State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 64 Spring 1999

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Annotation ‘Experiment with Death’ by Max Harris

The Beginnings of any kind of valid poetry or poetic stirrings in Australia date into the present century. Earlier on, the process of urbanisation that resulted from the decline of the goldfield days with its inrush of population brought about a literary ‘club’ atmosphere in the Eastern cities of Australia. The ‘bush-balladry’ of this period was by no means a spontaneous and dramatic reaction to the wild bushranging Australian environment. It was rather a nostalgia, and in tone, if not in subject, part and parcel of the disintegrating romanticism of the Victorian epoch. Just as many cowboy songs are, no doubt, the product of New York commercial songwriters, so this flowering of vigorous and incompetent ‘bush’ balladry was European in tone and artificial in subject.
Only when an Australian writer reverted to a spontaneous romanticism, and acknowledged the technical influences from the contemporary body of European poetic method did this country produce a first-rate poet. This was the late Christopher Brennan who above all was profoundly influenced in imagery and outlook by the French symbolists.
This little piece of literary history is highly relevant to any picture of contemporary Australian poetry. For the Australian situation presents a fairly clearcut picture of some three distinct schools of poetry operating at a degree of intensity never before known in this remarkably uncultured and unpoetical country. They are the Nationalist poets, the ‘Reportage’ poets, and the ‘Angry Penguins’ or modernist school. The Nationalist poets carry over organically from the romanticism of the ‘bush-balladist’ with the distinction that each of the several groups waves a Nationalist political banner with varying degrees of fervour. These writers are highly urbanised, organised into ‘Clubs’ and the like, and produce a decadent romanticism which looks with nostalgia towards the Australian scrub and the Australian aboriginal on the one hand, and on the other looks with distaste at the capitalist social framework and urban values. (Human values, such as love, fit into the intellectual pattern in some subsidiary way, but do not emerge as poetic material). One of these schools surrounded the Australia-First movement (our local equivalent of its American counterpart, to speak Irish). This included the National Extremist writers such as Ian Mudie, Rex Ingamells, and other members of the ‘Jindyworobak Club’. In Queensland a stronger and more valid movement sprang up behind Clem Christesen and the organ of this group, ‘Meanjin Papers’, is a strong little journal with an ostensibly liberal programme for culture. The values of its writers are more genuine
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and less decadent than ‘throwbacks’ like Rex Ingamells, or one Flexmore Hudson, who runs a little journal, ‘Poetry’, but there still can be sensed a curiously unreal and escapist perspective of the function of poetry, and that most dire of all failings, linguistic flatness. They have produced no powerful nor moving poets.
The ‘Reportage School’ is the least defined of the present forces in Australian poetry. It operates, I am inclined to think, mainly in a curious geographical insularity in Sydney and is reflected in the English Association journal, ‘Southerly’. These writers bear somewhat the same relation to the Angry Penguin writers that the contributors of ‘Chicago Poetry’ do to the school of Treece and Tambimuttu in England. There is none of the current preoccupation with Personalism in their writings, sociological reflections permeate their writings, and one can see a vigorous effort on their part to instil personalised and illuminating reaction upon the fields of social experience. I feel that both the USA poets, Karl Shapiro and Harry Roskolenko, belong within this idiom, but that their reportage is successful because it emerges through the brazier of sharply personal language, rather than personal vision. In Australia, I feel that Muir Holburn and Elizabeth Lambert are the strongest poets of this type. In one successful long poem, ‘Courthouse’, Elizabeth Lambert gets across intense and valid sociological feeling; the movement and fluidity of mood is both sinuous and subtle; and yet one would look in vain for that sharp, original illuminating image; one discovers no memorable language. The whole is strong significant verse and succeeds almost in spite of language. Imaginative forces no longer dominate through language, and with these writers we are back at the Audenesque vision, but a stripped and disciplined vision.
I now wish to move on to a discussion of the Romanticism that has been produced by the modernist or Angry Penguins school. I here speak, not as critic, but as expositor and partisan. I hope that in this anthology you will see examples of the work of Ern Malley, the late D.B. Kerr, and Geoffrey Dutton. The modern Australian school had quite autonomous origins, and therefore its parallelism and distinctions from the romanticism of the younger British writers, the Apocalypticists and the Personalists, is quite striking. The movement towards a strong personal romantic idiom was well under way while the Auden social-criticism poetry was in its heyday. An intellectual formulation of the function of myth was well advanced.
When Freud, in his ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ derives his dualism of instinctive forces, Eros and Thanatos, he provides the basic human myths. But the simple dualistic formulation is unsatisfactory to the romantic poet and thinker for his premise originates from experience, and a particular kind of experience, moral experience. The result of this orientation is a dialectic conception of life and death forces. They become the internal struggle of an identity. The biological force bases itself in the cell, the organism, the flesh, the nerves, and in sensuality. This elemental life force bears within itself and is itself also a death force. For out of, and superimposed upon the biological complex, comes mental life, character, imagination, spiritual values, the attributes of permanence. Life energies are devoted to the building up of these latter factors; they actually constitute the will to permanence in
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the human being. Yet through the operation of pain, death, or sensual dominance, or any of the manifold forms of biological revolution character, imagination, poetry can disintegrate or be overthrown. Even for example, a maximum dose of sulphanilamide drugs can produce such biological revolution that the individual is only aware of one thing, that all personal attributes and faculties have disintegrated and that he is reduced to a biological battleground. This sense of division of forces has not the simplicity nor sophistry of the ancient conception of the conflict of mind and body. Nor is the poetry the same. Poetry becomes, for the romantic, the resolution of struggle within the life-unity. It is both resolution and articulation. From this viewpoint the aphorisms and writings of Kafka become of extreme significance, and allegory becomes a more potent poetic technique than myth. Poetry becomes cathartic in a sense different from that proposed by Aristotle. It becomes an act of moral catharsis, of ethical catharsis as it reflects a resolution of conduct compatible with a will to permanence and the death-drive of biological anarchy. In this sense the romanticism of these Australian poets is more didactic than the revelations of a poet like Treece.
In this country I have often been accused of sponsoring the pansexualism of that excellent poet, Dylan Thomas. But the kind of poetry being produced here is very largely not that in which the external world is interpreted pan-sexually. The world of vision is not something which reduces itself unalterably to sexual terms. But the process of sex and biology in themselves interpret the world at large. Sexual processes are symbolic of a cosmogony and reflect the nature of all other things. The vision of Dylan Thomas operates in a reverse direction.
This kind of romantic poetry reflects a genus of practical morality.

