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John Thompson

The Ern Malley Story

An Australian Broadcasting Commission Feature

‘I must say I felt rather sorry for Max Harris. There may be a certain sport in playing a fish on a hook, but it isn’t much fun for the fish.’

— Colin Simpson

Photo of Ern Malley
This radio documentary was first broadcast in 1959; the transcript was first published as an Appendix to Clement Semmler, For the Uncanny Man — Essays, Mainly Literary, F.W.Cheshire, Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney, 1963.
John Thompson (1907–68) was a war correspondent in New Guinea and Java and later a radio broadcaster. He lived in Sydney, and published four volumes of poetry. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (now the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) is Australia's national broadcasting organisation.

Speakers:John Thompson as narrator; Geoffrey Dutton, Brian Elliott, George Farwell, Max Harris, James McAuley, Sidney Nolan, Sir Herbert Read, John Reed, Barrie Reid, Colin Simpson, Tess van Sommers, Harold Stewart, Professor J.I.M.Stewart, Albert Tucker.

This piece is 9,700 words or about twenty-two printed pages long.

John Thompson: During the Second World War an elaborate, modernistic and experimental magazine called Angry Penguins was issued for a while in Australia. The editors were Max Harris of Adelaide and John Reed of Melbourne, assisted by two partners, John Reed’s wife and the now celebrated Australian artist Sidney Nolan.

Late in 1944 Max Harris received the following letter from Croydon, [a suburb of Sydney,] in New South Wales.

Dear Sir,
      When I was going through my brother’s things after his death, I found some poetry he had written. I am no judge of it myself, but a friend who I showed it to thinks it is very good and told me it should be published. On his advice I am sending you some of the poems for an opinion.
      It would be a kindness if you would let me know whether you think there is anything in them. I am not a literary person myself and I do not feel that I understand what he wrote, but I feel that I ought to do something about them. Ern kept himself very much to himself and lived on his own of late years and he never said anything about writing poetry. He was very ill in the months before his death last July and it may have affected his outlook.
     I enclose a 2½d. stamp for reply, and oblige,
               Yours sincerely,
                                                 Ethel Malley

[You can view an image of this letter in Ethel Malley's hand in Jacket 17. — J.T.]

John Thompson: This letter was written in a painstaking hand, and the writer enclosed two poems which excited Max Harris very much. One poem in particular, “Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495”, impressed him as a sensitive work. It is a description of a painting by Dürer, and begins with these lines:

“I had often, cowled in the slumberous 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.”

Was that poetry or was it not. Max Harris, rising to the bait, immediately wrote for more information about the late Ern Malley and begged Ethel Malley to send on the rest of his work. Within a short time he received a further sixteen poems, neatly typed, also seven aphoristic prose paragraphs, apparently written by the dead poet. Ethel Malley, in her accompanying letter, stated that her brother had been born in England on 14th March 1918. He’d been brought to Australia as a child and had left school at fourteen without gaining his Intermediate Certificate. For two years Ern had worked as a motor mechanic at Palmer’s Garage on Taverner’s Hill in Sydney. At seventeen he had gone off alone to Melbourne, where he was understood to have earned his living as an insurance salesman. He had also made a fair amount of money by repairing watches and doing other work on the side. Some time before his death, suffering from Graves’ Disease, he came home to Sydney. His sister gathered that he had been fond of a girl in Melbourne, but had had some sort of a difference with her. He soon fell seriously ill, but refused to be operated on. He was frequently nervy and irritable. Nobody suspected that he wrote poetry, and the only book he was known to possess in Sydney was Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class.

Ern’s last weeks were terrible, but the crisis came suddenly and he died of Graves’ Disease on Friday 23rd July 1943, at the age of twenty-five. He was cremated at Rookwood [a cemetery and crematorium in Sydney].

The editors of Angry Penguins believed they had discovered a genius, one who by the excellence of his poetry and the fact of his early death was romantically akin to John Keats and Wilfred Owen. Max Harris declared: “I am firmly convinced that this unknown mechanic and insurance peddler is one of the most outstanding poets we have produced here.” Harris and his colleagues admired what was described as “the perfection and integration” of Ern Malley’s poetry. One of the most striking of his seven aphorisms said:

“These poems are complete in themselves. They have a domestic economy of their own and if they face outwards to the reader that is because they have first faced inwards to themselves. Every poem should be an autarchy.”

John Thompson: The editors lost no time in presenting Ern Malley to the world. At the first opportunity his complete works, which were entitled The Darkening Ecliptic, were printed in Angry Penguins. Max Harris and his colleagues believed that they had made publishing history. So they had, but not in the way they imagined.

For some days there was no hint that anything was not as it should be. Harris was unsuspicious, and in many parts of Australia young poets, painters, and persons attached to the arts were puzzling over the imaginative, sophisticated, but curiously disjointed verses of the late Ern Malley. There was, for example, Barrie Reid, who was editing a youth journal, Barjai, in Brisbane. He was looking for avenues of publication outside Barjai, and fifteen years later in Melbourne, where he is now a librarian, Barrie Reid said —

Barrie Reid: The best journal, it seemed to me — the most receptive journal to New Poetry — was Angry Penguins. So I sent off some poems to Angry Penguins and I got a very good letter back. In the first instance I think my poems were rejected, but they were rejected in such a way that I was encouraged to look at my writing much more critically, to look at the actual language I used, not to use fake emotions or things that I hadn’t lived through myself.

It was impeccable criticism that I got from both Max Harris and John Reed.

