Saturday, June 06, 2009

Ernest Lalor Malley

Christine Wertheim has an interesting article about the Australian counterfeit poet Ernest Lalor Malley in the new issue of Cabinet.

Malley was invented as a hoax modernist by a couple of guys who had ambivalent to hostile feelings about modernism. One of them, James McAuley, had originally been quite enamored of Joyce and modernism, but grown sick of it, and he wanted to set up Modernism and Max Harris, the 18-year-old editor of Angry Penguins, a modernist journal (it sounds fake though, doesn't it). Harris loved the fake poems when he received them, and the fake poet achieved instant recognition as a great avant-gardist.

The lame response (usually be reactionary types) is that this shows that the modern poet is fake. Something akin to saying "my kid could do that" about Klee or Picasso. But Wertheim makes a more interesting argument: that writing modern "experimental" poetry in some sense to write as a counterfeit. Their hoaxers have thus really written as modern writers; poetry as a critique etc. Wertheim makes a few more specific claims, but I think this is the essence of her argument.

She also depicts the importance of America in this saga, as Koch and Ashbery liked the Malley writings and published various pieces in the US.

The story reminds me of "Den Hemliga Gloden" (The Secret Glow, or The Secret Embers) by Ake Erikson, published in Helsinki in 1925. Erikson was a traditional poet writing under a pseudonym and the book was a hoax. As with Malley, it was supposed to prove the ridiculousness of the modernists. Like Malley it gained a great reception. Major modernists gave it rave review etc.

The interesting thing about that book is (as with Malley's) that it *was* good. Very Mayakovsky influenced. Caricature-ish. Also interestingly, Erikson later admitted that he had had a lot of fun writing the poems; he had in the end come to appreciate modern poetry on some level through counterfeiting it.


Blogger Ross Brighton said...

There was a really good article on the history of the literary hoax by Charles Bernstein in Textual Practice nopt too long ago - called "Fraud's phantoms: a brief yet unreliable account of fighting fraud with fraud (no pun on Freud intended), with special reference to the poetics of Ressentiment". He discusses the Ern Malley affair, along with a similar case in Austria (?), Double Flowering, and other similar incidents. IT's quite good, and in PDF here:

8:02 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...


Actually, Bernstein's analysis of the Yasusada affair is pretty weak. If you're interested, you can see this talk I gave at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis last year, where I begin by taking up Bernstein's argument about the "hoax." I don't know if the long link below will work, but you can find it by typing in my name on YouTube.

Kent Johnson

1:39 PM  

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