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It Might Have Started in 1582

by Neal Whitman, Poetry Prof

Yes, it might have been the year that the Gregorian Calendar was introduced and New Year’s Day was moved from April 1 to January 1. News traveled more slowly back then and folks who still got the day wrong were said to be fools.

A wonder of the Internet is that news travels today in nanoseconds. Another wonder is the ability to make friends we might never meet in person. Back in my school days in the 1950s, we had pen pals. A boy in Manitoba, Canada, and I exchanged a few letters and then it petered out when we could not think of much more to say once we got beyond who was in our families and where we went to school. Now I have “email-pals” all over the world, mostly poets. One of them is a poet in Australia, Lorin Ford [she said it would be okay to tell you her name]. She is a highly regarded haiku poet and has won many awards, so I feel lucky that she has time for me. Right now she is busy editing haiku for A Hundred Gourds [haikugourds@gmail.com]. A few months ago I asked her to recommend an anthology of Australian poetry to fill a gap in my home library. I took one of her suggestions and bought a used copy (on the Internet, of course!) – The Penguin Book of Australian Poetry edited by John Trantner and Philip Mead. In their Introduction, I read:

… in 1944 the figure of a hoax poet, ‘Ern Malley,’ appears on the scene – a ghostly presence designed to self-destruct and take Modernism with him into the void.

Malley’s poems were given fourteen pages in this not-quite-500 page tome. A-ha! A subject for my April 1 Poetry Prof feature. I profess: I like a good joke. Malley poems are in print and there is a book about the hoax, out of print. In the spirit of our Internet age, here I am going to rely in part on The Official Ern Malley Website recommended by Lorin: www.ernmalley.com.

The seeds for the hoax begin in 1940 when 19-year-old University of Adelaide student, Max Harris, founded a poetry journal, Angry Penguins. The title came from a Harris poem…

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.

Two traditional poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, offended by the badness of the purported modernism here, thought it would a great gag to invent a modernist poet and submit wacko poems in his name. Thus, there in the autumn 1944 issue of Angry Penguins we first see the work of Ern Malley. The two culprits also were successful in getting Ern a book contract for Malley’s entire corpusThe Darkening Ecliptic. The jokesters, in fact, made Malley a corpse! They concocted a biography that Ernest Lalor Malley was born in Liverpool in 1918 and migrated as child to Australia with his parents and older sister, Ethel. He became an insurance salesman in Sidney and, after his death from Grave’s Disease in 1943, Ethel found this pile of his poems. McAuley and Stewart wrote to Harris, as Ethel, asking if he thought the stuff was any good.

Harris published Malley’s poems in Angry Penguins and wrote in tribute [grab a hanky, okay?]  –

Ern Malley prepared for his death quietly confident that he was a great poet, and that he would be known as such. He prepared his manuscript to that end — there was no ostentation nor the exhibitionism of the dying in the act. It was an act of calm controlled confidence. He treated death greatly, and as poetry, while undergoing the most fearful and debilitating nervous strain that a human being could possibly endure.

The Adelaide Daily Mail got wind that it might all be a hoax – perps cannot help themselves  – they leave clues and want to be found out. Harris hired a private dick, and soon the whole affair was exposed. Angry Penguins folded, but, in an act of defiance, Harris put out a new journal from 1951 – 1955, Ern Malley’s Journal, and re-published Malley poems! All seventeen poems appear in the Tranter and Mead anthology. These all are short poems and below is the Coda to “Colloquy with John Keats.”

We have lived as ectoplasm
The hand that would clutch
Our substance finds that his rude touch
Runs through him a frightful spasm
And hurls him back against the opposite wall

We know that there are three muses for poetry: Calliope for epic, Polythymnia for sacred, and Erato for love poetry. I wondered if there was a patron saint for poets. Answers.com answered: “If poetry has a patron saint, he’s been looking the other way lately.” Well, whether he or she is loafing, you would be a fool not to be able to take a good joke. Next month, let’s catch up on Malley’s two inventors. Preview: they were not one-trick ponies.

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