The Return of Ern

Angry Penguins Magazine cover

Despite his bogus birth, Malley’s poetic spirit still lives on, writes Christine Wertheim.

One afternoon in a Melbourne barracks in 1943, two Sydney poets, Harold Stewart and James McAuley conceived of Ernest Lalor Malley and his entire oeuvre as a hoax to catch Max Harris, the unwitting editor of Angry Penguins, an obscure poetry magazine based in Adelaide. The poet's supposed sister Ethel sent Ern's poems, ominously titled The Darkening Ecliptic, to Harris in the hope that he would believe them the work of a bona fide Australian genius. Harris fell for the scam, devoting an entire section of the Penguins' autumn 1944 issue to the hitherto–unknown maestro, sparking a national media frenzy that eventually led to his trial and conviction for obscenity.

In the short term, the hoax had precisely the effect its authors desired, 'namely the discomfiture of the fledgling Australian modernist movement', writes the US literary critic and retired professor of English literature, Larry McCaffery. In the long run, Ern Malley has become not only an important name in Australian cultural history, but also 'a harbinger of international postmodernism', championed by French theorists, and New York poets alike.

From the beginning, the Ern Malley Affair, as it became known, aroused international interest. At the time, the great British critic Herbert Read sent a telegram supporting Harris and the work: 'It comes down to this: if a man of sensibility, in a mood of despair or hatred, or even from a perverted sense of humour, sets out to fake works of imagination, then if he is convincing, he must use the poetic facilities. If he uses the poetic facilities to good effect, he ends up deceiving himself.'

However, the most committed of all fans, apart from Max Harris of course, is John Ashbery, poster child of the poetry movement known as the New York School and perhaps the most influential English–speaking poet of post–war years. (The US editor and publisher Donald Allen coined the New York School name in the late 1950s for an anthology he was editing).

US literary critic and scholar Christopher Benfey wrote in the New Republic that the New York School 'assembled its own outsider identity from some of the same sources as the Beats: an urban male savvy, sometimes inflected with Jewish and gay sensibilities, and an openness to avant–garde work in other media'. New York School work stressed the ordinariness of the present moment, using stream–of–consciousness, pop–cultural references, and personal asides. It was also concerned with the surface of the poem and the manner of its construction, the fact that it was written by a specific person in a specific time and place.

In 1943, Kenneth Koch, another founding member of the school, who was visiting Australia at the time, became aware of the Ern Malley hoax. As a result, in the early '60s, when he, Ashbery and Schuyler were editing the collaborative issue of Locus Solus, a journal devoted to the New York School aesthetic, Koch included two Malley poems, Boult to Marina, and Sybilline. This inclusion brought the work to a whole generation of American writers, and through them to their Australian counterparts. Like Baudelaire, who imported Poe into France and returned him to America as a symboliste, these poets brought Malley to the US and returned him to Australia as a shining example of a new postwar avant–gardism.

But more than simply publishing him, Ashbery seems to have developed a serious love for our Ern, eventually 'channelling' him in the 21st century to produce two brand new Ern Malley poems. In 1976, Koch and Ashbery were ensconced in the burgeoning 'Program Era', teaching classes in poetry at, respectively, Colombia University and Brooklyn College. To matriculate from the graduate poetry program, the Brooklyn students had to answer faculty–devised questions, in the form of a short essay.

The poet, critic and former Brooklyn College faculty member, David Lehman recalls that Ashbery's question 'quoted two poems in their entirety, and wrote, "One of the two poems below is by a highly respected contemporary poet; the other is a hoax originally published to spoof the obscurity of much modern poetry. Which do you think is which?"' Both poems were unidentified. One was by Malley, the other by the esteemed poet Geoffrey Hill. Though passing this test was a prerequisite to completing their degrees, Ashbery never revealed which was which to the students, who were divided over their answers.

Ashbery has long had a love of outsider artists. He has written poems about Henry Darger, the Chicago–based janitor whose paintings now show in major world galleries. In 2002, he took part in a tribute to Darger at Manhattan's American Folk Museum, reading from the janitor's 15,145–page epic, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is known as The Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. It is thus not surprising that he should have a deep affinity with Ern.

'I liked the poems very much,' Ashbery recalls. 'They reminded me a little of my own early tortured experiments in surrealism, but they were much better.' But he seems to have had more than a mere 'affinity' for the lonely Australian, for later that year he published two new Malley poems in the influential online Australian poetry journal, Jacket, edited by David Tranter.

Jacket devoted its special number 17 Hoax Issue to the Ern Malley Affair, including transcripts of Harris's trial and his battle of wits with Detective Vogelsang, press clippings from FACT, the paper which broke the case, Ethel's letters, and Ern's complete (original) poems. It also included nine new Malley poems, two by Ashbery, two by Tranter, and five by another Australian poet John Kinsella. As Kinsella explained in his introduction, Ashbery, who had been working for some time on these/his texts, had discovered that Ern was 'speaking 'via' us'.

'I am not sure why this happened,' he opined, 'but maybe we're both receptive to Ern–like poets struggling to be heard from across the great divide. I know I spend my time listening closely for such voices from limbo.' To paraphrase Ashbery, the poems reminded one a little of his own early tortured experiments in surrealism, but they are much better.

Added David Lehman, 'Ashbery's point–and it seems to be Malley's point–is that intentions may be irrelevant to results, that genuineness in literature may not depend on authorial sincerity, and that our ideas about good and bad, real and fake, are, or ought to be, in flux.'

Accompanying the new gems at the bottom of the online page is the following inscription: 'Window of Publication: John Ashbery's poems are copyright, and remain available in this issue of Jacket only until mid–2003. They may make an ectoplasmic reappearance for a few days each year around the anniversary of Ern Malley's death, the 23 July, should the spirits be willing.' Let us hope they are.

Christine Wertheim is a poet, critic, performer and curator at the California Institute of the Arts.