Monthly Archives: November 2019

Review: “The Spectra Hoax” by William Jay Smith

Spectra Hoax

In ten days in 1916, two brash young poets – Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke – produced a volume of poetry parodying the Imagists. Writing as Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish, and claiming to represent a whole new school, the Spectrics, their manuscript of Morgan’s formal poetry and Knish’s free verse, together with the blathery and pretentious preface, was unexpectedly accepted by a serious publisher and for 18 months was a major success on the American poetry scene. Poetry‘s editor requested half a dozen of their poems, but unfortunately the hoax was uncovered before publication; the editor was embarrassed and angry.

This book tells the full story of the Spectrism hoax, its defense, its termination, and how the hoaxers were in turn hoaxed by others… as well as telling the story of other 20th century poetry hoaxes from Australia and the US. It also contains the full text of Bynner and Ficke’s hoax poetry book, “Spectra”, and a selection of subsequent poems.

As Bynner and Ficke and others subsequently acknowledged, their parodies were unfortunately strong, better than much of the work of the Imagists and in some ways better than their own regular poetry. Consider these:

If bathing were a virtue, not a lust,
I would be dirtiest.

To some, housecleaning is a holy rite.
For myself, houses would be empty
But for the golden motes dancing in sunbeams.

Tax-assessors frequently overlook valuables.
Today they noted my jade.
But my memory of you escaped them.

– Anne Knish, Opus 118

Hope
Is the antelope
Over the hills;
Fear
Is the wounded deer
Bleeding in the rills;
Care
Is the heavy bear
Tearing at meat;
Fun
Is the mastodon
Vanished complete…

And I am the stag with the golden horn
Waiting till my day is born.

– Emanuel Morgan, Opus 2

Whatever else they are, the poems are fun. The story of the hoax and the collection of poems are both worth reading (especially if you like the Imagist poets), and go extremely well together in this book by William Jay Smith.

Triolet: “When Sunrise Gilds Your Hair”

You bring me back to when I once was young
When candles gild your eyebrows and your hair;
And to this rocky isle from which I’ve sprung,
You bring me back to where I once was young,
Birthplace of all the varied songs I’ve sung.
Now lying with you in the predawn air
You bring me back to when we both were young
As sunrise gilds your eyebrows and your hair.

This poem was originally published in The Rotary Dial, a Canadian monthly of 12 formal poems that ran some 50 issues before packing up in 2017. It was edited by two prize-winning Canadian poets, Pino Coluccio (winner of the Trillium Book Award for “Class Clown”) and Alexandra Oliver (winner of the Pat Lowther Award for her collection “Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway”). A very enjoyable magazine, I’m sorry it’s gone.

A triolet is strangely attractive form – it only has two rhymes, and several of the lines are required to repeat (though slight variations in the repetition are allowed, carrying the sense forward into new areas). So the rhyme scheme is ABaAabAB, with lines 1, 4 and 7 and lines 2 and 8 repeating, yet having fresh meanings as the little poem moves along.

In the case of this poem, being married for 25 years became enmeshed with returning to live in my home town after 40 years. The triolet’s structure of repetition suits a poem about development, ageing, memory, return. 

Poem: “Jung & Freud”

Freud and Jung

Freud and Jung

When sparkling springtime Doctor Young
And vernal Doctor Joy
Their arms, words, thoughts, widely outflung
The whole world was their toy.
But clottish schools their systems cloy
With death and dread and dung—
Oh miserable Doctor Joy!
Oh aged Doctor Young!

This little poem was originally published in The Asses of Parnassus, a string of occasional poems in Tumblr, focused on epigrams. “Short, witty, formal poems”, as editor Brooke Clark defines his search.

Jung & Freud is a frivolous piece, based on nothing more than trying to find flippant irony in the names of two of history’s best-known psychiatrists. It uses a bouncy little rhythm with lines of four feet followed by lines of three. The rhymes are simple, repetitive, reversed; the mirroring brings you back to where you started, but with everything reversed.

Sonnet: “The Quincentenarian Looks Back”

“Twentieth century”! – hard to think it through,
remember details in that distant view…
At her tenth birthday party, why’d I throw
her in the pool, all dressed up? Still don’t know.
Later we lived together overseas;
I had no clue of female hygiene needs,
never bought tampons, she used toilet paper.
Later she had a child. Mine? I wonder.
I’d left, we lived with others, better fit…
or did we marry, and have kids, then split?
I married once or twice, had kids, I’m sure.
Sent her too rude a joke, and heard no more.
We knew so little in those small young lives…
I miss you, though, my girl, or wife, or wives.

This science fiction sonnet, maybe a little flippant, was published recently in the Rat’s Ass Review edited by Roderick Bates. But what will happen when people live longer and ever longer? At what point will be stop bothering to remember things that were once essential to our lives? And the photo is a little flippant, too – if we start living to 500, it can only be because we can reverse aging. There may be a few eccentrics who choose to maintain their bodies as “old”, like in the photo, but I think most people would opt for something in the biological 20s.

And, really, it’s not so much a sonnet as 14 lines rhymed in pairs. And even the rhymes are pretty iffy. Oh well. But so long as you amuse or otherwise engage Rick Bates, you have a good chance of being published in RAR. His basic advice for anyone who has something they are dithering about sending out is: “Go ahead and submit.”

