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Unknown print source, 1944

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WHEN the editors of a little-known Adelaide literary magazine called Angry Penguins received a batch of “poems” they were excited. The poems seemed to have been written by an unknown poet, Ern Malley. With them was a biographical sketch.

Malley was said to have died in obscurity in July 1943. He was said to have worked as a garage hand in Sydney, then as an insurance canvasser in Melbourne.

Angry Penguins devoted 30 pages to the late “poet’s” works. Some were included in an anthology of Australian verse collected by the US poet Roskolenko and published in New York.

The 5/- [five shilling] autumn edition of Angry Penguins appeared on the bookstall with vast eulogies from the coeditors, Max Harris and John Reed:

“He was a poet of tremendous power, working through a disciplined and restrained kind of statement into the deepest wells of human experience. A poet, moreover, with cool, strong sinuous feeling for language... In his few poems Malley’s vocabulary spans innumerable worlds, but his use of language is never logomachical.

“One or two of the critics... said that his work was derivative and echoed various contemporary technique... These critics are completely wrong. His images are always pure. . . . With him image can be obscure, but never experience.

“His sane, personal verse is the embodiment in our time of this principle...”

They regarded The Arabian Tree as his “poetic fulfillment”....

In the same year
I said to my love (who is living)
Dear we shall never be that verb
Perched on the sole Arabian Tree
Not having learnt in our green age to
          forget
The sins that flow between the hands
          and feet
(Here the Tree weeps gum tears
Which are also real. I tell you
These things are real)
So I forced a parting
Scrubbing my few dingy ords to
          brightness.

“The tragedy of the man,” says Angry Penguins, “is never reflected in the poetry and this provides in part a measure of his greatness as a poet.”

Ern Malley is claimed bv Angry Penguins as one of Australia’s two great poets.

Then the Sydney Sun’s supplement, Fact, appeared to blast this vision of beauty.

The entire works of Ern Malley had been written in a single afternoon by two Sydney soldier-poets, Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart, Fact revealed.

These poets, “observing with distaste the gradual decay of meaning and craftsmanship in poetry,” decided to do their bit to stem the fashion of which Angry Penguins is the Testament.

“Our- feeling was that by processes of critical self-delusion and mutual admiration, the perpetrators of this humourless nonsense had managed to pass it off on would-be intellectuals and Bohemians here and abroad, as great poetry. What we wished to find was: Can those who write, and those who praise so lavishly, this kind of writing, tell the real product from the consciously and deliberately concocted nonsense?

“We produced the whole of Ern Malley’s tragic life work in one afternoon with the aid of a collection of books which happened to be on our desk. We opened books at random, choosing a word or phrase haphazardly. We wove them into nonsensical sentences...”

When this was revealed, Angry Penguins replied: “Ern Malley still is a great poet.”

Meanwhile, literary and non-literary Australia rocked with laughter, followed round-by-round accounts in the daily press.

Modernists defended the product stoutly. Others believed this the tombstone of nonsense.

Meanwhile composers wondered whether crooners could croon with jazz-band and razz the immortal Petit Testament, according to Ern Malley...

Where I have lived
The bed bug sleeps in the seam,
The cockroach
Inhabits the crack and the careful
          spider
Spins his aphorisms in the corner and
          later —
There is a moment when the pelvis
Explodes like a grenade.

Bernard O’Dowd, famous Australian Poet, found it hard to believe they were faked.

They gave so many indications of the “obscurity, cacophony and flatulence” characterising the writings of many Australians who dated their productions by calling them “modern poetry,” he said.


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