Saturday, July 3, 2010

Angry Penguins and Ern Malley

The Robin Williams / John Travolta movie Old Dogs has a scene in which they break into a zoo and find themselves in the penguin enclosure, watched by hundreds of sweet looking penguins, that is until the penguins become hostile and attack, prompting our heroes to yell “Angry penguins.” Whether that was intended to be a reference to Australia’s greatest literary hoax is unlikely but it did bring that incident to mind for me.

Not only is the hoax an illuminating, cautionary tale, it raises issues of the fundamental nature of literature and art and as to what constitutes good and bad art.

Before looking at the Angry Penguins incident, consider the poem “Make the Pie Higher”:
I think we all agree, the past is over.
This is still a dangerous world.
It's a world of madmen
And uncertainty
And potential mental losses.

Rarely is the question asked
Is our children learning?
Will the highways of the internet
Become more few?
How many hands have I shaked?

They misunderestimate me.
I am a pitbull on the pantleg of opportunity.
I know that the human being and the fish
Can coexist.

Families is where our nation finds hope
Where our wings take dream.
Put food on your family!
Knock down the tollbooth!
Vulcanize society!
Make the pie higher!
Make the pie higher!
Good or bad poetry? Does it read like Dylan’s lyrics such as in “A Hard rain’s Gonna Fall” or “Things Have Changed”, or a series of modernist glimpses, thoughts and scenes? It is actually a poem created by Richard Thompson of the Washington Post, who put together various statements of former President George W Bush. These statements, which came to be known as “Bushisms”, were often nonsensical or mangled.

The quotations are examined at:

Angry Penguins was a modernist magazine of the 1940’s, the first issue being released in 1940, published by a surrealist poet Max Harris. The magazine gave rise to an avant garde Australian literary and artistic movement also known as the Angry Penguins. The name came from one of Harris’s poems, 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.
According to Harris, it was his intention to foster "a mythic sense of a geographical and cultural identity", a total change in the Australian national self-perception.

Max Harris

The movement attracted artists such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and James Gleeson. The magazine was among the first to publish the work of Dylan Thomas in Australia, but the success of the magazine drew opposition from conservative literary quarters, headed by poet and critic A D Hope. Modernism in art and literature was firmly opposed by the conservatives, who saw it lacking discipline, quality and beauty and who regarded it in many instances as nonsense.

Two mediocre poets, Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart, in the army and stuck at Victoria Barracks, decided to show up the modernist movement. Although both had been involved in the Bohemian scene before entering the army, both preferred early modernism to that promoted by Harris. Both lamented "the loss of meaning and craftsmanship" in poetry and both were hostile to the well-funded Angry Penguins magazine.
James McAuley 
Harold Stewart
Durer: Innsbruck, 1495
By Ernest Lalor Malley

I had often cowled in the slumbrous heavy air,
Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,
As I knew it would be, the colourful spires
And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back,
All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters -
Not knowing then that Durer perceived it too.
Now I find that once more I have shrunk
To an interloper, robber of dead men's dream,
I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters.
McAuley and Stewart later wrote:
"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."
Night Piece
-Ernest Lalor Malley

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.
What McAuley and Stewart did was to write deliberately bad poetry. They took lines from their own poems and extracts and words from various other sources - the American Armed Forces guide to mosquito infestation, the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a Collected Shakespeare and a Dictionary of Quotations. They also used words as they cropped into their heads.

"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.”
Petit Testament
- Ernest Lalor Malley

In the twenty-fifth year of my age
I find myself to be a dromedary
That has run short of water between
One oasis and the next mirage
And having despaired of ever
Making my obsessions intelligible
I am content at last to be
The sole clerk of my metamorphoses.
Begin here:

In the year 1943
I resigned to the living all collateral images
Reserving to myself a man’s
Inalienable right to be sad
At his own funeral.
(Here the peacock blinks the eyes
of his multipennate tail.)
In the same year
I said to my love (who is living)
Dear we shall never be that verb
Perched on the sole Arabian Tree
Not having learnt in our green age to forget
The sins that flow between the hands and feet
(Here the Tree weeps gum tears
Which are also real: I tell you
These things are real)
So I forced a parting
Scrubbing my few dingy words to brightness.
Having written 17 poems, they then invented the author, Ernest Lalor Malley. According to a letter by Ern’s sister. Ethel, to Max Harris in 1944, her brother Ern was an insurance salesman who had died alone at the age of 25 in May 1943. She enclosed his poetic works that she had found among his personal papers and, stating that she knew nothing of poetry, she asked for his opinion. She also stated that it had been suggested by a friend that the poems be sent to him.

