Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be another poetry post. However, please humour me for a moment by reading this short piece and deciding what you think of it. You’ll find out why later.
Durer: Innsbruck, 1495 (published 1943)
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 then that Durer perceived it too.
Now I find that once more I have shrunk
To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,
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.
Bookmark your thoughts. Whatever your opinion, the story behind this poem is a tale for the ages.
In 1943, a woman named Ethyl sent a number of unpublished poems by her late brother, Ernest Lalor ‘Ern’ Malley, to a new literary journal called Angry Penguins. Ern, a humble mechanic and salesman of limited education, had died tragically at the age of twenty-five and his sister had discovered the poems among his effects. Unsure of their value, she submitted them just in case they may raise some interest.
The editors were blown away. This, they thought, was equal to the work of Dylan Thomas.
Angry Penguins had been established by hot-blooded Adelaide University students in 1941:
Their quest was a boldly rebellious one, to liberate Australian literature and art, seeking, as Harris put it, “a mythic sense of a geographical and cultural identity”. – no less than a change in the Australian national self-perception.
The founder, glamorous up-and-coming poet Max Harris, faced so much resistance from conservative students for what they considered frivolity during the hardship of war that they voted to dunk him in the Torrens River, and did so in front of local media.
Harris and his supporter, John Reed, overcame these watery obstacles and were the first in Australia to publish rising figures such as Dylan Thomas and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The journal was a hit that prompted jealously and hatred among traditionalists who thought it “pretentious nonsense”.
Harris was ecstatic to receive the posthumous submission from Ern Malley. To think that such talent lay obscure and undiscovered in their own country! They put out an edition dedicated to the astonishing new poet in June, 1944:
Storm clouds gather
Reactions were mixed. Some suggested Harris had written the poems himself as a hoax. This annoyed Harris because he knew that he hadn’t. Then an alternative theory began to circulate: had Harris himself been hoaxed? From Wikipedia:
Alarmed, Harris hired a private detective to establish whether Ern and Ethel Malley existed or had ever done so. But by now, the Australian national press was on the trail. The next week, the Sydney Sunday Sun, which had been conducting some investigative reporting, ran a front-page story alleging that the Ern Malley poems had in fact been written by McAuley and Stewart.
They were right.
James McAuley and Harold Stewart were a pair of conservative poets then working as army paper-pushers and bored out of their minds in their barracks. Contemptuous of modern trends in poetry, they hatched a plot to discredit Harris and wrote the entire collection of ‘poems’ in one night:
Their writing style, as they described it, was to write down the first thing that came into their heads, lifting words and phrases from the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a Collected Shakespeare, and a Dictionary of Quotations: “We opened books at random, choosing a word or phrase haphazardly. We made lists of these and wove them in nonsensical sentences. We misquoted and made false allusions. We deliberately perpetrated bad verse, and selected awkward rhymes from a Ripman’s Rhyming Dictionary.” They also included many bits of their own poetry, though in a deliberately disjointed manner.
They even snuck in three lines from a US Army report on mosquito control:
“Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other
Areas of stagnant water serve
As breeding-grounds …” Now
Have I found you, my Anopheles!
The duo set three rules for themselves: the poems must be meaningless, the verse technique must be sloppy and the poems should imitate the literary fashion popularized by Dylan Thomas et al. Then they deliberately aged the paper with sun and dust before sending them to Angry Penguins via ‘Ethyl’.
Harris doubled down. Tripled down. I have to respect this: not only did Harris proclaim that the ‘fake’ poems were legitimately good, he maintained that these were the only poems of genius that McAuley and Stewart had ever written. According to Harris, the character of Ern Malley had liberated this pair of mediocre writers from their conservative mind-prison and enabled them to produce fresh, uninhibited, outstanding poetry.
Cheeky? Sure. Having read some of their usual work, however, I reckon Harris had a point. They were technically proficient in the traditional styles but were also dull as dogshit. At least the Ern Malley stuff keeps you awake.
