Post Number: 39
|Posted on Thursday, January 21, 2010 - 04:51 pm: ||
Do you know about Ern Malley? Do you know that story? I'll tell you.
It was i`````````````````````````````````````````'''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''' n Australia, during the war, the middle 40s. Australia, you know, was always a bit of a backwater. It was never much for the Modernist sort of literature but it had one you know little magazine the kind which prints incomprehensible material and everyone loves it. It was called Angry Penguins. Angrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry Penguinnnnnnnnnnnnns. Its editor was Max Harris, and he was charismatic and indefatigable and argumentative. There were people who loved Max Harris. There were people who hated him. Once a group of these latter got together and tossed him in the river. The river was called The Torrens and it was a sunlit winter's day in 1941. But he was none the worse for it. Max Harris was bringing Modernism to Australia with a vengeance, you know, T.S.E., Dylan Thomas, modernism. And Max Harris was a fearsome Moderrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrn poet himself. He was a young man, really, in his 20s, and full of energy.
Oh, but there were others who had energy too. They say, when you hated people in those days you really hated them. The war was on and so there was an official enemy to hate. But whom could one hate at home? Two young men in the army, also in their 20s, hated Max Harris and they hated Modernism. Their names were Harold Stewart and James McAuley. It was a Saturday afternoon in early October 1943.
Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart were at their desks in the general office of L Block at the Victoria Barracks. They were the rostered CO and NCO on duty at their outfit, the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs. The barracks...is a handsome, Georgian-style bluestone building, fronted by lawn, palms and oranamental cannon on St Kilda Road, the leafy boulevard that sweeps from the south-east across the Yarra River into the city--but L Block, a little to the west of the main building, was a scruffy old weatherboard shed with a tin roof. [Narrative passages in italics are from Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair (London: Faber and Faber, Limited, 1993.]
Stewart and McAuley decided to play a marvelous joke. They decided they would invent a poet, a modernist poet, and they would call him Ern Malley. They would say that Ern Malley died young, like Keats, but that he had a sister Ethel who had discovered some of his poetry after his death. Ethel of course couldn't pretend to judge her brother's poetry, but she was sending a sample to Max Harris to find out if it had any merit.
Amid great hilarity, and in very little time, McCauley and Stewart produced a sheaf of poems, enough for a small book, and they sent some to Max Harris.
Max Harris fell for it hook line and sinker. Poor Ern, the hoaxers told him through the medium of Ethel, was a garage mechanic. He had never shown his poetry to anyone. Was it any good? Here is one of the poems they sent:
Durer: Innsbruck, 1495
I had often, cowled in the slumberous 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.
Is it good? Max Harris thought it was very good. Here at last was an Australian modernist. The backwater had finally joined the 20th Century. True, the young man had died. But the tragedy of his death was mitigated by the fact that here, preserved, was a slim volume of his work, appropriately titled The Darkening Ecliptic. A special issue of the magazine was prepared and published.
Then the news broke. It was all over the newspapers.
Modernism in Australia has never been the same. Of course it has never been the same anywhere else either.
But the hoaxers were by no means the winners in all this. They had the first, not the last laugh. It has been pointed out that the poetry written by Harold Stewart and James McCauley as Ern Malley was better than anything they published under their own names. Were the deceivers themselves deceived? Is it possible that by parodying the modern idiom they were worked upon by the same forces which produced the modern idiom? Zeitgeist flashes in funny ways and chooseth whom it will.
In the mid-seventies, at Brooklyn College, John Ashbery would, in the exam for the creative writing course he taught, print without attribution one of Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns...beside a poem by Ern Malley, and tell his students: "One of the two poems below is by a highly respected contemporary poet; the other is a hoax originally published to spoof the obscurity of much modern poetry. Which do you think is which? Give your reasons.”
As Michael Heyward tells us:
The hoax is the most fascinating thing Angry Penguins ever published. In cooking up their poet to a satirical recipe, McAuley and Stewart threw into the brew a seasoning of anarchic intelligence and comic self-laceration. Writing pretentiously, they described a mind so aware of pretension that it debunks itself with aplomb. In the end, Malley is really unlike the sort of grandstanding, romantic surrealism he mocks. It pays to remember that two very different temperaments and personalities were constructing the work without bothering to smooth the edges. Like a medium possessed by a host of spirits, Ern Malley freely exhibits his multiple consciousness. There is not one Ern Malley but several, and they are all mutually exclusive characters. There is Ern Malley, the black swan of trespass, the native modernist talented enough to turn the poetic tradition of his country on its head. There is Ern Malley the jejune and modish experimentalist who does belly-flops in his attempt to look significant. There is the Ern Malley who bravely stares his own death in the face, and the Ern Malley who slyly tells the reader he never was. All these writers were essential to the hoaxers' fiction. Each contradicts the others and helps give the poetry its dizzy, speeded-up quality, as Malley rifles through his composite self.