Well, in about a year’s time I got the news that a couple of my poems would be printed in Angry Penguins. Well that, as it so happened, was the issue in which the Ern Malley poems came out, and after I got over the excitement of seeing my work in print in such a big and resplendent journal, I turned to the Ern Malley poems.

Well, it was like an explosion. I was very moved, mainly because of the absolute freshness of the language, the imagery and, more than either of those two things, the sense of a personality behind the poems, an exciting personality whose sensibility seemed to approximate what would have been the poetic sensibility of our time. That was a man, a lonely man, accurate, satirical, bitter sometimes. He hadn’t been a bookish person, he was a man who had lived and was using language originally to express this sense of life, so I went right in, hook, line and sinker, for the Ern Malley poems. I thought they were marvellous poems.

John Thompson: That is the first of the many recorded reminiscences, reflections, and evaluations which will make up the rest of this programme. Harris and Barrie Reid, John Reed, Sidney Nolan, and their friends, were supporters of everything which, in the nineteen-forties, was considered to be breaking new ground artistically. On the other side of the fence were those, equally earnest and clever, who supported the time-honoured artistic forms, disciplines, and traditions. On one side the Dionysians, if you choose to see them that way, on the other the Apollonians.

Behind the voices in this programme you will hear the murmurings of great cities — Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, London, New York — because we had to go far afield for all the people involved in the Ern Malley affair. And Ern Malley, indeed, hilariously and fiercely debated, became, as we shall see, an international figure. He [a]roused literary interest all over the world. Geoffrey Dutton, the South Australian poet, was one of many who later discovered, in Italy, France, and America, that people who knew nothing about Australian literature still knew the story of Ern Malley.

Geoffrey Dutton: I went overseas at the end of the war and it amazed me. Wherever I went in foreign countries, everybody would say “Australia! Oh yes Poetry! Interested in poetry”, and they’d say “Oh, the Ern Malley case! Now, that was fascinating”, and it seemed to go right around the world, the repercussions of this case.

John Thompson: You see, there was much more to it than anyone guessed at first. Many people were not much interested at first in this new modernist poet that Max Harris had discovered. Among them was Professor J.I.M.Stewart, popularly known today as Michael Innes, a skilful writer of “Whodunits”.

J.I.M.Stewart: I was working in the University at Adelaide at the time. Max Harris, who gave these — was induced to give these poems to the world, had been a pupil of mine not very many years before. When he was sent these poems, purporting to be the work of this deceased young genius, he was good enough to show me some of them and ask my opinion. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t detect their spurious nature at all. I thought that here simply was the sort of highly derivative and to me, I’m afraid, rather incomprehensible verse that young men and women were writing at that time in England and America and that young poets in Australia were beginning to go after too.

The perpetrators of the hoax were themselves poets, whether good or indifferent poets I’m afraid I never knew. I felt that although it was no doubt an awfully good joke, there was something to be said against fooling poets in this way. Society at large never in these days regards poets very highly and this was a joke which did rather tend to bring the whole craft of poetry into a certain amount of ridicule.

John Thompson: The first person to suggest that the Ern Malley poems were a hoax was Dr Brian Elliott of the Adelaide University. He thought the poems had been written by Max Harris himself, to parody the current idiom. He was not in a position to know, or even to suspect, that the poems had actually been thrown together one Saturday afternoon by Harold Stewart and James McAuley, at the Australian Army Headquarters in Melbourne. Like Max Harris, they were young men in their twenties.

Brian Elliott smelled out a hoax, but a young woman in Sydney, six hundred miles away, was just about to expose it. Tess van Sommers, today, is well known as a journalist.

T. van Sommers: Harold Stewart, whom I had known for many years and loved very dearly — a wonderful man — came to me in great excitement and said, “Jimmy McAuley and I have got a wonderful jape, but you mustn’t tell anybody,” and he swore me to secrecy about this, but he told me what they were doing. That they were manufacturing these poems and they were going to absolutely slay Max Harris. I think they thought he was pretentious. I was told about it and I was told not to tell anyone, and naturally I didn’t, and I sat on this bomb for about six months.

Then came the day when this ghastly magazine came out on the streets, you see, with that terrible picture by Sidney Nolan on the front.

Well, I was young and silly and I presumed that, the thing being out on the streets, that the gaff had blown (Stewart hadn’t told me this, because Stewart was very ill) so I went up in the air. At that time I was not a journalist. I was what is laughingly known as an editorial assistant. So I happened to see Julian Russell and I said to him, “Julian, this is the greatest joke of all time,” and I told him about it and he said, being an old and hardened journalist, “You can’t keep this under your hat,” and he rushed down to Fact which was then the leading news magazine. “We must tell Fact,’” he said. So the next thing I knew was that the people of Fact came up to me and said, “This can’t be true.” I said, “It is true.” So they then had a great conference, and they said, “Well, you can’t write it. You’re not a journalist. It would be against the union rules and besides you are only a young thing and you are not capable of writing it; we must get someone who is.” So they whistled up Colin Simpson, who was then the senior writer on Fact, and he said, “We must get hold of these men, we must get hold of these men.” He was in a state of frightful excitement as everyone was.

John Thompson: McAuley and Stewart would tell their story only to Tess van Sommers, so a three-way telephone conversation was arranged. Stewart spoke from a military hospital in Sydney, McAuley spoke from Melbourne, and she took their statement down in longhand. The hoaxers, incidentally, had not wished their story to be told so soon.

