Wednesday, 30 March 2011

It's Friday ... and Ern Malley

A post at Language Log - Gang Fight - just featured one of any number of parodies of Rebecca Black's much-ridiculed teen stream-of-consciousness It's Friday; with Gang Fight, this was done by lip-reading the song, and then redubbing with the garbled lyrics. However, there are many more: three of my favourites are the purported Bob Dylan original and Meat Loaf cover (both of which rise above their parodic origins to give surprising sensitivity to completely banal lyrics), and Handsome Mike's Acting Masterclass (in itself ridiculing an acting style all too common in bad productions of Beckett monologues).  There are some fine parodists out there.

On the subject of parodists, Language Log also just featured a passing reference to Ern Malley.  Malley was the Impostures Intellectuelles  of the Modernist poetry circuit in 1940s Australia: a fictious poet created by the writers James McAuley and Harold Stewart as a hoax on the modernist magazine Angry Penguins.

The poems comprised a sequence of seventeen by an "Ernest Lalor Malley", sent to Max Harris, the editor of Angry Penguins, by Malley's also-fictitious sister Ethel, starting with:

Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495

I had often cowled in the slumbrous 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 Dürer 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.

Harris was taken in, but on publication, the hoax was rapidly exposed. McAuley and Stewart explained how they had put the poems together in an afternooon by a process quoted in Michael Heyward's The Ern Malley affair:

with the aid of a chance collection of books which happened to be on our desk; the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a Collected Shakespeare, Dictionary of Quotations etc. We opened books at random, choosing a word or phrase haphazardly. We made lists of these and wove them into nonsensical sentences. We misquoted and made false allusions. We deliberately perpetrated bad verse, and selected awkward rhymes from Ripman’s Rhyming Dictionary. The alleged quotation from Lenin in one of the poems, ‘The emotions are not skilled workers’ is quite phoney. The first three lines of the poem ‘Culture as Exhibit’ were lifted, as a quotation, straight from an American report on the drainage of breeding-grounds of mosquitoes.
- requoted from Marvellous Boys, Mark Ford, LRB, Vol. 15 No. 17, 9 September 1993.

The whole thing turned rather sour when some of the Malley poems were - incredibly, now, but this was hardline wowser era - included in a prosecution of Harris for obscenity, such as

Night Piece

The swung torch scatters seeds
In the umbelliferous dark
And a frog makes guttural comment
On the naked and trespassing
Nymph of the lake.

The symbols were evident,
Though on park-gates
The iron birds looked disapproval
With rusty invidious beaks.

Among the water-lilies
A splash — white foam in the dark!
And you lay sobbing then
Upon my trembling intuitive arm.

But ultimately Mcauley and Stuart had apparently made their intended point - to prove that a Modernist editor couldn't tell good poetry from bad - and the cause of Modernism in Australia was set back decades. And yet, 65 years later, Malley's poems are more remembered and reprinted than those of his creators, and not always for absurdity value. The critic Robert Hughes wrote:

The basic case made by Ern's defenders was that his creation proved the validity of surrealist procedures: that in letting down their guard, opening themselves to free association and chance, McAuley and Stewart had reached inspiration by the side-door of parody; and though this can't be argued on behalf of all the poems, some of which are partly or wholly gibberish, it contains a ponderable truth... The energy of invention that McAuley and Stewart brought to their concoction of Ern Malley created an icon of literary value, and that is why he continues to haunt our culture.
- quoted in The Ern Malley Affair, 1993.

In short, rubbish deliberately concocted by good writers - as with the modern Wergle Flomp entries - has a habit of being better than it sets out to be.

The official Ern Malley website is at  There's also a good account, mostly previewable online, in the chapter The Ern Malley Hoax in Where fiction ends: four scandals of literary identity construction (Therese-Marie Meyer, 2006).

- Ray


  1. The Malley thing makes me very grumpy. I really don't see the point in Ern Malley/Alan Sokal type hoaxes. All they prove is that insincere liars can fool editors who have left room for experimentation and innovation -- which by definition requires that said editors won't themselves be sure if/whether or not said innovation/experiments are good/true or not. The provision of publication space for what goes beyond the already-accepted relies on assumption of the sincerity and good faith of those submitting material.

    There's no question that the creators of Ern Malley, just as did Alan Sokal, tailored their products. If you back off one level to include that tailoring, the submission and the "Ha, ha!" acceptance, theirs is just performance art.

  2. Yes, suitably crafted fooling the system isn't necessarily proof that the system is fake; for instance, the ability of people with Munchausen's Syndrome to game the medical system doesn't mean medical diagnosis is worthless.

    But I think Sokal's in a different ballgame. The initial paper to Social Text fits into the above scenario, but I think the wider critique of postmodern cultural studies is valid; it's just some flavour of public theatre - a pretence of erudition - played out with the format and terminology of science and genuine rigorous philosophy.