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(The Melbourne) Age, 4 November 1944

and a subsequent comment by 'F.S'.

Melbourne Age column, image

READERS who were unable to secure copies of the now notorious “Ern Malley” number of “Angry Penguins” may be glad to have a reprint of the Malley Poems, issued as “The Darkening Ecliptic,” by Messrs. Reed and Harris (Melbourne). It is a literary curiosity, for the celebrated hoax and the subsequent lawsuit have made these poems the most discussed event in Australian literary history. The discussion is by no means finished yet. It will probably go on for years as new facts become known and new judgments are made.

Even now, at this short distance from the event, one gets a curious impression from reading these poems. It is quite impossible to overlook their very considerable merit. They are good stuff for those who like the modern manner. Whatever the deficiencies of Mr. Max Harris as critic and poet, it is very difficult, indeed, to feel that he erred in his estimate of these poems. That many who have not read them should doubt this is to be expected, and that those whose taste in literature was formed and fixed by what they were taught at School should mock is also to be expected. But with whatever doubts and hesitancies, honest criticism will endorse Mr. Harris’s judgment, and we will undoubtedly hear more of this matter.

It is all very puzzling. Read what the. authors themselves say of the poems. “We opened books at random, choosing a word or a phrase haphazardly. We made lists of these and wove them into nonsensical statements.” “No care was taken with verse technique, except occasionally to accentuate its general sloppiness by deliberate crudities.” Now these statements simply do not apply to some part at least of the poems. The opening poem, for example, Durer, Innsbruck, 1495, despite an occasional lapse which criticism might cavil at, is a very fine poem which would do credit to any anthology and to most poets. And there are many others in the series of which the same may be said. And yet there is the plain black-and-white statement of the authors, who should know, if anyone does. This stuff, they say, was deliberately concocted. It was intended to be bad and to deceive. It did deceive, and that is all there is to it.

A Daring Hypothesis

After much consideration, this critic, any rate, refuses to accept the implications of that statement. The facts forbid it. These alternatives are left open. Either the writers wrote better than they knew — which seems to be the view now adopted by Mr. Harris — and improbably, setting out to produce sheer nonsense, produced instead a series of fine poems which they themselves failed to recogniseas such, or — and the mind boggles at this suggestion — the hoax is of another kind than they have said, more subtle, more intricate. Can it be that they. have deliberately chosen to put a test of literary sensibility to the public in this daring way ? The test is simply this. Even when you are told that good verse is a hoax, told in the most authoritative way that it is “bad,” can you still recognise it for what it is ? That, indeed, has intriguing possibilities in it, though it suggests a really breathtaking ingenuity.

Yet it is not impossible, not perhaps even improbable. The idea that competent writers produce first-rate verse in a fit of absence of mind, not knowing it to be good, is altogether too absurd to be considered. Once satisfied then that this verse is good — and that is a point about which it is genuinely difficult to see how criticism can differ — the alternative hypothesis seems the only one possible, and until more is known about this exceedingly puzzling affair it may perhaps be allowed to stand.

Comment by ‘F.S.’, the writer in The Bulletin’s ‘Red Page’, in an unidentified and undated clipping:

“F.S.”: Some time ago I suggested that the mana of “Ern Malley” might survive his exposure by his two creators. It looks as if my prophecy is coming to pass. A writer in a Melbourne daily’s literary supplement recently hinted that “Malley’s” stuff might have more in it than the writers consciously intended. “The ‘Durer’ poem,” he suggested, “despite an occasional lapse which criticism might cavil at, is a very fine effort, which would do credit to any anthology and to most poets.” Later he remarks: “Whatever the deficiencies of Max Harris as critic and poet, it is very difficult indeed to feel that he erred in his estimate of these poems.” It is more difficult to believe that two irreverent jokers who set out to write nonsense verses could have been inspired by the gods without knowing it.

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