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 madmenAnd uncertaintyAnd potential mental losses.
Rarely is the question askedIs our children learning?Will the highways of the internetBecome 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 fishCan coexist.
Families is where our nation finds hopeWhere 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 despairas 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.
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.
Durer: Innsbruck, 1495By 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 spiresAnd 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 shrunkTo an interloper, robber of dead men's dream,I had read in books that art is not easyBut no one warned that the mind repeatsIn its ignorance the vision of others. I am stillThe 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 seedsIn the umbelliferous darkAnd a frog makes guttural commentOn the naked and trespassingNymph of the lake.
The symbols were evident,Though on park-gatesThe iron birds looked disapprovalWith rusty invidious beaks.
Among the water-liliesA splash — white foam in the dark!And you lay sobbing thenUpon 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 ageI find myself to be a dromedaryThat has run short of water betweenOne oasis and the next mirageAnd having despaired of everMaking my obsessions intelligibleI am content at last to beThe sole clerk of my metamorphoses.Begin here:
In the year 1943I resigned to the living all collateral imagesReserving to myself a man’sInalienable right to be sadAt his own funeral.(Here the peacock blinks the eyesof his multipennate tail.)In the same yearI said to my love (who is living)Dear we shall never be that verbPerched on the sole Arabian TreeNot having learnt in our green age to forgetThe sins that flow between the hands and feet(Here the Tree weeps gum tearsWhich are also real: I tell youThese things are real)So I forced a partingScrubbing 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 livedThe bed-bug sleeps in the seam, the cockroachInhabits the crack and the careful spiderSpins his aphorisms in the comer.I have heard them shout in the streetsThe chiliasms of the Socialist ReichAnd in the magazines I have readThe Popular Front-to-Back.But where I have livedSpain weeps in the gutters of FootscrayGuernica is the ticking of the clockThe nightmare has become real, not as beliefBut 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 speakingThough in this No-Man’s-language appropriateOnly 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 wiseAnd seizing the co-ordinates of all existenceTraces the inevitable graphAnd in conclusion:There is a moment when the pelvisExplodes like a grenade. IWho have lived in the shadow that each actCasts on the next act now emergeAs loyal as the thistle that in sessionPuffs 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 strikesThe façade of an era it manifestsIts insidious relations.The windowed eyes gleam with terrorThe twin balconies are breastsAnd at the efflux of a period’s errorIs a carved malicious portico.Everyman arrestsHis motives in these anthropoid erections.
Momentarily we awake —Even as lately through wide eyes I sawThe promise of a new architectureOf more sensitive pride, and I cursedFor the first time my own obliteration.What Inigo had built I perceivedIn a dream of recognition,And for nights afterwards struggledHelpless against the chokingSands of time in my throat.