"Asparagus grows feathery and tall;
The hose lies rotting by the garden wall."
History illustrates that the pen, if not mightier
, is at least as accomplished of as much mischief
as the sword. In 1916 Anne Knish
and Emanuel Morgan
published a thin volume of poetry entitled Spectra: a Book of Poetic Experiment
(New York: Mitchell Kennerley) which perpetuated one of the most attention-grabbing hoaxes of the early 20th century. During this era there were a number avant-garde movements between the poetical elites and there to confound them were these two pranksters. As one teacher relates they were “a couple of American wannabe Imagists, the ways that Imagism
can be rewritten as exotic nationalism become salient: one of the "Spectraists" was "Anne Knish," a "Hungarian Jewess" with "flaming red hair" who had driven an unspecified number of admirers to suicide." It's not hard to fathom why, what follows is Knish’s Spectra manifesto
It is the aim of the Spectric group to push the possibilities of poetic expression into a new region, to attain a fresh brilliance of impression by a new method not so wholly different from the methods of Futurist Painting.
An explanation of the term, Spectric will indicate something of the nature of the technique, which it describes. ‘Spectric’ has, in this connection, three separate but closely related meanings. In the first place, it speaks, to the mind, of that process of diffraction by which are disarticulated colored and other rays of which light is composed. It indicates our feeling that the theme of a poem is to be regarded as a prism, upon which the colorless white light of existence falls and is broken up into glowing, beautiful, and intelligible hues. In its second sense, the term Spectric relates to the reflex vibrations of physical sight, and suggests the luminous appearance which is seen after exposure of the eye to intense light, and, by analogy, the after-colors of the poet’s initial vision. In its third sense, Spectric connotes the overtones, adumbrations, or spectres which for the poet haunt all objects both of the seen and unseen world, those shadowy projections, sometimes grotesque, which, hovering around the real, give to the real its full ideal significance and its poetic worth. These spectres are the manifold spell and true essence of objects, like the magic that would inevitably encircle a mirror from the hand of Helen of Troy.
Just as the colors of the rainbow combine 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, synthesize, prolong, and at the same time multiply the emotional images of the reader. The rays, which the poet has dissociated into colorful beauty, should recombine on the reader’s brain into a new intensity of unified brilliance. The reflex of the poet’s sight should sustain the original perception with a haunting keenness. The insubstantiality of the poet’s specters should touch with a tremulous vibrancy of ultimate fact the reader’s sense of the immediate theme.
If the Spectrist wishes to describe a landscape, he will not attempt a map, but will put down those winged emotions, those fantastic analogies, which the real scene awakens in his own mind. In practice this will be found to be the vividest of all modes of communication, as the touch of hands quickens a mere exchange of names.
It may be noted that to Spectra, to these reflected experiences of life, as we perceive them, adheres often a tinge of humor. Occidental art, in contrast to art in the Orient, has until lately been afraid of the flash of humor on its serious works. But a growing acquaintance with Chinese painting is surely liberating in or poets and painters a happy sense of the disproportion of man to his assumed place in the universe, a sense of the tortuous grotesque vanity of the individual. By this weapon, man helps defend his intuition of the Absolute and of his own obscure but real relation to it.
Anne Knish: THE SPECTRA MANIFESTO, 1916
One editorial piece describes the modest volume and attempts to explain the manifesto:
With an unintelligible preface purporting to explain the name of the new ism. Each of the Spectric poems was pretentiously titled with an opus number, like a piece of classical music.
A second scholar notes:
Imagists, including their interests in Japan, had become so pervasive by 1916 that a parody of their work could itself become a successful collection. ‘It may be noted’, ‘Anne Knish’ writes in the introduction, ‘that to Spectra, to these reflected experiences of life, as we perceive them, adheres often a tinge of humor. Occidental art, in contrast to the art of the Orient, has until lately been afraid of the flash of humor in its serious works.’ The Orientalia in the poems is mainly chinoiserie, but many contain as well short stanzas parodying the hokku-inspired verse of Pound and others.
Two of the most memorable hoax movements were the Disumbrationist school of painting and the Spectric school of poetry. What provoked the prank that snowballed into the little hoax that could was that Europe and America were awash in a sea of manifestos and convoluted premises about their esthetics from rival schools of art. Several of these schools were sober phonies, while some were sober and didn't think they were phonies at all. Both were premeditated hoaxes, and Spectra was created for some diliberate rib-nudging pokes at Imagism, Vorticism, and several other minor isms which they thought had contaminated the literary world. Conjured up and written by Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke, under the respective pseudonyms of Emanuel Morgan and the classic poetess Anne Knish, the movement has been deemed by many today as “a delightful and revealing spoof-manifesto” and the verse accompanying it, they say, vibrates with the variant expression and objectives of schools of “Futurism, Imagism, Amygisme” being touted by such literary lights of the day as Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound.