This story, briefly, was that the poems had been concocted as a serious literary experiment to demonstrate that the devotees of the current poetical fashion were insensible of absurdity and were incapable of ordinary discrimination. The whole of Ern Malley’s life-work was produced in one afternoon with the aid of a chance collection of books — some dictionaries, a Shakespeare, and so on. Words and phrases were chosen haphazardly. An alleged quotation from Lenin, “The emotions are not skilled workers”, was a fabrication. The first three lines of one poem were lifted straight from an American report on the drainage of the breeding grounds of mosquitoes. The three principles of composition were that there should be no coherent theme, no care should be taken with verse technique, and the poems were to imitate the whole literary fashion represented, not only by Max Harris, but by Dylan Thomas, Henry Treece, and others.

A full statement, signed by the authors, was already in Colin Simpson’s possession when he took the step of telephoning John Reed, the co-editor of Angry Penguins, who was in Melbourne. John Reed remembers —

John Reed: He told me there was no Ern Malley and that the poems had been fabricated for the specific purpose of pulling our legs. My immediate response was one of complete rejection of the whole thing. I said that such a thing couldn’t happen, that these were poems and that was all there was about it. I couldn’t believe that they were fabricated poems. It was a slow realization as far as I was concerned, that sometimes processes, creative processes, act in ways that might seem quite impossible at first sight, and in this case poetry arose out of the process, and that is the only thing that finally one is concerned with. It was in fact a most exciting time in Australia. There was a terrific upsurge of the creative force right through the community and I have always regarded the Malley incident as part of that process.

Photo of John Reed
    John Reed, Melbourne, circa 1943, photo by Albert Tucker

John Thompson: Neither then, nor at any time since, did the sponsors of Ern Malley concede that the poetry was without value, and Colin Simpson, when he phoned Max Harris in Adelaide, was immediately met by answers that still give life to the dispute.

Colin Simpson: Well, I said that I took it that he fully believed that the Ern Malley poems were written by Ern Malley and what would he say if he was told that Ern Malley did not exist and therefore the poems were a hoax? He said, “Whoever wrote the Ern Malley poems was a fine poet.”

I asked him what would be his reaction if it could be proven that the writings of Ern Malley were nothing but obscurantist nonsense, intended to test his critical judgment. And Max Harris replied to me: “I hope not, otherwise I’ve been fooling myself for a long time.” I asked him what would be his reaction if the poems were written with the intention of parodying his, Max Harris’ own style of writing, and he said, “It would be very flattering. It would need to be a very high talent to be thus parodied in the first place.” I must say I felt rather sorry for Max Harris. There may be a certain sport in playing a fish on a hook, but it isn’t much fun for the fish.

John Thompson: Max Harris was obviously quite firm in his championship of the young poet whose work he had published; but the telephone call, I imagine, must have been something of a shock. Max himself remembers —

Max Harris: The telephone rang at round about half-past three in the morning. A faint, confused and noise-interrupted voice came on the Sydney line, exposing the story to me. I half opened my eyes and half shut them. I was half in one condition and half in another. And I was asked without any compunction to make a statement on the situation. I stirred my brain as much as I could and belted out something or other about a myth possibly being greater than the man, putting down the receiver and falling back into bed again. So when the newspaper appeared on the Saturday I saw exactly how much of a fall-guy I was going to be, in this situation. The protagonists of the jest had five columns and I had half an inch, and these guys had prepared a written statement, a carefully organized intellectual statement, over a matter of probably days. So I wasn’t in the race from the word “go” in the sense of conducting an intellectual battle. The actual scoop of the story when it broke went to the local university papers in South Australia which beat the big Sydney newspaper to it, because the moment we suspected from this telephone call from Sydney that hideous revelations were going to occur we set private eyes in operation in the vicinity of Ethel Malley’s home.

John Thompson: When you say “private eyes”, Max, do you mean you actually employed a private detective to keep an eye on the —

Max Harris: That’s right, yes. We had private eyes watching — we just gave them an open hand. We said we wanted to know the people who lived at his address and whether there was any connection between the names of Malley or of any literary figures in the Australian scene. This was somewhat hilarious because the private eyes got to work and were sending telephone reports nightly, saying, “We stood beside a telegraph pole, watched the lights go on and off half a dozen times,” and they had completely mistaken a literary situation of this kind, probably for one of these divorce-proceeding jobs and the flow of information which came to us was stunningly and absurdly irrelevant, but it did divulge the fact that we were dealing with the home of Harold Stewart.

John Thompson: Harold Stewart was first named by the Adelaide University paper, but the full story of his collaboration with James McAuley was issued only from Sydney. In London The Times and the News Chronicle reflected divers opinions. John o’London’s Weekly said that Ern Malley’s poems were rubbish. The Communist press condemned him absolutely. The New York Times was favourable towards Ern, but Time magazine was against the modernistic poets and rejoiced that they had been exposed. Herbert Read, the celebrated critic, cabled from London that the hoaxer was hoist with his own petard and had touched off unconscious sources of inspiration.

Max Harris: Every sort of person was brought into the battle and there is one delicious little sidelight. You’ll find that Ern even creeps into the Oxford Companion to Music. Sir Percy Scholes has a section in his Oxford Companion to Music, dealing with “musical hoaxes”, and I don’t think Ern wrote music but somehow or other, dragged in by the heels with great excitement, is the Ern Malley episode in the Oxford Companion to Music, the obvious thing being that Sir Percy Scholes was writing up the section at the time this occurred and he couldn’t help but drag it in by the heels, into this totally irrelevant field.

T. van Sommers: You’ve got to give credit to Fact. They think of newspapers as not being very interested in literary matters but they recognized this one and really gave it the works. It was wartime, there was very little space. They gave it nearly half the front page the first time, and I think, as much space the second. They broke the rule that they never put blocks. They put half-tone blocks of both McAuley and Stewart, they gave it the works. You’ve got to give them credit for doing that.

