Spring 2009

The Fall and Rise of Ernest Lalor Malley

The poet who wasn’t

Christine Wertheim


“You seem very clever at explaining words, Sir,” said Alice. “Would you kindly tell me the meaning of the poem…?”

“Let’s hear it,” said Humpty Dumpty. “I can 
explain all the poems that ever were invented—and 
a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.”
­—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

In 1945, John Ashbery discovered ­th­e work of an obscure Au­stralian poet named Ern Malley. “I liked the poems very much,” Ashbery recalls. “They reminded me a little of my own early tortured experiments in surrealism, but they wer­e much better.”[1] Later, in 1961, he included two of Malley’s poems, “Boult to Marina” and “Sybilline,” in an issue of Locus Solus edited with Kenneth Koch, Harry Mathews, and James Schuyler. Though neither Koch nor Ashbery believed Malley had any influence on his own work, both thought of him as a “secret, exotic, precious, outlandish figure” whom they would teach in their poetry classes at Columbia and Brooklyn College, introducing his work to the next generation of American writers, and, through them, back to their Australian peers John Forbes and John Tranter.[2­]­­­

Like Baudelaire, who imported Poe into France and returned him to America as a symboliste, Ashbery and Koch brought Malley to the US and returned him to Australia as a shining example of a new postwar avant-gardism that reveled in pastiche, ironic quotation, an­d love for the feel of a Bad Poem.[3] By this circuitous means, a man on the margins of culture at the time of his death in 1943 was finally acclaimed in his own land in 1991 when Tranter included his entire oeuvre in a Penguin anthology of Australian poetry.[4­]

But who exactly was Ern Malley, and why had it taken this detour through American letters to send his star streaking through the great blue vault of the Ozzie cultural sky?

In his authoritative book The Ern Malley Affair, Michael Heyward outlines the main events of the poet’s tragic life. Ernest Lalor Malley was born in England in 1918. In 1920, after his father died of war-related injuries, the Malleys emigrated to Sydney, Australia. When their mother died in 1933, the fifteen-year-old Ern was left alone with his sister Ethel. After high school, he worked for a while as a car mechanic, then drifted to Melbourne, where he sold insurance and lived alone in a rented room. At the beginning of 1943, struck with Graves’ disease, he abruptly returned to Sydney, where, despite Ethel’s care, he died on 23 July at the age of twenty-five, leaving nothing behind but a sheaf of handwritten poems and a postcard with a curious inscription. Ethel, not being of a literary bent herself, but loving her brother, bound up the sheaf and sent it to the editor of a literary magazine, Angry Penguins, published from Adelaide. Max Harris, the Penguins editor, recognized at once the genius that was Ern and decided not merely to publish the poems but to devote an entire section of the Autumn 1944 issue to them, complete with a full color image by the great Australian painter Sidney Nolan 
illustrating lines from Malley’s “Petit Testament”:

I said to my love (who is living)

Dear we shall never be that verb

Perched on the sole Arabian Tree

“No young Australian poet had ever had a more auspicious launch for his work,” says Robert Hughes in his afterward to The Ern Malley Affair. “His early death, clearly, was a tragedy. But then it became apparent that, behind this tragedy, a comedy lurked. Ern Malley was not dead, for he had never lived. He and his entire oeuvre had been made up, in the course of a single afternoon in a military barracks in Melbourne, by two young poets, Corporal Harold Stewart and Lieutenant James McAuley.”[5] In other words, Ern Malley was a hoax.

The Autumn 1944 cover of Angry Penguins, featuring cover art by Sidney Nolan. Courtesy Tom Thompson, Samela Harris, and the Heide Museum of Modern Art Archives, Victoria. Our indefatigable Australian readers can discover more at the Heide’s upcoming exhibit, “Ern Malley Returns to Heide,” 18 July–­15 November 2009.

Born only a year apart, McAuley and Stewart were poor sons of Sydney’s working class, whose talents won them entry to the prestigious Fort Street School for gifted children, and later to Sydney University.

