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Personal Choice 32

Ern Malley (?)

Durer: Innsbruck, 1495

I had often, cowled in the slumbrous heavy air,

Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,

As I knew it would be, the colourful spires

And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back

All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters –

Not knowing than that Durer perceived it too.

Now I find that once more I have shrunk

To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dreams,

I had read in books that art is not easy

But no one warned that the mind repeats

In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still

The black swan of trespass on alien waters.

Ern Malley

The Ern Malley Literary Hoax

The Ern Malley affair is one the most important and most fascinating literary hoaxes of the 20th century. It grew out of a hatred of and the desire to debunk the avant-garde style of modernism. In October 1943 on a Saturday, two traditional poets, Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart, in their offices at the Victoria Barracks of the Australian Army in Melbourne, Australia, hatched a plan to expose the bankruptcy of the modernist avant-garde trend of literature in British, Australian, and world poetry. They chose the publication titled Angry Penguins and one of the editors, Max Harris, as their targets. As the legend would have it, within a few hours on that ordinary Saturday, the two young army men slapped together sixteen poems by collecting strings of words from the books and magazines that lay on their desks. After completing those sixteen fake pieces, McAuley and Stewart then delivered a fictitious poet and named him ‘Ern Malley,’ a take-off on the French word ‘mal’ meaning ‘bad.’ Next, McAuley and Stewart invented a sister and called her Ethel, dreamed up a melancholy biography for the deceased auto mechanic turned insurance salesman poet. From the hands of Ethel, they posted Ern's poems and biography to the magazine Angry Penguins. Max Harris read the poems with delight, as did the other editors, and a special edition of Angry Penguins carried the fake poems and the fake biography of a fake poet. The two disgruntled poets, Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart, had accomplished their mission of showing the world that those who are taken in by the avant-garde, surrealistic drivel flowing from the pens of literary poetasters under the guise of modernism could be easily exposed by a real fake.

In a rather surprising unconscious creative ‘somersault’ McCauley and Stewart put aside their own traditional poetic styles and without actually knowing what they were doing produced poetry that would eventually eclipse their own in its power, brilliance and beauty as the poem above I believe is one of ‘Ern Malley’s’ finest examples.


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