John Thompson: (Laugh) Certainly the press made a fine story out of it, and George Farwell, the author, remembers a night’s good fun.

George Farwell: I was President of the Fellowship of Writers in Sydney at that time, and when the news broke in the newspapers we decided we would like to have some say on Ern Malley too, and the thing was brought into court. It wasn’t one of the great trials, like the famous trials of Lord Carson, but it was a very solemn proceeding in the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ rooms. I was appointed prosecutor.

The defending counsel was Mr James Meagher, who has some experience at law, and who was also a great admirer of James Joyce, and in his defence he read out many of the poems, he quoted from them extensively, and he tried to compare it with his great love, Joyce, in saying there were equal obscurities in James Joyce. And what was wrong with Ern Malley?

Well, I took a much more sententious view than I probably would today and I condemned them out of hand for being absolute nonsense and the Judge was Tom Inglis Moore, who is a poet of some standing. This thing was conducted in front of a fairly large audience, probably about a hundred people in the rooms, I would think, and after this case had been argued for quite a long evening, Mr Justice Inglis Moore summed up, gave a very impartial summary, and then finally brought in a verdict and Ern Malley was sentenced to transportation to England for the term of his unnatural life.

John Thompson: But it wasn’t unmixed fun for everybody concerned. The Angry Penguins had been made a laughing stock. They and their supporters felt that they were never given a chance to argue back. Barrie Reid, for example.

Barrie Reid: Nowhere did you see the poems. All you got was a lot of excited press comment. Now, for a very young poet of that time, that was a very damaging experience. Immediately friends, relatives became, not so much agin the poems but agin the kind of person who could read such poetry or believe in it, the kind of experimental mind which wasn’t conformist. Now, this didn’t knock me out, it didn’t shake me because I was a pretty tough boy, but a lot of my friends who were writing poems at the time, it did shake them. Quite obviously. They began writing in iambic pentameter, or in some other “respectable” verse form. They began to be cagey about their emotions in their writing. Some of them became so extremely conformist as to join the Communist Party immediately.

John Thompson: But Dr Brian Elliott summed it all up quite differently.

Brian Elliott: In many ways this Ern Malley hoax was a major event in Australian literary history. It was a sort of prophylactic thing. It was wonderful to see all the precious young poets around the place pulling in their horns like a whole lot of snails who had been touched in sensitive places. Then we were able to compare the poetry of the two poets who combined in the hoax and I still think that what they had written in the Malley poems was decidedly superior in some ways to anything they had written independently, because you see the thing had a kind of energy — it was a kind of energy that came of their having a purpose. You can feel all the time through these Ern Malley poems that they were guying something. The very fact that they didn’t make sense in what they said was evidence that they knew what they were about. It’s quite incoherent as far as what you might call its rational content, but the drift of it all the time is thoroughly intelligible. And it is critical. It’s a piece of literary criticism. And the irony of it is that these two fellows were criticizing themselves as much as they were criticizing anybody else. I don’t think they’d deny that, either.

John Thompson: It is at this point, I think, that the Ern Malley affair becomes most interesting, but before we try to determine the significance of the poems, we must glance for a while at the next development, which was something that nobody had been able to foresee.

The hoax, as you have heard, was eminently successful. Newspapers welcomed an incident which gave their readers a good laugh. Then, when the incident was almost over and done with, Max Harris was suddenly prosecuted for publishing indecent matter in the Ern Malley issue of Angry Penguins. Ern Malley became notorious.

The case was tried in a South Australian police court, and Harris was the only person charged, because his colleagues and his co-editor, being residents of another state, were not subject to South Australian jurisdiction. All sorts of items in the relevant issue of Angry Penguins were examined for improprieties, but in the public mind, and indeed in practice, the main attack was concentrated on the poems of Ern Malley. Parts of these poems were considered indecent, and Max Harris was fined five pounds.

John Reed: Max of course was the immediate subject of that prosecution, and I would like to put on record that I regard it as having been a very vicious one. Adelaide, at that time particularly, was a very small town. Max, as a dynamic, outspoken, extravagant, very intelligent, quick, witty and bright young man, obviously was a notoriety in Adelaide, within his own field, and I think had undoubtedly made many enemies, and I think they were only too happy to seize on this chance to get one back on him.

John Thompson: John Reed said that, and I think the kindest possible explanation of the prosecution is that it was cooked up by the abysmal wowserism of Adelaide. The prosecution was something far beyond the intention of the hoaxers. Max Harris, likewise, had never imagined that he would be called on to justify poetry (if it was poetry) — to justify poetry in a police court.

Max Harris: Never, probably, I think in the history of literature have poems been analysed in the fineness of detail with which these poems were analysed. From memory I think I was in the witness box myself from about 10 a.m. in the morning to 4 in the afternoon, for something or other between 2½ and 3½ days. The only value of this great cross-examination which occurred both with myself and with the prosecuting detective, was the extraordinary consequence that the poems have a content that can be worked out by the person who thinks them through fairly carefully.

The situation was hilariously funny in the court case in this context because in order to prove the poems indecent, immoral and obscene, they had to find meanings, and on the other hand they were wanting to have the cake too and say this was meaningless nonsense.

John Thompson: Was the court pretty full all the time, Max?

Max Harris: The court was not only full, but it was filled with University people, both from interstate and from South Australia.

John Thompson: It must have been a bit of an ordeal, this being cross-examined at such length.

