Like Dirk Gently, Douglas Adams’ holistic detective, I am interested in the connectedness of things. I don’t know that I agree all events are linked but sometimes coincidences grow into more than just serendipitous collisions, like atoms in a jar. Last Sunday afternoon I had it in my mind to create a small literary prank to play on a few of my pals and so I took down from my bookshelves a slim volume that contains one of the great literary practical jokes in the hope I might be able to borrow something from it. I hadn’t read it for years and so I read it again, with much amusement and wonder at its insights. Later that night, in a quite separate frame of mind, I delved into the Review liftout of the Weekend Australian and found there a piece that I thought gelled with my afternoon’s reading. The old book gave the Review article a resonance that I’m sure the Review writer would not have intended, nor would he have wanted me to make the connection I did.
This is about Capital A Art and fashion, sins of omission and commission, and censorious politics. Let’s start at the end.
The piece I read in the Australian was by a Melbourne poet named David Campbell who decried the absence of poets from a recent anthology who actually write rhyming verse in a regular metre. The anthology, Contemporary Australian Poetry, purported to be a survey and critical review of material written since 1990. Without having the book in front of me, I inferred that, if you picked through this book, you would gain the impression that the only significant Australian poetry produced in the past three decades was in free verse.
Not so, according to Campbell. Scores of poets working in a genre misleadingly labelled “bush poetry” had simply been ignored, he said. “It’s as if all the poets and their books, and the hundreds of published award-winning poems, have been completely airbrushed from history.”
Campbell says a lot of the kind of poetry that he would have liked to have seen included in the anthology is not merely “bush verse” – it “tackles all of the contemporary themes that preoccupy writers of any persuasion”. Look up his website (http://www.campbellwriter.com/) and you’ll find he’s not a disinterested critic. He writes “bush verse”, it has been published widely and he has won awards for it. So he’s open to accusations of talking his book, or just complaining he’s been left out.
But Campbell himself works both in poetry grounded in “metre, rhyme and clear communication” and in free verse. His concern is not about the merits of one form of verse over another but with the apparent prejudice of the editors and the blame they, and others like them, must shoulder for the decline of public interest in Australian poetry. The latter he attributes, at least in part, to the celebration of poems that are “little better than minced prose” or “crippled by jerky rhythms, clumsy vocabulary and a tin ear” – descriptions quoted from a review of the same book, Australian Contemporary Verse, by playwright Louis Nowra.
Campbell also quotes Clive James about “critics and academics who believe that the whole idea of a set form is obsolete” and furthermore: “The ruling majority of people concerned with poetry in Australia think free verse is a requirement of liberty, and anything constructed to a pattern must be leaving something essential out.”
Oh well, so what? Literary spats, or, more broadly, artistic arguments reverberate around the around the luvvy world all the time. Eventually they all come down to the one question: what is Art? Everyone knows what it is, and everyone knows what it isn’t. Right? OK then, move along . . . nothing to see here.
Except that, the old book I had read earlier that day was Ern Malley’s Poems, which should ring bells. For me, the commentary in it rather skewered the editors of Contemporary Australian Poetry in a way that neither they nor Campbell could have known. I need to make clear at this point that I have not consulted Mr Campbell for this post, nor should anyone infer that he shares the opinions expressed herein, beyond what he had to say in the Australian. Indeed, I really shouldn’t have to make this disclaimer but it will become clear why I feel I must. David Campbell may well have enough come down on his head for his Australian article without copping anything that might come my way.
Anyone who has taken an interest in Australian literature since World War II knows the story of Ern Malley, or at least has heard of it. The yarn is more than 70 years old now but it remains a cause celebre in Capital A Art – and not irrelevant to Campbell’s and James’s complaints about the judges of recent Australian poetry.
To refresh everyone’s memory. In 1940, despite the war, an 18-year-old would-be surrealist poet named Max Harris from Adelaide established a magazine named Angry Penguins, typically self-referential in that the name derived from a line in one of his own poems. His patrons were OzArt gurus John and Sunday Reed and Sidney Nolan. Angry Penguins promoted the avant garde in visual art and published poems of that nature.
In 1944 a couple of scallywag poets (and soldiers), James McAuley and Harold Stewart, aged 27 and 28 respectively, decided they’d had enough of Angry Penguins poetry and sat down together at Victoria Barracks in Melbourne one Sunday afternoon – it seems to be the appropriate time for cerebral activity – with a few random reference books, extracted likely looking words and phrases from them and produced 16 “poems” under the group title of The Darkening Ecliptic. They named the author Ern Malley, gave him a life story and a helpful sister, Ethel, and passed the poems off to young Max as the unpublished life work of the late, unknown Ern. Harris bit and printed the poems with suitable accolades. The secret didn’t last long and the two naughty boys were soon exposed as hoaxters in a Sydney tabloid named Fact and then in the Sydney Sun afternoon paper. Harris might have been embarrassed but not much: he insisted the things had literary merit and continued to do so over ensuing years.
There the situation might have rested . . . the tiny OzArt world squirming over the discomfiture of the Adelaide upstart while the giggling rest of the country got on with the war . . . when an idiotic Adelaide policeman named Vogelsang (true: in a case like this you couldn’t make up such a name) decided to charge Harris and Angry Penguins with indecency, in part because of the content of seven Ern Malley poems. An even more idiotic magistrate agreed with Detective Birdsong, on the basis of a law which even he conceded could have had Shakespeare in the dock. None of the content complained about would cause remark these days, let alone pursed lips or a raised eyebrow. Poor old Vogelsang would die of shame just by turning on the TV now.
