The Darkening Ecliptic by Ern Malley
Introduction by Max Harris
“And yet I know I shall be raised up
This piece was published in as an introduction to the Ern Malley poems in Angry Penguins (1944 Autumn number), and also in the collection of Ern Malley poems titled The Darkening Ecliptic, published as a 45-page booklet by Red & Harris in 1944. It is 3,000 words or about six printed pages long.
Ern Malley prepared for his death quietly confident that he was a great poet, and that he would be known as such. He prepared his manuscript to that end — there was no ostentation nor the exhibitionism of the dying in the act. It was an act of calm controlled confidence. He treated death greatly, and as poetry, while undergoing the most fearful and debilitating nervous strain that a human being could possibly endure. He was dying at the age of 25 with Grave’s Disease.
“Do not speak of secret matters in a field full of little hills” — Old Proverb.
This I take to be an explanation of his complete silence on the subject of poetry during his lifetime. Two handwritten pages exist under the heading of Preface and Statement. I wish to start this review of his work with the seven aphoristic paragraphs which constitute this preface and statement, and which give such a remarkable and moving insight into the poetic motives of Ern Malley.
These poems are complete. There are no scoriae of unfulfilled intentions. Every note and revision has been destroyed. There is no biographical data.
I have been placed in somewhat the same quandary as was Max Brod in disposing of Kafka’s writings. But with this difference. Ern Malley left no instructions, no indications of what he wanted done with his MSS. It was obviously prepared for publication. But he did not even mention its existence to his sister. Yet this statement assumes that posterity will be interested in his work, that the search for scoriae and biographical detail will take place. It is more of a challenge than an expression of his desires. For my part, I find such respect for the amazing relation of his art and his dying that I feel I have no right to conceal facts which bespeak greatness.
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 first faced inwards to themselves. Every poem should be an autarchy.
To this statement I can add little or nothing. It is a beautiful and succinct expression of my own feelings to a poem.
The writing was done over five years. Certain changes of mental allegiance and superficial method took place. That is all that needs to be said on the subject of schools and influences.
That is all that can be said. What he read or when he read is a matter simply for conjecture. But from his poems there is evidence of tremendous assimilation and integration. The use of remote and esotreic [sic] language can at times be dangerous affectation and love of verbiage for its own colourful nature. In his few poems Malley’s vocabulary spans innumerable worlds, but his use of language is never logomachical. His wide, difficult vocabulary emerges spontaneously and necessarily from his poetic motives. Appropriateness is the final test, and Malley reveals an acid preciseness in all his handlings with language. In his poem Young Prince of Tyre, Malley writes: —
“Yet there is one that stands i’ the gaps to teach us
This is the task Malley set himself as he deliberately invoked death upon himself to provide the deepening and consummating forces of poetic experience.
“In the same year
The Arabian Tree is his poetic fulfillment, and its tears are, without doubt, real. Yet in the epic suffering of his going away like the elephant to die, he does feel himself to triumph, for later in the same poem he says:
‘I have pursued rhyme, image, and metre,
Malley approached poetry with a tremendous sense of the imoprt [sic]of what he was doing. In one of his best poems, then, we find such relatively unfamiliar words as apodictic, valency, crenellated, enteric, and bourdon. Yet the poem logically demands these words because of its strict autarchical domestic economy. Language is not master; it is creator!
“The new men are cool as spreading fern.”
His sane personal verse is the embodiment in our time of this principle. I can link him up in my mind strongly with one poet only . . . the late Donald Bevis Kerr, yet it is strongly improbable that he ever saw Kerr’s work. These two, with their diverse spiritual outlooks, are the two giants of contemporary Australian poetry. In both there is the same restraint and sense of responsibility towards language. But there the resemblance ends.
To discover the hidden fealty of certain arrangements of sound in a line and certain concatenations of the analytic emotions is the “secret” of style.
In this statement and the next two Malley concerns himself with the technics of poetry. The full force of what he has condensed into such a brief statement can only be gathered from seeing what he has actually embodied of “style” into his poetry. A certain difficulty is encountered in trying to understand what he means by the “analytic emotions.” But I think the whole concept resolves itself into a simple unambiguous reflection. The emotional experiences which motivate art are not those which are generally considered as “life” or “immediate” experiences. The level and kind of feeling from which poetry emerges and operates do not bear any direct relation to the individual in an immediate and suffering relation to the universe. Art is not Life, nor is it an imitation of life. It is experiencing at a different level from life; it is life, but differs in kind from it. Art emerges from experience at the “analytic” level of the emotions. Art reflects life at second hand, as it were, when experience and detachment integrate in a dialectical union of “poetic” or “analytic” experience. The secret of style then is reduced to faithful reflection, for felicity of language is integral to the “analytic” experience itself. This, if anything, explains Malley’s detachment from the nerve-racking and terrifying experiences of his immediate life. The tragedy of the man is never reflected in the poetry, and this provides in part a measure of his greatness as a poet.
When thought at a certain level, and with a certain intention discovers itself to be poetry it discovers also that duty after all does exist: the duty of a public act. That duty is wholly performed by setting the pen to paper. To read what has thus been done is another thing again, and implies another order of loyalty.
The poet’s duty, Malley believes, is the communication of poetry. The act of creation is the poet’s social act and identifies poetry with communication. Beyond that, duty may exist for the man, but not for the poet. The poetry owes nothing but its own existence to society.
Simplicity in our time is arrived at by an ambages. There is, at this moment, no such thing as a simple poem, if what is meant by that is a point-to-point straight line relation of images. If I said that this was so because on the level where the world is mental occurrence a point-to-point relation is no longer genuine, I should be accused of mysticism. Yet it is so.
With this statement of Malley I do not claim to be in full agreement. Possibly because it is impossible to say what he meant exactly by a “point-to-point straight line of “images.” For me, image can sustain itself, and produce coherent experience, by operating autonomously. Image, develops and acts as it were as an allegory of the experience of which it is a reflection. Image can only provide a complete level of expression when its autonomy is dynamic; that is, the image develops within itself through some series of valid relations. I can conceive, for instance, the vast homeric metaphor existing as poetry without direct reference back to the subject from which it emanates. Kafka produces novels from single metaphores [sic] and their direct relations.
Those who say: What might not X have done if he had lived? demonstrate their different way of living from the poet’s way. It is a kind of truth, which I have tried to express, to say in return: All one can do in one’s span of time is to uncover a set of objective allegiances. The rest is not one’s concern.
Malley moved within self-imposed limitations. He did not aim at revelation of all Truth, of inferring a valid Weltanschauung from his own range. He aimed to reveal his Truth. Yet if I were to say that within this range he reveals infinitely spheres which he would consider “not his concern,” I too would be accused of mysticism. Yet it is so.
Jacket 17 — June 2002
This material is copyright © the Estate of Max Harris, the Estate of James McAuley, the Estate of Harold Stewart, and Jacket magazine 2002