roman Catholicism.
Harold Frederick Stewart (14 December 1916 7 August 1995) was an Australian poet and oriental scholar. He is chiefly remembered as the enigmatic other half of Ern Malley.
Angry Penguins was an Australian literary and artistic avant-garde movement of the 1940s. The movement was stimulated by a modernist magazine of the same name published by the surrealist poet Max Harris, who founded the magazine in 1940, at the age of 18.
John Reed (10 December 1901 5 December 1981) was an Australian art editor and patron, notable for supporting and collecting of Australian art and culture with his wife Sunday Reed.
Harry Roskolenko (1907-80), born New York, was self-educated and worked at numerous occupations including sailor, law clerk, factory-hand and patent-researcher before joining the US Army in 1942. Posted to the Pacific area, he made numerous visits to Australia in the 1940s, became friendly with poets of the Angry Penguins group, and contributed to Australian magazines.
Dadaism was an art movement of the European avant-garde in the early 20th century.
The movement primarily involved visual arts, literature, poetry, art manifestoes, art theory, theatre, and graphic design, and concentrated its anti-war politics through a rejection of the prevailing standards in art through anti-art cultural works. In addition to being anti-war, Dada was also anti-bourgeois and had political affinities with the radical left.
Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s, and is best known for its visual artworks and writings.
Surrealist works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur; however, many Surrealist artists and writers regard their work as an expression of the philosophical movement first and foremost, with the works being an artefact.
Douglas Stewart AO OBE (6 May 1913 14 February 1985) was a major twentieth century Australian poet, as well as short story writer, essayist and literary editor.