Max Harris: It is an ordeal because one rather wonders whether cross-examinations are simply aimed to wear you down to that position where you feel faintly hysterical, where you don’t care what you say and therefore, out of some kind of sheer abandonment, you make a fool of yourself, or whether the aim of a cross-examination is to find out the truth, to get to the bottom of your character or not. And it is very, very difficult, the moment you are involved with the law, thereafter to establish a balanced attitude. In other words, not to become bitter. I didn’t care really terribly much whether the poems were decent or indecent, I knew that in long terms of time and history it was a storm in a teacup, a strange kind of aberration of a philistine community, but the thing that worried me was whether this was going to get into the bone as it were of one’s character. It was bad enough to have been the victim of a hugely successful and cunningly organized hoax, but thereafter to be attacked by society in the large for having been the victim of the joke, could be extremely damaging.

John Thompson: The trial doesn’t seem to have been conducted with very much expertise. Geoffrey Dutton, I think, saw what went on in the court.

Geoffrey Dutton: Yes, yes. I had some leave about then, fortunately, and I think Max — it was — suggested that an Air Force uniform, as a sort of respectable fighting forces touch to the trial, would add a bit of solidity in the court, and I went along, and it really was a circus really — the trial. I mean, there you had J.I.M.Stewart with terrified witnesses being impaled by some of these sharp questions, and some remarkable females appeared in court, from up in the [Northern] Territory or somewhere, I think, that added a touch of glamour to it, and the magistrate looking baffled and the witnesses in particular. One of them I remember. The word “incestuous” came up, and Stewart I think it was, Professor Stewart, or else one of the lawyers — said, “Now this word ‘incestuous’; what’s it mean?” And the policeman, I remember, said: “I don’t know what it means but I know it’s dirty.” That was the highlight of the trial in some ways.

John Thompson: The actual words in the badly typed police transcript were: “I don’t know what incestuous means: I think there is a suggestion of indecency about it.” The same detective said that he found one of the Malley poems offensive because it described a young man and a girl entering a park at night-time. This poem, entitled “Night-Piece”, reads as follows:

“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 dark gates
The iron birds looked disapproval
With rusty invidious beaks.

Among the waterlilies
A splash — white foam in the dark:
And you lay sobbing then
Upon my trembling intuitive arm.”

The policeman objected to the nymph being described as naked, and he considered the poem offensive because, he said: “My years of experience in the police force have taught me that people go into parks for only one reason after dark.”

And so the attack went on, in a five-day hearing spread over three weeks.

Max Harris: The absurdity of some of the things prosecuted is so enormous and so fantastic that one wonders what could have inspired such extremes of moral philistinism in a community, even though Australia at that time had the greatest list of banned books, apart from Eire, in the entire civilized world. 1,100 books, I think, were not permitted to the Australian public which were permitted to every other country of the world except Eire.

John Thompson: Today, Max Harris, James McAuley, and Harold Stewart have an established position in Australia. They have all produced excellent poetry. Harris is a bookseller and publicist in South Australia, and is Associate Editor of the journal Australian Letters. Harold Stewart lives in Melbourne and is a devoted scholar of exotic cultures and languages. James McAuley is Principal of the School of Pacific Administration in Sydney and is editor of the literary and political journal Quadrant. All the protagonists in the Ern Malley affair have made their mark in the world. John Reed is Director of the Museum of Modem Art in Australia, and Sidney Nolan the painter has enjoyed resounding successes in Europe and in America. It is the more striking, therefore, that none of them has changed his mind about the lamented Ern. Do you — er — ever re-read his poems?

John Reed: I couldn’t say that I’ve re-read them, but I do periodically notice one or another of them, and I can’t say that my own feelings about them are any different now from what they were at the time.

John Thompson: John Reed said that, and Sidney Nolan, likewise, admires the poetry still.

Sidney Nolan: Oh, I find it even more interesting now.

John Thompson: You see, they’re still of the same mind as when they were supported, years ago, by Sir Herbert Read, Shawn Jennett, and T. S. Eliot. And Sir Herbert has never reneged.

Herbert Read: My opinion was that they had poetic quality and that the hoaxer, if he was a hoaxer, had got so worked up in the process of imitating certain types of modem poetry, that be had become a genuine poet. I was at that time of the opinion that there was sufficient poetic quality in the work of Ern Malley to justify the editor accepting it as genuine literature.

John Thompson: There are two schools of thought, call them what you will, concerning the poems of Ern Malley. And it is high time now that we hear from those who actually concocted these poems and foisted them on their victims. I recently made an appointment with James McAuley, and next day we sat down together in his office in Sydney. I asked him, “How do you feel about the whole thing now?”

James McAuley: One thing that people have often complained to me about is that it was a kind of ordeal by public exposure for the people involved: it meant that you were exposing these people to the laughter of the Philistines who would tend to laugh for the wrong reasons and treat this as a debunking of the pretensions of any kind of highbrow art. I’ve often thought of this matter, partly because of the pain and discomfiture caused to individuals, but in this arena of public ideas, movements and so on, there has to be a good deal of bashing around, and so long as attack and criticism is not personally biased and hasn’t got a malicious character I think it’s just got to be fairly tough.

At the time there was another element in the calculation which of course tended to disappear from sight when the thing was successful. That was that on a reasonable view of the situation, this was a thing that had a fifty per cent chance of backfiring on us, particularly since the rather rickety story was open to investigation and would have fallen to pieces at a touch if there had been any preliminary investigation. I remember when Harold and I took this stuff home to my place and read some of it to my wife, she was horrified at the thought that we were going to expose ourselves to what she thought was inevitable ridicule. She didn’t think that anybody would possibly accept this kind of stuff as genuine.

