Marvellous Boys

Mark Ford

  • The Ern Malley Affair by Michael Heyward
    Faber, 278 pp, £15.00, August 1993, ISBN 0 571 16781 0

Australia’s most celebrated Modernist poet was born on 14 March 1918, in Liverpool. His father, wounded in the war, died in 1920, and soon after that the family moved to Australia, settling in Sydney where his mother had relations. He left school at 14, and worked over the ensuing years at a random series of jobs, as a garage mechanic, an insurance salesman, a watch repairer. Most of his brief adult life was spent in Melbourne, where he was, in the words of his elder sister Ethel, ‘fond of a girl’ but ‘had some sort of difference with her’, a difference movingly reflected in such lyrics as ‘Perspective Lovesong’.

He was something of a loner, ‘always a little strange and moody’, to quote his sister again. In his early twenties he contracted Graves’ Disease, a horrific – though very rarely fatal – illness which causes sleeplessness, irritability, diarrhoea, muscular tremors, bug eyes and excessive sweating. His perverse reluctance to seek medical help aggravated his condition, and after a sudden collapse he gradually lost strength. He died at his sister’s house in Sydney on 23 July 1943. He was 25 years and four months old, the same age at death as the most famous of all doomed Romantics: ‘Yet we are as the double almond concealed in one shell,’ he broods in ‘Colloquy with John Keats’, going on to predict his own equally untimely demise in harsh demotic terms – ‘Look! My number is up!’ After his cremation at Rookwood Cemetery Ethel opened his trunk and set about disposing of his pitiably meagre possessions; in the process she came across a yellowing sheaf of typed papers bound together and titled The Darkening Ecliptic. For the first time it dawned on her that her brother had been a poet.

It is fifty years since the death of Ern Malley, and his ‘fidgety ghost’ – the phrase comes from one of his Pericles-inspired poems, ‘Young Prince of Tyre’ – still haunts Australian poetry. One pictures the poet lugging a battered second-hand typewriter from flea-pit hotels to temporary lodgings, watching through sleepless mosquito-plagued nights (‘Now/Have I found you, my Anopheles!’) under a single naked electric bulb; acidly noting the complacent routines of the city’s masses, ‘mechanical men posting themselves’, yet conscious that he is himself a mere phantom in their midst; taciturnly observing a faulty carburettor, but never quite meeting the customer’s eye. Corrosive despair at the impossibility of making his ‘obsessions intelligible’ alternates with a sardonic compulsion to puncture his own effusions. Like a Conrad outcast, he constantly questions his own reality, though even these doubts can only be voiced in a ‘No-Man’s-language appropriate/Only to No-Man’s-Land’. What existentialist ever interrogated the authenticity of his own being with such resonance?

And now out of life, permanent revenant
I assert: the caterpillar feet
Of these predictions lead nowhere,
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 ...

In the 18th century Paley deduced the reality of God from a watch: Malley, who, Ethel reports approvingly, ‘made a fair amount of money repairing watches’, is his dark modern opposite, uncertain even of his own existence. Like Odysseus in the Cyclops’ cave he can declare only that he is no one.

The fact that Malley really didn’t exist has only increased his fascination in the Post-Modern era. It’s some time since Roland Barthes announced the death of the author, insisting that all texts should be seen merely as a ‘multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash’. No texts could illustrate this idea of literature more neatly than those of Ern Malley, whose complete works were concocted in a single afternoon and evening by two young Australian poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, as part of a plot to expose the obscurantism and meaninglessness of what passed for poetry under the aegis of Modernism. The Malley oeuvre was composed, they were later to reveal,

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 etc. 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 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.

Their principles also stipulated that there ‘be no coherent theme, at most, only confused and inconsistent hints of a meaning’, and that no care be taken ‘with verse technique, except occasionally to accentuate its general sloppiness by deliberate crudities’.

