Reprint: "Angry Penguins" Will be Angrier: Hoaxers Scored

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Last week "The Mail" told the story of Ern Malley, the poet "discovered" by Mr. Max Harris, and introduced to the literary public in 30 pages of the "Angry Penguins."

This week it can be told that the Ern Malley poems were one afternoon's work for two Sydney University graduates, now in the Army, who set out to debunk pretentious modern poetry because, they say, "its devotees are insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination."

How the works of Ern Malley were deliberately concocted without intention of poetic meaning or merit was told by their authors to "Fact," a section of the supplement to the Sydney "Sunday Sun."

The Malley writings were published in a special "Ern Malley" commemorative issue of the Ade- laide literary journal, "Angry Penguins," which ranked the fictitious Ern Malley as "one of the two giants of contemporary Australian poetry," and devoted 30 pages to an allegedly posthumous poet who had never lived.

The "works of Ern Malley," were written in collaboration by two Australian poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart.

Stewart, who lived at Croydon, New South Wales, is a corporal at present in a military hospital. He is 27.

Lieutenant McAuley, A.I.F., lived at Homebush. He is 26.

Both are from Sydney, where they were educated at Fort Street High School, and attended Sydney University. They are attached to the same Army unit stationed at Melbourne.

The identity of Ern Malley and the merits attributed to the writings under that name provoked Australia's most remarkable literary controversy.

Co-authors McAuley and Stewart this week made the following joint statement and explanation. "We decided to carry out a serious literary experiment. There was no feeling of personal malice directed against Mr. Max Harris, co-editor of "Angry Penguins."

"Nor was there any intention of having the matter publicised in the press.

"For some years now we have observed with distaste the gradual decay of meaning and craftsmanship in poetry.

"Mr. Max Harris and other 'Angry Penguin' writers represent an Australian outcrop of a literary fashion which has become prominent in England and America.

"A distinctive feature of the fashion, it seemed to us, was that it rendered its devotees insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination.

"Our feeling was that by processes of critical self-delusion and mutual admiration, the perpetrators of this humorless nonsense had managed to pass it off on would-be 'intellectuals' and 'Bohemians' here and abroad as great poetry.

"Their work appeared to us to be a collection of garish images without coherent meaning and structure, as if one erected a coat of bright paint and called it a house.

Testing a Theory

"However, it was possible that we had simply failed to penetrate to the inward substance of these productions. The only way of settling the matter was by experiment.

"It was, after all, fair enough. If Mr. Harris proved to have sufficient discrimination to reject the poems, then the tables would have been turned.

"What we wished to find out was, can those who write and those who praise so lavishly this kind of writing tell the real product from consciously and deliberately concocted nonsense?

"It was our contention, which we desired to prove by this experiment, that they could not.

"We gave birth to 'Ern Malley.' We represented Ern through his equally fictitious sister, 'Ethel Malley,' as having been a garage mechanic and an insurance salesman who wrote but never pub- lished the 'poems,' found after his tragic end at the age of 25 by his sister, who sent them to 'Angry Penguins' for opinion.  

"We produced the whole of Ern Malley's tragic life work in one afternoon with the aid of a chance collection of books which happened to be on our desk -- the Concise Oxford Dictionary, 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.

"In parts we even abandoned metre altogether and made free verse cacaphonous. Our rules of composition were not difficult --

"1. There most be no coherent theme, at most only confused and inconsistent hints at meaning held out as a bait to the rader.

"2. No care was taken with verse technique except occasionally to accentuate its general sloppiness by deliberate crudities.

"3. In style, poems were to imitate not Mr. Harris in particular but the whole literary fashion as we knew it.

"Having completed the poems, we wrote a very pretentious and meaningless 'preface and statement' which purported to explain the aesthetic theory on which they were based.

"Then we elaborated the details of the alleged poet's life. This took more time than the composition of his works.

What it Proves

"Mr. Harris and Mr. John Reed, co-editors of 'Angry Penguins,' Mr. Harry Roskolenko, American poet in the United States Forces, who had some 'Ern Malley' poems published in New York in an anthology of Australian verse he collected, and others, accepted these poems as having considerable merit.

"However, that fact does not, as it might seem to do, prove their complete lack of intelligence.

"It proves something far more interesting. It proves that a literary fashion can become so hypnotically powerful that it can suspend the operation of critical intelligence in quite a large number of people.

"We feel that the experiment could have been equally successful in England. Apparently it was in America to the extent that the publisher was taken in.

Growth of School

"A literary movement such as the one we aimed at debunking began with the 'dadaist' movement in France during the last war.

"This gave birth to the 'surrealist' movement, which was followed in England by the 'new apocalypse' school, while the Australian counterparts are 'Angry Penguins.'

"This cultism resembles on a small scale the progress of certain European political parties.

"An efficient publicity apparatus is switched on to beat the big drum and drown opposition.

"Doubters are shamed to silence by the fear of appearing stupid or -- worse crime -- if anyone raises his voice in protest, he is mobbed with shrill invective.

"The faithful, meanwhile, to keep their spirits up, shout encouragements and slogans, and gather in groups, so as to have no time to think.

"For the Ern Malley poems there cannot even be as a lost resort any valid surrealist claim that, even if they have no literary value, which it has been said they do possess, they are at least 'psychological documents.' They are not even that.

No Literary Merit

"They are the conscious product of minds intentionally interrupting each other's trains of free association; and altering and revising them after they are written down.

"So they have not even psychological value.

"And, as we have already explained conclusively, the writings of Ern Malley are utterly devoid of literary merit as poetry.

"James McAuley.

"Harold Stewart."

Corporal Stewart, subsequently added:-- "The first three lines of the poem, 'Culture Is Exhibit,' were lifted straight from an American report on the drainage of breeding grounds of mosquitoes.

"They were quoted to indicate that they had been lifted as a quotation.

"The alleged quotation from Lenin heading one of the poems. 'The Emotions Are Not Skilled Workers,' is quite phoney."

Among the writers named in 'Who is Ern Malley?'' conjectures were Professor J. L. M. Stewart, of Adelaide University, who is also a detective novelist, Michael Innes,   Douglas Stewart (Sydney writer and poet) and "Angry Penguin" Max Harris.

First published in The Mail, 24 June 1944

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on February 24, 2012 7:51 AM.

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