Ern Malley and the Mithradatum of Arrogance

It's April Fool's Day.  Generally not an occasion I enjoy; I was the butt of too many "jokes" as a kid to appreciate them as an adult.  Also, it's confusing, because on some websites, like BOING BOING or TALKING POINTS MEMO, it can be hard to tell which posts are meant to be real and which the April Fool' hoax.

But here's an old hoax that I find rather appealing, because both hoaxed and hoaxers ended up hoist by their own petard:  Ern Malley, Australian Poet

Back in Australian poetry circles of 1944, there was a bit of antagonism between the traditionalist poets, using established formats and tropes, and the modernists, using symbolism and new styles like blank verse and free verse.

The leading figure among the modernists was a charismatic and brilliant fellow named Max Harris, who published a literary magazine, ANGRY PENGUINS, where modernist work and studies were presented.  Besides being well-liked and well-regarded, he was also a handsome fellow and popular with the ladies.  Whether that latter had anything to do with the friction between Harris and the traditionalist circles, I can't say, but it probably didn't help.

Two Australian traditionalist poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, came up with an idea to discredit the modernist school of poetry and humiliate Harris at the same time.  They wrote a set of sixteen poems, aping the modernist style, using what they considered the worst aspects of modernism.  They wrote, in their eyes, bad poems in a bad school of poetry.

They then created Ern Malley, unknown poet, dead poet, as the author of the poems, dead of Grave's Disease at a tragically young age, leaving only the sixteen poems as his legacy.  An equally imaginary sister, "Esther Malley", sent the poems to Harris, asking for an evaluation.

Harris published the poems in ANGRY PENGUINS, hailing the discovery of an accomplished (and tragically dead) new poet.

Then the truth came out.  And it was, indeed, embarassing and humiliating to Harris, that he'd been successfully fooled by two hoaxers.

Except... Harris stood by his judgment of the "Ern Malley" poems, insisting that they were worthwhile and meritorious, regardless of the true circumstances of their origin.

And... over the years, time has proven him right.  The Ern Malley poems have been reprinted numerous times, been the subject of critical studies, and inspired paintings and other art.  Whereas the traditionalist poetry written by Malley's creators has faded and vanished into the trashbin of history; they're remembered only for the merits of the poetry they wrote as "bad examples" of a poetry school they despised.

Max Harris went on past the embarassment of being hoaxed, becoming firmly established as one of Australia's distinguished men of letters before his death in 1995. 

Well, except for the obscenity trial.  Because the Malley poems contained a number of "sexual references", Harris, as the publisher of the poems, was brought to court on obscenity charges.  This was the bizarre icing on the hoax cake.  It's hard to believe that an obscenity charge could be seriously made even in the more Puritanical era of 1944.  From ernmalley.com, a description of one of the prosecution's arguments:
Detective Vogelesang, for the prosecution, insisted that Night Piece was obscene because: "Apparently someone is shining a torch in the dark, visiting through the park gates. To my mind they were going there for some disapproved motive ... I have found that people who go into parks at night go there for immoral purposes".
Even in 1940, that sounds like it would have been a stretch.   Reading that claim today, the pertinent words would be more along the lines of "mentally deranged".  Nonetheless, Harris was found guilty, although with a fairly light penalty, a five pound fine in lieu of six weeks in jail.

After the jump, I'll provide samples of both Ern Malley's and Max Harris' poetry.   Before that, though, a little craft project from cordit.org.au:

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.

-- Ern Malley

Mithridatum of Despair
We know no mithridatum of despair
as drunks, the angry penguins of the night,
straddling the cobbles of the square,
tying a shoelace by fogged lamplight.
We know no astringent pain,
no flecking of thought's dull eternal sea
in garret image, of Spain
and love...now love's parody.

See - chaos spark, struck from flint
and the plunging distemper, flare in the dawn's dull seep
of milkcart horse, morning horse
chaos horse, walking at three to the doors of sleep
with the creamy poison.
convulsions endure
from nine to five,
all life immure.
and still alive.

we know no mithridatum, nor the remembered dregs of fear,
the glass stands dry and silted; no end is near.

-- Max Harris

("Mithridatum", in this context, means "an antidote for poison".)


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