Seventy-five years after the publication of Australia’s greatest literary hoax, the Ern Malley affair, is it time to revaluate the artistic merit of the poems?
1. Colloquy with Ern
Time passes. What once puzzled us begins to make sense; what bemused us, inspires; what offended, seems harmless, maybe even beautiful, insightful. Take, for example, a letter written to Adelaide author and editor Max Harris in October 1943.
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 …
Imagine Ethel, sitting in her parlour at 40 Dalmar Street, Croydon, Sydney, the sun on her arms, the curtain blowing against her cheeks, as she writes to tell Max, editor of a new literary magazine called Angry Penguins, about the discovery of her late, returned brother’s poems.
“Now we find, too late
That these distractions were clues
To a transposed version
Of our too rigid state.
Thing being, the poem’s author(s) thought Max and his magazine represented some sort of too flaccid state, where the old would be made new (or rejected), Keats thrown down the Spanish Steps in favour of Modernism, the face of Australian literary culture reinvented in a flurry of “desire beyond these terrestrial commitments” (Documentary Film). Max loved the poems. He showed them around Adelaide.
Not everyone shared his enthusiasm. J.I.M. Stewart (Jury Professor of Language and Literature at Adelaide University) told him Ern’s poems were “highly derivative” and “rather incomprehensible”. Harris sent the collection to his Penguins co-editor John Reed on November 8, 1943:
“Here’s a pretty terrific discovery. I was sent the enclosed poems by one Ethel Malley of Croydon NSW, an almost illiterate woman, who said they were found in the papers of her brother who died in June of this year …”
A few days earlier (November 2) he’d written to Ethel to explain:
“Thank you for sending me the MSS of your late brother. I read it through carefully and I was very much impressed with it. I should have no hesitation in publishing the poems you sent me in the January issue of Angry Penguins.”
So begins Australia’s greatest literary hoax, made real and eternal, problematic and persistent, in the 1944 ‘Autumn Number to Commemorate the Australian poet Ern Malley’. As we sit here, 75 autumns later, still reading Ern’s poems, puzzling over them, moved by them, laughing at them and wondering how poor Ern, scribbling in the back room at 40 Dalmar Street, produced these gems just as Eliot, Pound, Crane and William Carlos Williams were producing their best works. A soldier, from Australia? Really? But Harris had no doubts.
“… I think these poems, architectural, unified in their language treatment, are among the most outstanding poems I have ever come across … It is unbelievable that a person going away to die could write poetry of this objectivity and power.”
– Max Harris, letter to John Reed
Meanwhile, Ethel wrote back to Max:
“Certainly you may publish any of them [the poems] you like in your magazine … I never knew that Ern wrote poetry. He was a great reader and he told me he did a lot of study in Melbourne.”
All part of a long, complex biography of the late Ern that Ethel supplied, ending with the observation that
“… he kept very much to himself. He was always a little strange and moody and I don’t think he had a very happy life, though he didn’t show it.”
Apparently not. Ern didn’t show much. Ern, you know, the soldier, the brother, the ex-mechanic, the bookish boy. Didn’t show much at all. But, for me, this is the story I prefer. The imagined, the invented, more satisfying than the real.
2. Culture as a Poem
Slight detour, as per the 75th anniversary of the Malley affair. Or is it memorial, commiseration, or maybe celebration? I’m not sure, because everyone takes Ern and Ethel a different way. In the same way we take hoaxes in a different way. It all depends, I guess, whether you’re the hoaxer (funny, eh?) or the hoaxed. Maybe it’s all just a laugh? At which point I’d like to introduce Jean Shepherd, 50s American DJ, sitting in his studio in New York at three in the morning babbling to his listeners about … anything, really.
“Can you imagine 4000 years passing, and you’re not even a memory? Think about it, friends. It’s not just a possibility. It’s a certainty.”
Like most hoaxers, Shepherd was part-shit-stirrer, part-comedian, -philosopher, -non-conformist. His midnight to five shift suited him perfectly. He ministered to what he called the “night people”: the insomniacs, derelicts, creatives. Each of whom shared Shepherd’s password (“Excelsior!”) and response (“Seltzer bottle!”). Compared to what he called the “day people” – the followers of rules, the conformists, the business types, the list makers (the victims of “creeping meatballism”). Shepherd believed “night is the time people truly become individuals because all the familiar things are dark and done; all the restrictions on freedom are removed”.
