BOOK REVIEW / Sting in the tale of Ern: 'The Ern Malley Affair' - Michael Hayward: Faber, 15.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IT WOULD have surprised hoaxers and poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart, in 1943, to be told that the poet they had just invented, Ern Malley, would become a name as famous in Australia as the bushranger Ned Kelly and the racehorse Phar Lap. Kelly was Irish right down to his prose style and Phar Lap was bred and raised in New Zealand, so Ern could be called the most authentic Australian icon of them all.

Many of the reasons for this are extra-poetical, or even anti-poetical. His name is a stroke of genius: it distils Australian-ness - the Christian name abbreviation followed by a different spelling of the scrub area of north-western Victoria, which is a kind of waste land. Then the 16 poems collected under the title The Darkening Eclectic, the testament of an unknown genius who died tragically young, are recondite, allusive and strangely authoritative, about as un-Ernish and un-Mallee-like as they could be.

The perfect scandal worked from the beginning. To Australia's small avant-garde, Ern Malley was the apotheosis of talent surviving philistine neglect: to the public at large and to the custodians of literary orthodoxy, his fabrication exploded the pretensions and delusions of Modernism, though that term was hardly current at the time. The upshot was satisfactorily noisy - journalists sneered, artists counter-attacked, literary experts pontificated and everything declined into farce in an obscenity trial at which a constable named Vogelsang discussed Shakespeare and sex. Australia momentarily became literary news around the world and Ern gained sympathisers and admirers in Britain and America. One view says the Ern Malley Affair put Australian poetry back decades; another that all poets there today are really of the Tribe of Ern.

The bare bones of the affair are well enough known. To discredit Australia's burgeoning avant-garde publication, Angry Penguins, edited by Max Harris in Adelaide, two traditionalist Sydney poets serving in an army intelligence unit produced all 16 Malley poems in one afternoon. They intended to test Harris's credulity as an editor. This was not a burlesque act and was quite unlike Noel Coward's inept and philistine parody of the Sitwells. Ern's life's work was skilfully compiled by erudite men whose purpose was to exaggerate to the point of imbecility characteristics of the poetry esteemed by Harris. Ern can sound like Dylan Thomas or the English New Apocalyptics, but just as frequently suggests more venerated masters such as T S Eliot. His work has a wide command of English literature and European art and history. It also contains direct quotations from swamp-draining manuals and other unpoetic texts in a manner which became commonplace in the experimental Sixties. For McAuley, Stewart, A D Hope and others, Modernism was pretentious and obscure. These men were not simplifiers or philistines. Ern Malley may have been aimed at Harris in his role of provincial Messiah, but the ultimate target was European and American Modernism. His creators were genuine radicals, not practical jokers.

The skilful creation of Ern's life - his surviving sister who found his manuscripts, his mysterious career in Sydney and Melbourne, and his lonely death - took much longer than composing his oeuvre. Nevertheless, it is hard for a modern reader to credit Harris's belief in Malley's existence. He had his doubts, but he suppressed them in his eagerness to discover a poet of real talent in Australia's somnolent literary life. Harris believed that the true Australian poet must put himself into relation with the general stream of European poetry and feeling. This is a truism no longer popular in Australia after so many years of academic culture and critical theory, but it was even more heretical when Harris pronounced it.

Among Hayward's achievements is his recreation of the peculiar atmosphere of wartime Australia, a period of instability, fear and enforced leisure. America had saved the country from the Japanese, but Australia's intellectuals could not travel abroad and were festeringly at odds with each other at home. The poetic movement immediately before Malley had been the nationalist Jindyworobaks, to which Harris had originally belonged. Ern verses had just the right tone of international knowingness to put such home-grown stuff in the shade: 'Java: / The elephant motifs contorted on admonitory walls, / The subtle nagas that raise the cobra hood / And hiss in the white masterful face. / What are these mirk channels of the flesh / That now sweep me from / The blood-dripping hirsute maw of night's other temple / Down through the helpless row of bonzes / Till peace suddenly comes: / Adonai: / The solemn symphony of angels lighting / My steps with music, o consolations]'

The future did not turn out as the participants expected. Harris ended up a columnist in Murdoch papers, McAuley became a Catholic and a Cold War warrior, writing hymn-tune stanzas until his last dark works before his early death. Stewart, the only survivor of the Affair, lives as a Buddhist in Kyoto. Despite his fame at home, he claims never to have written a single line about Australia. Perhaps the chief moral of Malley is a warning to poets not to let theory dominate intelligence. A poet's well-stocked mind should go into his poetry and not be kept for his polemic. If McAuley and Stewart had put seriously into their verse what they introduced parodically into the Malley hoax they'd have written more interesting poetry. But the last word stays with Ern:

Poetry: the loaves and fishes,

Or no less miracle;

For in this deft pentacle

We imprison our wishes.