At the time of the hoax McAuley and Stewart were both in their mid-twenties. They had attended the same high school in Sydney, and were now working together in an army think-tank in Melbourne. Each had flirted with Modernism before renouncing all experimental art, from Picasso to Joyce, and metamorphosing into ardent traditionalists. They especially despised Surrealism, reserving particular contempt for the New Apocalypse school (Dylan Thomas and Co), whose influence was just beginning to register on the Australian literary scene, mainly thanks to the only avant-garde journal of the time, Angry Penguins.

Angry Penguins was edited by Max Harris, a student at Adelaide University, and John Reed, who was 10 years Harris’s senior and lived just outside Melbourne. Independently wealthy, Reed was committed to sponsoring any form of artistic originality that caught his eye; on meeting the 22-year-old Harris, who was already carving a reputation for himself as the enfant terrible of Australian letters, he declared: ‘he may be egocentric, bombastic, but it just so happens that if he isn’t a genius, he is certainly about as near to being one as Australia has yet produced.’

By no means all of Australia’s contemporary belletrists would have agreed with the verdict. Harris’s Surrealist novel The Vegetative Eye – known to many as The Vegetable Pie – was issued in December 1943 by the newly-formed Reed and Harris publishing house, with an outrageously self-praising blurb comparing the author with Rilke and Kafka. ‘The plain fact is that Mr Harris cannot write,’ A.D. Hope observed, before going on to charge the young firebrand with plagiarism: ‘We have a Zombie, a composite corpse, assembled from the undigested fragments of authors Mr Harris has swallowed without chewing.’

It was to Harris in Adelaide that McAuley and Stewart dispatched a selection of the most enticing Malley poems and a covering letter from his sister. Ethel’s epistolary style, which the hoaxers later claimed demanded far more literary skill than the poems themselves, brilliantly captures the bewildered sceptical tone of a narrow-minded philistine doing her duty by her incomprehensible, improvident brother, but with no great relish for the task: ‘I am not a literary person myself,’ she explained, ‘and I do not feel 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.’

It’s not hard to imagine the impact on the suggestible young editor of the contrast between Ethel’s wooden prose and the dazzling authority and scope of ‘Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495’, or ‘Documentary Film’. Obsessed with the difficulties of forging an international avant-garde so far from the capitals of Western art, Harris must have thrilled to the vision of the Australian artist struggling to express himself only to find that all has been said before:

Now I find that once more I have shrunk
To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,
I have read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters.

The lines echo the description by A.D. Hope – much revered by McAuley and Stewart – of Australia as

 a vast parasite robber-state
Where second-hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores

but translate this standard antipodean dilemma into less stable, aesthetically personal terms cunningly calculated to appeal to Harris’s notions of poetic subjectivity. Instantly intoxicated, he wrote to Reed with news of his ‘terrific discovery’ and to Ethel requesting the rest of her brother’s manuscripts, details of his artistic enthusiasms and as much biographical information as possible.

He was even more excited on receiving the rest of the Malley oeuvre, 16 typed poems in all, and one unfinished fragment called ‘So Long’ written in an uncertain, death-bed hand, scored through with a smudgy ‘No’ scrawled in the top margin. They had exotic titles such as ‘Sonnets for the Novachord’, ‘Baroque Exterior’, ‘Egyptian Register’, ‘Sybilline’, and the least of them revealed an awesomely confident poetic talent, a master manipulator of a stunning variety of idioms; they were by turns Expressionist, Surrealist, High Romantic, one moment tipping the wink to Eliot (‘The evening/Settles down like a brooding bird/Over streets that divide our life like a trauma’), the next indulging in some knock-about Elizabethan pastiche, before suddenly soaring on out-stretched wings through the Symbolist ether:

The solemn symphony of angels lighting
My steps with music, o consolations!
Palms!
O far shore, target and shield that I now
Desire beyond these terrestrial commitments.