John Thompson: James McAuley said that, but he was only one half of Ern Malley. The other half was Harold Stewart. I got in touch with Harold at the first opportunity, and we sat down together at the back of the bookshop where he works. I asked him about the hoax.

Harold Stewart: Well I took your advice, John, last night and took out this rather yellowing periodical Angry Penguins and noticed to my surprise that it was the 1944 Autumn number. I suddenly realized that this is fifteen years ago, and I read these poems, probably for the first time in ten or twelve of those fifteen years and my first impression was how terribly old fashioned they were, how vieux jeu the whole thing had become, not only the Ern Malley poems but the other poems Max Harris and other people contributed to this edition. They are as out-of-date as the 1944 fashion in ladies’ hats and it shows just how rapidly poetry with a merely contemporary appeal does date. You suggested when you first mentioned this to me, that my views may have mellowed. On the contrary, I think they have become rather tarter and more astringent than they were fifteen years ago, and I should probably judge the poems much more harshly now than I did then.

Looking through them and reading them in relation to the other poems in the edition of Angry Penguins, 1944, oddly enough they seemed rather better, and I was interested to make some critical enquiry into why they seemed slightly better, and it was that they do, from time to time, use genuine traditional images, only they use them in a confused, haphazard and incoherent way. And that, I think, is what deceived a lot of people into thinking they were good, I remember at the time that many people came to me and said: “Surely this is a line of poetry” and “Isn’t that a very striking phrase?” and I would agree with them and say, “Yes, that is a line of poetry and that is a striking phrase, but it takes more than the odd line or the occasional striking phrase to make a poem.” The aim of this literary experiment (it wasn’t intended primarily as a hoax but a literary experiment) was to find out if people could tell the difference between a poem and just a collection of words, between sense and nonsense. And what we were maintaining was that a poem must have a theme consistently developed. I think another thing that puzzled people about them was that they do start off comparatively sensibly. The “Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495” was a description of a postcard reproduction of the Dürer painting — and they were carefully graded so that they got sillier and sillier as time went on, and, by the time you got to things like: “In the twenty-fifth year of my age I find myself to be a dromedary” you have reached the comic.

One of the things this showed was that not only could people not tell the difference between sense and nonsense but they had lost their sense of humour. They had been so conditioned and brain-washed by contemporary criticism into thinking that this sort of anti-poetry or un-poetry was poetic, that they could no longer tell what was comic and what was not, just as they can no longer tell what is beautiful and what is ugly.

One of the great brain-washing effects of modern civilization is the corruption of the sense of beauty and the sense of humour which often go together. People simply cannot tell the difference between what is beautiful and what is ugly. You will get people listening to Musique Concrete or looking at the most hideous Picasso and saying, “Isn’t it beautiful?” — unable to tell, even see or hear, how hideous it really is, and I think that is what happened here.

John Thompson: Harold Stewart said that, and I think you’ll agree that he makes Ern Malley sound pretty foolish. But how does this match up with the experience of our librarian, who finds that year after year people keep on asking to see the Malley poems? Barrie Reid says that Malley has refused to die.

Barrie Reid: Over and over again people have come into libraries and said, “Can I have the Ern Malley poems?” And as the years have worn on, the hoax thing has receded and people, young people, who don’t know even the names of the people behind the hoax, seem to read the poems much more freshly and I often question them: “Do you like them, or what are they like?” and quite often you get a response to the poems, a quite genuine response, as poems. And looking at the poems, critically and textually, line by line, word for word, very, very curious things emerge. These poems weren’t written in one afternoon. On any analysis that is impossible. In the poems themselves, you can quote verse after verse, which state, once you get the key to it, that these poems are the product of a collaboration, that they are an attempt by the two poets to escape from the rigid disciplines, intellectual and poetic disciplines, with which they had been associated, into a newer and more fecund field of inspiration. I think it was a definite working experiment to try and produce poetry out of stone. Water gushed from the rock.

John Thompson: Well, that’s the opposition point of view, and I think you’ll have to agree that there might be something in it. The theory that Stewart and McAuley had written fine poetry unawares — a possibility ignored by the newspapers — this theory which was put forward by Sir Herbert Read, also by the eminent psychiatrist in the court case, is supported by Sidney Nolan.

Sidney Nolan: I mean it came really from the levels that we don’t know much about. And that’s why we have art: I think that they have released quite profound levels in themselves, they are levels that they couldn’t do anything about. It’s a question of this kind of vital creative energy that exists in some places for periods and then fades away. It’s happened with other countries, happened in Egypt and Greece. When you look back on it there is a uniformity of expression. The energy always finds a form. In the Australian state there is obviously a great reservoir of energy, not only physical energy but a kind of physical energy connected with Art and Creation, and there is no way of thinking that you can misuse this. It will seep through any crack and it has seeped through here. It is a problem one finds all the time, it is how to use the energy that you have in its own free way. It comes to you before you think about it. You are not entitled to say, “I can paint horses, therefore I’ll paint horses for the rest of my life. I’ll use my energy the way my will tells me.” You have to follow whichever way it goes. It’s the only way it remains pure, or indeed remains energy, otherwise it becomes a kind of will situation which, in the course of time is always revealed as an empty position.

John Thompson: Well, that’s a diagnosis that McAuley and Stewart will never agree with. They don’t see how it can be applied to the frame of mind in which they created Ern Malley. I’ve had long talks with James McAuley about it. What happened, Jim says, was this.

