Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ern Malley and Angry Penguins: from the ridiculous to the sublime

There is probably not a single university student in Australia studying literature who hasn’t heard of Ern Malley and Angry Penguins. The controversy is over sixty years old, and it’s not going anywhere. There is a moral to the story, but nobody seems exactly sure what it is.

In 1944, Max Harris, poet and editor of the modernist magazine Angry Penguins, published the complete poems of Ern Malley. The poems had been sent to him by Ern’s sister, who had unearthed them among her brother’s possessions after his death at age 25. She knew nothing about poetry herself, she claimed, but a friend suggested she send them to Harris.

Ernest Lalor Malley was a part-time insurance salesman and mechanic. He was born in Liverpool in the UK but emigrated to Australia as a child. He left school at fourteen.  He lived -- and died -- in poverty and obscurity, ignoring his own health while he scribbled out his fierce, passionate poetry in a rented room in Sydney. 

Ern Malley, by Sidney Nolan

Harris believed that Ern Malley was a poet with a “cool, strong, sinuous feeling for language”. He believed that Malley was one of the best poets Australia had ever produced. This is an extract from “Durer: Innsbruck, 1495”

I had read in books that art is not easy
    But no one warned that the mind repeats
          In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
        the black swan on trespass on alien waters.

The police were less enthusiastic. They believed the poems were smut, and Max Harris was prosecuted for publishing indecent material. Detective Vogelesang stated that “Night Piece” was obscene because “…someone is shining a torch in the dark, visiting though the park gates…I have found that people who go into parks at night go there for immoral purposes.” He also objected to the word “incestuous” although he admitted he didn’t understand what it meant in the context of Malley’s work. It didn’t matter. Max Harris was found guilty, and fined five pounds.

In a very short time, Ern Malley had become Australia’s most famous, scandalous poet. He was the poster boy for the intellectual battle between the traditionalists and the modernists, between conservative and liberal. He was reviled, and he was championed. The media couldn’t get enough.  

Small problem: Ern Malley didn’t exist.

Ern Malley was the creation of James McAuley and Harold Stewart, two conservative poets who wanted to discredit Max Harris, modernism and the avant-garde movement. The poems, the hoaxers believed, were nonsense. They had deliberately created them to have no coherent theme, no technique, no consistency and no meaning.

It worked. When the truth came out, Max Harris was a laughing stock. So were the police and the courts.

 Except it also didn’t work. Because even though they hadn’t intended to do it, McAuley and Stewart had created real poetry that resonates. 

The poetry of Ern Malley is a reminder that meaning is something for the reader to discover, and that any work is more than the sum of its parts. It is a reminder that the intent of an author might not count for anything, and that the value of a work lies in its interpretation not its execution. It’s a reminder that the law is an ass, and it’s a reminder that there is a very fine line between parody and accidental genius. 


The scandal is over sixty years old, and nobody is still quite sure who won. Not Max Harris, who spent the rest of his life defending himself for having fallen for the hoax, and not McAuley and Stewart, whose “serious” work was never as successful as Malley’s poetry. Maybe the real winner is Ern, the little battler who overcame non-existence itself to become one of Australia’s most famous poets.

As Ern wrote (or didn’t):

I have split the infinite. Beyond is anything.


For more on Australia’s greatest literary hoax, go here: Ern Malley.

15 comments:

  1. I love hearing these types of stories! I had never heard of Ern Malley or Max Harris, or this hoax, so thank you for sharing a unique glimpse into Australian culture!

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  2. This is a great story. How funny the police were involved. I cannot imagine that kind of censorship. I bet they were pissed when they found out it was all a hoax.

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  3. That is so incredible. I'd never heard of it before, but this is both hilarious and very instructive. Thanks Jen!

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  4. What a fascinating story! Amazing, the twists and turns of it. Thanks for sharing :-)

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  5. Hi everyone! I'm glad you liked it! The Ern Malley hoax is quite famous in Australia, but probably not well known overseas so I thought I'd share it.

    @ Alleged Author -- I imagine there were some very red faces for the police and judges when the the truth came out. It says a lot more about the way their minds worked if they looked at "nonsense" and saw smut than anything else! A side effect was it also showed people how ridiculous the censorship laws at the time were.

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  6. This blows my mind. I've never heard this story before, but I love it! It definitely speaks to my understanding of fiction: it doesn't matter what the author's intention is, its only matters how the readers receive and respond to it! Thanks for sharing

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  7. Thanks Brit! Glad you liked it. It is a great story!

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  8. That ones goes on my "best true stories I've ever heard" list. Thanks for sharing.

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  9. Thanks Cacy! I'm waiting for someone to turn it into a movie, but tragedy or farce? Who knows? Nobody came out of it well!

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  10. Amazing. And I love how, in giving up all pretense, the hoaxers created their most popular work.

    By the way, did anyone come out of it with some cash? It looks like Harris was given the copyright with the poems.

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  11. Glad you enjoyed it, Steve.

    The copyright is still being debated. Harris had the copyright in his lifetime, as the fictional Ethel -- Ern's sister -- gave it to him. He actually did continue to publish the poems throughout his lifetime.
    Recently the solicitors representing the estates of McAuley and Stewart have made moves to try and get back the copyright (even though McAuley and Stewart made no attempts while they were alive), so the saga is still continuing!

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  12. hah, love that, how things can get twisted and misconstrued and how something meaningful can come from nothing :)

    Girl Friday

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  13. Thanks Girl Friday! I feel the same way!

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  14. I have followed this story for a long time...but then I am Australian. I believe the two poets were having a go at Max Harris. In a funny way though I believe the laugh is on them in the end. They may have found thier lines on the back of weeties packets and tinned food but there were two minds and two unconsciousnesses putting it all together. It is coherent nevertheless. The Australian Establishment was the real target.

    BTW I have just found your site.

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  15. Hi Christine! I agree that the laugh is on McAuley and Stewart, because some of the poetry they created is wonderful! The legal system and the censors come out looking the silliest though!

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