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Angry Penguins and Tall Poppies: The life of a poet who never lived

Despite the overtures of various academics, and an Honi Soit editorial that declared “great poetry is always heretical,” Max Harris and his by now very Angry Penguins were held to have “depraved and corrupted public morality.”

Australian poetry in the first decades of the 20th Century was marked by a level of almost unmatched insularity and literary conservatism. Out of this haze emerged Max Harris, a poet and founder of Angry Penguins, a literary magazine whose modernist credo was a much-needed turning point. 

With the patronage of the noted modernist philanthropists John and Sunday Reed, Harris and his fellow Angry Penguins (as the magazine’s contributors were fittingly dubbed) began to mix with the glamorous and open-minded Heide Circle — a group of artists based at “Heide” in Melbourne. The Angry Penguins, with their output of innovative verse, found themselves at the avant-garde of Australian poetry. Apart from a devoted readership of painters and modernist poets, the Penguins published in respectable obscurity.

One day in August 1944 an envelope landed on Harris’ desk. It was a letter from a lady in Sydney along with some poems. She detailed how she had been going through her late brother’s effects, and found the verse

The poems in question were by one Ern Malley, a mechanic who wrote poems by night, living out his days as the archetype of a starving artist. The poems were surrealist. Ern Malley’s writing is distinct — because he never existed. Two soldiers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, came up with him in a few hours of bonhomie. Both men loathed Angry Penguins, as they perceived it as publishing meaningless poems. 

“Malley’s” verse was a hodge-podge, pulled from newspaper clippings, Shakespeare, and a paper on mosquito breeding. Max Harris had found his holy grail. He immediately declared Ern Malley to be “one of the most remarkable and important poetic figures” in history and published every poem in a special issue of Angry Penguins. For a time, the hoaxers were sure their plan had worked.

While McAuley and Stewart rested on their laurels, their fate was being sealed on the other side of the country. The hoax had gone to plan until the eagle eyed Honi Soit editor Murray Sayle, in a prelude to a later-distinguished career in the fourth estate, realised that the return address on Harris’ letter was from Stewart’s home, then still on the University’s files. Adelaide University’s On Dit, by “means of prompt student action” broke the story, and it made its way to the major metropolitan journals. The pair had been caught out, and Malley, for some time the doyen of modernism, was found to be a fiction.

Harris was arrested soon after the magazine was printed, and charged with “publishing immoral and obscene writings.” The trial was something of a legal circus. Prosecution witness Detective Vogelsang argued that the poems had a “suggestion of indecency” about them. Defence psychologist, Dr Reginald Ellery responded by saying that “the majority of persons were mentally lazy and would not interpret” the poems anyway. 

Despite the overtures of various academics, and an Honi Soit editorial that declared “great poetry is always heretical,” Max Harris and his by now very Angry Penguins were held to have “depraved and corrupted public morality.” Harris was fined Five Pounds. Angry Penguins soon folded under the weight of legal proceedings and the ensuing cultural malaise.

James McAuley remained one of Australia’s most influential poets in later life, though his career was always marred by the controversy the hoax generated. Harris himself continued to defend Ern Malley’s poems until his death in 1995. Ern Malley, that great artifice of surrealism, lives on post-mortem, his “heretical” verse appealing to readers as much as the ironic circumstances of his birth. Malley’s work later appeared in the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, ironically alongside James McAuley. I’m sure everyone concerned, from Harris, to McAuley and Stewart, would laugh at the fact that undergraduates 80 years after the fact still devote column inches to Ern Malley, the only fictional poet to ever be published.

Ern “himself” captured the mood of the affair very well:

“It is necessary to understand
That a poet may not exist, that his writings
Are the incomplete circle and straight drop
Of a question mark”

  • E. Malley.
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