Seven decades after its composition, no one is quite sure. For it is part of a celebrated hoax that fooled the critics and set modern poetics askew….How Ern Malley got the last laugh….
The intemperate torch grazed
With fire the umbel of the dark.
The pond-lilies could not stifle
The green descant of frogs.
We had not heeded the warning
That the iron birds creaked.
As we swung the park-gates
Their beaks glinted with dew.
A splash — the silver nymph
Was a foam flake in the night.
But though the careful winds
Visited our trembling flesh
They carried no echo.
Is the above poem worthless, a masterpiece or an elaborate hoax?
Few satisfactions can match that of watching the experts be made fools of through their own credulousness. During WWII, ripples of merriment circled the globe with the revelation that Australia’s newly discovered bard, Ern Malley, whose posthumously published poems had aroused great interest in literary circles, was not merely dead but had, in fact, never lived, being the fictional creation of two young soldiers with time on their hands.
The creators of Ern Malley had a serious purpose in mind: to demolish the ten current poetic fashion of pretentious obscuritanism by holding it up to ridicule. In publishing their handiwork, the two Malley-factors triumphantly made their point. Yet they have been punsihed too, in a way they could hardly have foreseen, for their pseudonymous creation became, in the words of critic Brian Elliott, “an Australian culture-hero, a figure ten feet tall” who, like some unstoppered genie, not only towers above his creators, but threatens to outlast them as well.
The saga began one day early in 1944 in the Adelaide office of the avant-garde magazine Angry Penguins. It was so called from a line of poetry by its twenty-two year old founder and chief editor, Max Harris: “Drunks, the angry penguins of the night.” Harris opened an envelope bearing a Sydney postmark and drew from it two typed sheet
d a letter written in a round schoolgirl hand over the signature of one Ethel Malley.
“When I was going through my brother’s things after his death,” she wrote, ” I found some poetry he had written… It would be a kindness if you would let me know whether you think there is anything in them.” Turning to the poems, Harris read the one entitled Durer: Innsbruck, 1495:
I had often, cowled in the slumberous heavy air,
Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,
As I knew it would be, the colourful spires
And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back,
All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters —
Not knowing then that Dürer perceived it too.
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. I am still
the black swan of trespass on alien waters.
Harris was impressed, the poem itself was original, the imagery striking, the tone gratifyingly contemporary…( to be continued)