By Pablo Capra
Still from David Perry's film "The Refracting Glasses"
When Australian editor Max Harris read the typed coffee-stained sheets containing Ern Malley’s poetry that had been mailed to him in 1943, he knew that he had discovered a major poet.
Only 22, Harris had been a promoter of modernism in art ever since his school days. In a country that still despised writers the greater literary community had embraced a generation earlier, he caused much controversy with his avant-garde literary journal “Angry Penguins.” Once, he was even thrown into a river for declaiming his radical politics. But now, Harris’s struggles seemed to have finally paid off.
The 16 poems of Malley’s only completed work, “The Darkening Ecliptic,” were sent to him by Malley’s uneducated sister Ethel, who wondered if they were any good. She said she had found them in her brother’s room in Sydney after his unfortunate death from Grave’s disease at age 25.
Harris was awed by Malley’s powerful honesty and despair in lines like these from “Colloquy with John Keats:”
Like you I sought at first for Beauty
And then, in disgust, returned
As did you to the locus of sensation
And not till then did my voice build crenellated towers
Of an enteric substance in the air.
Then first I learned to speak clear; then through my turrets
Pealed that Great Bourdon which men have ignored.
“Malley was a poet of tremendous energy, a phrase-maker with no fear of obscurity, and able to manoeuvre a poem in several directions at once,” Michael Heyward writes in his book “The Ern Malley Affair.” “Malley gave the feeling that poetry was rich, rough, rollercoastering speech.”
Ethel explained that she had taken care of Malley after their widowed mother’s death. They weren’t close, and she had disapproved of Malley’s “wildness.” Malley had dropped out of high school to work as a garage mechanic, then moved to Melbourne where he eked out a living as an insurance salesman and watch repairman—and “might have got into some sort of trouble.”
Malley’s poor health exempted him from being drafted into World War II. He never talked with Ethel about his poetry, and had only briefly mentioned his failed romance with a girl in Melbourne—the “Princess [who] lived in Princess St.” from his “Perspective Lovesong.”
He returned to Sydney to die in 1943, passing away quickly at Ethel’s house on July 23.
Harris surprised Ethel by writing back that her brother was “one of the most remarkable and important poetic figures of this country,” and that he planned to devote his next issue of “Angry Penguins” to Malley. The issue came out in 1944, and was a touching tribute to the late genius.
But to Harris’s embarrassment, a few weeks after Malley’s poems were published, poets Harold Stewart and James McAuley made front-page news by declaring that they had created Ern and Ethel Malley as a hoax!
The hoaxers had become disillusioned with the direction modern poetry was taking under poets like T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and now the “Angry Penguins” journal in Australia. They felt that the Surrealist influence of the time was all effect, and had robbed poetry of any real meaning.
So in a single afternoon and evening in a Melbourne army barracks where they were stationed, they had mimicked the kind of modernist poetry that they despised, making it intentionally dense and meaningless, then mailed the result off to Harris to see if he could tell the difference.
The hoaxers crafted Malley’s unique voice from cryptic allusions, bizarre phrases, and lines borrowed from any books that happened to be around, which included the works of Shakespeare and a scientific report on mosquitoes. Their haphazard borrowing is most obvious in these peculiar lines from “Culture as Exhibit:”
Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other
Areas of stagnant water serve
As breeding-grounds ... Now
Have I found you, my Anopheles!
The hoaxers even poked fun at Malley’s nonexistence in lines like these from “Sybilline:”
It is necessary to understand
That a poet may not exist, that his writings
Are the incomplete circle and straight drop
Of a question mark
The name they invented for their modernist poet, Ernest Malley, played on the French word “mal,” and was another way of saying “truly bad.” It also evoked a sense of patriotism because it sounded like mallee, a type of eucalyptus.
But, strangely, their plan backfired. The hoaxers‚ methods of mocking Surrealism by being deliberately obscure and arbitrary ended up producing a kind of poetry that was deeply indebted to Surrealism. Instead of degrading modernism, Malley’s poems surpassed most modernist voices of the time.
It has been suggested that, by approaching the whole thing as a joke, the hoaxers were able to let go of their normal inhibitions and write with dazzling unbridled imagination. The masterstroke was the creation of Malley’s personality, which comes across so vividly in the poems. Instead of suspending belief when you read them, you have to keep reminding yourself that Malley is not real, as in this passage from “Petit Testament:”
In the twenty-fifth year of my age
I find myself to be a dromedary
That has run short of water between
One oasis and the next mirage
And having despaired of ever
Making my obsessions intelligible
I am content at last to be
The sole clerk of my metamorphoses.
It is something to be at last speaking
Though in this No-Man’s-language appropriate
Only to No-Man’s-Land.
Harris weathered harsh criticism and boldly stood by his original assessment of the poems, insisting that “the myth is sometimes greater than its creators.” But the revelation of the hoax wasn’t the end of his problems.
Two months later the police impounded the Malley issue of “Angry Penguins” on a charge that obscenities were hidden in the poems’ complicated language. Harris had to defend the poems in court, and was fined and further humiliated.
Considered the greatest literary hoax of the 20th century, the experience took its toll on Harris, and he was never again the daring modernist that he started out to be. Nevertheless, he continued to defend Malley’s poems until the end of his life.
A decade after the hoax, Harris wrote, “I still believe in Ern Malley. I was offered not only the poems of this mythical Ern Malley, but also his life, his ideas, his love, his disease, and his death. [The life of] someone knowing he is to die young, in a world of war and death, and seeing the streets and the children with the eyes of the already dead. For me Ern Malley embodies the true sorrow and pathos of our time. One had felt that somewhere in the streets of every city was an Ern Malley.”
As for the hoaxers, their friendship fizzled out shortly after the hoax, and both ended up becoming ardently religious. McAuley turned to Catholicism, and Stewart to Buddhism, moving to Japan for good in the 1960s. The hoaxers continued to believe that Malley’s poems were nonsense, but even though they published several books of their own poetry, they never regained the fame of “The Darkening Ecliptic,” which is now included in anthologies of Australian literature.
Ern Malley’s “The Darkening Ecliptic” has recently been reprinted in a local poetry journal called “Life as a Poet: Volume 7” (Brass Tacks Press), available at Lobal Orning. You can also buy it at www.lifeasapoet.com.