James Phillip McAuley (12 October 1917 – 15 October 1976)


Photo: poet James McAuley and Catholic Cardinal Freeman, plotting the overthrow of Communism.
Cardinal Freeman: “Of course God will punish us sinners dreadfully…”
McAuley: “Yes, yes…”
Cardinal Freeman: “But of course not all of us. Those who regularly take confession, for example…”
McAuley: “Yes, yes…”
Cardinal Freeman: “Things will go much easier for them, at least we hope so…”
McAuley: “Yes, yes…”

Behind the cardboard clown figures of our recently-announced right-wing Prime Minister’s Literary Prize judges lurks the shadow of poet James McAuley, who founded Quadrant magazine in the 1950s. ‘The Magian Heresy’ is the title of an article by McAuley — one half of the 1943 hoax poet ‘Ern Malley’ — in Quadrant magazine in 1957. In it McAuley attempts to turn back the tide of the postmodern by insisting on a return to the literary values of ancient Rome, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where the presumptions of a disobedient mankind will be ‘corrected’ by a severe dressing-down from the gods:

“After modernity, what? One cannot escape the impression that poetic modernity, whose inmost impulse was the Magian Heresy, has come to an end. It does not seem possible to go further along this road when the futility of the enterprise has been so patently demonstrated. […] The beginning of recovery is to recognise that the magian ambition did not in fact bring poetry into a vaster domain but into a smaller and darker one.
“It is by lowering the transcendental pretensions of poetry that, strangely enough, its true greatness opens once more before us: we come out of the romantic-modernist labyrinth into the broad and high world of Virgil and Chaucer and Dante and Shakespeare, where the true proportions of things are recognised, and the presumption of man is corrected by the measures of the gods.” (McAuley 1957 70–71)

This cramped and punitive view of the varied energies of Romantic and Modernist poetry is dismaying to read. It was published a year after John Ashbery’s book Some Trees appeared in the United States. Twenty-three years later, McAuley’s mood had grown even darker:

“Yet it is an easy prophecy that our conservatism will not much longer prevent the emergence of black poetry, with its verbal violence, its formlessness, its antinomian and analogical frenzy, its pretence that all that is needed, to attain the realm of freedom and love ‘out there’, is to violate all decencies and tear down all conventions, and its secret winking inner light of wicked knowledge that ‘out there’ is neither freedom nor love but only one shelf of the vast hell of the egotists — the Poets’ Shelf, no doubt, though there may be room for some critics as well.” (McAuley 1970 62)

By ‘black poetry’ McAuley does not mean either Australian aboriginal or Afro-American poetry, but rather modern free verse, common since 1910 and widespread since about 1930.