Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Was Australian Modernism Oppositional?

Brian Lloyd

There is a story which has continued to circulate about the early fortunes of modernism in Australia and which is more likely to mislead than instruct investigations into the area. In this narrative a little magazine, Angry Penguins, emerges in the forties as an early example of Australian modernism, but its fortunes are curtailed by a hoax, a court case, and the indifference of a plebeian population. The purpose of this paper is to show what is wrong with this account, and to suggest what may be gained by disturbing its control over an area of discourse.

Two major problems are generated by the widespread acceptance of the story. One is that the hoax, and particularly the Ern Malley corpus, the text of the hoax, has been found a sufficient emblem to stand for the whole phenomenon of Angry Penguins and Australian modernist activity at this time. The second problem follows from this first one in that this simple model of an ancients-and-moderns conflict makes modernism into one thing. While the hoax itself appears to be a provocation to remember, through its sensational character and through being "user friendly" for the media, the story also encourages us to forget, to unify diverse currents in the system into just a few hypostasized units.

These terms have been laid down by the exchanges of the original conflict. But what of subsequent contributions to the discussion? What is of concern is that many assumptions are left undisturbed by the secondary material in all but a handful of sources. If one turns to entries in many of the most readily available reference works on Australian literature, such as the Oxford Companion and History, T. Inglis Moore's Social Patterns in Australian Literature, John McLaren's Australian Literature, Geoffrey Dutton's The Literature of Australia, it soon becomes obvious that the basic narrative with which I began still dominates the field.

So it seems that the positions of the initial engagement are still in place: they operate as ancient cultural engines running on undisturbed, while they manufacture, like fog, a narrative which both masters and obscures the field. And of these "engines," it is the hoax, as symbol or emblem, that has been outstandingly successful in determining the direction of subsequent debate. Recent articles which explore the Angry Penguins territory, such as those by Michael Heyward and Peter Anderson, concentrate wholly on the history and text of the Ern Malley corpus, leaving the substance of Angry Penguins itself undisturbed, again defined solely in terms of the hoax. In John Tranter and Phillip Mead's recent collection of modern Australian poetry this pattern is repeated through the inclusion of a selection of the Malley material, an inclusion which they anticipate as controversial, but with the omission of any other Angry Penguins material. Most secondary material which attempts to step outside the terms of the ancients and moderns debate, notably Richard Haese's excellent Rebels and Precursors, focuses either on the visual artwork associated with the group, or on the hoax, rather than the poetry produced from within the Angry Penguins circle, and it is rare for sources in the field to actually quote this material.

This means that the critical view which motivated and was encoded in the hoax, which suggested that Angry Penguins literary material was without merit or interest, has enjoyed an unquestioned dominance over subsequent references to the magazine. This has informed almost every source of comment, either in the sense of generating an explicit echo of disapproval (e.g. Vivian Smith) or simply through a seemingly inevitable slide toward a consideration of the merits or de-merits of the Malley poems. It is ironic that the Malley poems have been seized upon as a kind of limit-text for conceptions of the literary art object when other Angry Penguins contributors had been putting pressure on these issues for a number of years before the advent of Ern Malley, and it was this "pressure" which provoked Stewart and McAuley into action. Overall, Angry Penguins literary practices have been persona non grata, not only vilified, butÑmore significantlyÑmasked from view, an effect which constitutes a "repression" in the classic sense of the term.

If conventional accounts of Australian modernism often imply that it is one thing, an examination of the pages of Angry Penguins material is likely to act as a powerful corrective. The ideological profile of contributors to the magazine is made up of a labyrinthine web of allegiances, influences, and mis-readings. Max Haris announces the magazine's allegiance to surrealism, both through editorial interjections and a great amount of his own poetry but, in an apparent contradiction, Harris continues to hold T. S. Eliot in high esteem as an exemplary avant-gardist, even though by this stage Eliot is better seen as the custodian of a high modernist classicism. Auden, in contemporary comment often bracketed with Eliot as a canonical modernist, is actively spurned by Harris, who regards him as the survivor of a failed and contemptible project. Contributors to Angry Penguins are aware of Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, and Paul Eluard, but the truly exemplary figures for most of the contributors are not so much these contemporary Surrealists but Rimbaud and Rilke. The only other contemporary writer who commands the kind of respect shown for Eliot is Henry Miller, although two more different "modernists" it is hard to imagine.

