Ern Malley and the Art of Life

By | 1 December 2010

During a panel at the 2010 Salt on the Tongue poetry festival in Goolwa, SA, one audience member slammed performance poetry as being ‘more about the poet than the poetry’. Their intention was to damn performance poetry as an inferior genre – the under-educated, over-celebrated, buck-toothed cousin of real literature. Inadvertently, though, the comment hit upon a much bigger issue than that same tired line in the sand. As a sometimes performance poet sitting just a few rows back, I was not so much insulted as amused by the attack. Yes, I thought to myself, there’s a grain of truth in that – perhaps not more, but often as much – but how is page poetry any different?

Take Ern Malley. When James McAuley and Harold Stewart cooked him up, they gave him a bio befitting the archetypical tragic poet: dead-end jobs, a failed relationship, tragic illness and death at the sweetly Keatsian age of twenty-five, never recognised in his own lifetime, his work kept secret, a la Emily Dickinson, from even his family until after his death …

Max Harris later mused:

I was offered not only the poems of this mythical Ern Malley, but also his life, his ideas, his love and his death… For me, Ern Malley embodies the true sorrow and pathos of our time. One had felt that somewhere in the streets of every city was an Ern Malley… a living person, alone, outside literary cliques, outside print, dying, outside humanity but of it.

That Malley was unlucky in love brings an extra intensity to lines like:

I have remembered the chiaroscuro

Of your naked breasts and loins.

For  you were wholly an admonition

That said: ‘From bright to dark

Is a brief  longing. To hasten is now

To delay.’ But I could not obey.

and Malley’s awareness of his own terminal illness offers a grim context for Petit Testament, which begins:

I find myself to be a dromedary

That has run short of water between

One oasis and the next mirage

And having despaired of ever

Making my obsessions intelligible

I am content at last to be

The sole clerk of my metamorphoses.

and ends:

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 infinite. Beyond is anything.

Would things have played out differently if Ern had been living? If he had been a well-fed lawyer and swinging voter? A stamp-collecting debt collector? A preacher? A police officer? A woman? Furthermore, what if the hoax had never been revealed? Would Ern’s poetry still have racked up dozens of reprints in countries all over the world?[ref]Ibid 10.[/ref] Would there have been a Children Of Malley I, let alone a Children of Malley II?

McAuley and Stewart intended the revelation of the hoax to prove that surreal poems were ‘nonsense … devoid of literary merit as poetry.’ But over the long term Malley’s poems have arguably toppled the hoaxers’ more ‘genuine’ works. Malley has provided inspiration for numerous artists including Sidney Nolan[ref]Ibid 56-63.[/ref] and Garry Shead and for writers such as Peter Carey and Elliot Perlman. There have been so many Malley spin offs that, like “Robinsonade”, it is practically a genre in itself. As John Reed observed, ‘the myth has overwhelmed its creators.’

Further supporting Reed’s observation, Malley is the focus of numerous essays, academic papers, theses and critical analyses.[ref]Ibid 10.[/ref] Interestingly – or perhaps ironically – many of these investigate the psychologies of the hoaxers themselves. Rundle claims that ‘the answer to the riddle of Ern Malley’ can be found ‘in James McAuley – in his frustrations, his fears and the terrible splitting of his soul’. Rundle also explores the possibility of unexpressed sexual tension between McAuley and Stewart. In terms of validity, such theories lie wide open to challenge. But validity is not the point here. The point is that theories exist – in such abundance that Stewart finally wondered whether ‘perhaps neither McAuley nor I ever existed except in the imagination of Ern Malley’. In other words, readers are concerned as much – if not more – with the poet(s) as with the poetry.

Similar phenomena can be found in other literary and artistic identity scandals. Helen Darville used the name Helen Demidenko and feigned Ukrainian heritage to give a ring of authenticity to her novel, The Hand That Signed The Paper, which relates events of the holocaust in the Ukraine. The book received initial praise, but was slammed when Darville’s real identity was revealed. Darville’s writing has more or less faded into obscurity, but fascination with the Darville/Demidenko character and her performance of the hoax persists. In the art world there was Aboriginal artist Eddy Burrup – really Elizabeth Durack, a white Australian. Durack’s supporters described Eddy Burrup as ‘a work of art in [him]self’ and a character in the story “his” paintings told. I stress here that I by no means intend to defend Durack’s actions, but am fascinated by the concept of authors as characters. Traditionally, authors are considered extra-textual – existing outside the text. But in the cases of Malley, Demidenko and Burrup the authors, both “real” and invented, can be seen as intra-textual – existing within their texts as literary devices.

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