T h e D e v i l a n d J a m e s M c A u l e y
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In Australia McAuley's distaste for modernism fixated the Angry Penguins, edited by the Adelaide poet Max Harris and funded by the wealthy Melbourne art patron John Reed. He loathed everything about "the Angry Pungwungs" and detested the self-obsessed pretensions of its youthful editor above all. At twenty-two Harris already had two published collections of poetry and had established a national reputation, while McAuley, four years his senior, had a manuscript of poems no one wanted to publish. Harold Stewart too had been lambasting Max Harris in Honi Soit for a couple of years before he joined the army. In 1942 he opined that Harris's second collection of surreal poetry read like rough drafts and that "any poet of talent could produce a hundred lines of it a week...once you get the knack it's no harder to do than a free association test". It was pretensious nonsense, they agreed, and Harris needed to be taken down a peg or two.
On one idle afternoon in October 1943 when Corporal Stewart and Lieutenant McAuley found they had L Block to themselves, they too had hit upon the idea of constructing some hoax surrealist poems which they would pass off on their literary bete noire as the work of an unknown, deceased poet, Ern Malley. It took them an afternoon and evening, working in tandem, with McAuley doing most of the writing, to produce sixteen finished poems. They started the process with one of McAuley's abandoned early poems, 'Durer: Innsbruck 1495', which they included almost without change. In other poems they parodied and manipulated bits and pieces of their own work with free association from anything else they could lay their hands on. Their guiding principle was that there would be no coherent theme and that any meaning would be confused at best. About ten o'clock that night they were satisfied they had the complete Malley oeuvre. Stewart typed up the poems the next day in the research library, carefully mistyping and erasing as he went. The manuscript was further refined by being rolled in the dust and aged in the sun.
The whole collection was called The Darkening Ecliptic and carried an epigraph of "an old proverb" which they concocted: Do not speak of secret matters in fields full of little hills. Its preface was a self-satisfied piece of nonsense including such gems as "When thought, at a certain level and with certain intention, discovers itself to be poetry" and "Simplicity in our time is arrived at by ambages".
The hoaxers also created a life history for Ernest Lalor Malley, a mechanic from Taverner's Hill in Sydney's inner west (the actual site of Fort Street Boys High School). Born in 1918, Malley was dead of Graves' disease at twenty-five, nursed in his final days by his sole relative, his sister Ethel, of 40 Dagmar Street, Croydon. It was Ethel who discovered the poems in a battered suitcase under the bed in the spare room where Ern had breathed his last. She showed it to her friendly local librarian who told Ethel about a magazine which published poetry called Angry Penguins. Perhaps they would welcome her brother's legacy. On 28 October 1943, writing in backhand and using his own sister's address, Stewart penned a letter to Max Harris:
Dear Sir, When I was going through my brother's things after his death, I found some poetry he had written...it would be a kindness if you could let me know what you think of them. I am not a literary person and I do not feel I can understand what he wrote but I feel I ought to do something about them...As the hoaxers constructed Ethel Malley during an ongoing correspondence with Max Harris, she became as rich a literary invention as her poet brother. For Stewart and McAuley she represented the philistinism of the families they had escaped, the "apotheosis of the lower middle-class female...snooty, tight-lipped and righteously indignant about her brother having 'lived' and written 'poetry' yet morally obliged to see its publication". Harris thought the "almost illiterate" woman was thoroughly stupid for failing to understand the poems and for thinking they were "the product of her brother's illness and its effect on his mind". Instantly he read them he could see they were "among the most outstanding poems I have ever come across". When he had received the full manuscript, Harris was so excited by his remarkable poetic discovery he decided to devote a whole special issue to Malley.
McAuley and Stewart were consumed with glee that Harris had taken the bait so completely. Not even the scant biographical details Ethel had supplied had given the game away. When the special Malley edition of Angry Penguins came out they were both delighted beyond measure by the huge importance the magazine had given their creation, although they had to enjoy the spoils of their hoax apart as Stewart was in the Concord military hospital recoving from an operation. "It is a sheer joy", he wrote to Donald Friend, whom he'd let in on the secret. "All those lovely baby garments which Maxie knitted for his foundling child." Stewart had also told his secret to another friend in Sydney, who was a cadet journalist for the Sunday Sun. Seeing the poems in print she thought it was time to blow the cover and run the story Stewart had promised. The newspaper organised a two-way phone hook-up with Stewart in Sydney and McAuley in Melbourne. Grudgingly the hoaxers agreed that an exclusive story could run in the Sunday Sun supplement, Fact.
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AHR/ Ed Board/ Cassandra Pybus
Community of Thieves/ Gross Moral Turpitude/The Devil and James McAuley
Till Apples Grow on an Orange Tree/ White Rajah