Then Harris quadrupled down. The next edition of Angry Penguins was devoted to critical discussion of the Ern Malley poems:
Everyone chortled in good fun and that was the end of the matter.
Some of the Ern Malley poems contained dirty allusions that ran afoul of South Australia’s then strict obscenity laws. It was fine to write such stuff but not to publish it, so poor old Harris was the one dragged into court:
The only prosecution witness was a police detective, whose evidence included the statement ‘I don’t know what “incestuous” means, but I think there is a suggestion of indecency about it'”. Despite this, and several distinguished expert witnesses arguing for Harris, he was found guilty and fined £5. Angry Penguins soon folded.
Based on median Australian earnings then and now, I estimate that fine to be worth around AUD $3,000 (USD $2,230) today. Harris’ six-week jail sentence was suspended.
The magistrate declared that Harris had “far too great a fondness for sexual references”. People were taunting and spitting at Harris in the street. Australia was then a much more conservative place and still retains its conformist, nanny-state attitude, as you may have heard.
Irreverent larrikins my arse.
What they did next
Max Harris went on to run a chain of bookshops, founded the Australian Book Review (which is still going strong) and wrote controversial columns for The Australian newspaper. He was a major combatant in the successful campaign against Australia’s censorship laws.
Harris also helped to get a local nun sainted though he was not a Catholic himself.
John Reed, Harris’ former colleague, set up a gallery of modern art, the successor to which is still in existence and very well-known.
James McAuley converted to Catholicism and co-wrote some noted hymns. He also founded and for some time edited the conservative journal Quadrant – enemies say he used CIA money. It still exists today but the average age of its readers is 106.
McAuley felt remorse at the trouble he’d caused Harris and they eventually reconciled. He acknowledged the latter’s copyright over the poems because ‘Ethyl’ had gifted them to him.
McAuley suffered from terrible nightmares throughout his life. No confirmation on whether these contained menacing black swans.
Harold Stewart began writing haiku. He visited Japan and was almost ordained Buddhist priest but pulled out at the last moment, allegedly because he was too fond of his flowing locks to shave them.
He later moved permanently to Japan, taught English, translated haiku and Buddhist classics and became an expert on the history of Kyoto. He maintained no affection for his homeland. Curiously, Stewart was the only one among these cat-fighting princesses who was actually gay.
And the winner is . . .
Ern Malley by a country mile.
The whole affair was a brilliant work of art in which each played his unwitting part, from the hoaxers to the readers all the way through to the detective who didn’t know what ‘incestuous’ meant but thought it sounded a bit sus.
Of the five, only Ern Malley remains a household name. High school students still read his poems and giggle at the rude bits.
The literary efforts of the others are justly forgotten. For both hoaxers and hoaxed, the Ern Malley affair was the height of their fame and overshadowed everything else they ever did.
I don’t know what magic infused the air of those barracks back in 1943, what muse visited those mundane minds and touched them with greatness. Harris was right: it was the best work those two men ever created.
We forget the four mincing wankers but young Ern Malley continues to loom in Australia’s literary imagination. We see him crouched at his suburban desk, calloused hand scribbling as his simple soul pours out words of magnificent beauty onto a cheap notebook. His love, sadness and laughter seem so much more real than that of the nincompoops who created or promoted him.
The poetry was intended to be meaningless but meaning has soaked into it over the years.
black swans of trespass
To me, these are the ghosts of some higher world that creep into our art. I suspect that, on singular occasions, the Holy Spirt flows though the hands of men and lifts their creations above that which can be created by mortals working alone. Then the eerie black swans recede; we emerge from a trancelike state and wonder what the hell just happened.
Artists go to great lengths to connect with these muses from beyond – rural retreats, physical deprivation, drug use etc. – but in the case of the two hoaxers, it really was a case of trespass. A dark-feathered burglar crept into their barracks that night, stole a vessel of silver and left one of gold.
Let’s finish with another of Ern Malley’s poems:
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.
Come on, that’s alright.