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FACT, June 25, 1944:

Ern Malley, Poet of Debunk: full
story from the two authors



Clipping, Photo of McAuley and Stewart etc

Last week FACT said it would clear up the “mystery,” motives and merit of the “Poems of Ern Malley.” This week it does so.

The Works of Ern Malley were deliberately concocted, without intention of poetic meaning or merit, as an experiment to debunk what was regarded as a pretentious kind of modern verse-writing.

[The writings were published in a special “Ern Malley” commemorative issue of Adelaide literary journal Angry Penguins, which ranked fictitious Ern Malley as “one of the two giants of contemporary Australian poetry,” devoted 30 pages to an allegedly posthumous poet who had never lived.]

• The “Works of Ern Malley” were written, in collaboration, by two Australian poets, JAMES McAULEY and HAROLD STEWART.

Stewart, who lived at Croydon, is a corporal, at present in a military hospital. He is 27.

Lieut. McAuley, AIF, lived at Homebush. He is 26.

Both are from Sydney, where they were educated at Fort-street High School, attended Sydney University. They are attached to the same Army unit, stationed at Melbourne.

Co-authors McAuley and Stewart this week made, to FACT exclusively, the following joint statement and explanation:

“We decided to carry out a serious literary experiment. There was no feeling of personal malice directed against Mr. Max Harris (co-editor of Angry Penguins).

“Nor was there any intention of having the matter publicised in the Press. It became known to FACT in an unforeseen manner. Some public statement is, therefore, necessary.

“Decay of meaning”

“For some years now we have observed with distaste the gradual decay of meaning and craftsmanship in poetry,

“Mr. Max Harris and other Angry Penguins writers represent an Australian outcrop of a literary fashion which has become prominent in England and America. The distinctive feature of the fashion, it seemed to us, was that it rendered its devotees insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination.

“Our feeling was that by processes of critical self-delusion and mutual admiration, the perpetrators of this humorless nonsense had managed to pass it off on would-be intellectuals and Bohemians, here and abroad, as great poetry.

“Their work appeared to us to be a collection of garish images without coherent meaning and structure; as if one erected a coat of bright paint and called it a house.

“However, it was possible that we had simply failed to penetrate to the inward substance of these productions. The only way of settling the matter was by experiment. It was, after all, fair enough. If Mr. Harris proved to have sufficient discrimination to reject the poems, then the tables would have been turned.

“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?

“We gave birth to Ern Malley. We represented him through his equally fictitious sister Ethel Malley as having been a garage mechanic, an insurance salesman, who wrote, but never published, the ‘poems’ found after his tragic end, at the age of 25, by his sister, who sent them to Angry Penguins for an opinion on their worth.

“One afternoon”

“We produced the whole of Ern Malley’s tragic life-work in one afternoon, with the aid of a chance collection of books which happened to be on our desk: the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a Collected Shakespeare, Dictionary of Quotations, &c.

“We opened books at random, choosing a word or phrase haphazardly. We made lists of these and wove them into nonsensical sentences.

“We misquoted and made false allusions We deliberately perpetrated bad verse, and selected awkward rhymes from a Ripman’s Rhyming Dictionary.

“The alleged quotation from Lenin in one of the poems, “The emotions are not skilled workers” is quite phoney.

“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.

“The last line in the last poem (printed in Angry Penguins as: I have split the infinite... &c.) read in the manuscript:

I have split the infinitive. Beyond is anything.

“Our rules of composition were not difficult:

“1. — There must be no coherent theme, at most, only confused and inconsistent hints at a meaning held out as a bait to the reader.

“2. — No care was taken with verse technique, except occasionally to accentuate its general sloppiness by deliberate crudities.

“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.

“Having completed the poems, we wrote a very pretentious and meaningless Preface and Statement which purported to explain the aesthetic theory on which they were based. Then we elaborated the details of the alleged poet’s life. This took more time than the composition of his Works.

“Hypnotism”

“Mr. Harris and Mr. John Reed (co-editors of Angry Penguins), Mr. Brian Elliott (Lecturer in Australian Literature at Adelaide University), Mr. Harry Roskolenko (the American poet in the US Forces, who had some Ern Malley poems published in New York in an anthology of Australian verse he collected), and others, accepted these poems as having considerable merit.

“However, that fact does not, as it might seem to do, prove their complete lack of intelligence. It proves something far more interesting.

“It proves that a literary fashion can become so hypnotically powerful that it can suspend the operation of critical intelligence in quite a large number of people.

“We feel that the experiment could have been equally successful in England. Apparently, it was in America, to the extent that a publisher was taken in.

“Such a literary movement as the one we aimed at debunking — it began with the Dadaist movement in France during the last war, which gave birth to the Surrealist movement, which was followed In England by the New Apocalypse school, whose Australian counterparts are the Angry Penguins — this cultism resembles, on a small scale, the progress of certain European political parties.

“An efficient publicity apparatus is switched on to beat the big drum and drown opposition. Doubters are shamed to silence by the fear of appearing stupid or (worse crime?) reactionary. If anyone raises his voice in protest, he is mobbed with shrill invective. The faithful, meanwhile, to keep their spirits up, shout encouragements and slogans, and gather in groups so as to have no time to think.

“For the Ern Malley ‘poems’ there cannot even be, as a last resort, any valid Surrealist claim that even if they have no literary value (which it has been said they do possess), they are at least psychological documents. They are not even that.

“They are the conscious product of two minds, intentionally interrupting each other’s trains of free association, and altering and revising them after they are written down. So they have not even a psychological value.

• “And, as we have already explained conclusively, the Writings of Ern Malley are utterly devoid of literary merit as poetry.

—JAMES McAULEY     
HAROLD STEWART”


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