 

Review: “Holy Tango of Literature”, amazing parodies by Francis Heaney

Holy Tango

T.S. Eliot anagrams to “Toilets”. Francis Heaney therefore uses that theme to parody Eliot’s best-known poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, as the opening poem of the book:

Let us go then, to the john,
Where the toilet seat waits to be sat upon
Like a lover’s lap perched upon ceramic;
Let us go, through doors that do not always lock,
Which means you ought to knock
Lest opening one reveal a soul within
Who’ll shout, “Stay out! Did you not see my shin,
Framed within the gap twixt floor and stall?”
No, I did not see that at all.
That is not what I saw, at all.

To the stall the people come to go,
Reading an obscene graffito.

We have lingered in the chamber labeled “MEN”
Till attendants proffer aftershave and mints
As we lather up our hands with soap, and rinse.

And so it goes, throughout the Holy Tango of Literature: anagram the poet’s name, use that as the theme for parodying their best known poem. Here are some of the openings:

e. e. cummings: “nice smug me”

nice smug me lived in a pretty hip town
(with up so noses snobs looking down)
saks moomba vong prada
i wore my mesclun i ate my uggs

William Shakespeare: “Is a sperm like a whale?”

Shall I compare thee to a sperm whale, sperm?
Thou art more tiny and more resolute:

Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Kong ran my dealership”

I hired last summer someone simian, King
Kong of Indies islands, fifty-foot-fierce Gorilla, out of hiding

Chaucer, Dorothy Parker, Frost, Whitman, Gwendolyn Brooks… it is an extensive collection, including parodies of plays by Wilde, Woody Allen, Beckett, Pinter and so on. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who anagrams to “Multicolored Argyle Sea”, is a particular delight. Beginning

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he taketh lots of drugs,

it surreptitiously develops a second level of parody of a completely different drug-related poem. I’ll let you discover it for yourself.

And one of my favorites is William Blake, “Likable Wilma”:

Wilma, Wilma, in thy blouse,
Red-haired prehistoric spouse,
What immortal animator
Was thy slender waist’s creator?

When the Rubble clan moved in,
Was Betty jealous of thy skin,
Thy noble nose, thy dimpled knee?
Did he who penciled Fred draw thee?

Wilma, Wilma, burning bright, ye
Cartoon goddess Aphrodite,
Was it Hanna or Barbera
Made thee hot as some caldera?

The book is out of print, and its publisher out of business, but even if you can’t find a used copy, it is still available online for free, although without the illustrations. It is the most satisfying collection of parodies I have ever read. 

Poem: “4 God Limericks”

God

Christian idea of God

God made Heaven, earth, plants, people, fleas
In six days, and then rested at ease;
Then He thought: “In those stones
“I’ll hide dinosaur bones!!”
(He was always a bit of a tease.)

God looked out a Heavenly portal
And what He saw made Him just chortle:
Some dude, on a cross,
Claiming he was the Boss!
For his hubris, God made him immortal.

God, blessed with what one must call humour,
Decided to start up a rumour
That Himself as a dove
Came to Mary with love
And begat an Immaculate Tumour.

God saw how Religion had deadened
And said to His host, “Armageddon’d
“Look good on this lot”
For His plans were all shot
And His angels teased Him till He reddened.

As with the previous post, “4 Guru Limericks”, this was first published in Ambit No. 196, Spring 2009. (Hence the English spelling.) Like the previous post on gurus Buddha, Jesus, Marx and Hitler, you shouldn’t expect anything serious from a limerick. But this flippancy can have a purpose: by tackling a serious subject in a completely unserious way, you can undermine preconceptions and unthinking assumptions, and suggest alternative views and approaches.

With this in mind, consider the idea that religious belief correlates negatively with analytical thinking, but positively with moral concern and empathy. Research into this was summarized in The Independent in 2016, after more complete reporting in the science journal PLOS ONE. Limericks by their iconoclastic nature appear to be low in moral concern and empathy – but often it is some form of moral concern that has driven the limerick’s creation, although its rudeness and fresh viewpoint tends to favour analytical thinking over empathy.

Limericks are the clowns, the fools, of the poetry world. The best of clowns and fools go into stealth mode to make useful observations.

Poem: “4 Guru Limericks”

A wealthy young prince called Gautama
Loathed worship of Krishna and Rama;
“It’s inside you,” he said
But, once he was dead,
He was worshipped…. That’s interesting karma!

A radical rabbi called Jesus
Assumed if he loved us he’d please us;
Though he loved Mary Magdalene,
John, and small children,
His power was no match for Caesar’s.

A second-rate father, Karl Marx
Let his kids die while writing remarks
On Struggle and Might
And the duty to fight
For state-owned newspapers and parks.

Hitler, son of a half-Jewish bastard
Dreamed of occult power; Europe, aghast, heard
Race-hate psychodrama;
His unending trauma
Destroyed the whole state that he’d mastered.

I love limericks. Their elegant form, rhythmic and rhyme-rich, and their frivolous and chatty anapestic feet, allow you to be rude and insulting without causing more offence than a well-dressed wit who has had one too many drinks at a party. And as such, they say things with very few words in a way that is very easy to remember.

As for gurus… well, it’s always good to be able to listen to people with more experience and wisdom than oneself, but that doesn’t necessarily make them correct in their analysis, infallible in their prescriptions and proscriptions. They’re still only human, full of half-aware dreams and unconscious bias. And if they have swarms of devotees and go off the rails, well, they really go off the rails.