Shepherd hates the way radio stations decide what is or is not a bestseller by asking bookshops (run by day people) what titles are selling the most. So he tells his listeners, and together they come up with a scheme whereby thousands of night people will descend on bookstores and ask for a non-existent book (they come up with the name I, Libertine). This should screw with the whole book, bestseller, list thing in a major way. Another listener suggests the book might have been written by an expert on 18th century erotica: Frederick R. Ewing (no, I didn’t say Ern Malley, did I?). Over the next few weeks, bookshops around the country are flooded with requests for Ewing’s novel. Soon, night people students are writing essays about the ‘book’ and sneaking fake index cards into library catalogues.
The story continues: bookstores plead with publishers for copies of the book, one of whom, Ian Ballantine, traces the hoax back to Shepherd and asks him, Well, why not write the book? They agree, Ballantine convinces science fiction writer and Shepherd fan Theodore Sturgeon (later made famous as Kilgore Trout in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five) it’s a great idea, and Sturgeon sets to work. Thirty (apparently) hectic days of writing later, Sturgeon falls asleep on his couch one chapter short of the end and his wife, Marion, finishes the story for him (now, for the Malley fans, think James McAuley and Harold Stewart, apparently writing the Malley poems in a single sitting). Sturgeon (after he wakes) thinks it’s a great laugh (the man, part shit-stirrer-philosopher himself, who said):
We don’t believe anything we don’t want to believe.
– Baby is Three
The key, surely? What we want to believe. We want to believe in Ethel; we want to believe in Ern; we want to believe in Max, because Max gave us these people, these poems, this myth, this complex, ambiguous, Euro-angsty hoax that has outlived its creators, its victims, its sceptics. Like I, Libertine, launching on September 13, 1956 with Shepherd’s photo doubling for Ewing’s on the back cover. A print run of 130,000 copies. A bestseller! The imagined made real. The erotic adventures of Lance Courtenay making middle-America sit boult upright, unaware that fantasy is a fake. But what did, or does, it matter? All stories are fake. All made up. From Sir John Mandeville (whom Sir Thomas Browne called “the greatest liar of all time”) and his fantastical 1371 travel book, to JG Ballard’s 1968 Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan (landing another bookseller, Bill Butler, with his own obscenity trial). All riffing off human existence and its vagaries, or, as Shepherd explained:
“The reality of what we really are is often times found in the small snips, way down at the bottom of things.”
3. Young Prince of Adelaide
Okay, by now you’ve guessed. There was no Ethel; there was no Ern. But repeat after me: Ethel is real; Ern is real. Always have been, always will be. As real as the “tapestry of obscenity” Shepherd wove, which, he explained, is “still hanging over Lake Michigan”. As it hangs over Adelaide, Dalmar Street, and the Victoria Barracks, where two soldier-poets by the name of Harold Stewart and James McAuley, sat, one day in spring, 1943, and
“…set to work improvising Ern Malley, their Primitive Penguin, writing his poems out on an army-issue, ruled quarto pad, tearing each page off as they filled it. They worked rapidly, buoyed by the wickedness of what they were up to …”
– Michael Heyward
They created Ernest Lalor Malley, borrowing everything from Mallarmé and Dürer to a book about tropical hygiene, a dictionary, and plenty of imagination. Stewart later said:
“We’d think of a line or two each or we’d play with this bit and put a bit in here and take a bit out there.”
The soldier-poets were full of boyish glee, naughtiness, hope and thrill that they might get away with it, that Harris might actually believe these poems were the mythical Ern’s; that all this pretentious Modernism (“That rabbit’s foot I carried in my left pocket, Has worn a haemorrhage in the lining …”) might collapse under its own weight. But Max, sitting in Adelaide, was motivated by something else: the need for Australia to move on from bush poetry; to find an alternative to Chris Brennan’s Euro- Classicism; to create something modern, anti-Adelaide, anti-Australia-as-a-talcum-scented tea shop, complete with other people’s culture. In this, Harris was wholly successful. He kick-started what Donald Horne and others magnified in the 60s. But at a great price to himself: he was never the same after the shit hit the fan.
And it did. The revelation of the hoax. Detective Vogelsang summoning Max to court to answer charges of publishing obscene poems. The trial, in which the worst of Methodist Malvern and Moonee Ponds was seen, upheld, celebrated, perhaps. In which our chance to take risks was stunted, euthanised. The tragedy of a hoax that was much more than a hoax, now as much as then, as we, in my opinion, continue celebrating the second-rate, the makers of lists, the day people, those who believe the fake can’t be real, shouldn’t be. But I, for one, believe in Ethel and Ern. I suspect, one day, perhaps in 4000 years when we’re forgotten, these poems will still be read (Night-Piece, alternate version, our new national anthem). Some future day man struggling through the 900th reprinting of the biography of the great Australian poet, Ern Malley.
Stephen Orr’s latest novel This Excellent Machine (Wakefield Press) is out now.