Harold Stewart and James McAuley

There is a long-standing myth that these two conservative poets sat down spontaneously and churned out the Ern Malley poems in one grand burst on a wet afternoon in their barracks. This was the initial claim of the hoaxers after the hoax was exposed - another way of demeaning the modernist genre. But it is dubious. Max Harris had reason to believe that the prank was planned and that more substantial work was involved. Perhaps he later learned this in communications with McAuley, for while Stewart sustained a lifelong hostility towards Harris, McAuley quite early expressed his remorse. Indeed, he sent Harris a clue written on the back of an art postcard at the time of the hoax. Harris pinned the card to the wall without noticing the clue - until much, much later. However, he and McAuley buried the hatchet later in life - and it was McAuley who acknowledged Harris as copyright holder of the Ern Malley works, writing that he did not believe in "claiming rights which we never asserted in our own persons" and that "Ethel Malley made a present of all rights to the editors" .

James McAuley

As a student of Sydney University, James McAuley shone among the young intellectuals. He was a vital individual, a poet, a jazz pianist and an enthusiastic drinker and smoker. Whatever the promise, however, he became a schoolteacher until the War when he, along with Harold Stewart, was enlisted in a mysterious military intelligence unit as a Lieutenant. As a poet, McAuley tended towards romantic symbolist style, a bit on the gloomy side. He loathed the modernist movement of the period with a vengeance. He also loathed communism with a passion. But he was a restless, discontented spirit, the biographers say. A trip to New Guinea both changed and inspired him - it led to his conversion to Catholicism as a spiritual palliative and to his subsequent work in Australian School of Pacific Studies. He was possessed of steely views, known to be a "Cold War Warrior", and to an adamant advocate of "the sanctity of Christian marriage". He was also known to suffer appalling nightmares. He played an important role in Australia's literary history, however, as founding editor of Quadrant, an anti-communist literary publication, and he became a professor of English at the University of Tasmania. He continued to produce poetry and critical essays.

Harold Stewart

A middle-class Sydney boy who started writing poetry at school, went on to study music and who dropped out of university after a year to study poetry. He was fascinated by Asian culture and art and was devoted to the writings of Jung. He was a Corporal in the Army Intelligence with McAuley and, although he early had shown interest in the modernists, he became fiercely opposed to their works. His poetry followed A.D. Hope in neo-classical style.
The only conventional job Stewart held was as a part-time bookseller in the Norman Robb Bookshop in Melbourne. From 1966 he lived in Japan where he taught English and studied Shin Buddhism. He became expert in Japanese culture. Grants from the Literature Board of Australian and the Australia-Japan Foundation supported him. He published two noted translations of Japanese haiku: A Net of Fireflies (1960) and A Chime of Windbells (1969) and wrote a sequence of poems, By the Old Walls of Kyoto. In latter years he lived reclusively within an expatriate community, a bitter man with no love for his homeland.

Stewart and McAuley thought modernist poetry was pretentious nonsense. They likened it to "a free association test". They agreed with A.D. Hope that it would be a good idea to "get Maxy" and to debunk what they called the "Angry Pungwungs".

They set themselves some facetious rules:
1. There must be no coherent theme, at most, only confused and inconsistent hints at a meaning held out as a bait to the reader.

2. No care was taken with verse technique, except occasionally to accentuate its general sloppiness by deliberate crudities.

3. In style, the poems were to imitate, not Mr. Harris in particular, but the whole literary fashion as we knew it from the works of Dylan Thomas, Henry Treece and others.

They started with an unfinished McAuley poem Durer: Innsbruck 1495 and went on to create an oeuvre of parodies, using snippets of text books, quotes of this and that, free associations...

“Having completed the poems, we wrote a very pretentious and meaningless Preface and Statement which purported to explain the aesthetic theory on which they were based. Then we elaborated the details of the alleged poet’s life. This took more time than the composition of his Works," they later explained.

In typing the poems, Stewart made deliberate errors and corrections. Then they aged their creation by exposure to sun and dust. The prank was completed by the invention of Ethel Malley, the straight-laced suburban sister who discovers her dead brother's works and pleads for literary appraisal.

And it all turned out to be the two poets' most remembered works.