Ern Malley and Importance of not being earnest

Commisioned by Wrunter in November 2016.

It was quiet Saturday in October 1943 when lieutenant James McAuley and corporal Harold Stewart decided to take everything they disliked in the then-trendy modernist poetry and pump it up to the eleven in a well-wrought joke. What they’ve written sitting comfortably and constantly chuckling at their desks at Victoria Barracks had surprisingly wide-ranging set of unintended consequences.

Ern Malley affair is one of the most infamous and influential literary hoaxes of the twentieth century for all the wrong reasons. It was conceived as a joke, but then became no joke. Then it became pointless to argue whether or not it was any good and in what way. After the exposure it refused to become a footnote in the biographies of the involved men and just became growing bigger and bigger — overshadowing its creators and their victim. Somehow it secured itself a fine place in history of Australian literature. Truly a success story.

How it started?

According to the legend, in October 1943 two servicemen, otherwise known as poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart were doing their time at the barracks when something struck or illuminated them and they decided to finally spit out their disdain for certain tendencies in modern poetry in a form of elaborate hoax. In order to make everything seem legit — they've made a vessel for their purpose.

McAuley and Stewart’s attitude towards modernist poetry was complicated. Long story short — they thought that T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” was good, but “Wasteland” was not good, because it wasn't balanced and was full of itself. They cited “the loss of meaning and craftsmanship” among their contemporaries. Spiteful towards more experimental developments, surrealism in particular, they wanted to forge a mirror which would reflect all things wrong and thus will help to course-correct. Rather noble intentions packaged in rather mean box.

In order to make a bigger splash — they turned attention to the man they thought represented the most outrageous and obstreperous traits of the modernist poetry. The man was Max Harris, editor of Angry Penguins magazine, aspiring poet and proponent of much more experimental ways in literature.

It wasn't that McAuley and Stewart really hated Angry Penguins. It was just a right place for their sting. They wanted to imitate an act of violent derision over literature and in order to avenge it. They wanted Harris and other perpetrators of poetic craft to taste their own medicine.

So they've constructed a whole new poet, Ern Malley, composed a couple of poems under his name and wrote him thoroughly thought-through biography with a struggling life, tragic end and mysterious legacy.

Who is Ern Malley?

Ernest Lalor Malley was born on 14th March 1918 in Liverpool. After his father died in 1920 his mother took him and his sister Ethel to Australia, where they settled in the suburbs of Sydney. She died in 1933 and so Ernest was forced to sustain the family working as an auto mechanic. In 1935 he moved out to Melbourne where he worked as an insurance salesman and later as a watch repairman. In the late 30s-early 40s he was diagnosed with Graves’ disease but ultimately refused to take treatment. He moved in to his sister in Sydney in March 1943 where he succumbed to illness and died later in July. He was 25 years old.

He wasn't really interested in participating in Australian literary community and was writing for himself possibly hoping someday to publish something. He never even mentioned this to his sister who found out about his writings only after she stumbled across a pile of manuscripts while cleaning up his room. What had found was a collection poem titled “The Darkening Ecliptic” with a sort of preface in which Ern had mentioned several details about their creation. According to the preface, poems were written over the period of five years and were his attempts to tackle things he had experienced in the most direct way.

Gearing up

Ethel had no idea what to do with his writings, but one day she showed them to one of her friends who suggested that she should try to send to somebody who can examine them. The man suggested was Max Harris. Ethel sent two poems with no additional information to him. Harris was impressed and sent them to his co-editor John Reed who passed the poems to several other people. Everyone thought they were very good. And so Harris wrote Ethel back asking for more and some details about Erns life. What he received was manuscript with 16 poems of “The Darkening Ecliptic” cycle complete with retelling of Erns “life story”. It deeply impressed him and so he decided to publish all of them in the upcoming issue of Angry Penguins in 1944.

He wrote:

“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… I am firmly convinced that this unknown mechanic and insurance peddler is one of the most outstanding poets that we have produced here… I was impressed that here 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… 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.”

Poems received universal acclaim and for a moment it seemed that the unknown genius was found. But the best was yet to come.

How it was made?

McAuley and Stewart imitated the poets they thought corrupted poetry with needless tricks (such as William Carlos Williams, Basil Bunting, Myrna Loy, even Ezra Pound, the list may go on forever) in order to show how astoundingly wrong-footed, impotent and downright bad route the modernist poetry was taking.

Their method to madness was as ridiculous as it was brilliant. The surname contained a hint to their intention as it was based on the French word “mal” which means “bad”. They modeled Ern Malley’s life after Keats, including his early death.

