Friday, June 26, 2009


The Resurrection of Ern Malley, 2004, Garry Shead

The longest-lived - and it would seem, best loved - in Australia’s tradition of literary frauds however remains that of Ern Malley. The hoax was perpetrated upon the doyen of literary modernism of the 1940s, the dandy Max Harris, by a couple of enlisted poets who reckoned poetry without your traditional rhyme and meter to be fit for little but the settees of poseurs and show ponies.

James McAuley and Harold Stewart concocted the poems as “a serious literary experiment” to see if the modernist push could discern “the real product from consciously and deliberately concocted nonsense”. But really it was a joke Joyce, intended to humiliate men in cravats.

Purporting to be the sister of the now-deceased Malley, they sent Harris a group of poems under the title The Darkening Ecliptic. He took the bait down the gullet, splashing news of the new poet Ern Malley across the Nolan-painted cover of his avant-garde journal Angry Penguins.

The gleeful exposure of the hoax detonated a depth-charge in the literary arts of the 1940s so powerful that ripples from it are still being felt today. Peter Carey revisited it in his novel My Life as a Hoax, and last year Griffith Review published six poems by John Stephenson written as new and previously undiscovered Malleys, as a humorous homage.

Artist Garry Shead has long meditated upon the hoax and the poems themselves - and as did Sidney Nolan with the Ned Kelly legend, and later Malley too - and produced a series of paintings from 2000-2006 just published in a book titled The Apotheosis of Ern Malley. (The book was first issued last year, but Shead was disappointed with the standard of reproduction, and it has now been re-released in a new edition.)

Shead - perhaps best known to the literary world for his 1993 Archibald Prize-winning portrait of publisher Tom Thompson as a quizzical Richard III - interleaves the original poems with paintings reflecting on their themes, and upon the act of concocting them by the uniformed servicemen McAuley and Stewart.

His works meld a poignantly passionate lyricism with wry wit and accomplished painterly panache. They are works too of a high romanticism, in which poetic endeavour triumphs over the meanness of the mundane world.

Shead depicts Ern Malley as a poet who in Poem, 2006, sits enraptured in a poetic trance before his typewriter while a magpie flutters in with his laurel wreath in its beak, and a naked young woman lingers on his bed - an image of Keatsean romanticism down to the screwed up pages tossed onto the floor.

Meanwhile, in The Darkening Ecliptic, 2006, we have seen the uniformed soldier schemers McAuley and Stewart concocting their Malley verses while a woman (the Muse?) stands turned away at the window.

Depicted as a Christ-like figure, Ern Malley with his laurel wreath for a crown of thorns rises from death (and failure) in The Resurrection of Ern Malley, 2004, while the soldiers scarper from the room, and his verses are reassembled on the floor under the gaze of the seeming Muse.

As such, Shead has wrought from the Malley legend a figure of a poet who is mocked by the world, but who in the end triumphs from beyond death (and life) through his works. Bizarrely enough, McAuley and Stewart even presaged this in their own lines, “Now I find that once more I have shrunk/ To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,/ 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.”

To some people, the abiding appeal of the Ern Malley affair is something of a mystery itself, but at its core is a debate which for decades was hotly pursued in Australian artistic circles and has echoes today in various arguments about postmodernism: the entire modernist enterprise. McAuley and Stewart were poets who resented the rush and gush of modernism coming our way from Britain, Europe and US, in all its too-clever allusiveness, and, in the case of some works, its seemingly purposeful obscurantism.

The irony though is that in sending it up and humiliating modernism’s champions here, McAuley and Stewart created poems that transcended their own petty designs. Put bluntly, to many readers the Ern Malley poems are more resonant than any of the “serious” works of McAuley and Stewart. After all, Ern is still being read and discussed: they are not.

Indeed, the poems unwittingly question of the origin of creativity, and it would seem a fair hypothesis that in allowing themselves the liberty to “play”, and bypassing their own stylistic and conventional bonds, McAuley and Stewart penned works of lasting note despite themselves.

As Barry Pearce puts it in his Preface to The Apotheosis of Ern Malley, after quoting one of the poems, “Who cannot be startled by the electric edge of such lines? These pithy, cobbled together phrases plucked randomly from dictionaries, science journals and even throwaway lines by Shakespeare, are as intriguing as fragments of the unconscious aesthetic of nature laid out on a laboratory table and arranged with a fresh, free-associating eye. Something new was made.”

In his Introduction, Sasha Grishin, the Sir William Dobell Professor of Art History at ANU, reflects on the issue of authorship raised through the Ern Malley episode, remarking “What does it mean to be an author? Does it matter that there may be uncertainty as to the exact identity of the bard from Stratford-upon-Avon? Does it matter that none of Shakespeare's original dramatic manuscripts has survived in an autograph copy?” And here of course we come full circle back to postmodernism, to Barthes and his “death of the author” and his “tissue of quotations”.

Thus we have the irony of two “bored Sydney poets” who wrote all sixteen of the Malley poems “on a lazy Saturday afternoon in October 1943”. How could they have known that in spite of their actual intentions they were creating poems which Professor Grishin remarks “are some of the most famous and controversial poems to have ever been published in Australia, and have received widespread recognition internationally.”

The irony is that the larrikins who created Ern Malley were conservatives, not radicals; that they were trying to resist change, instead of creating it. The irony is too that without them exposing their hoax, the poems would have subsided into the pages of an obscure literary journal of 1940s Australia, and, like nearly all poetry ever published, lie forgotten amid its brittled pages.

In engineering the hoax, and then in exposing it, they created Ern Malley, and they made us look at “his” poems. Yet he does not exist - he never did. Who was he then but them, McAuley and Stewart, aspects of themselves they were afraid of, or discounted, even despised; their creative selves who despite themselves conjured the ghost of a “deceased” nonentity, and through his voice uttered their most enduring verses.

What better figure, then, for an artist to invoke in paint, a literary phantom whose works came to dwarf their puny creation? No wonder Shead draws upon religious iconography in some of the works of this book - and little wonder too in its title. No wonder either that some of the most arresting works depicted are Shead's beautifully decorated ceramic urns. 

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 13-14 June 2009

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