McAuley and Stewart spent hours together in cafés. … They enjoyed each other’s wit, and each respected the other’s intelligence, but they were not at all alike. Moody and charismatic, McAuley became the centre of attention the instant he entered a room. He dominated any social situation. Stewart was genial but a loner, shy and rather secretive . … Poetry was the one thing Stewart wanted to do. McAuley gave the impression he could do anything. But the golden boy was also deadly serious about poetry.[6]

As a student of poetry, the young McAuley was complex. He adored the Symbolists, Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and de Nerval. He wrote about Pound, and was fascinated by Eliot. He translated Heine and Rilke and set Elizabethan lyrics to music. A natural parodist, he knocked out a letter pastiching Finnegans Wake that nails Joyce. At the start of World War Two, he was also a conscientious objector, composing a popular anti-war musical, I’d Rather Be Left. But these early leanings were not to last; by 1943, he had joined the army and was calling himself “a disappointed radical.”[7] Poetically, too, McCauley seemed to have switched sides, professing hostility to the new generation of avant-garde work, which he saw as mere hand-me-down agonistics vacuously repeating the pre-war formulas without the emotional sincerity that had infused the earlier experiments. In 1940s Sydney, such sentiments were common, modern poetry then being seen “as a collapsed tradition that in Australian terms was no tradition at all.”[8] Not so, however, in Melbourne and Adelaide, where the new poetic fashions aroused a sense of hope and possibility. Here, in 1939, in an atmosphere at once up to date and yet optimistic, an eighteen-year-old student named Max Harris set out to ignite a revolution in Australian poetics by launching the Angry Penguins, a magazine dedicated to the very things the jaded Sydneyites despised. “Both outlooks were ‘modern’ and both informed. They were on a collision course.”[9]

When the fall issue of Penguins began to circulate from Adelaide in early June 1944 (seasons being reversed in the southern hemisphere), one of its first readers was Brian Elliott, a lecturer at Adelaide University and Harris’s teacher. Elliott smelled a rat, concluded that Harris himself was the author, and wrote a parodic review of the work as a poem in the style of Ern Malley, which, Elliott implied, was also the style of Harris. The lines of the poem formed an acrostic that read M-A-X-H-A-R-R-I-S-H-O-A-X. Published in On Dit, the journal of Adelaide University, this review sparked a veritable find-the-poet fever in the Australian press and alarmed Harris, who hired a detective named Bannister to watch Ethel Malley’s supposed address in Sydney.

Meanwhile, as the journal made its troubled way around the country, it was seen by Tess van Sommers, a young reporter for Sydney’s Sunday Sun and a friend of McAuley and Stewart, whom she had overheard discussing a scam. Recognizing this hoax as the joke, and thinking she could cover the story sympathetically, she told a colleague. “But Sommers was not yet a ticketed journalist, …and her seniors, smelling blood, elbowed her aside.”[10] The story was then handled by Colin Simpson, the paper’s star reporter and editor of its magazine supplement Fact. Simpson immediately called McAuley and Stewart, who refused to talk to anyone but Sommers. Through her, it was agreed that Fact would release a teaser and follow with full disclosure of the hoax the following week. To spice up the story, however, Simpson rang Harris at 2 AM the morning before printing the initial teaser to quiz him about the meaning of Malley’s poems and about his opinion of his own poetry, but giving no information in return. Woken from a 
“Nembutal-stupefied sleep,” Harris’s replies were as lucid as could be expected under the conditions, but when edited for print they portrayed him as a pompous ass. 

­Letter from Ethel Malley to Max Harris, accompanying her brother’s poems, 28 October 1943. Courtesy Tom Thompson and Samela Harris.

On 18 June, Fact put the teaser on its front page under the heading “Ern Malley, the great poet or the greatest hoax?” By now Harris knew that Harold Stewart lived at Ethel’s address, but neither he nor his publisher, John Reed, could believe the hoax had been produced by Stewart or any of his circle. “It was a long week of unknowing for the Penguins who could only speculate about the real Ern Malley.”[11] Likewise, Stewart and McAuley were troubled. They had not intended that the case become public—this was a private affair meant only for those in the cultural elite—and they had wanted to wait until the journal reached Britain, where they could potentially snare much bigger fish, before revealing the hoax. As things stood now, they were forced to cooperate with Fact, which would publish their names with or without their permission. What they themselves now wanted was to explain the high-minded and serious nature of their experiment; though a hoax, the affair was no joke.

On 25 June 1944, in an article wedged between the sports and the comics sections, Fact revealed the entire affair along with a statement by McAuley and Stewart outlining the reasoning behind the scam: “For some years now we have observed with distaste the gradual decay of meaning and craftsmanship in poetry. …The distinctive feature of the fashion … was that it rendered its devotees insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination.” However, they went on, “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. …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.”[12]

They also explained how they had created the poems: “We produced the whole of Ern Malley’s tragic life-work in one afternoon, with the aid of a chance collection of books that happened to be on our desks: the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a Collected Shakespeare, Dictionary of Quotations &c. We opened books at random. …We misquoted and made false allusions. 
We deliberately perpetrated bad verse. …The first three lines of the poem “Culture as Exhibit” were lifted, as a quotation, straight from an American report on the drainage of breeding-grounds of mosquitoes.”[13]The pair went on:

Our rules of composition were not difficult:

1. There must be no coherent theme…

2. No care was taken with verse technique…

­3. In style, the poems were to imitate, not Mr. Harris in particular, but the whole literary fashion as we knew it from the works of Dylan Thomas, Henry Treece and others.

