Case before the court:
Malley versus Malley

Ern Malley
Representatives of the Max Harris estate seek an injunction to prevent the publication of poems under the name "Ern Malley"

The Story:

On 28 October 1994, Harrison Reed, editor of Artful Roos, received a package containing a series of poems. These poems were signed with the name `Ern Malley', though they were accompanied by no other documentation. After due consideration and consultation with his literary colleagues, Harrison Reed decided to publish the poems in the Summer 1995 issue. Learning of this decision, the trustees of the Max Harris estate seek an injunction against their publication under the name `Ern Malley', claiming that the poems bring into discredit the established oeuvre of Ern Malley poems and thus incur losses both to individual finances and public culture.

A. The case for publication

The new series of Ern Malley poems represents one of the literary finds of the century. One hardly needs to argue the case for the established place of Ern Malley in Australia's literary canon: the anthologies already speak for that, as do the number of books and plays dealing with the infamous literary hoax. Of course, the poetic justice of this act of literary terrorism is that the poems of Ern Malley have fame today which far outweighs the literary productions of his creator, James McAuley and Harold Stewart. The works of a poet who never existed suits the postmodern sensibilities of a superficial age, distrustful of the profounder emotions and detached from traditions of any historical depth. It suits the age so much, in fact, that the recent redemption of Malley failed to ever seriously examine the possibility that Ern Malley might in fact have existed.

Consider the possibility. We already know the story of two poets who concocted the literary works of an unsung suburban surrealist, inventing his sister Ethel along the way. If this were a mere work of fiction itself, wouldn't it seem implausible? What an odd psychology must have produced the desire to invent a bad poet. Would it be any stranger if this itself was a fiction, invented by the `bad' poet himself, unable to express himself as a fully fledged person so forced to speak through the identity of a fictional entity. Might not this `real' Ern Malley be a comrade of McAuley and Stewart, whose recent death prompted this late gesture in acknowledgment of the dedicated fashion in which the two poets supported his peculiar psychological need `to breathe the ether.' Even if these new poems are no more authentic than their predecessors, who are we to prevent their publication. Sure, if these poems were published under the name of Les A. Murray, with a cover that clearly indicated this was the same Les A. Murray we know as the great contemporary Australian poet, then there would be a good case to stop their publication. But who is Ern Malley? Perhaps there are some human hangers-on who exploit the literary scandal to gain a few pennies from royalties, but can a poet who never existed have any authority to prevent others publishing under his name?

I submit the poems for your consideration. You will note the youthful imagination has now adopted a more classical metre. In my opinion, they represent a critically important reflection on the nature of Australian literary canon. I admit that the case is subject to doubt, and perhaps we will never know the real answer. Nonetheless, the Australian public deserves full exposure to this issue.

B. The case against publication

The newly discovered poems under the name `Ern Malley' are clearly forged. The original genesis of the first and only set of Ern Malley poems is consensually agreed to be the work of the two poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart. This has been validated in a number of historical accounts and affirmed by all participants involved. The particular cultural trauma involved in their initial publication is a significant moment in Australian history. Any revision to the story of this hoax puts in jeopardy the very structure of Australian literary history. At the heart of this history is a baptism of postmodernism: the Trojan horse tactics by the two conservative poets backfired once the `pathetic fallacy' of authorial integrity was abandoned. The restoration of the Malley poems into the literary canon constitutes a significant advance in cultural consciousness.

If these new poems are accepted as genuine, then the figure whom all considered a literary conceit will be now deemed a living person. What are the consequences of such a revision to literary history? First, the Australian literary community will again find itself victim to the unscrupulous behaviour of a local author. This occurs at a time when the confidence in literary judgment is still recovering from recent blows. Second, the `authentification' of Ern Malley will put in jeopardy all the hard-won gains of the postmodern movement. Such a move is likely to precipitate a restoration of the author as hero, unable to write in a voice outside of him or herself. And third, the current holders of copyright to Ern Malley poems will suffer a financial loss as the trend upwards of these poems is reversed. No longer the unique literary experiment, these poems will merge back into the mass of period poetry, whose publication value is notoriously slim.

There are other philosophical issues at stake here. Though Ern Malley did not exist, he was `inhabited' by two eminent Australian poets. It was necessary for McAuley and Stewart to invent Ern Malley in order to write the poems they did. This does not disqualify them from authorial claims on the poems. Does anyone claim that the Danish philosopher S ren Kierkegaard wrote none of his philosophical manuscripts despite the fact that it was necessary to his method to have them published under pseudonyms? To grant Ern Malley some independent status as a literary author with intellectual rights is a ridiculous piece of Mickey Mouse foolery. It is only human beings living, breathing, linguistically enabled persons who can write poetry. Let's not discount this fact for the sake of literary conceit. Let's accord the poetic impulse the respect is deserves, and honour the name that it preserves.


Appendix A: Psychiatrist's report

A psychiatrist's report on the nature of a ventriloquent syndrome in which an individual can only speak through a non-being. Affecting men collecting money for the environment in koala suits, Humphrey B. Bear....

Appendix B: The new Malley poems
Margaret in Java
A yellow, not a white girl, is considered, 
according to Madame Foulton, 
a beauty,
with her white teeth like a dog .
TheYuracaras, however, are within the pale
beyond help of a little Latin.
Epidendrum Flos Aeris
outlives its roots--
That's capital! 
Now for the piquant expressions:
`languid meadows of Brit'.
Towards the long and narrow peninsula of Malacca Road,
via a vast mole of oriental roundabouts
off Batavia Street, Boronia, 
Dacca gauzes loiter near 
wovenair factories.
Veils of gingham, Sicilian grocers, stiff Spanish parking attendants,
and Japanese place mats,
with their green-toned golds.
Dorian and Lord Henry, 
begin to stroke the head of a curious cockatoo,
with its white scurf of crinkled lids over black glass-like eyes.
Afternoon aspirgillum among the ladies,
Stellari for the blokes.
I am the germ of their vices,
With my death in the shade.

Contact 1996
Last modified 27 Apr 2003
This product is assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.