In her accompanying letter the comically obtuse Ethel struggled to field Harris’s demands for information about her brother’s intellectual development (‘I wouldn’t have thought Ern was interested in architecture and art as you say,’) but did at least reveal that he was ‘a great reader’ and ‘often used to go to the public library at night’. Those solitary hours of study were evident everywhere in The Darkening Ecliptic: Blake, Shakespeare, Freud, Pound, Lenin, Longfellow, Baudelaire, Mallarmé (of whose name his own is a not so earnest comic diminutive). Dylan Thomas, Marlowe, Rimbaud, Hart Crane, all had been absorbed with startling authority into the richly-layered texture of Malley’s poetics. But the young bard wasn’t simply shooting from the hip: Ethel had also forwarded an excruciatingly dense and contorted hand-written ‘Preface and Statement’ that outlined the aesthetic theories behind the work. Harris must have been both puzzled and reassured by Malley’s terse, gnomic declarations of intent: ‘There are no scoriae or unfulfilled intentions ... Every poem should be an autarchy ... Simplicity in our time is arrived at by ambages.’ Pound himself couldn’t have devised a more impressive, or less revealing, manifesto. On one point Malley was particularly firm, and absolutely truthful: ‘There is no biographical data.’

The Ern Malley Issue of Angry Penguins, published in autumn 1944, was a sumptuous affair, a fit setting for the poems it was unveiling. Harris had furnished an uninhibited critical introduction and a prose poem of his own, ‘Elegiac for Ern Malley’, written in inspired homage to his newly-discovered hero. The young Sidney Nolan, a close friend of the Reeds, had been fired by Malley’s work and had produced for the cover a dreamy painting that both illustrated and incorporated some of Ern’s most affecting lines from the sequence’s final poem, ‘Petit Testament’:

I said to my love (who is living)
Dear we shall never be that verb
Perched on the sole Arabian tree.

Only the strongest of poets can steal with such aplomb from Shakespeare. Nolan’s painting figures himself and Reed’s wife, Sunday, with whom he was deeply involved at the time, naked together in a tree silhouetted against the Australian outback. ‘All those lovely baby garments which Maxie knitted for his foundling child!’ Harold Stewart cooed in a letter to the painter Donald Friend when, after a nine-month wait, he at last saw his and McAuley’s handiwork irrevocably in print.

The hoaxers’ gaff was blown much too early. Their longer-range plans had included involving internationally known defenders of the Modernist faith, particularly Herbert Read, chief apologist for the New Apocalyptics and, in McAuley’s words, ‘a dead sucker for any gross rubbish that came his way’. Foxing the likes of Harris and Reed, editors of a not exactly universally respected magazine with a tiny print run, was, he felt, simply ‘taking lollies from children’. However, in a fit of ebullience some months before, Harold Stewart had let a young trainee journalist friend of his in on the secret, and on seeing the issue on sale she assumed the hoaxers had achieved their ends and a major scoop was hers.

The speed with which the Ern Malley story caught fire, and the gleeful vehemence with which it was pursued in the Australian media and then around the globe – Time, Newsweek, the New Yorker, the Spectator, the London Times each ran the story, while the New York Times even devoted an editorial to it, and all this in the middle of the Second World War – took the hoaxers themselves aback. Called upon to explain themselves, they cobbled together a rather high-flown defence of the scheme as ‘a serious literary experiment’; and Malley’s work, conceived as ‘a wonderful jape’ that would ‘absolutely slay Max Harris’, was now presented as an honest rearguard action directed at the totalitarian might of Modernism. On the other side the embattled Penguins took and held the line that McAuley and Stewart wrote better than they meant or knew, and were immensely heartened to receive support in this from Herbert Read, who boldly cabled from London: ‘Hoaxer hoisted by own petard has touched off unconscious sources inspiration work too sophisticated but has elements genuine poetry.’ They even received a cautious blessing from the highest priest of all: T.S. Eliot, it seems, was ‘extremely interested, but this was not for publication in any way’.