In conclusion, they stated: “Having completed the poems, we wrote a pretentious and meaningless Preface and Statement which purported to explain the aesthetic theory on which they were based. …As we have already explained conclusively, the Writings Of Ern Malley are utterly devoid of literary merit as poetry.”[15]

As we know, the poems and statement were then sent to Max Harris with the cover letter from Ern’s sister, Ethel. (According to McAuley and Stewart, this letter was the hardest part of the scam, taking more time to concoct than the entirety of Ern’s oeuvre.) That Harris was chosen as the target of this experiment demonstrates both the low and the high opinion these two literary-scientists had of him. Like McAuley, Harris was 
a true Romantic, believing in the value of Culture and, 
specifically, the need for it in mid-century Australia. 
Yet the hoax broke him. Not only did he become the laughing-stock of the entire Australian press for many months, the affair turned especially nasty when the state decided to prosecute him for obscenity. 

Near the end of August 1944, Harris, who was cramming for exams at the time, was charged under Section 108 of the South Australian Police Act with 
the sale of certain “indecent advertisements.” The complaint identified thirteen passages in the current issue 
of Penguins, seven from Malley, the rest from Harris and other contributors. Section 108 defined “indecent advertisements” as “printed matter of an indecent immoral or obscene nature.”[16] Although at the time many novels were banned in Australia, this was the first attempt to suppress poetry. The trial, held at the Adelaide Police Court on 5 September, was the hottest show in town, with the burden of proof allotted to the Crown’s main witness, a Detective Vogelsang who had been assigned the gig. Vogelsang had no particular credentials for the job, and his only previous contact with Harris had been on 1 August, when his superiors had dispatched him to interview “someone responsible for” the Malley issue of Angry Penguins. Vogelsang’s testimony amounted to nothing more than an assertion of his own opinions about Malley’s work, making the trial, in effect, a surreal battle of wits between Harris and Vogelsang over whether lines like the following would be obscenely interpreted by the average reader:

Only a part of me shall triumph in this
(I am not Pericles)
Though I have your silken eyes to kiss

And maiden-knees
Part of me remains, wench, Boult-upright

The rest of me drops off into the night.

—“Boult to Marina”

Given that Harris was only twenty-three at the time, his courage in the face of this onslaught is astonishing. In the end, however, he was fined five Australian pounds, with costs of two pounds and eleven shillings. Harris and Reed published three more issues of the Penguins, but the magazine had lost its focus, and in 1945 Harris moved to Melbourne, becoming a bookseller.[17] Like Alan Sokal—who caused a scandal in 1996 when, only days after publishing an article in the “Science Wars” issue of Social Text, he announced in another publication, Lingua Franca, that the piece was a hoax composed of “fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense”—McAuley and Stewart had made their point. But literature does not function like theoretical discourse, and McAuley and Stewart would no doubt be surprised to find that the poems still live on.

­­above: Telegram from C. Bannister, Sydney private investigator, to Max Harris, 15 June 1944.
­ below: Telegram from Max Harris to John Reed, the publisher of Angry Penguins, on 16 June 1944. Courtesy Tom Thompson and Samela Harris.­

There is something in the character of Malley, some aspect of the Australian temperament, which still appeals to writers, painters, and composers. The artists Sidney Nolan and Garry Shead both produced a series of works based on Malley, there has been an Ern Malley jazz suite, and Peter Carey wrote a novel, My Life As A Fake, that used the Malley story as a template.[18]

When passed through the transforming lens of 
the American avant-garde, Ern Malley’s work did not only move from being derided to being admired; it also went from being fake to “real.” For the Americans, who were hip to the hoax, the fictitious origins in no way detracted from the quality of the poems—perhaps those origins even enhanced it.

