Tag Archives: Witter Bynner

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.