If you take your creative work remotely seriously, you probably pride yourself on your good taste and critical judgement.
Just like Max Harris.
In the 1940s, Harris was one of the leading figures of the Australian literary scene. A noted poet himself, he edited the magazine Angry Penguins, which championed avant-garde modernist poetry. Gifted and charismatic, Harris enjoyed provoking Australia’s conservative poetry establishment by praising and publishing surrealist poems in his magazine.
Although he attracted a close circle of like-minded poets, Harris was frustrated by Australia’s failure to produce a great modernist poet who could rival masters such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
Then one day, he received a letter from a lady introducing herself as Miss Ethel Malley from Croydon, accompanied by a sheaf of poems by her late brother Ern Malley. Although she was ‘not a literary person’ she had been advised by a friend that they were ‘very good’ and ‘should be published’. She asked Harris if he would be so kind as to let her know ‘whether you think there is anything in them’.
Harris read and re-read the 17 poems with increasing excitement. Their experimental modernist style was very much to his taste. He thought there was a great deal in them – so much so that he devoted an entire issue of Angry Penguins to their publication and commemoration of Australia’s lost modernist master.
But the Ern Malley edition of Angry Penguins didn’t quite produce the desired response. One of Harris’s former university lecturers, Brian Elliott, praised the poems in a review – but accused Harris of writing them himself, in an attempt to hoax the public.
Harris strongly denied the accusation, going so far as to hire a private detective to investigate Malley’s background and prove the authenticity of the poems. But when the detective drew a blank, Harris started to become concerned.
Concern jolted into alarm when he was woken at 2 a.m. by a journalist full of questions about the poems and their origins. Shortly afterwards, a Sydney newspaper broke the news that there never had been an Ern Malley nor an Ethel Malley in Croydon.
Speculation filled the Ern Malley-shaped void. Some still suspected Harris of writing the poems himself. Harris himself, knowing he was not short of enemies, suspected several leading writers of concocting the hoax – perhaps together.
Will the Real Ern Malley Please Stand Up?
The suspense was ended by the university newspaper On Dit, which exposed poets James McAuley and Howard Stewart as the hoaxers. They claimed to have knocked up the poems in an afternoon, producing deliberately bad poetry in order to test Harris’s critical judgement:
We opened books at random, choosing a word or phrase haphazardly. We made lists of these and wove them in nonsensical sentences. We misquoted and made false allusions. We deliberately perpetrated bad verse, and selected awkward rhymes from a Ripman’s Rhyming Dictionary.
McAuley and Stewart were hostile to avant-garde poetry in general and Angry Penguins in particular, and made the most of their opportunity to rub it in:
Mr. Max Harris and other Angry Penguins writers represent an Australian outcrop of a literary fashion which has become prominent in England and America… The distinctive feature of the fashion, it seemed to us, was that it rendered its devotees insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination.
Our feeling was that by processes of critical self-delusion and mutual admiration, the perpetrators of this humourless nonsense had managed to pass it off on would-be intellectuals and Bohemians, both here and abroad, as great poetry.
However… it was possible that we had simply failed to penetrate to the inward substance of these productions. The only way of settling the matter was by way of experiment. It was, after all, fair enough. If Mr Harris proved to have sufficient discrimination to reject the poems, then the tables would have been turned.
When the full extent of the hoax got out, it was open season on Harris, whose reputation never recovered. Few people were convinced by his defiant claim that the poems had intrinsic merit, regardless of their origin. To add insult to injury, he found himself in court when some of the Ern Malley material was judged to be indecent and immoral. He lost the case and was fined five pounds.
Although Ern Malley never existed, he had a significant impact on Australian poetry – according to The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, genuine modernist poetry ‘received a severe setback, and the conservative element was undoubtedly strengthened’.
In one final twist of irony, Ern Malley turned out to be by far the most memorable literary creation of either James McAuley or Howard Stewart.
For more details of this fascinating story, check out the official Ern Malley site.
It Couldn’t Happen to You… Could It?
I have mixed feelings about the Ern Malley affair. On the one hand, it’s hard not to share the conspirators’ glee in exposing the pretensions of a man who arguably should have known better.
But having edited a poetry magazine myself, I can’t help feeling some sympathy for Max Harris. I’m pretty confident of my literary judgement and I’m proud of the selection of poems I made for my issue of Magma. But as I waded through the thousands of poems in my inbox, there were moments when I could feel the ghost of Ern Malley hovering over me. How could I be sure, the ghost whispered, that I wasn’t rejecting a masterpiece or accepting a piece of codswallop?
No doubt there are one or two poets out there who would argue that I did miss out on a masterpiece. And I’m pleased to report that (so far) none of the poets I selected has been exposed as a hoaxer. But for me, Ern Malley serves as a reminder that we are all fallible.
Who knows which of us will next find ourselves wearing the Emperor’s New Clothes?
Over to You
Is it possible to establish ‘objective’ critical standards in any creative field – or will judgments always contain an element of subjectivity?
Could the Ern Malley affair only happen in a ‘fine art’ like poetry – or can you think of any examples in commercial creative fields?
How do you sharpen your critical judgement? Have you made any memorable gaffes? (Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with us. 😉 )
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.