“Stay away from most modern poems. It’s crap! It’s not poetry!”
— Ray Bradbury, 2001
One thing that I think you ought to know about me is that I’ve never liked modern poetry. True, I greatly admire W. H. Auden, and I’ve even found a “slam poet” or two whose work impresses me, but other than these, I’ve always found a lot of modern poetry to be inaccessible, self-deluded, and needlessly ugly. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so.
When the modernist movement first emerged in the twentieth century, it was immediately met with criticism and disgust from the more traditional poets of the world. Two of these poets, Australians James McAuley and Harold Stewart, fashioned from their disdain one of the best literary pranks of all time.
In mid-1940’s, when the modernist movement in poetry was at its height, McAuley and Stewart hatched a plan to expose modernist poetry for the tripe it is. Using random lines copied from whatever books happened to be within reach, they penned sixteen poems, all of which were purposely devoid of meaning and cohesion. They then mailed the poems to Max Harris, editor of the literary magazine Angry Penguins, using the joint pseudonym Ern Malley. Accompanying the submission was a letter, supposedly written by Malley’s sister Ethel, saying that she discovered the poems shortly after her brother’s death and would like Harris to tell her if there is any literary merit in them.
McAuley and Stewart’s idea wasn’t a new one: in 1926, a twenty-eight-year-old C. S. Lewis had tried to play a similar trick on T. S. Eliot, who was then the editor of The Criterion. However, unlike Lewis, McAuley and Stewart’s verses were not only published, but they were also lauded by the modernist establishment. Max Harris was particularly impressed, even running a special issue of Angry Penguins with a whole segment dedicated to Malley’s work. However, soon after the poems were published, the public already began to suspect that Ern Malley was not who he claimed to be. Eventually, Stewart and McAuley were found out after a journalist friend of Stewart’s gave the scoop to her boss. Not only was Max Harris humiliated, but he was also later prosecuted for publishing the Ern Malley poems, which the Australian government found to be “obscene.”
James McAuley later went on to write more serious verse (under his real name), but his devotion to strict, traditional forms, coupled with his right-leaning views and his conversion to Roman Catholicism, ensured that he went largely unnoticed by the literati. The Ern Malley poems, however, have endured, with poets such as John Ashbery having praised them in the past.
It’s all very amusing, but very sad too. According to McAuley and Stewart, their whole design in staging this hoax was to answer this question: “Can those who write, and those who praise so lavishly, this kind of writing tell the real product from consciously and deliberately concocted nonsense.” The answer, it would seem, is no.