Just as the colors of the rainbow recombine into a white light,- just as the reflex of the eye’s picture vividly haunts sleep,- just as the ghosts which surround reality are the vital part of that existence, so may the Spectric vision, if successful, prolong, and at the same time multiply the emotional images of the reader.
Anne Knish, 1916
A few months back while researching turn of the century St. Louis journal Reedy’s Mirror, I stumbled upon Spectricism, the ‘school’ of poetry whose nearly impenetrable verse briefly turned the American literary world on its head. The preface to Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments (811.52), quoted in part above, outlines the movement’s lofty philosophy. Hailing from unlikely Pittsburgh, the mysterious Spectral poets were tempestuous Budapest-born Anne Knish and her partner Emanuel Morgan.
Turns out these two wordsmiths didn’t exist. The Spectral poetry movement was an elaborate hoax perpetrated by Witter Bynner (Emanuel Morgan) and Arthur Davidson Ficke (Anne Knish), both accomplished traditional poets. Perturbed by the glut of elitist experimental free verse movements of the era, chiefly the Imagists, Bynner and Ficke chose to spoof them. Just months before the volume’s release, the men had holed up in a Moline, Illinois hotel for ten days with ten quarts of scotch and concocted the entire ruse. The ideology and poetry that emerged was pompous, absurd, and wonderfully spirited.
Reviews were mixed, but for the most part Spectricism was taken seriously by critics. Edgar Lee Masters and William Carlos Williams were admirers. Amusingly, Bynner himself was paid to review the work for the journal New Republic! He wrote “…whether or not there be meaning or magic in the book, I can promise that there is amusement in it and that it takes a challenging place among current literary impressionistic phenomena.” However, The Los Angeles Graphic charged that it was “Gibberish, written for one purpose only- to attract attention.”
The deception continued through World War I, in which both poets served, but seemed trivial given the gravity of the period. Finally, on April 26, 1918, Bynner was asked point blank during a lecture whether or not he and Ficke were the Spectral poets. He said yes.
A delightful book, The Spectra Hoax (811.52), written by William Jay Smith in 1961, recounts the prank through recollections by all the players involved. It is full of humorous tales regarding their attempts to bring other famous poets into the fold, keeping the scam alive amid growing suspicion, and the sting felt by those who were taken in by the con.
What I love the most about this story is the notion that the poetry of Morgan and Knish is unintentionally superior to that of Bynner and Ficke when writing as themselves. After the truth was exposed, critic Jerome Eddy wrote a letter to Reedy’s Mirror suggesting the “real Bynner and real Ficke” emerged because they were no longer censoring themselves, thus enabling them to write more freely and unrestrained. Freudian psychology at work. An excellent point was made by Jane Heap, of the Little Review, who wrote, “I confess to a deep ignorance of the nature of the hoax. If a man changes his name and writes better stuff, why does that make the public so ridiculous?”
I might have found the whole affair cruel had I been around at the time. People just want to fit in and feel a sense of belonging, don’t they? There have always been folks who find allure in snobbish exclusivity and that’s their right. Who decides what authentic art is, anyway? All fun questions to consider.
One can compare and contrast the work of Witter Bynner and Arthur Davidson Ficke with their pseudonyms here at SLPL. In addition to the Spectra book, we own many poetry volumes published under their real names, both before and after the hoax. Bynner even wrote another book as Emanuel Morgan in 1920 titled Pins for Wings. He once commented of his alter ego Morgan, “I find now I write like him without the slightest effort- I don’t know where he leaves off and I begin. He’s a boomerang!”
Is the antelope
Over the hills;
Is the wounded deer
Bleeding in rills;
Is the heavy bear
Tearing at meat;
Is the mastodon
And I am the stag with the golden horn
Waiting till my day is born.
IF I should enter to his chamber
And suddenly touch him,
Would he fade to a thin mist,
Or glow into a fire-ball,
Or burst like a punctured light-globe?
It is impossible that he would merely yawn and rub
And say – “What is it?”