The greatest literary hoax of the twentieth century was concocted by a couple of Australian soldiers at their desks in the offices of the Victoria Barracks in Melbourne, land headquarters of the Australian army, on a quiet Saturday in October 1943. The uniformed noncombatants, Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart, were a pair of Sydney poets with a shared animus toward modern poetry in general and a particular hatred of the surrealist stuff championed by Adelaide wunderkind Max Harris, the twenty-two-year-old editor of Angry Penguins, a well-heeled journal devoted to the spread of modernism down under. They made up the entire corpus of Ern Malley in a couple of afternoons lifting phrases from whatever was at hand, using a rhyming dictionary, and deliberately perpetrating bad poetry.
The wondrous twist in the Ern Malley story was not the exposure of Malley's champions but on the contrary the surprising, and actually quite heroic, intransigence of Max Harris and his cohorts, who maintained in the face of all ridicule their belief in Malley’s genius. ‘The myth is sometimes greater than its creator,’ said Harris (p. 152). Sir Herbert Read, tireless in his advocacy of vanguard art, wired his support from England. It seemed to him that the hoaxers had been ‘hoisted on their own petard’ (p. 156). It was, Read reasoned, possible to arrive at genuine art by spurious means — even if the motive of the writer was to perpetrate a travesty. In time others have come to share this view, and it is clear that the tide in Australia has turned in their favor. The editors of the new Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry(1992) elected to include all of Malley’s poems in their anthology.
for more of Lehman's essay, click here for the full treatment, in Jacket