In order to write Malley’s poems they shut off all their defenses and wrote straight from their unconscious. Instead of messing up with the tropes and conventions — they've freed themselves from their self-imposed limitations and made something revelatory — a forerunner of post-modernism.

They took lines here and there from various books that were at their disposal (your usual suspects — Shakespeare, some quotation compilations, everyone’s favorite reports on breeding grounds of mosquitoes, Bible because of course, etc.). They mixed it with gallows humor, self-deprecating irony, odd juxtapositions, nonsensical phrases, typically surrealist imagery, combined variety of poetic styles, false interpretation pathways, conscious mistakes and forced clumsiness.

In other words — they were trying very hard to produce the worst poems ever written in English language by a long stretch — utter schlock, through and through waste and futile act of mass air shaking.

But something went wrong in the process of writing poems and instead of doing something purposefully bad they did something tremendously exceptional.

What happened next?

Deeply satisfied with the results, McAuley and Stewart were eager to make a statement, but were aware that the moment was not right. They needed to keep it in secret as long as possible so that general public interest will be big enough to add an insult to the upcoming injury. It all changed when McAuley was serving in New Guinea and Stewart told his friend and wanna-be journalist about a little joke that he and his friend made that will “slay” Max Harris and those damn Angry Penguins. While his friend Tess van Sommers sweared to keep this in secret, she was wanted to get internship in a newspaper and so the leak happened, much to McAuley and Stewart displeasure.

In the same time, Max Harris was accused of writing Ern Malley’s poems after he send some of them to one of his university lecturers. This man, Brian Elliott thought that Harris wrote them on his own with the intentions of self-parody. Unconvinced by Harris’ denials he wrote about his suspicions in the university’s newspaper. The header was “Lecturer cries Hoax!”. It was devastating for Harris. The public discussion came as an avalanche covering various topics — starting from ethical point of forgery going through “those damn modernist are out of their minds” before reaching to “the world is coming to an end”. He was ridiculed and humiliated.

In the attempt to clean his name Harris hired a private investigator to found whereabouts of Ethel Malley. After investigator found no traces of existence of either Ethel of Ern it became obvious that Harris was punked. Meanwhile he was deflecting attacks from every side — one thought that Malley’s poetry is some kind of trash, other were pushing that leftist views of Angry Penguins editorial board are suspicious. Things got even more complicated after the reporters had reached out to Stewart and pressed on him, although he denied any allegations but the link was made. Meanwhile Angry Penguins magazine and Ern Malley’s poems in particular were deemed obscene and accused of publishing indecent material. To make even the circus even more up-roaring — prosecution’s MVP, Detective Vogelsang based his charges on his own opinions not the laws. It became obvious that he had problems with understanding the meaning of the word “obscene” and thus he delivered comic gold of a testimony:

“Apparently someone is shining a torch in the dark, visiting through the park gates. To my mind they were going there for some disapproved motive … I have found that people who go into parks at night go there for immoral purposes”.

Around the same time McAuley and Stewart finally revealed the hoax in the press with an elaborate explanation of their motives which were described earlier in this article.


James McAuley went on to edit influential cultural magazine Quadrant and later became prominent political commentator. Harold Stewart moved to Japan and became a Buddhist monk. In the sixties he published several volumes of translation of classical Japanese poetry. Max Harris tried to cope with the aftermath of Malley affair but it deeply affected him and drastically minimized his poetic output. However, after Angry Penguins magazine publication ended he started another magazine aptly titled “Ern Malley’s Journal”. While acknowledging the nature of Malley’s poem he continued to regard them as some of the best modernist poems ever written.

“A decisive act of literary criticism, brilliant parody in the service of fierce polemic” — that’s how Ern Malley’s affair is perceived today. It is a perfect illustration that sometimes myth is greater than its creators. Malley affair remained cult favorite well into 1990s when something completely unbelievable happened — the whole body of work of an “author” was included in the then-new Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry.

Significance of Ern Malley hoax lies not only in the events surrounding it but also because it’s a fascinating story of how creation escaped control of its creators and started to exist independently of them.

The last lines of his last poem “Petit Testament” says it best:

I have pursued rhyme, image, and metre,
Known all the clefts in which the foot may stick,
Stumbled often, stammered,
But in time the fading voice grows wise
And seizing the co-ordinates of all existence
Traces the inevitable graph
And in conclusion:
There is a moment when the pelvis
Explodes like a grenade. I
Who have lived in the shadow that each act
Casts on the next act now emerge
As loyal as the thistle that in session
Puffs its full seed upon the indicative air.
I have split the infinite. Beyond is anything.