In the popular Australian press, however, Harris in particular suffered a merciless battering. Although he consoled himself that in time the affair would serve to ‘produce a deepening – even more honestly naked quality’ in his own poetry, his immediate experience consisted of more or less constant public humiliation. And just as the worst seemed to be blowing over, he was visited by two policemen at the magazine’s offices in Adelaide; they informed him that, as editor and distributor of the Ern Malley issue of Angry Penguins, he was to be prosecuted under South Australia’s obscenity laws.

A more farcical trial would be difficult to dream up. In front of a packed court Harris spent more than twenty hours in the dock defending work by a non-existent author expressly devised to make him look a fool. Chief witness for the Crown was Detective Vogelsang. An unconventional literary critic, he was keen to bring wisdom he had learnt on the beat to the interpretation of Malley’s suggestive images. He was most suspicious of the couple who enter a park at night in the last two stanzas of ‘Night Piece’:

The symbols were evident,
Though on park-gates
The iron birds looked disapproval
With rusty invidious beaks

Among the water-lillies
A splash – white foam in the dark!
And you lay sobbing then
Upon my trembling intuitive arm.

He felt the disapproval of the iron birds to be an important clue to the couple’s ‘immoral’ behaviour, and he knew from his experience on the Force that ‘people who go into parks at night only go there for immoral purposes.’ The trials of Ulysses, Ginsberg’s Howl, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, all had their comic moments, but none achieved the level of sustained surreal hilarity occasioned by the indictment of Ern Malley. Harris was dragged line by line through the entire corpus and called upon to defend his phantom prodigy against charges of both obscenity and unintelligibility – equally heinous crimes in the eyes of the prosecuting counsel. Despite his valiant and increasingly ingenious feats of practical criticism, the judge ruled against him. He was fined £5 and ordered to pay costs of £21 11s.

Over the half-century since his birth, life, death and meteoric rise to fame, Ern Malley has continued to provoke virulent debate. Michael Heyward’s shrewd and funny book not only provides full social and literary contexts for the affair, but explores Malley’s almost equally intriguing afterlife. Much to the dismay of his two inventors, he was no sooner invented than he cut loose and set about forging his own way in the literary world: Heyward’s book is itself a symptom of his enduring appeal. In the teeth of their attempt to establish once and for all that The Darkening Ecliptic is ‘utterly devoid of literary merit as poetry’, Malley’s work has never lacked supporters, or general readers either. There have been five separate editions of the poems, and a sixth is promised from Angus and Robertson this year. In a radio programme made in 1960 a librarian recorded Malley’s oeuvre as being among the most popular on the poetry shelves, though many borrowers had no doubt gone to it in pursuit of a snigger. At the other end of the spectrum Malley has been championed by the New York poets John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, who printed a selection of his work in 1961 as part of a special ‘collaboration’ number of Locus Solus, a magazine they edited with Harry Mathews and James Schuyler. (It was here that I first came across Malley’s poems, nestled up against an audacious collaboration between Frank O’Hara and the French language.) Both Ashbery and Koch have included Malley in the curricula of their university poetry courses. At exam time Ashbery would present his students with two unattributed poems, one from The Darkening Ecliptic and one from Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns; candidates were asked to guess which was a hoax, and give reasons for their choice. Half the students, Ashbery reports, picked the Malley poem, and half picked the Hill.

As Heyward points out, seen through the lens of the New York avant-garde Malley becomes a wholly different figure, a Post-Modern avant la lettre, fabricating a provisional identity from whatever material lies to hand but never fully convinced by his own fictions. The wildly unstable tone, the sudden shifts of idiom, the incorporation of different kinds of diction (that report on the draining of mosquito-breeding grounds), the penchant for bathos, pastiche, false quotation, the use of elusive narratives, have all become standard techniques in the experimental poetry of the last decades. Malley’s mockery of the notion that some kind of authenticity is inherent in language is also in line with much recent thinking. His ludic verse habitually thwarts the reader’s search for a single stable source of authority, while teasingly assuming prophetic tones that have long been exposed as untenable. It is this acute self-awareness, a pervasive doubt even about his own existence, which generates the poems’ correspondingly extreme freedom to play with the symbols of the universe:

I have arranged the interstellar zodiac
With flowers on the Goat’s horn, and curious
Markings on the back of the Crab. I have lain
With the Lion, not with the Virgin, and become
He that discovers meanings.

