True Story of Australia's Most Famous Literary Hoax - Ern Malley

Article (#article) 30 July 2016
by John Anderson © 2016 See Collection => Email comments and feedback to John

Today the web is full of spun articles, which are crafted by computer software programs by automatically replacing words in the original with synonyms.

Everybody hates them, but it is worth remembering that nothing has changed - we are all gullible at times, and can be victims of nonsense and hoaxes.

The famous Australian literary hoax of Ern Malley's poems, played out so successfully on Max Harris, editor of modernist magazine Angry Penguins in 1944, was a web spun in similar ways.

[For the complete story see the Wikipedia Article and the Ern Malley Website ]

Mr Harris was taken in hook, line and sinker, when he published a collection of unpublished modern poems found amongst the belongings of Ernest Lalor "Ern" Malley, who died at the age of 25.

The hoax was crafted in 1944 when Max Harris, then a young Adelaide literary critic and poet, started a modernist magazine entitled 'Angry Penguins'. He received a letter from Ethel Malley, Ern's older sister, asking for his opinion on Ern Malley's collection of one page poems, found among his belongings after he died. There were 17 poems that were part of an epic entitled 'The Darkening Ecliptic'.

The first poem in the sequence was:

Durer: Innsbruck, 1495

By Ernest Lalor Malley

" 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."

Harris read the poems and was very excited about them, telling his friends that the unknown poet was in the same league as Dylan Thomas or W.H. Auden. Several international literary critics were also taken in. Harris showed the poems to his friends, including the famous artist Sidney Nolan, who painted a cover for a special edition of Angry Penguins that Harris published in June 1945 containing the poems.

Angry Penguins - Ed Malley Edition, June 1945
Angry Penguins - Ed Malley Edition, June 1945 Source: Public Domain

At the time there was considerable resistance by conservatives to modernism in art and literature that was developing in Australia. It was regarded as nonsense by the conservatives, who saw it as being of poor quality and lacking discipline. Two young poets, who were in the army at the time, Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart decided to show up the modernist movement and to challenge the Editor Harris to a test. McAuley and Stewart later wrote:

"Mr. Max Harris and other Angry Penguins writers represent an Australian outcrop of a literary fashion which has become prominent in England and America. The 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 processes of critical self-delusion and mutual admiration, the perpetrators of this humourless nonsense had managed to pass it off on would-be intellectuals and Bohemians, both here and abroad, as great poetry. 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 way of 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..."

The Ern Malley poems, 'The Darkening Ecliptic' were written by the two soldiers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart in an afternoon, deliberately trying to write 'bad poetry'. They said that they wrote down the first thing that came into their heads, and used words and phrases selected a random by flicking through the pages of 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."

The reaction to the special edition was swift and surprising to Harris. The police in South Australia alleged that Malley's poems were obscene.

The student newspaper of the University of Adelaide, ridiculed the Malley poems and claimed that Harris had written the poems himself.

The Adelaide Daily Mail suggested that the poems published in Angry Dolphins were a hoax and that Harris had been hoodwinked. Shocked by this, Harris tried to find out whether the mysterious poet was real.

The Sydney Sunday Sun, which had become interested in the story, undertook an investigation. The paper ran a front-page story claiming that the Ern Malley poems were written by two young poets, Harold Stewart and James McAuley.

The truth was out. The story made the front pages of Australian newspapers and later featured in the International Press, including Time Magazine.

Harris was humiliated, but sought to save face by claiming that Stewart and McAuley, had crafted the character of Ern Malley, and despite trying to perpetrate a hoax had produced quality poetry. Stewart and McAuley disagreed. They insisted that they had deliberately written bad poetry, despite the poems containing some extracts from their own unpublished poems.

The power of the poems to deceive the gullible, has been demonstrated again and again in modern times.

The US poet John Ashbery in a 1988 interview in Jacket magazine, described how he often set his poetry students an examination test by giving them two poems; one by Ern Malley and the other a modern poem from a respected author.

He asks "them if they can guess which one is the real poem by a respected contemporary poet, and which one is a put-on intended to ridicule modern poetry, and what are their reasons. And I think they are right about fifty per cent of the time, identifying the fraud."

The Ern Malley hoax is discussed, and the Sidney Nolan cover reproduced, in Jacket magazine on the Internet, along with other links and information including a radio documentary and film poster.

Another poem by Ern Malley,

Night Piece

By Ernest Lalor Malley

"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."