Ern Malley was hailed as one of Australia's greatest poets. But he didn't exist (2024)

In 1944, 23-year-old Max Harris was an Adelaide-based poet and co-editor of modernist art and literary journal Angry Penguins.

In that year's edition, he featured the poems of Ern Malley who, it was said, had died the year before, aged 25.

But in publishing these poems, he fell for one of the greatest literary hoaxes in Australian history — and made Ern Malley a household name for all the wrong reasons.

A fateful letter

Author Stephen Orr says that in the 1940s, while modernism had been popular in Europe for decades, Australia still hadn't embraced the movement.

"We'd continued writing poems about gum trees and so forth," he tellsPaul Barclay on ABC RN's Big Weekend of Books.

Harris, who was a fan of modernist poets such as Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot, had established Angry Penguins with friends in 1940 while they were undergraduates at the University of Adelaide.

The journal featured modernist poetry — including Harris's own — and soon attracted the attention of Australia's literary establishment.

John Reed — who, with his wife Sunday, hosted artists such as Sidney Nolan and Joy Hester at their property, Heide, in Melbourne — sought out Harris and became co-editor of the journal.

In October 1943, Harris received a letter from Ethel Malley of Croydon, New South Wales.

Ethel wrote that her brother Ernest — or Ern, as she called him — had died after months of illness. When she was sifting through his things after his death, Ethel had found some of Ern's poetry.

According to Ethel, Ern had never mentioned writing poetry and, although she admitted she did not understand the poems, a friend of hers had told her they were good and should be published.

Harris agreed.

"He thinks they're wonderful," Orr says.

"They're very modernist, very bizarre — little bits of facts and bits of lists, strange images … it's all over the shop."

Harris shared the poems with John Reed and others,who confirmed his view that the poems were excellent.

And so, in 1944, Angry Penguins devoted an entire issue to Malley's poetry. Sidney Nolan painted a work for the cover.

Ern Malley was hailed as one of Australia's greatest poets. But he didn't exist (1)

Harris wrote an introduction to the edition outlining Malley's short life and untimely death, as described by his sister.

"I am firmly convinced," wrote Harris, "that this unknown mechanic and insurance peddler is one of the most outstanding poets that we have produced here."

Yetwithin weeks, it emerged that neither Ern Malley, nor his sister Ethel, had ever existed.

Doubts emerge

Orr says Reed had doubts "quite early on" about the veracity of the Malley poems.

"He knew certain people were out to get them and make them look silly," Orr says.

Soon after publication, a University of Adelaide literature lecturer publicly declared that he believed Harris had authored the poems himself.

The Adelaide press followed the controversy, reporting rumours that Malley was actually literature professor and crime writer J.I.M. Stewart, aka Michael Innes.

Student bookmakers reportedly started offering odds on the poet's true identity.

Adelaide University student newspaper On Dit teamed up with Sydney University equivalent Honi Soitand discovered the address given by Ethel Malley was in fact the residence of Sydney poet Harold Stewart.

Then within days, Stewart and fellow poet James McAuley released a statement admitting they were behind the hoax.

Ern Malley was hailed as one of Australia's greatest poets. But he didn't exist (2)

McAuley and Stewart, both in the army, said in the statement they believed modernist poetry to be "humourless nonsense".

"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."

Speaking to the ABC in 1959, McAuley said the pair disagreed with modernists such as Harris "over the nature of inspiration".

He said theAngry Penguins journal was part of a wave of art and poetry that was "a surrender to irrational forces" and "a devaluation of the capacities of consciousness in artistic production".

Stewart claimed the "literary experiment" showed how contemporary criticism had brainwashed people into losing both their sense of humour and their sense of beauty.

Ern Malley was hailed as one of Australia's greatest poets. But he didn't exist (3)

"You will get people listening to Musique Concrete or looking at the most hideous Picasso and saying 'Isn't it beautiful', unable to tell … how hideous it really is," Stewart said.

Poetry on trial

Some in Adelaide regarded the Ern Malley poems to be not just uglybut obscene.

On August 1, Harris was visited by police asking questions about his involvement in the publication of the Ern Malley poems.

He was thencharged with "indecent publication".

"Essentially, there was a few lines and a few poems that, if you use your imagination, might be someone going into a park to have sex or someone gaining an erection," Orr says.

"You had to work at it to get to those conclusions, though."

In 1959, Harris told the ABC that at times the court case was "hilariously funny".

"In order to prove the poems were indecent, immoraland obscene they had to find meanings," he said.

"On the other hand, they were wanting to have their cake tooand say this was meaningless nonsense."

Harris was found guilty, fined £5 and ordered to pay an additional £21 in legalcosts.

"Max was really damaged by it," Orr says.

But while "he never really recovered as a poet," Orr says, "he did amazing things in his life".

These include running the Mary Martin Bookshop in Melbourne, writing a columnfor The Australian and founding the Australian Book Review.

McAuley went on to be founding editor of conservative literary journal Quadrantand later headed University of Tasmania's English Literature department.

Stewart became known as a Buddhist scholar and translator of Japanese haiku. He moved permanently to Japan in 1966.

Poems live on

While the dead poet behind them proved to be fictitious, the poems themselves went on to have a life of their own.

More than a decade later, artist Albert Tucker saidsome of the writing was"superb", while Sidney Nolan said that they gave a new grace to Australian poetry.

"I think there's a certain kind of gentle eroticism in the poems, which doesn't occur in any other Australian poet," he said.

The poems and their story have inspired artists, writers and musicians in the decades since the hoax.

In 2009, Heide (now a museum of modern art) held an exhibition of artworkinspired by Ern Malley.

Peter Carey's 2003 novel My Life as a Fake is loosely based on the affair.

And most recently, Orr's novel Sincerely, Ethel Malley reimagines Ern's sister as a living breathing character.

"Ethel to me, just reading those couple of letters, jumps off the page as a sort of part Dame Edna Everage, part … [Patrick White character] Elizabeth Hunter," Orr says.

"I wanted her to contact Max, I wanted her to get on a train and travel across to Adelaide and for them to stay in a flat and edit — everything else that came that never really happened, I wanted that to happen.

"That's what writers do, I guess, is we want something there and it's not there, so we make it ourselves."

Hear Stephen Orr talk more with Paul Barclay about his book Sincerely, Ethel Malley — as well as his thoughts on the Ern Malley affair —as part of ABCRadio National's Big Weekend of Books.

Ern Malley was hailed as one of Australia's greatest poets. But he didn't exist (2024)


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