II

The story of Ern Malley is a remarkable crystallisation of those things of which I have been speaking. Indeed it is almost too good to be true and its significance must be judged by the examples of his poetry which you will see in this collection.
Ern Malley came out to this country as a child after the last war with his mother and sister. Here he grew up quite unknown. He showed some capacity for mechanics and at 14 years of age he left school and became a motor mechanic at a garage at Taverner's Hill, Sydney. At the age of 17 he quite suddenly left his job and went to Melbourne where very little is known of his activities. He is known to have lived in the Melbourne slums, earning a few pounds as insurance peddler and a watch repairer. Up to this stage he is not known to have shown much interest in literature or culture. At the outbreak of this war he was called up for military examination. It was discovered that he was suffering from Grave's disease. An operation may have cured it, but this solitary unknown young man refused to have any such treatment.
Grave's Disease is a thyroidal malfunctioning. It is one of the worst and most debilitating diseases which can be contracted. The effect is that of the human machine going faster and faster until it explodes and stops, as it were. Its effects can be delayed
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Ern Malley's poems were issued in book form following the exposure of the hoax. La Trobe Rare Books Collection, *LT 819.91 M296.

This illustration is unavailable for copyright reasons.
by doses of iodine in increasing quantities until it is no longer efficacious. Malley died in May 1943. During his last months we have a description of the terrible ravages that this disease inflicts upon the personality … the diabolical tension, the nervous irritability of the sufferer is all-consuming. The disintegration of the individual is almost certain. It is in the light of these facts and the terrible nature of his death that Malley's experiment with death can be examined. Knowing that he faced almost certain death before his 25th year Malley set about his experiment. He amassed a diverse but beautifully integrated body of erudition over the three or four years, so that his poetry possesses a richness and breadth of integrated vocabulary that is quite amazing. He threw off everything which would weaken his struggle to produce a cool unimpassioned interpretation of the conflict between his mind and vision and the prospect of immediate death. He left Melbourne and a young girl with whom he was very much in love. At his death he left behind him a manuscript of 16 poems entitled ‘The Darkening Ecliptic’ with the following sub-line:
‘Do not speak of secret matters in a field full of little hills … ’
Old Proverb.
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The sixteen poems are principally autobiographical. They have a strange quality of detachment about them, and even, in those poems written a month or so before his death, a quiet humour, as when he speaks of
a man's inalienable right to be sad
at his own funeral.
The poems have a formal and technical unity which reflects his own attitude that a poem is a complete and autonomous act of existence. His resilient and defined imagery shows an unerring feeling for language. On reading the series as a single experience the reader has a broader idea of their import and their aim. They are primarily an act, a will to vision, and through the very purity of that vision of the mind's relation to its own death the titanic underlying conflict is suggested to the reader. Everything is there and in such a creative form that the uncommunicable is communicated. His experiment with death is also seen as an experiment with truth.
Donald Bevis Kerr, who was killed in New Guinea in 1942, was, I think, the first outstanding poet of the modern movement. Several of his poems from his recently published volume ‘Death, Be Not Proud’ are included here. The lyric incidence of certain experiences is taken by Kerr and undergoes a broadening of implication through his bitter and elegiac philosophy. All values of the senses work themselves out through time and memory into tragic terms for Kerr. That unity which is the entire individual perpetually preys upon what Blake would call ‘the minute particular’. The all-pervading attitude comes strongly out in a very lovely poem which I found in Mss among his remains called ‘Epicentrum’.
The silent thunder which applauds
The daffodils destroys them,
The humour kindled in the sea
For death goes breaking later.
So is the rotten water harbour of the lily,
And the body a delight for the raven,
And apprehension born in rented poverty,
Which sees the purple bones a beggar shot.
Here is that adulteration we seldom fear,
The check in the circle, the urgent arc.
Yet less than that comfortable eunuch, freedom,
For diligent in his belly as we stumble
We devour beauty when most we need it.