While McAuley and Stewart thought Malley’s works devoid of merit, others believed then, and still believe today, that they possess genuine literary value. In his initial enthusiasm, Harris had sent a copy of the Malley issue of Penguins to Herbert Read, the great British critic, who, though he received it after the scandal broke, nevertheless was full of praise for the work. As Read put it in a letter to Harris, the hoaxer

must inevitably use processes akin to, if not identical with, the original work of art. If his model is something conventional, the parody may be all the more difficult to make, for it is easy to detect. But if, as in the present case, the type of art parodied is itself unconventional and experimental, then the parodist has exceptional freedom, and because of his freedom, can end by deceiving himself. … It comes down to this: if a man of sensibility, in a mood of despair or hatred, or even from a perverted sense of humour, sets out to fake works of imagination, then if he is convincing, he must use the poetic facilities. If he uses the poetic facilities to good effect, he ends up deceiving himself. … This kind of [work] is modern Ossian, [and] like Ossian, can understandably deceive the best of critics.[19]

Ossian, the most famous and influential literary hoax of the eighteenth century, was purportedly a blind third-century warrior who wrote Fingal. “Discovered” and translated by the Scottish poet James Macpherson, the six-part epic poem became a rallying cry for Scottish nationalism. Even when “the piercing eye of Samuel Johnson” uncovered it as a hoax by Macpherson, the book had “an influence that no critic could kill. …Some of the greatest figures of the time (Goethe, Schiller, …even Napoleon) took him up, finding in Ossian the true rugged voice of primitive Europe, a Nordic Homer.”[20] Like the two other famous hoaxes of the eighteenth century—the poems of a “Thomas Rowley” written by a fifteen-year-old named Thomas Chatterton, and Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry—the Ossian work was “brought into existence in order to enlarge and glorify achievements of the past and to substantiate ideals of national identity.”[21] From this perspective, the Ossian and Malley affairs were not the same; faking a traditional form and faking an experimental form are quite different propositions.

Since the early twentieth century, the term experimental has been applied to prose and poetry that extend the bounds of literary language. Well-known experimental techniques include playing with the graphic possibilities of words and the white space on the page, cutting up or erasing other people’s texts, automatic writing, and many others. The sense of the “experimental” in these techniques is the informal “innovative act or procedure,” the trying of something new, in order to gain experience.[22] However, in some cases the experiment is undertaken in the more formal scientific sense of a “test or procedure carried out under controlled conditions to determine the validity of a hypothesis or make a discovery.”[23] The work of Ern Malley is an exemplar of this rare genre. 

In the history of experimental writing, much fake literature and many fictional authors have been admired no less than their real counterparts.[24] The greatness of McAuley and Stewart’s method lay in the fact that it not only constructed a powerful hoax, it also proved the impossibility of categorically distinguishing between the “real” and the “fake” in this genre. Paradoxically, the Malley poems scientifically demonstrated that in the realms of literary experimentalism, we cannot tell the authentic from the inauthentic, because the authentic, and indeed the “author,” are often self-conscious shams. Thus we see that literature is a complex affair whose value cannot be reduced to a referential truth indexed by the phrase “based on reality.” Literary forgery is not a crime; it is a mode of cultural critique. 

Yet this does not mean that authorship is erased entirely or that there are no values by which we can now make literary judgments. An examination of Malley’s poem “Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495” can help shed light on this conundrum.

I had often, cowled in the slumberous heavy air,
Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,

As I knew it would be, the colorful spires

And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at 
 the back,

All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters—

Not knowing then that Dürer 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.

—“Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495”

The ekphrastic poem, based on a Dürer watercolor, was presented as the opening piece of Malley’s collection as arranged by McAuley and Stewart, and repeated in every published edition. However, “Innsbruck” had been originally written by McAuley as a real poem, one he later deemed unsuccessful and ascribed to Malley because of its inadequacies. Indeed, the precise nature of its failures was the spark from which the poets let their parody take flame. Michael Heyward writes: “The poem identifies Ern Malley as a clairvoyant who can ‘see’ the scene he imagines by taking the paradoxical step of closing his eyes.”[25] He continues: “Ern Malley’s ‘real’ evocation of a ‘real’ painting by the ‘realist’ Dürer was a brilliant feint, a way to distract the reader from what the poem was really saying—that its author was a chimera. McAuley designed it that way.”[26] McAuley himself described the poem frankly as a “come-on,” adding that “we are now so well trained into Coleridge’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that we exercise it not only where we should but also where we shouldn’t.”[27] Though the apparent author changes, the poem remains.

In his book Interpretation as Pragmatics, the literary theorist Jean-Jacques Lecercle makes a successive series of analyses of “Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495,” first assuming the poem is real, then that it is a hoax, and finally, that it is a real poem (deemed unsuccessful) inserted into a hoax. As Lecercle says, “McAuley’s poem is not merely the product of his admiration for Dürer…but it could never have been written if its author had not admired T. S. Eliot. …Here is the paradox: the poem complains about the inevitability of imitation, of repetition, at the very moment when, assimilating an influence or inserting itself within a tradition, it attempts to assert an individual talent.”[28]

For each of his readings, Lecercle provides a diagram. The graph for the reading of real-poem-inserted-into-hoax is, as Lecercle himself admits, “so complicated as to be called pretentious”:

Diagram of Jean-Jacques Lecercle's reading of Malley's poem titled Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495 as though it were a real poem inserted into a hoax poem.

