Who Gets the Last Laugh?
by Neal Whitman, Poetry Prof
Last month we celebrated April Fools’ Day with a tribute to the “Ern Malley” hoax. To recap: two poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, published poems they concocted under the name of Ern Malley. I learned of this gag when I decided to fill in a gap in my home library with a copy of The Penguin Book of Australian Poetry edited by John Tranter and Philip Mead. There I found the Ern Malley poems which the two editors placed right after the poems of James McAuley – there are no poems by Harold Stewart. I find interesting that McAuley and Malley are each given 15 pages in this anthology. Why include the bogus poems, written as gibberish, at all? Tranter and Mead explain:
The inclusion of all the ‘Ern Malley’ poems may at first appear a controversial one; the hoax poems of this collaborative persona have never been anthologized in any substantial way. But it should become apparent how important they are, not as literary curiosities, but as an important work in their own right with an influential role in the poetic ferment of the 1940s …
James Mcauley died in 1976, but Harold Stewart was still living in 1991 (he died in 1995) when this Penguin anthology was published. So, I wonder how Stewart felt when he saw that none of his poems appear there and what he thought of the editors’ comment:
… the enigmas and paradoxes (of Malley’s poems) still captivate new generations of readers in a way that McAuley’s or Harold Stewart’s other work seem less able to do.
So, I wondered what became of these two poets.
James McAuley spent some time in New Guinea which he regarded as his second “spiritual home,” and, at time of his death at age 59, was teaching at the University of Tasmania. A brief geography lesson:
The island of New Guinea is separated from Australia by the Torres Straits. Its Western half was a Dutch colony and now is part of Indonesia; the Eastern half was governed by Australia and now is an independent state.
Tasmania is an Australian island and state 150 miles south of the continent and is dubbed by some, “island of inspiration.”
One literary achievement of note followed his conversion from the Anglican Church to Roman Catholicism when he collaborated with a musician, Richard Connolly, and produced the most significant collection of Australian Catholic hymnody to date, “Hymns for the Year of Grace.”
He found his footing in Japan where he studied Buddhism and haiku – he moved there permanently in 1966. When I read this on the Internet, I got that “a-ha” moment and went to my bookshelf. Oh, that Harold Stewart. Not long ago I found in a used bookshop, A Net of Fireflies. It is a 1960 collection of haiku translated by … Harold Stewart! I bought the book because of its curious approach to translating haiku: Stewart uses titles and renders each haiku as a rhymed couplet. I will spare you his lengthy justification. I am not a fan, but could not resist this odd book. Let me leave you with two versions of my favorite Basho haiku. Let you be the judge.
on a bare branch
a crow settled down
translated by Jane Reichhold
The End of Autumn
Autumn evening: on a withered bough
a solitary crow is sitting now.
translated by Harold Stewart