Category Archives: Poetics

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.

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.

Haiku: “Young Man”

Ageing Man in Mirror

(In the mirror)

Where’s the young man gone,
who lived in mirrors so long?
Putting old masks on.

This was published in Asses of Parnassus, a most worthy site for short verse, especially the flippant, frivolous or sarcastic. “Young Man” seems to be a theme I keep returning to, probably because I keep having birthdays. It’s easy enough to feel in your early 30s when you’re climbing a tree to pick fruit, or swimming, or reading; but a mirror may offer an unexpectedly different opinion.

Technically a loose sort of haiku, this poem meets the requirements of 5-7-5 syllables and the volta between lines 2 and 3, but hardly addresses a season and its sensibilities. The rhyme and near-rhyme of the three lines is not something required in Japanese, but seems to me to be necessary in an English haiku to make it a poem, i.e. to differentiate it from 17 syllables of prose written over three lines.

Poem: “Said Poor Mrs. Owen”

Wilfred Owen

(“Futility” by Robbie Kerr) 

Said poor Mrs. Owen
To her son Wilfred
Why must you always
Write of the trenches?
Why can’t you write
Like that nice Mr. Wordsworth
Of flowers?

Said Mrs. Picasso
To her son Pablo
Why must you always
Paint so distortedly?
Why can’t you paint
Like that nice Mr. Monet
Some flowers?

Because we don’t always
Create what we celebrate,
Sometimes we model the
Things that we’d like to change,
Things we don’t like, or just
Things that we think about –
Thoughts of ours.

This poem was published in The Road Not Taken – a journal of formal poetry that is edited by Kathryn Jacobs in connection with Texas A&M University at Commerce, TX.

Technically the poem lacks some aspects of what we tend to assume is “form”, notably extensive rhyme, alliteration or assonance. But each of the stanzas has the same seven-line form, with two stressed syllables in each of the first six lines and a shorter seventh line. The first two stanzas have virtually identical structure, though one deals with poetry and the other with painting, and the third stanza answers them. The last lines repeat and rhyme.

It is really the natural rhythm of the poem that allows it to be included in a journal of formal poetry. In the sense that “form” is any trick of verse that allows it to be remembered word for word, form can be a lot broader than some of the narrow definitions of formal verse.

Poem: “Optimism”

Do you have a clear detection
Of an unexpired affection?
Are you reckoned to come second in her life?
Was there someone there before you?
Let it be, don’t let it bore you;
It’ll maintain her somewhat saner as your wife.

This little throwaway poem was recently published in Lighten Up Online. In my mind its value is not so much as a commentary on modern marriage, as an enjoyable way to string some rhymes together. I no longer have any idea what was on my mind when I wrote it.

Many poets would analyse this as written in trochees with lines of either four or six feet, the third line being

ARE you RECKoned TO come SECond IN her LIFE?

but to my mind the lines have only either two or three strongly accented syllables, with the third line being

Are you RECKoned to come SECond in her LIFE?

It is a short piece of patter, which is emphasised by the internally stressed rhymes of reckoned/second and maintain-her/saner. But that leads to a problem: there is a difficulty with the beginning of the last line, and it is hard to find a smooth flow.

Originally it read

‘Twill maintain her —

Archaic, said LUPO editor Jerome Betts, and requested a change for publication as

It’ll keep her —

I accepted this, not noticing that I was losing the rhyme with saner. So why not

It’ll maintain her —

Now the problem is that there is one syllable too many, and we don’t have a smooth flow from the previous line.

You’ll maintain her —, perhaps?

That gives a brand new problem, a subtle shift of meaning from the abstract “it” to the personal “you”, with a much more active sense of “maintain her” and even a suggestion of financial concern.

If it was just an oral presentation, you could probably slide by with

‘t’ll maintain her —

but is that acceptable, comprehensible, in print?

My operating principle with poetry is that there is always a solution. But in this case I haven’t yet found it. 

Poem: “My Outside”

My outside stroking your inside
Your inside gloving my outside
My outside stroking your
Inside gloving my
Stroking your
Gloving my
Stroking
Gloving
Stroking
Gloving
My your my your my your
Our

This poem was originally published in “The Fifth International Anthology on Paradoxism“, edited by Florentin Smarandache – who appears to live as a mathematician in a universe of paradox. It was republished in the Experimental section of Better Than Starbucks.