Ern Malley may never have existed, but, at this point, like the “real” Keats, he is nothing but literature. And literature is notoriously free. It can mean anything. Which do you think is which? Give your reasons.
Ern Malley writes,
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 infinitive. Beyond is anything.
Melanie L Huber
Post Number: 101
|Posted on Thursday, January 21, 2010 - 08:55 pm: ||
HA! I would have totally fallen for Ern Malley's poetry too!
Question: Was there a "right" answer to Ashbery's test??? What was it?
Post Number: 40
|Posted on Friday, January 22, 2010 - 12:41 am: ||
Well, there was a "right" answer insofar as the student could identify which was which correctly. But I think the point was the thinking process engendered. Ashbery said the two passages came out about fifty-fifty as to which was a spoof and which was serious. Have you ever read "Mercian Hymns"?
There are moments when Ern is clearly parodic, but they are only moments and can usually be ignored if the reader so chooses. Remember, a hoax is not the same thing as a parody. When I read this piece to an audience, I read the poem and ask, as the text says, "Is it good?" People are uncertain. They were expecting to laugh at this silly poem and they get lines like "I am still / the black swan of trespass on alien waters." (Black swans are a very Australian phenomenon.) The poem genuinely raises the issue of the relationship of Australia to English literature.
Ashbery himself came across a copy of the Ern Malley Angry Penguins issue when he was a student at Harvard--and he liked the poems very much.
Post Number: 2
|Posted on Monday, February 01, 2010 - 12:22 am: ||
Today I watched a movie DVD of “My Kid Could Paint That” a documentary directed by Amir Bar-Lev. Have you seen or heard of it? Experts praise the four year old girl’s work as amazing, colorful, alive and visionary. Galleries present her work, and articles were written about her in magazines. Some of her abstract paintings have sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
But was it a hoax? Was it an inspired lie which inspired fascinating artworks which in turn are fine abstracts? Paintings which could be admired.
Works which the father encourage, directed by shaping his daughter’s original art into something more? Adding flourishes, making the paintings something more alive and free than his own realist paintings and more complex than her innocent paint dabs alone. Would the Art Market have cared to propel the child into limelight and so profitably for father and daughter collaborations.
Her father, states in the film that he’s always thought abstract art was a scam. One of his own paintings sold for a good price, but it took him years to complete. Was this a hoax, a way of getting back at modern art and was surprised to find how far he could get away with it. Since the video has come out, her more recent paintings have remained unsold. Makes me think it’s an interesting page from something of The Ern Malley story: “ Two very different temperaments and personalities were constructing the work without bothering to smooth the edges.”
Post Number: 44
|Posted on Monday, February 01, 2010 - 12:44 am: ||
Oh, there are plenty of hoaxes, certainly.
Did you yourself think the work was "amazing, colorful, alive, and visionary"?
As the Ern Malley story suggests, who knows what forces are working on us when we make something? Mind is multiple, and while we may think we're telling one story, we may really be telling another. Sounds like a fascinating film!
One of Orson Welles' late films, F is for Fake, was about an art forger.
Post Number: 3
|Posted on Monday, February 01, 2010 - 01:11 am: ||
Jack, I did think the work was alive and colorful. The energy of the child visible and something else there tantalizing. Looked attractive to me, but I've never seen the actual paintings, which were quite large apparently. I only saw through to what the documentary chose to allow.
I'll have to look up that Orson Welles film!
Staff Sherry OKeefe
Post Number: 214
|Posted on Monday, February 01, 2010 - 09:50 am: ||
this has been on my mind recently:
As the Ern Malley story suggests, who knows what forces are working on us when we make something? Mind is multiple, and while we may think we're telling one story, we may really be telling another.
now, reading this thread of yours, looks like it'll remain on my mind for some time, yet!
Staff John Riley
Post Number: 32
|Posted on Monday, February 01, 2010 - 10:45 am: ||
I might have been duped, but the poem doesn't strike me as much of a parody of Modernism. It's filled with the type of Victorian sap Modernism was created to escape:
"slumberous heavy air/Closed my inanimate lids"
"quiet reflecting waters."
If I was duped, I would have been upset at myself for not being able to tell the difference. It would have done little to convince me Modernism is a hoax.
Post Number: 45
|Posted on Monday, February 01, 2010 - 06:17 pm: ||
Remember that this was the 1940s. British Modernism at that time had a different face from the kind represented by, say, William Carlos Williams. Think of Dame Edith Sitwell or Dylan Thomas or George Barker. Here is a stanza from one of Barker's poems:
Not less light shall the gold and the green lie
On the cyclonic curl and diamonded eye, than
Love lay yesterday on the breast like a beast.
Not less light shall God tread my maze of nerve
Than that great dread of tomorrow drove over
My maze of days. Not less terrible that tread
Stomping upon your grave than I shall tread there.
Who is a god to haunt the tomb but Love?