Malley’s relationship to the giants of Modernism also prefigures that of many later poets. His allusions to Eliot and Pound register as a quizzical, though not unsympathetic, critique of their quest for new dispensations. The more fatalistic Malley can muster no such confidence in poetry’s powers of renewal, or in the originality of his own vision:

But in time the fading voice grows wise
And seizing the co-ordinates of all existence
Traces the inevitable graph ...

It was Malley’s Post-Modern mutation which returned to Australia, via the New Yorkers, to strike a chord with a younger generation of poets such as John Forbes, Robert Adamson and John Tranter, who included the entire sequence in the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (co-edited with Philip Mead) published last year. In their introduction to the volume they argue that ‘these unsettling works of the imagination may be seen as early examples of the Post-Modernist technique of bricolage.’ They survive as ‘radical, intriguing challenges to traditional ways of writing and reading’.

McAuley and Stewart would have none of this, fortunately, for a certain element of Malley’s charm has always depended on his creators’ disavowal. Had either ever conceded that the stuff wasn’t, after all, so bad, the unique frisson that readers experience in discovering they admire The Darkening Ecliptic would have vanished. In time the two men found widely differing solutions to the moral, political and aesthetic chaos they were satirising in the figure of the neurotic, alienated Malley. McAuley drifted steadily to the right, developing into one of Australia’s fiercest Cold Warriors. More dramatically, he converted to Catholicism in 1952, and much to the dismay of those who had admired his wonderfully vivid and intelligent early poetry, the rituals and history of the Church and the decadence of modern society began to bulk large as themes in his work. At all stages of his career McAuley was capable of exquisitely chiselled and convincing poems, but his reputation has come to rest mainly on such brilliant early pieces as ‘The Blue Horses’ (inspired by Franz Marc), and some of the agonised late lyrics recording his spiritual despair. He died of cancer in 1976.

McAuley was always a pugnacious figure on the Australian poetry scene. Harold Stewart, by contrast, found the publicity attendant on the hoax so distasteful that he resolved to withdraw once and for all from the literary world. Besides, he soon lost even his scornful interest in 20th-century Western poetry, immersing himself instead in the sacred arts and writings of Asia. After several visits to Japan, he settled permanently in Kyoto in 1966, converted to Pure Land Buddhism, and developed into a leading authority on Japanese literary and religious traditions. His own poetry is serenely oblivious of all contemporary debates and developments: in 1981 he published By the Old Walls of Kyoto, 12 books of regularly rhymed pentameters that intertwine jewelled, but absolutely accurate, descriptions of certain locations in and around the city with his own spiritual progress in the Buddhist faith. When I visited him in late July he was on the point of finishing an even longer epic, begun 14 years ago, based on a Chinese legend of the T’ang Dynasty. A charming, extremely eloquent man now in his mid-seventies, he chuckled briefly at the memory of The Vegetable Pie and enraged Penguins, but explained that the hoax itself had rapidly become a bore. When I asked him why he thought the egregious Ern has so triumphantly survived the ravages of time, he put it down to the blankness of Australia’s cultural memory: ‘Ned Kelly, Phar Lap and Ern Malley – that’s all that’s ever happened there.’

Michael Heyward also ponders the issue of Malley’s longevity, and finally attributes it to the entrancing uniqueness of his poetic identity; though Malley borrows freely, he is, in a bizarre way, a poet ‘exactly himself’, to use a phrase of Wallace Stevens’s. That this should be so still seems incredible, not quite explicable even when all the facts have been thoroughly marshalled. Needless to say, the prescient Malley was fully aware of his own impending immortality, but realised also how much it was the pure anomaly of his non-existence that would consummate his fame. For the poet who breaks all the rules there can be no limits. In his own final words: ‘I have split the infinitive. Beyond is anything.’