And so Ern Malley escalated from a practical joke to a debate about sexual censorship and from there to an enduring discussion about, yep, “what is Art?” The perpetrators insisted they had not intended to show up Max Harris. They were conducting a serious literary experiment.
“For some years now we have observed with distaste the gradual decay of meaning and craftsmanship in poetry,” they wrote in a statement after the exposure. “Mr Max Harris and other Angry Penguins writers represent an Australian outcrop of a literary fashion which has become prominent in England and America. The 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 humourless 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. [Wow, what a line!]
“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?”
McAuley and Stewart then went on to describe in detail how they had gone about their Sunday afternoon, in one instance lifting a passage from an American report on the drainage of breeding grounds of mosquitoes and presenting it as the first three lines of one of Ern’s poems. Making up the Life of Ern took more time than composing his works.
The poems were accepted as brilliant, not only by Harris and co-editor John Reed but also by a lecturer in Australian literature at Adelaide University and an American poet who had some of them published in New York in an anthology of Australian verse.
“However,” wrote McAuley and Stewart, “that fact does not, as it might seem to do, prove a 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.”
So we come back, to our local critic Campbell and his concerns about prejudice, and to celebrated expat James and his line about free verse as a “requirement of liberty”. I suspect neither would want to go further and call the bypass of “bush verse” censorship, or at least a politically motivated act. But I don’t mind doing so. Chaos and continuous disruption, jagged forms and discord, rather than order and harmony and, dare I say it, beauty, are the elements of a certain kind of political activism, not merely in art, that is as glaringly apparent in these uncertain times as it was in Ern Malley’s wartime days.
McAuley and Stewart saw it: “Such a literary movement as the one we aimed at debunking . . . 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!) reactionary. 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.”
If that passage from deep in the past does not describe to you the current state of debate in Australia – and elsewhere – about important public policy issues, you haven’t been paying attention . . . or worse.
Ern Malley’s Poems was published by Landowne Press in 1961 with an introduction by Max Harris and a cover design by Vane Lindsay. In his introduction, Harris relates how the poems came to him, how he came to be told they were fakes and neither Ern nor Ethel had ever existed, and how he reacted to the news. The book reproduces the statement by the culprits and statements by various luminaries lauding the literary worth of the poems in a 1960 ABC documentary (which also included interviews with both McAuley and Stewart reiterating their views of 17 years before). The indecency prosecution is discussed and the magistrate’s judgement appended. Laudably, Max plays it straight most of the time, something he had a reputation for not always doing.
All the poems are reproduced in full, as first published in 1944, with one significant exception. McAuley and Stewart noted in their post-exposure statement that the last line of the last poem Petit Testament had been printed as “I have split the infinite”, whereas the manuscript read “I have split the infinitive. Beyond is anything”. The 1961 reprint dutifully reverts to “infinitive”. You would have thought the original editor (undoubtedly Max) might have paused over “correcting” infinitive to infinite and maybe had a little doubt. But if you’re 22 years old and you have a scoop . . .
Today Ern Malley has his own website (of course) and you can read all the poems there (http://www.ernmalley.com/malley_poetry.html). Make up your own mind as to whether McAuley and Stewart accidentally created Art. Max Harris had no doubt. “Perhaps the best answer,” he wrote, “was the phrase I used at 3 am and in a state of semi-somnolence (when Mr Colin Simpson [of the Sydney Sun] chose to phone me: ‘The myth is sometimes greater than its creators.’. . . The main statement of support came from Sir Herbert Read . . .”
This eminent English art historian, poet, literary critic and philosopher cabled Harris ahead of a letter: “I too would have been deceived by Ern Malley but hoaxers hoisted by own petard as touched off unconscious sources inspiration work too sophisticated but has elements of genuine poetry.” Read elaborated in his letter: “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 to be convincing he must use the poetic faculties. If he uses these faculties to good effect, he ends by deceiving himself. So the faker of Ern Malley.” Read praised some of the content but dismissed other bits as “merely sophisticated or silly”.
None of what the authoritative knight had to say addressed the central issue McAuley and Stewart raised in their statement – that the guardians of what is deemed by the fashionable to be great and good, no matter how stupid, routinely employ totalitarian methods to intimidate and to suppress dissent. The parade of praise for the Ern Malley oeuvre on the ABC 17 years after the event and the continued appreciation of The Darkening Ecliptic today rather proves the point. The authors said the poems were nonsense but the promoters of such stuff have simply refused to take any notice. The poems are Art.
I am reminded of a TV documentary I saw long ago in which the late David Bowie described a method he used for writing one of his famous songs (not being a fan, I can’t remember which one). He said he wrote down a stream of words on paper, cut them up individually, threw them down and then, one by one, picked them up and randomly put them together again. This sort of rubbish was carefully left out of the flood of praise in the voluminous obituaries. Bowie died in 2016, Harris and Stewart in 1995, McAuley in 1976 and Read in 1968. Ernest Lalor Malley b. 1944 – still going strong.