The Prodigal Prodigy

Learning Human: Selected Poems

Les Murray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 230 pp., $27.00

There was a time when Australian artists with something new to say packed their bags, left the country, and didn’t return until they had made their reputations in more sympathetic surroundings. During the early Sixties, for example, most of Australia’s best painters were working in London: Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman, Colin Lanceley, Brett Whitely, Lawrence Daws, John Perceval. Also in town were the young Robert Hughes, the poet Peter Porter, and Barry Humphries, Australia’s own megastar in the making.

When Albert Tucker, the first of the painters to leave, got on the boat to Europe, he explained bleakly, “I am a refugee from Australian culture.” London, of course, was famously swinging in the Sixties, although a decade or so earlier its culture had been as timorous, narrow-minded, and fiercely antimodernist as Australia’s. Yehudi Menuhin’s first performance of Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto and the Tate Gallery’s exhibition of the great wartime canvasses of Picasso and Matisse provoked storms of outrage and derision. But these were mild compared to the whoops of philistine delight inspired by the Ern Malley affair in Australia during the war.

Like Chatterton’s Rowley poems and Macpherson’s Ossian, Ern Malley was an elaborate literary hoax. It was cooked up by two clever young conscript poets, Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart, as a joke, they claimed, to while away a boring Saturday afternoon in the Victoria Barracks in Melbourne. Unlike Chatterton and Macpherson, however, McAuley and Stewart’s intentions were wholly malicious. Rowley and Ossian were acts of homage to the Romantic-Gothick style; that is why Wordsworth and Keats worshiped Chatterton, and Ossian was revered throughout Europe—even by Napoleon. Ern Malley was designed simply to expose the sham of modernist verse and the gullibility of those who promoted it.

To this end, his creators gave him all the appropriate credentials for a misunderstood genius: they made him a misfit and a loner who worked as a garage mechanic, sold insurance, then died at the age of twenty-five, leaving a sheaf of poems which his bereaved and appropriately uncomprehending sister, Edna, bundled up and sent to Angry Penguins, Australia’s most belligerently avant-garde magazine. Max Harris, the editor, was convinced he had discovered another “marvellous boy,” the Antipodes’ answer to Rimbaud and Chatterton. With much trumpeting, he published Malley’s complete works in a special edition of his magazine, with a brilliant imaginary portrait of Malley by Sidney Nolan on the cover. The hoaxers then tipped off the tabloids, and poetry—for the first and probably last time in Australian history—became front-page news. Harris was not merely made to look a fool, he was hauled up in court by the police, charged with publishing obscene material. McAuley and Stewart had their moment of triumph, but it was Ern Malley who had the last laugh: the poems they concocted for him turned out to be more interesting and enduring than most of those they wrote under …

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