The poems made up a sequence called The Darkening Ecliptic. The first poem in the sequence was Durer: Innsbruck, 1495 (above).
Petit Testament continued:

Where I have lived
The bed-bug sleeps in the seam, the cockroach
Inhabits the crack and the careful spider
Spins his aphorisms in the comer.
I have heard them shout in the streets
The chiliasms of the Socialist Reich
And in the magazines I have read
The Popular Front-to-Back.
But where I have lived
Spain weeps in the gutters of Footscray
Guernica is the ticking of the clock
The nightmare has become real, not as belief
But in the scrub-typhus of Mubo.
Harris loved the works, as did others he consulted, including Sidney Nolan and John Reed. The poems were published in the 1945 autumn issue of Angry Penguins, with Sidney Nolan painting a work specially for the cover (above). Reed & Harris subsequently published the poems in book form under the title of The Darkening Ecliptic. They were enthusiastically received. Even the British literary critic Herbert Read was taken in, extending the hoax beyond Australia.
Petit Testament continued:

It is something to be at last speaking
Though in this No-Man’s-language appropriate
Only to No-Man’s-Land.
Set this down too:
I have pursued rhyme, image, and metre,
Known all the clefts in which the foot may stick,
Stumbled often, stammered,
But in time the fading voice grows wise
And seizing the co-ordinates of all existence
Traces the inevitable graph
And in conclusion:
There is a moment when the pelvis
Explodes like a grenade. I
Who have lived in the shadow that each act
Casts on the next act now emerge
As loyal as the thistle that in session
Puffs its full seed upon the indicative air.
I have split the infinite. Beyond is anything.
It wasn’t long before the hoax was revealed. It made front pages of the newspapers and remained news for weeks. Harris was humiliated but sought to salvage his credibility by claiming that McAuley and Stewart, by adopting the persona of Ern Malley, had freed themselves to write quality. Their works as Ern Malley, he said, was their only real poetry and, whether they thought so or not, they had written poetry of genius in trying to perpetrate a hoax. McAuley and Stewart disagreed. They maintained that they had written deliberately bad poetry and that Harris and his followers had been unable to tell the difference.

What happened to them?

- Angry Penguins folded not long after, primarily due to the consequences of a libel suit but aided by the loss of credibility as a result of the hoax.

- Max Harris recovered from his humiliation and even sought to capitalise on his notoriety. From 1951 to 1955, he published another literary magazine, which he called Ern Malley's Journal. In 1961, as a gesture of defiance, he re-published the Ern Malley poems. He became a successful bookseller and newspaper columnist and died in 1995.

- McAuley published several volumes of poetry and was one of the founders of the literary journal Quadrant. From 1961 he was professor of English at the University of Tasmania and died in 1976.

- Stewart settled permanently in Japan in 1966 and published two volumes of translations of traditional Japanese poetry which became best-sellers in Australia. He died in 1995.

On the downside, it is generally now accepted that the Ern Malley hoax had the effect of strengthening the position of the conservatives in literature and art and setting back modernism in Australia.
Baroque Exterior
- Ernest Lalor Malley

When the hysterical vision strikes
The fa├žade of an era it manifests
Its insidious relations.
The windowed eyes gleam with terror
The twin balconies are breasts
And at the efflux of a period’s error
Is a carved malicious portico.
Everyman arrests
His motives in these anthropoid erections.

Momentarily we awake —
Even as lately through wide eyes I saw
The promise of a new architecture
Of more sensitive pride, and I cursed
For the first time my own obliteration.
What Inigo had built I perceived
In a dream of recognition,
And for nights afterwards struggled
Helpless against the choking
Sands of time in my throat.

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