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Ern Malley Hoax

The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature

William H. Wilde,

Joy Hooton,

Barry Andrews

Ern Malley Hoax. 

The Autumn 1944 issue of Angry Penguins contained The Darkening Ecliptic, sixteen poems supposedly written by a recently deceased mechanic/insurance salesman named Ern Malley and sent to Max Harris, co-editor of Angry Penguins, by Ethel Malley, the sister of Ern Malley. On 25 June 1944 the Sydney Sunday Sun magazine section ‘Fact’ carried the news that the Ern Malley poems were a hoax, written by James McAuley and Harold Stewart. A statement by the co-authors in ‘Fact’ explained that their action stemmed from their anxiety over what they saw as ‘the gradual decay of meaning and craftsmanship in poetry’. McAuley and Stewart believed that the avant-garde poetry of the day was ‘insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination’. To put that belief to the test they compiled Ern Malley's ‘life-work’ in an afternoon with the aid of any books that lay within reach: the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a collection of Shakespeare's plays, a Dictionary of Quotations, Ripman's Rhyming Dictionary and an American report on the drainage of swamps where mosquitoes bred. In their words, ‘We opened books at random, choosing a word or a phrase haphazardly. We made lists of these and wove them into nonsensical sentences. We misquoted and made false allusions.’ The Ern Malley hoax was featured in the world press and a lively discussion ensued as to the literary merit of the concocted verses, which had been highly acclaimed by many literary experts of the day. The discussion was temporarily silenced by the action of the SA police in prosecuting Harris for the publication of ‘indecent advertisements’ in the form of some of the Ern Malley poems. A marathon trial followed and Harris was fined £5. More important than the hoax itself was the effect that it had on the development of Australian poetry. The vigorous and legitimate movement for modernism in Australian writing, espoused by many writers and critics in addition to the members of the Angry Penguins group, received a severe setback and the conservative element was undoubtedly strengthened. The Ern Malley controversy continued throughout the following two decades; Harris's views on it are given in the introduction to Ern Malley's Poems (1960), and in ‘Angry Penguins and After’, Quadrant (1963); James McAuley's attitude is given in ‘The Ferment of the Forties’ in A Map of Australian Verse (1975). Ian Kennedy Williams wrote Malarky Dry (1990), a fictional account of the hoax. The Poems of Ern Malley with commentaries by Max Harris and Joanna Murray-Smith was published in 1988, and the Collected Poems of Ern Malley with commentaries by Albert Tucker, Max Harris and Colin Wilson in 1993. The Ern Malley Affair by Michael Heywood, with an introduction by Robert Hughes, was also published in 1993.