The Worst Poet Who Never Existed

Postcard, ink, pen, lamp and stack of books
“All poetry is misrepresentation.” —Jeremy Bentham

In A Nutshell

James McAuley and Harold Stewart were determined to expose modernist poetry for the garbage it was. They wrote their own as badly as they could and created the tragic poet Ern Malley. The modernist poetry journal they hated bought it completely, singing the praises of the horrible fake poet all the way to court, where they went on trial for publishing indecency. Once it was determined that the poems weren’t indecent and the prosecutors just didn’t know what all the words meant, Ern Malley’s place in literary history was made.

The Whole Bushel

Ever picked up a best-selling book to see what all the fuss is about and been completely unable to get through the first chapter because it was so poorly written that it made your teeth hurt? There’s no accounting for public opinion sometimes, but that’s not a new phenomenon. In 1943, a pair of aspiring poets decided to do something about it.

Corporal Harold Stewart and Lieutenant James McAuley were soldiers in the Australian army, and they were also incredibly mad about all the new, surrealist, modernist sorts of poetry that the kids were writing those days. They particularly loathed a magazine called Angry Penguins, run by a 22-year-old editor who had wholeheartedly embraced the modernist movement.

So they quite purposefully wrote the worst poetry they could come up with, making very deliberate mistakes, creating no sense of theme, and throwing in some misquotes from other works for good measure. Then, they attributed it to the erstwhile Ern Malley.

“Ern” was for “Ernest,” because it was ironic. “Mal” was from the French for “bad.”

They came up with 16 poems, and they were all terrible. They made a backstory for Malley, too, all told from the point of view of his sister, Ethel. Ethel had found his poetry after his tragic death, and she sent it in to Angry Penguins, along with a letter full of (unsurprisingly) tragedy.

Malley was born on March 14, 1918, in Liverpool, only two years before this father died from “war wounds.” He was a poor student who dropped out of school after the death of their mother, he got a job as a mechanic, and he was very clever. He sold insurance for a while, had chronic ill health, and would perhaps still be alive if he just would have taken better care of himself.

Angry Penguins published the poems, along with a gushing critique from editor Max Harris. Harris observed, “These poems are complete in themselves. They have a domestic economy of their own and if they face outwards to the reader that is because they first faced inwards to themselves.”

Not only did the despised editor champion the works of the tragic hero Ern Malley, but so did all the other trendy poets and artists of the time. And, because sometimes things work out better than intended, Harris soon found himself in court on charges of publishing indecency.

Harris was charged by the Adelaide Police Court with publishing smut. The charges came for a pretty strange reason. There were lots of big words used in the poetry, and even though the prosecutors weren’t sure what it all meant, they were pretty sure that it was indecent. An expert witness (a bookseller) was brought in to testify, and he said that even though the words used weren’t necessarily indecent, he also wasn’t sure what the poems were supposed to mean.

Ern Malley, meanwhile, became famous, his works even included in the 1992 Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry in their entirety. They were read around the world, and McAuley went on to become a founding editor at an anti-communist literary journal and professor of English for the University of Tasmania, dying in 1976. Stewart died in 1995, an expert in Japanese culture and ultimately, a recluse.

Show Me The Proof

Jacket: The Ern Malley Poetry Hoax
Ern Malley: The Hoaxers; The Prosecution