The Spike Victoria University College Review 1944
Ern Malley and the Angry Penguins
Ern Malley and the Angry Penguins
A Few Months ago an Australian periodical Angry Penguins issued a special number 'to commemorate the Australian poet Ern Malley ': a new poet was found. To the reader familiar with the spirit of this publication (Angry Penguins' writers are on the whole mediocre, mutually admiring and consciously modern), it was natural to view its discovery with some suspicion. This suspicion was intensified by the method of presentation used by the editor, Max Harris.' Ern Malley prepared for his death quietly confident that he was a great poet and would be known as such .... I have been placed in somewhat the same quandary as Max Brod disposing ol Kafka's writings .... [Malley] deliberately invoked death upon himself to provide the deepening and consummating forces of poetic experiences.' In this same number of Angry Penguins there were also two poems on Ern Malley by Max Harris and a cover design by Sidney Nolan representing one of Malley's more esoteric images. In the introduction are biographical notes supplied by Malley's sister, which state that Malley had been a motor mechanic and insurance salesman who died at the age of 25 after refusing an operation for Graves disease. After his death 16 poems and some observations on poetry were discovered.
Some weeks later Ern Malley was revealed to have existed only in the imaginations of James Mac-Aulay and Harold Stewart, two university students in the armed forces. They claim to have written Malley's life work in an afternoon, deliberately writing bad verse, quoting and misquoting from books which happened to be available. They did this 'to debunk a literary fashion which has become prominent in England and America.'
It is not hard to find evidence for this claim. Among the 16 poems there is much that is derivative, much that can be read only as prose and many lines that appear merely nonsensical.
'There is a moment when the pelvis
Explodes like a grenade.
'Our magical force
Cleaves the ignorant storm
On the hyperbolic.
Here are three phrases from 'Night Piece.' a poem of twelve (short) lines— 'umbelliferous dark,' 'rusty invidious beaks,' 'trembling intuitive arm.' But there are other things—
'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.
'Rise from the wrist, o kestrel
Mind, to a clear expanse
'I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorant e the vision of others. I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters.
There lines and other isolated lines and stanzas in Malley's work seem to us to be poetry, neither derivative nor unnecessarily obscure. Again in the last stanza of Palinade is the real drama of Malley's imagined situation, the drama of a man desperately driven to essentials by approaching death.
'I snap off your wrist
Like a stalk that entangles
And make my adieu.
Remember, in any event,
I was a haphazard amorist
Caught on the unlikely angles
Of an awkward arrangement. Weren't you?'
The explanation given by Stewart and MacAulay is therefore not wholly convincing. The situation is one which outshines the more pallid hoax of Chatterton. No plausible forgery this, but creative work self-despised; it appears the product of a mind unsure of its own values and so averse to criticism that it hastens first to jeer and to destroy. (One is reminded of a defiant young mother, married against the advice of her family, who forestalls her relatives' comments by insisting that her child is a moron, quite uninteresting, and hopelessly plain into the bargain.)
But what is the background of this hoax? Why should it have happened in Australia; could it, in fact, have happened anywhere but in a Dominion among people limping after an older culture; grabbing at the trailing skirts of an established tradition; trying on fashions, new two seasons ago at 'Home, derisive of the resultant image as they note the descrepancy of garment and surrounding? Would such a hoax have been thought of except in a civilization which tries to answer the question of culture's existence with a simultaneous 'yes' and 'no,' which relegating music and painting, and poetry and printing to 'long-haired dabblers' affirms that business and politics are solely important and wishes its children to be taught to use their leisure 'properly'? Is there anything to suggest that the poetry of Ern Malley was so presented because of the mingled desire and scorn, which colonials feel towards all kinds of artistic activity?
It appears that both Stewart and MacAulay were in the habit of writing poetry. They belonged to a conservative clique of Australians calling themselves 'Jindoworobak,' whose recurrent themes— gumtrees and billabongs—recall the similar imagery of Kowhai gold, bellbirds and rata for which for a century have burgeoned in New Zealand verse.
We suspect that Stewart, whose talent for poetry was the more pronounced, had been composing 'modern verse' in secret long before the hoax started—and that in a society which despises 'modern verse' as more shameful than sexual vice. Even such a mild group as the Jindoworobaks must, at times, have felt themselves against society, struggling to lift a vast mass of indifference, to penetrate the superior insulation of a people who measured reality in terms of wool and beef and butter-fat. Such a struggle gave to Australians, as it gives to New Zealanders' poetic (and art) activities, a very rigid group formation and consequently, once a Jindoworobak always a Jindoworobak. So it would follow that to Stewart, as a member of a conservative group, 'surealist' would become tautological with 'bad.'
Here one could build up a probable procedure of the Malley hoax. The characters—Stewart, who has developed a curious split in his poetic consciousness and secretly creates 'bad' verse, 'surrealist' verse; and MacAulay a gay, undoubting Jindoworobak. They decide to write 'Malley' and 'debunk a literary fashion.' They make up a general concept and produce some 'ideas.' Then Stewart writes the more serious verse of the hoax while MacAulay adds burlesque to the concepts of his friend. Because the poetry was not meant to be taken seriously it was written without care, each image jotted down as it occurred (which is unfortunately also the case with the poetry they intended to parody). As a result the Malley hoax is only a partial success, as poetry or as parody. But as a dramatization of the status of art in the South Pacific it is invaluable. Poetry is despised; then it is found in a game; then, perhaps, it is still despised.