Michael Heyward The Ern Malley Affair.
Introduction by Robert Hughes.
Faber & Faber, 284 pages, $22.95
In October of 1943, the Australian poet and literary editor Max Harris received in the mail a group of poems by Ern Malley, a Melbourne-based poet who had recently died, at age twenty-five, of Graves’s disease. The poems had been sent by Ern’s sister, Ethel. Thinking he had struck literary gold —Malley’s poems were written in the surrealistic style Harris liked and hoped to plant on Australian soil—he published the poems in Angry Penguins, his forum for surrealism and anarchism. Harris fancied himself an enfant terrible. He once gave a talk on “Surrealism, the Philistines and You,” and wrote a poem about the Spanish Civil War, the subtitle of which was “death is non-existent: death is bourgeois.”
But Ern Malley was a hoax. James McAuley and Harold Stewart, two poets of a more traditional bent, had written the poems one spring day in 1943 while posted at an army intelligence unit in Melbourne, and had sent them to Harris with Ethel Malley’s bogus letter. The hoaxers hoped to take down a notch, not just nascent Australian surrealism, but the twenty-two-year-old Harris, whose ego and credulity knew no bounds. Harris’s mission, announced at the age of eighteen, was “to spark a revolution in Australian literature.”
The view of Harris’s defenders over the years—that the hoax was a deathblow to the Australian avant-garde—is rightly disputed by Michael Heyward, the Australian journalist who wrote The Ern Malley Affair. “An avant-garde in Australian poetry,” Heyward writes, is “a contradiction in terms.” But there is little else Heyward is on target about. He sympathizes more with Harris and the “Surreal boys,” as his followers were called, than with the hoaxers. (McAuley later edited the conservative journal Quadrant and became one of Australia’s best poets. Harris became a bookseller.) Heyward thinks, as Herbert Read did in the mid-1940s, that the Malley poems have merit, and that anyone would have been taken in by them. But Read was a tireless advocate of the avant-garde. Heyward is one too, and this is fine, except that he sometimes indulges in embarrassing critical commentary on the poems. “The sensation of reading a transcription of a life” in Malley’s poems, Heyward writes, “is powerful.” After the fraud was exposed, even Harris admitted finding “a certain gawkiness” in the poems.
The poems of Ern Malley—“Ernest” because the pranksters were not, and “Malley” as a diminutive of Mallarmé—are fine surrealist parodies, but nothing more: “The elephant motifs contorted on admonitory walls,” “the sound track like a trail of saliva,” etc. John Ashbery, who reprinted the poems in a 1961 issue of Locus Solus, describes how he once gave his creative-writing class at Brooklyn College two poems—one by Malley, the other by Geoffrey Hill—and asked the students to tell him which was the “serious” poem, which the spoof. Half the students thought that the Malley was the “real” poem. Heyward relates this anecdote with relish, but what it proves beyond the stupidity of undergraduates is unclear. The definitive remark in Heyward’s book is by Harold Stewart, who wrote in a 1942 review that there “is a fateful facility about … semi-surrealist verse … any poet of talent could produce a hundred lines of it a week.” Amen to that.
Robert Richmans book of poems, Voice on the Wind, was recently published by Copper Beech Press
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