The critic goes on to provide another, simpler diagram to model the more general relation between author, reader, and text that is the subject of his overall thesis. For our purposes, the “pretentious” diagram is perfect.

Here we see that the author has not so much disappeared as become an operation in a structure, a place that may be occupied by a number of different agents: a fictitious Malley writing serious mid-century modernism; McAuley and Stewart writing parodies of that form; and McAuley alone writing seriously an earlier form of modernism he later deemed unsuccessful precisely because it showed signs of the newer fashions he had come to despise. Yet, while the agent occupying the place changes, the position (i.e., the authorial function itself) remains. People may disappear, names may be erased, but the author has not vanished, and what is left is not a “pure” textuality, but a poem whose sense changes with the author to whom we attribute it. And we do attribute authorship, as do each of the poem’s various authors 
at the point where they occupy the authorial position. 
Real authorial invisibility simply does not yet exist. 
Certainly, as Eliot Weinberger once presciently noted, true invisibility—the text-in-itself—could be achieved very simply by just “publishing every book and magazine contribution under a different name.”[29] No one we have heard of has yet been so meek.

However, by allowing their literary son to eclipse them in the annals of Australian verse, both McAuley and Stewart demonstrated extraordinary authorial restraint. By claiming neither the copyright on his work, nor any of its financial rewards, like good parents, they have granted their child his true independence; the right to live, to speak, to affect us all in his own inimitable Ernest-like way.

  1. Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair (London: Faber and Faber, 1993), p. 286.
  2. Ibid., p. 288.
  3. Ibid.
  4. See Philip Mead and John Tranter, eds., The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1991).
  5. Robert Hughes, “The Well-Wrought Ern,” in Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair, op. cit., p. 301.
  6. Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair, op. cit., p. 42.
  7. Ibid., p. 53.
  8. Ibid., p. 57.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., p. 156.
  11. Ibid., p. 163.
  12. Ibid., p. 172.
  13. Ibid., p. 173. The first stanza of “Culture as Exhibit” runs as follows: “‘Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other / Areas of stagnant water serve / as the breeding grounds…’ Now / Have I found you, my Anopheles! / (There is a meaning for the circumspect) / Come, we will dance sedate quadrilles, / A pallid polka or a yelping shimmy / Over these sunken sodden breeding-grounds! / We will be wraiths and wreaths of tissue-paper / To clog the Town Council in their plans. / Culture forsooth! Albert, get my gun.”
  14. Ibid., p. 173.
  15. Ibid., pp. 173–175.
  16. Ibid., p. 227.
  17. Years later, Harris and McAuley met and became friends. Ibid., p. 277.
  18. Peter Nicholson, “Ern Malley: Doppelgänger in the Desert,” 3 Quarks Daily, 3quarksdaily.blogs.com/3quarksdaily/2006/11/ern_malley_dopp.html. Accessed 25 November 2008.
  19. Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair, op. cit., pp. 196–197.
  20. Robert Hughes, “The Well-Wrought Ern,” in Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair, op. cit., p. 304.
  21. Ibid., pp. 304–305.
  22. Paraphrase of the entry on experiment in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004).

  23. Ibid.
  24. The list of other modernist fictional authors includes the many personae of Fernando Pessoa, the “scribes” of Armand Schwerner’s fake Sumerian Tablets, Lester the Puppet, Araki Yasusada, and many more.
  25. Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair, op. cit., p. 112.
  26. Ibid., p. 115.
  27. Ibid., p. 115.
  28. Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Interpretation as Pragmatics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), pp. 145–146.
  29. Eliot Weinberger, “Three Footnotes,” Boston Review, bostonreview.net/archives/BR22.3/Weinberger.html. Accessed 29 December 2008. However, as Weinberger points out, “as far as one knows, [writers] have never practiced it: if one were that egoless, one wouldn’t be a writer.”

Christine Wertheim teaches at the California Institute for the Arts. She is the author of +|’me’S-pace (Les Figues Press, 200­7), and co-editor of two experimental writing anthologies, Séance (Make No­w Press, 2005) and The /n/oulipian Analects (Les Figues Press, 2007). She is co-director of the Institute For Figuring, located in Los Angeles and at theiff.org.

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