In secondary material, Angry Penguins poetry, when it is described at all, is most often compared to the work of the British "New Apocalyptic" group, of whom Dylan Thomas is now the most well-known member. Certainly Angry Penguins registers a powerful influence from Herbert Rad, a pivotal figure in the group, but my readings, of Angry Penguins suggest that the Australian material is significantly different from the Apocalyptic work: it is less consciously "mythical," at least in terms of a folkloric tradition, and much more extravagant in its overall style; more "angry," more explicit in its sexual reference, and absolutely committed to a distinctive and insistent practice of anthro-pomorphizing landscape in ways that are in other places more characteristic of Surrealism's painting than its poetry. In Angry Penguins, clouds are figured as "ganglia," and other aspects of landscape undergo transmutation into the blood-vessels, ribs, internal organs of whole or dismembered bodies. Bodies and landscape are continually pushed between conditions of living and un-living in an incessant flirtation with the demise of the self, in which it is often difficult for the reader to recover at what stage things began to live, or began to die.

These distinctive features make it possible to propose that Angry Penguins Surrealism represents a distinctive regional style, contrary to the "received" history of the group which characterizes the material as an undigested concatenation of overseas influences. The acute contrasts which emerge between the local and overseas materials of Angry Penguins, printed, literally, on facing pages, mean that any definition of domestic practices purely in terms of overseas influence is simply not borne out by the textual evidence.

An additional distinctive feature of Angry Penguins poetic practice is that there is little sense of caution in relation to using "progressive" (surrealist) procedures in combination with traditional forms. This results in a strand of Surrealist occasional verse, such as elegies, which employ gothic strategies completely at odds with the classical figures normally used within these modes. Many of the Surrealist poems published in the magazine are merely entitled "Poem," a title whose lyrical associations are quite at variance with the actual material of the poems, in which death and sex are strenuously manipulated in a constant tide of transformation.

A readiness by Angry Penguins poets to combine poetic genres expresses quite a different attitude to that shown in a number of articles published at this time in Meanjin, which attack "Georgian Lyricism" in favour of a tough, terse Eliotic classicism. In Angry Penguins there appears to be little anxiety about combining claims for radical contemporaneity, as are made in editorials and articles, with the publishing or appropriation of more "traditional" approaches to poetry. This difference in the practices of Eliotic modernism and Surrealism, one seemingly anxious to discriminate while the other exhibits an enthusiasm for combination, highlights the importance of going beyond the conventional stories of Australian modernism to distinguish between discrete practices.2 This requires an acknowledgment of the different approaches to modernity which were being taken by groups contemporary to Angry Penguins, such as the more "mainstream" modernism of the group surrounding the little magazine Comment.

There are a number of gestures which can be made toward putting the discussion of Angry Penguins on a more sophisticated footing. The debate has been plagued by a reductive handling of the questions of what is oppositional, in which Angry Penguins has been figured as an oppositional formation purely by virtue of its supposed "repression." There are better criteria for determining the oppositional status of modernist avant-gardes, which position these groups more effectively within history. Raymond Williams offers a model in which oppositional avant-gardes are characterized in terms of their positioning within the city, the production of little magazines and manifestoes, and their ownership of the means of production, presses and publishing houses, which are used as platforms from which radically to question society. Peter Burger, in his Theory of the Avant-garde, argues for a model which centres on the way in which avant-garde groups compromise the transparency, the supposed "universalism" of artistic practices in late capitalist society. This schema provides a useful purchase on Angry Penguins artistic practice, in which an intense interest in naive and primitive art, the art of children, and of the insane, provides an index of the degree to which Angry Penguins contributors were inclined to diverge from the unique and unified authorial subject which the Ern Malley hoax was designed to protect.

These critical models underline the inadequacy of the received history of modernism in Australia, which it has been the intention of this paper to disturb. This received history confers a kind of transparency upon important aspects of the cultural context of Australian modernism, such as the outstanding post-war success of a particular strand of modernist writing in gaining acceptance within the Academy and throughout the wider cultural establishment. This "transparency" also obscures the growth of the power of the academy over domestic literary activity, a correlative of the marked increase in academic interest in Australian literature since the war. This expansion of power has been exemplified in the post-war ascendancy of the "academic poets"ÑHope, McAuley, and othersÑan ascendancy in which Angry Penguins could never invest due to its anarchist antipathies toward institutions of whatever kind. Because "history belongs to the victor" this dominance has itself had a most important role in ensuring the longevity of that story with which I began, a story which can be dismantled and re-formed now that the moment of that original "victory" has passed.

La Trobe University

2 Note exception of Croft article in Penguin Literary History.

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