This blog advocates for the use of form, to the extent of questioning whether a piece that doesn’t rhyme and scan can even be considered poetry. Is this poetry, then? I think it hovers paradoxically on the edge. It may not rhyme or scan, but it has certain qualities of form:

It is word-for-word memorable through its expression. After all, it only uses seven different words, and they are clearly structured.

The lines are paired all the way, the second of each pair mirroring (or even fusing) the first.

There is a rhythm – a very human rhythm – to the piece, even if it doesn’t fall within poetic norms.

There is even, if you care to consider it, an aspect of concrete poetry about it.

And, if read in my English accent, the last word is a pun, being pronounced “Ahh!”

The simplicity of words, the structure of the lines, the rhythm of the piece, the aspect of concreteness and the pun all contribute to what the poem is trying to communicate.

If it is a poem.

Poem: “Diatribe Against Unversed Poets”

Heartbeat

Heartbeat – “June 1, 2014” by osseous

Ignoring clockwork towns and fertile farms
Tied to the sun-swing as the seas to moon,
They searched for verse in deserts without rhyme,
Lifted erratic rocks nonrhythmically
In search of poetry, then through the slough
Of their emotions hunted for a trail:

“The scent is cold. Its Spirit must have fled;
The body of its work, though dead,
Has been translated to some higher plane.
Look how the world’s translated verse
Comes to us plain—why can’t we emulate?
Then if the words themselves are unimportant,
If poetry in essence is idea,
And song is wrong,
Rhyme a superfluous flamboyance
(Like colour in Van Gogh),
Rhythm a distraction to the memoring mind,
Then we determine poetry’s true form is mime!”

While in the air the deafening blare
Confounds their silence everywhere:
Before our hearts began to beat
We were conceived in rhythmic heat;
So, billions strong, we sing along
For all the time, in time, our time, the song
Goes rocking on in rhythmic rhyme. Rock on!

This was originally published in Snakeskin, the monthly online poetry magazine that George Simmers has been putting out since the 1990s. He is receptive to a range of poetry, but as his original credo states: “Nor shall we sit to lunch with those / Who moralise in semi-prose. / A poem should be rich as cake.”

This poem is a rant against the vast amounts of blather that have been published as “poetry”, while anything showing formal verse skills was automatically rejected by most magazines over the past several decades. The rant is against poets who are “unversed”: “not experienced, skilled, or knowledgeable.” Why should they be given automatic acceptance, when the skilled were automatically rejected? It has been a bizarre half-century. It has a zeitgeist worth considering.

To focus on the United States as the cultural driver of the 20th century: it has always had an anarchic aspect, from the founding tenet of the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – though this mostly applied to adult white males who had a certain level of property. (By contrast, Canada’s constitutional requirement for the federal parliament to provide “peace, order and good government” has a social rather than individual orientation.) The US high water mark for good government came domestically with the FDR-and-Eleanor Roosevelt presidency, and internationally with the founding of the United Nations. But “big government” acquired such nasty connotations thanks to Stalin, Hitler and Mao that those who wanted the freedom to exploit others without legal restriction were able to make a case for “small government” and chip away at government structures.

In poetry, what started with Walt Whitman in the 19th century burst open a century later with Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and classrooms where every child was “encouraged in self-expression” without penalties for illiteracy. What was expressed became everything; the how became irrelevant. As in government, freedom from others’ rules became desirable in the literary and artistic community, and in the hippie movement, and the innovative business start-ups of Silicon Valley. There were undoubted benefits… but in literature, the suppression of poetic form was one of the less fortunate results.

Poetry takes different forms in different languages, but the forms all have the same desirable outcome: to make it easier to memorise and recite word-for-word. Alliteration, assonance, rhyme, metre – these are all useful tools for achieving this, along with less tangible tools such as fresh or startling imagery. Metre is viscerally important to us, because the mother’s heartbeat is the background to sensory development in the womb, and our own heartbeat and breathing rhythms continue throughout life. As humans we drum, we dance, we sing, just as we walk and run rhythmically, tap our fingers rhythmically when we are bored, teach small children to clap and sing, teach older children clapping and skipping games. Rhythm is built into us from before birth.

But rhythmic poetry didn’t die when it stopped being publishable. It just went into folk songs, blues, rock, country-and-western, musicals, rap, hip hop… Popular music let teenagers and adults continue to thrive with what they were not given by schools: rhythm and rhyme. This drive to make words memorable and recitable is part of who we humans are. So schools do best when they leaven “creative self-expression” with getting kids to learn things by heart, and to pay attention to the qualities that make it easy to memorise and recite.