Kerr seeks symbols for his tragic inner transmutations in the external world. In doing this he has written his major poem and possibly the first great major poem to come from this country: his ‘Oration For Australia’. Here the whole topography of this country becomes a diverse, all-embracing idiom for Kerr's own nervous and psychic
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structure. The poem concludes with a gigantic cry. The poetry of this last section is extremely complex and provides bitter difficult poetry. But it repays study:
The picture land, the unpainted land,
Mask and bones no nearer man than man,
Release these shocks like hands
Which once were lips, and sealed and held
The centre, naked rites and nerves.
It is knowledge, and life, which requires
No death, nor any disclosure of the toneless earth;
It is the earth which in fear of death
Can be forced to grow between root and flower.
The last poet whom I wish to mention is Geoffrey Dutton. His language is stronger, more passionate, and febrile than any other contemporary poet I know. He is not yet capable of that sustained level of illumination which reveals control over his idiom. Felicity of language is sometimes missed. But he tackles the complex threads of his vision with linguistic daring, and provides a resurgence of the acid fire of language which is so deplorably lacking in the present English writers … Nicholas Moore, Treece, even Hendry and the sharper-tongued of the Personalists. Moreover, he possess what is much too rare among many poets included in this collection … technical brilliance. His pyrotechnical displays of rhythm and intonation I find far more healthy than the plodding gutless domestic competence of the majority of his Australian co-writers. Listen to the vibrating and startling changes of rhythmical colour in this brief quotation from Dutton's ‘Night Flight and Sunrise’.
Behind a death whirled more sudden than a scythe
In mist of a propeller, fledged gently
In the veiled hills and creeks veined like a walnut.
The flare in the black well
Is gone. But the airman's hand stroked skin
Of the cosmic heart and counted the beats from day.
He airborne and alone was stressed of stars
And entered the source of all activity.
As shadows leap away
From light, so with their substance he awaits the night
Finally, as a protagonist in this analysis, I wish to add the feeling that the virility and independence of the present contemporary poetic movement in Australia provides a level of achievement, a force of creativity that equates with international writing of our day and possibly is superior to the present level of USA journals and verse publications. Adorned with such prejudices I should be happy to see more extensive liaison between the cultural worlds of both countries. No USA journals are accessible in this country.
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Annotation: A typescript of this article is located in the John and Sunday Reed Papers of the La Trobe Australian Manuscript Collection in the State Library of Victoria. It was written for inclusion in Voices: A Quarterly of Poetry: Australian Issue, Number 118, Summer 1944. Voices was a long running American poetry magazine, founded in 1921 by Harold Vinal. It was U.S. poet Harry Roskolenko, then residing temporarily in Australia as an American serviceman, who first suggested the idea of an Australian issue to Vinal in 1944. The issue of 64 pages was edited by Roskolenko and Elizabeth Lambert, assisted by the editors of local literary magazines, including Max Harris (Angry Penguins), Clem Christeson (Meanjin Papers), Cecily Crozier (Comment) and R.G. Howarth (Southerly). The stated aim of the editors was to represent a cross-section of poetic output in Australia, from the nationalism of the Jindyworobaks, the modernism of Angry Penguins and Comment, to the ‘sober nationalism’ of Meanjin Papers. Poets represented include Rex Ingamells, Ian Mudie, Rosemary Dobson, Elizabeth Galloway, Dorothy Hewett, Alister Kershaw, Geoffrey Dutton, Muir Holburn, Max Harris, Brian Vrepont, Donald Bevis Kerr, Bernard Smith, and Elizabeth Lambert. The issue opened with a traditional song from the Aranda tribe of Central Australia, translated by T.G.H. Strehlow, and closed with three poems by Ern Malley. Max Harris's ‘Commentary on Australian Poetry’ (a shortened version of ‘Experiment with Death’) appeared on pages 44-48 of Voices.
‘Experiment with Death’ was written at the time that Max Harris was preparing the 1944 Autumn Number of Angry Penguins, ‘to Commemorate the Australian Poet Ern Malley’. The Ern Malley issue (35 of the 108 pages were devoted to Malley) was published at the beginning of June, and the hoax had been revealed within the month. [See Checklist] This article for Voices appears to be the only instance outside Angry Penguins where Harris wrote believing Ern Malley to be a real person. The particular interest of the article is Harris's placing of Malley poems in the context of Australian poetry, something which he did not attempt anywhere else.
In reproducing the original version of ‘Experiment with Death’, which has never before been published in full, no editorial changes have been made, apart from the correction of some minor typing errors.
Des Cowley