James McAuley: It was a pretty idle afternoon in Victoria Barracks. I suppose we must have started about lunchtime. This idea had been floating around and it crystallized and we got to doing it. To a large extent I was holding the pen and probably gave thereby the degree of continuity that there might be in the work. And then we used these various devices. We described, sometimes just deciding in advance what the rhyme scheme would be, or I’d call on Harold to cut in on the train of imagery that I’d started to develop, and we thought that without working the thing out in a very elaborate way (because there wasn’t time — we were just producing very quickly) this sort of thing would give sufficient disturbance to the composition plus the fact that it was all done in a rather high-spirited fashion. You remember, John, at that time there was a pretty big wave, in poetry and the arts generally, of what I would call a wave of surrender to irrational forces. Now, there are lots of ways of describing this. One way I think would be to say that it was a quarrel over the nature of inspiration. I think there are in fact two sorts of process that lead to productions which purport to be artistic, and I would call one pseudo-inspiration and the other one genuine inspiration. And I think pseudo-inspiration is precisely the excitement of this surrender to irrational forces. It’s a devaluation of the capacities of consciousness in artistic production and an over-valuation, an over-reliance, on what can come up from the depths. It’s a matter of consulting the oracle in the unconscious cave, and I felt quite strongly the pull of this way of looking at art, but finally reacted equally strongly against it. You can dredge up materials from the unconscious which could conceivably be worked over into art, but you just don’t get the sorts of thing which I would regard as worthwhile productions.

And I think it has its own personal dangers, actually, it can upset or destroy a personality in some cases. Genuine inspiration I take to be an action of the whole man. It is not a matter of excluding the energies and the imagery thrown up by the unconscious but it is a matter of using all one’s resources, including the sovereign power of the shaping intellect. I remember when we were discussing this earlier you were saying that in a way this tends to stack up as an argument between the Apollonian and the Dionysian view. I think this is pretty right. I suppose most poets would want finally to have a sort of resolution, they wouldn’t want to be pinned on one or other horn of that dilemma, if by Apollonian you mean a tendency to push off, to fight off the wealth of this unconscious energy and impulses and imagery. The danger is that conscious control gets to the point of a certain impoverishment, of drying-out of the actual artistic material, whereas the opposite danger of a Dionysian excess is that with the vanishing of the powers that consciousness can bring to bear, you get a breakdown of the whole structure of a work of art.

John Thompson: James McAuley said that, but nevertheless to this day there are many people who would agree with Sidney Nolan that the Ern Malley poems have quite distinctive qualities.

Sidney Nolan: Yes, I think they gave a grace and a new thing to Australian poetry. I think there is a certain kind of gentle eroticism in the poems which doesn’t occur in any other Australian poet, almost of an oriental kind, almost the kind of thing you see in India on the temples and it’s an ingredient that we could well use in our Australian culture. So far it hasn’t been very conspicuous.

John Thompson: Which of the poems do you like particularly?

Sidney Nolan: Well, I like a number of them. There is one here particularly which I like. It’s called “The Young Prince of Tyre”. He says:

“There is one that stands in the gaps to teach us
The stages of our story. He the dark hero
Moistens his finger in iguana’s blood to beseech us
(Siegfried-like) to renew the language. Nero
And the botched tribe of imperial poets burn
Like the rafters. The new men are cool as spreading fern.”

Well, this seems to me a beautiful example of the English language being renewed out in Australia, while the older poets fall away. The language comes up again. And “The new men are cool as spreading fern,” I think, is one of the most beautiful Australian images that I’ve ever read. I mean, that is just perfect. I mean, fronded ferns are the things we see, from, you know, the age we’re three, and they are very beautiful and I can remember them now, and to be likened to this and a cool man, a new type of man, arising from our convicts and convict spawn, is pretty good. It has been quite an advance. You know, for these reasons one likes the poems, they are talking about quite real issues, and they make one feel very confident.

John Thompson: Sidney Nolan said that, and Albert Tucker, the painter, who was another associate of the Angry Penguins, was equally keen to point out the merits of Malley.

Albert Tucker: See for example, I mean this is haphazardly picking passages, but a passage like this is superb — simply superb writing:

“One moment of daylight let me have
Like a white arm thrust out of the dark and
   self-denying wave”

I mean this is really very, very lovely, beautiful writing. Here is one from his “Petite Testament”:

“In the twenty-fifth year of my age
I find myself to be a dromedary
Which has run short of water between
One oasis and the next mirage.”

Well, perhaps it is McAuley and Stewart who have now run short of water. And also, they concocted, for example, this saying of Lenin, so-called, which was made up, and the thing was rejected because it was apparently made up for the purposes of a hoax, but when we read it we just simply take it for what it means — it is simply a highly intelligent comment. The passage here goes:

“I have been bitter with you, my brother,
Remembering that saying of Lenin, when the
       shadow was already on his face,
‘The emotions are not skilled workers.’ ”

Now this is a point that McAuley and Stewart should both take to heart. “The emotions are not skilled workers.”

John Thompson: Stewart and McAuley are of course perfectly aware of the psychological explanations which have so often been put forward. Needless to say, er, Harold, you’ve never agreed with them, eh?

Harold Stewart: I think that the point we made in our statement was that this does not represent an effusion or eruption from the subconscious or the unconscious of either James McAuley or myself, that it is consciously contrived nonsense, and that what invalidates it as a psychological document is that you have two minds deliberately breaking in on one another’s trains of association, which destroys it as a psychological document, and critically commenting on them, deliberately contriving things like the children picking their noses with the left hand, which we knew would be wonderful bait for the psycho-analysts and that they would pick on it deliberately as the sinister effect of the left hand. And all this.

John Thompson: Was it a complete collaboration, Jim, or did you write by turns? Which of you wrote what bits?

