Night Piece

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This week’s Friday funny, brought to you as ever by author and journalist Eugene Byrne, concerns an event that is widely regarded as one of the most notorious literary hoaxes in history. But did the joke end up being on them or the ‘literary fashion victims’ they were sending up?

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Night Piece

The swung torch scatters seeds
In the umbelliferous dark
And a frog makes guttural comment
On the naked and trespassing
Nymph of the lake.

The symbols were evident,
Though on park-gates
The iron birds looked disapproval
With rusty invidious beaks.

Among the water-lilies
A splash — white foam in the dark!
And you lay sobbing then
Upon my trembling intuitive arm.

The story

One Saturday afternoon in the autumn of 1943, Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart were kicking their heels at the Victoria Barracks, Melbourne. Both had desk jobs with Australia’s Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs, both had similar literary tastes, and both were bored…

They decided to pull what would become one of the most notorious literary hoaxes in history, though in the end it’s impossible to tell whether the joke ended up being on them, or on the literary fashion-victims they were sending up.

They invented a modernist poet called Ern Malley. They knocked out a load of Malley’s verse that afternoon, enough to fill the obligatory slim volume (titled The Darkening Ecliptic), then cooked up a biography for him. Ern had been a mechanic and an insurance salesman before dying young. He’d written poetry in his spare time, but none had been published. Now, his equally fictitious sister Ethel had found some of them when going through his effects…

Stewart and McAuley, pretending to be Ethel, wrote to Max Harris, editor of Angry Penguins magazine. ‘Ethel’ said she was no judge of poetry, but a friend had told her Harris might be interested in her brother’s work…

Stewart and McAuley disliked Max Harris and everything Angry Penguins stood for. Harris was a surrealist poet and commentator, a charismatic figure still in his 20s, and his magazine was dedicated to bringing the modern and the avant-garde to Australia.

Harris fell for it. He showed the poems to various literary friends and they, too, loved it. Here, at last, was a genuine Australian modernist in the same class as Dylan Thomas or W.H. Auden. He devoted a special edition to his new discovery.

When the hoax was revealed, the Australian press gleefully followed the story for weeks, loving the way the pretentious arty crowd had got its comeuppance. Both McAuley and Stewart went on to successful literary and academic careers, but both are mainly now remembered for knocking out what they thought was a lot of bad poetry in a single afternoon. Harris got over his embarrassment and went on to be a successful commentator and newspaper columnist.

He also said that Ern’s poems did have literary merit. The American poet and academic John Ashbery also claimed he used to get his students to study an Ern Malley poem beside one by a “proper” poet, setting the essay question: “One of the two poems below is by a highly respected contemporary poet; the other is a hoax originally published to spoof the obscurity of much modern poetry. Which do you think is which? Give your reasons.” About half of them spotted the hoaxer, the other half would get it wrong.

For more on the Ern Malley hoax, including the complete poems, see issue 17 of Australian online literary magazine Jacket.

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