The Spectric Poets
“Among recent poets in English, we have noted few who can be
regarded in a sure sense as Spectrists” — so sniffed Anne Knish, in the preface to an anthology too exclusive to admit more than a couple of poets: Knish and her colleague Emanuel Morgan. It was a coterie that could fit inside a foxhole. Nevertheless, from 1916 to 1918, the Spectrists had the attention of figures like Edgar Lee Masters and editors of magazines like this one. Harriet Monroe accepted Spectric poems; Alfred Kreymborg kitted out an entire issue of Others with the stuff. Knish and Morgan’s anthology, Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments (1916), was covered in the papers and, like all novelties perceived to be cutting edge, divided readers. An impromptu fanbase dispatched letters to Pittsburgh, the improbable locale where the movement’s masters made camp. Even William Carlos Williams struck up a correspondence. Knish was said to be Hungarian, the prized object of suitors’ duels. Morgan was said to be one of the
duelists. That the Spectrists have largely been forgotten shouldn’t be counted against contemporary memories, however, or some vision of stubborn, steamrolling history; oblivion is the proper fate of figures who never quite existed in the first place.
Knish was really Arthur Davison Ficke, and Morgan, Witter Bynner. Ficke and Bynner were a pair of poets who composed the sort of competent poetry that would come to be displaced by the efforts of more experimental Modernists like Eliot, Pound, and the rest. But the pair of poets was also a pair of jokers; and Ficke and Bynner, when remembered at all, are remembered for the mock-Modernist poems they whipped up and attributed to their Spectric alter egos — poems like Knish’s “Opus 50,” which kicked off the anthology. Having imagined “a dusk / Where rich amber lights / Quiver obscurely” and “the depths of a tropic forest,” Knish concludes, “I think I must have been born in such a forest, / Or in the tangle of a Chinese screen.”
What — beyond the sheer fact of Amy Lowell — were Ficke and Bynner mocking? “Our intent in publishing [Spectra],” Bynner wrote Poetry in 1918, “was not to question the use of free verse and not to ‘bait the public,’ but to satirize fussy pretence.” By this point, the hoax had been exposed; the Spectric poems Monroe had accepted would not appear in her magazine. But if they had, they wouldn’t have looked especially out of place alongside the work of a Lowell or a Stevens. (But then even today, the opening lines of Knish’s “Opus 40” — “I have not written, reader / That you may read” — would rouse the guy (it’s usually a guy) who finds, say, Kenneth Goldsmith’s ambition to author unreadable books provocative: the masochist who takes pleasure in being told to fuck off.) When Knish describes her entanglement in a “Chinese screen,” she might as well be describing generations of rebels who, in supposing they’ve wriggled free of mainstream habits, find themselves entangled in an entirely new set: the tendency to want to stump readers, turn a nose up at the bourgeois, reject the rational, prioritize immediacy, and appropriate the work of those others who seem sufficiently Other.
Funny thing about the Spectric hoax, though: it resulted in some poems that, well, wouldn’t have looked out of place alongside the work of a Lowell or Stevens! Some of it was offensive, much of it silly. But in panning with such perverse abandon for only the most convincing fool’s gold, Ficke and Bynner couldn’t help but turn up a few nuggets of the real stuff:
Its mighty roof
Is copper rivering with the rain.
— From Opus 76, by Knish
And in the dawn, lava... rolling down...
Down-rolling lava on an up-pointing town.
— From Opus 7, by Morgan
A thousand round-red mouths of pain
A twisting comrade on his back
In a round-red stain,
Clotted stalks of red sumac,
Discs of the sun on a bayonet-stack.
— From Opus 29, by Morgan
Knish’s preface to Spectra identifies the “theme of a poem ... as a prism, upon which the colorless white light of infinite existence falls and is broken up into glowing, beautiful, and intelligible hues” — nonsense to us, but not necessarily to a generation still trying to reckon with Vortices and Images. And prankish preface aside, the Spectric anthology is flecked with poems that gleam: Opuses 40 and 80 by Knish, and Opuses 9, 16, and 29 by Morgan. These are marred only by their anti-titles, which satirize the tendency of poets to feel that their fleeting perceptions — their dream songs and cantos — are too precious to properly label and so better be tagged and logged quickly. Grant them proper titles, affix Stevens’s name, and they would look like the minor works of a master.
In the wake of the hoax, armchair psychologists opined that Ficke and Bynner, by taking up masks, had actually unmasked their true selves. (Inside every stuffy formalist writhes a straitjacketed experimentalist!) Nowadays, in our postwhatever world, we’re apt to make the banal point that there are no true selves, just the masks. (But then we’ve known for centuries that all the world’s a masque, haven’t we?) The Spectric hoax hints at other, better lessons, not least: it’s easy to concoct poems that appear to be innovative — and, by extension, easy to convince oneself that one is avant-garde. How else explain the fact that the perpetrators of such latter-day hoaxes as Language poetry and flarf have yet to fess up to their frauds? They are hucksters conning themselves.
What would Ficke and Bynner, were they with us today, call their alter egos? Would they fashion the specter of a professionally indignant poet-blogger who, believing too much in the zest of her bark, appoints herself the Lemon Pug? A mad scientist by the moniker Kristoff Book who has taught himself the finer points of dna so that he may teach bacteria to be bardic? A plagiarist who composes by Google search and gets tenure? A poet-professor of witness on holiday? Most poets would be too preposterous to believe in if they didn’t already exist. We are already our own best parodies.
Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...