James McAuley: People have often tried to pick out what would have come from me and what would have come from Harold, but they overlooked of course that one might be borrowing from one another’s style or his field of imagery as part of the playfulness of the thing, and I think that it would probably be wrong in most cases. I can remember starting with some of Harold’s Chinese imagery and then getting Harold to fill up with something which was probably aping my field of imagery. I don’t think it would be easy to pick — I couldn’t easily remember in many cases now just where particular things came from.

Harold Stewart: When I mentioned earlier that the poems do develop in a sequence of getting worse and worse and more and more nonsensical, already in number two, “Sonnets for the Novachord”, you notice the use of ugly rhymes and awkward enjambments and already we give our first hint to the recipients of the poems — just to give them a fair go — that something is rotten in the state of poetry.

“It is not within [sic] risk!
In a lofty attempt
The fool makes a brisk
[The transcription is incorrect here — in the audio tape and in the published poem the first line reads ‘It is not without risk!’ — Jacket ed.]

And a few pages later on we read:

“It is necessary to understand
That a poet may not exist, that his writings
Are the incomplete circle and straight drop
Of a question mark.
And yet I know I shall be mixed [sic] up
On the vertical banners of praise.”
[The transcription is again incorrect — in the audio tape and in the published poem the fifth line reads ‘And yet I know I shall be raised up’ — Jacket ed.]

Which is fair enough, I should say.

John Thompson: In other words, you were deliberately hinting to them that if they were quick enough to see what you were driving at they would tumble to it.

Harold Stewart: Yes. Well, that would be only fair. You’ve got to give your victim a fighting chance. I think the utter incongruity of the thing — you see, we start off with a false quotation from Lenin and we move on to something from the Zodiac, and a little bit later we have got a reference to Keats and then we have a nonsensical and completely bathetic coda:

“We have lived as ectoplasm.
The hand that would clutch
Our substance finds that its rude touch
Runs through him a frightful spasm
And hurls him back against the opposite wall.”

Which anyone should have laughed at, and yet so conditioned are they by the fashionable critics that they can’t even see that it is funny. I should have thought too that the “peacock blinking the eyes of his multi-pennate tail” would have... (laugh) would have struck them as a humorous conception.

John Thompson: Is it really true that you composed all the poems in one afternoon?

Harold Stewart: Many people have doubted the possibility of this, but not only is it possible but it is repeatable. At the time, James McAuley and myself were in the army and two army officers working in the same unit, both distinguished anthropologists, questioned the possibility of doing this in one afternoon and so we set them the task of doing the same thing, and they had no difficulty whatever in producing an equal number of poems and lines of a very much higher quality than ours, in rather less time, if I remember rightly, but certainly no more than one afternoon and evening.

John Thompson: And — er — what about Ethel’s letters?

Harold Stewart: The letters required much more literary skill and much more time and trouble than — having been written over several weeks — than did the actual poems themselves. Not only did we have to create the character of Ethel Malley, the middle-aged, middle-brow, middle-class young lady of no great education, who had come upon these supposed poems of her imaginary brother, but also we had to create his character through her letters, and as he would have appeared to her, and so that required very delicate dislocations of grammar and spelling. I remember I had to develop a new backhand handwriting to write her letters.

John Thompson: You actually wrote them out, did you?

Harold Stewart: I wrote them out, yes. They required rather more literary skill.

John Thompson: Well, as I said before, there are two schools of thought. The Ern Malley affair remains, at the very least, a sharp little literary comedy. Much has been said for both sides, and I don’t know who laughs last. Max Harris, perhaps.

Max Harris: The reverberations went further and produced one of the extraordinary pieces of irony which may amuse, and that was, of course, as one would expect, Ern Malley became a best-seller. And this produced an extraordinary kind of legal situation, which is not yet resolved and which no one brings up and we are all perfectly satisfied about. It is to Mr McAuley’s credit and to Mr Stewart’s credit that they have never claimed copyright on the poems in question. As far as we are concerned, Ethel wrote us a letter giving us complete rights in the poems and full permission without financial return to do what we like with them.

John Thompson: Hmm! I wonder how valid an arrangement that is, Jim.

James McAuley: Well, we weren’t lawyers, either of us, and we were vaguely troubled whether there might be legal aspects to the impersonation and then particularly, if we made money out of it, by false pretences in some way, so we thought the best way out of this would be to hand over all rights (whether in proper legal form or not I don’t know to this day) so that we wouldn’t be in a position, which I think would perhaps be a rather nasty position, of making money out of something which had caused discomfiture to the editors.

John Thompson: As a matter of fact the editors have made quite a bit of dough out of it since...

James McAuley: Well, that’s a conclusion, anyway, isn’t it. I’m delighted to hear that.

John Thompson: But I suppose, Max, the publicity did do some good.

Max Harris: In consequence, two editions of the Ern Malley poems were put out, one for Australia and a very beautiful illustrated edition for America, which has on the cover the beautiful Phoenix Tree Painting of Sidney Nolan. Both of these editions sold out in no time whatsoever. Ever since then, of course, cheques of small and large varieties have been coming through. And whatever agonies one has suffered, the pennies and pounds have come the way of those people who supported the unhappy stricken poet. This situation, we hope, will go on for a considerable amount of time.

The complete poems of Ern Malley (without the ‘Preface and Statement’) are published in the Northern Hemisphere in The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry paperback: 474 pages ; Publisher: Dufour Editions; ISBN: 1852243155, via Amazon;
and in Australia in The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry ISBN: 0140586490, paperback, 474 pages, Publisher: Penguin Australia, from

Jacket 17 — June 2002  Contents page
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