William Bynner started the ball rolling by asking his friend from their Harvard undergraduate days, Arthur Davison Ficke. At the time Ficke was spending a great deal of his free time in Chicago with the Poetry crowd while working as a lawyer in Davenport, Iowa. Ficke had published collaborative works before, so together, Bynner and Ficke initially published their diminutive Spectra, booklet. Quickly realizing that two poets did not a movement make, they enlisted a third poet, a well-to-do woman from Moline, Illinois, Marjorie Allen Seiffert, who had earlier experience with publishing her own brand of hoax poems at The New Yorker under the name Angela Cypher. Together they set out to fabricate the “ism to end all isms”, and set up "Spectrism," a new school for experimental poetry. To make the ruse even more incredulous they claimed that the Spectrists were located in an unlikely place to give birth to a poetical school, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The book of poems was contrived and edited in ten days and subsequently published. Winning instant praise from critics, the Spectrists were publicly received as a valid literary school. "Our intent," wrote Spectrist ``Emanuel Morgan" some time later, "was to satirize fussy pretence; and if we have in any degree focused laughter on pomp and circumstance among poets we shall have had enough satisfaction in our fun." But they risked as they later realized, of "perishing at the hands of the monster which we had created." One website,www.sniggle.net/spectra.php, records a litany of highlights from the hijinks and the impact the small collection of Spectra poems had:
- Before the hoax was exposed, Thomas Raymond, running as the Republican nominee for mayor of Newark, New Jersey,
"decided to avoid political issues and to limit his campaigning to readings of Spectra and Walter Pater," according to one account. After his election victory he read the poems of "Anne Knish" at his inaugural party.
- Not realizing that the Spectral school was itself a parody of other emerging schools of poetry, students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison created a parody of the Spectrists called "Ultra-Violet poetry" whose practitioners, "Manual Organ" and "Nanne Pish," wrote silly verse for the January 1917 edition of the Wisconsin Literary Magazine.
- Ficke, serving in France during World War I, was asked by one army brigadier general what he thought of the Spectral poets. When Ficke replied, truthfully if incompletely, that he believed the poetry to be some sort of hoax, the general congratulated him on his insight.
"But how do you know, sir?" Ficke asked.
The general responded: "I myself am Anne Knish!"
Ficke recalled the conversation as "one of the most deliriously happy hours I have ever spent."
- Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edgar Lee Masters wrote a letter to "Emanuel Morgan" praising Spectra: "You have an idea in the sense that places do have an essence, everything has a noumena back of its appearance and it is this that poetry should discover... Spectrism if you must name it is at the core of things..." Ficke & Bynner threw dice - best three out of five - to determine who got to keep the letter, which they in their glee had certified by a notary public.
- After the hoax had been exposed and the world of poetry had an opportunity to reflect on the affair, Carl Sandburg gave his opinion that "Spectra" (by which I think he meant the hoax as a whole rather than just the poetry) "is a piece of creative art."
After Bynner, Ficke, and Seiffert (as Elijah Hay ) wrote and circulated their manifesto they continued submitting poems in several leading journals for publication including Others, Poetry, and The Little Review. It became all quite believable and many of their contemporaries by the likes of John Gould Fletcher and William Carlos Williams took the movement very seriously.
"I was completely taken in by the hoax, said Williams, "and while not subscribing in every case to the excellence of the poems admired them as a whole quite sincerely."
Engaged in one correspondence with Marjorie Seiffert (as Elijah Hay) Williams ‘wrote to say that he favored the work of Morgan and Hay to that of Knish (Ficke) because "she" took the Spectrist affair too seriously.’
Williams explained, ‘The woman as usual gets all the theory and — as usual — takes it seriously whereas the male knows it’s only a joke — serious as it is. A.K.’s things suffer from too much theory.’
Elated at their success and almost certainly in cahoots with the editor of the Forum periodical, Mitchell Kennerley, an academic article on the "Spectra school" appeared in the June edition with you guessed it Fricke posing as the sultry Anne Knish discussing an indirect suggestion to the Surrealist manifesto of Andre Breton. "She" describes the latest type of Spectric poet as one who holds up "her" ideas that "the apparently unrelated impressions reflecting through a theme or idea may be artfully enough selected or directly enough recorded, without the conventional mental or verbal bridges, to reproduce, in the reader's mind, their effect on the mind of the poet."
By placing an importance on this heightened reality of the Spectric manifesto, Ficke and Bynner offered these principles: if the poet "wishes to describe a landscape, he will not attempt a map, but will put down those winged emotions, those fantastic analogies, which the real scene awakens in his own mind." Here’s one example by Arthur Davison Ficke writing as the hazily foreign "Anne Knish" portrayed as sensual as she was unfathomable. In a distantly scandalous voice "she" composed the following free verse.
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.
Having undergone much worse in the way of experimental poetry since 1916 the Spectric poems aren't all that bad. In fact, they include some pretty good lines and are engaging as well as entertaining. Compared to their more serious verse they are the more memorable work of both Bynner and Ficke, and both writers acknowledged as much after the hoax had been exposed. One columnist, trying to explain
why critics appreciated such intentionally bad poetry, determined that the authors had liberated
their poetic muse from the "conscious censor" and unintentionally created good poetry, "by conventional standards their serious verse is good - good but conscious, while their burlesques are the gleeful outpourings of their unrestrained, boyish selves." Even though their intent was to "satirize fussy pretence" the book and "spectrism" was taken seriously and even attracting others to the "school".
The "hoax" poems are parodies, but they're careful ones, and contain some of Ficke's and Bynner's very best work like Ficke’s explicated Opus 67 which shapes a momentary opening to a Surrealist dream world, others were more exaggerated and witty with obvious wordplay. Here’s one example by Bynner:
As a narrative Opus 14 doesn’t really go anywhere. It starts with a nice reproachful metaphor aimed at superficial women, one that’s even become cliché by today’s standards. Bynner then goes on to focus his nonsense with teasing rhymes. Greaves refer to the armor Roman soldiers wore on their shins, a trireme is a three deep rowing seat and beeves is plural for beef. It’s amazing to discover how seriously these hoaxes were taken.
To their dismay the hoax came unraveled when the Dial explained that "the interruption of the war . . . gave 'Miss Knish' a commission as Captain Arthur Davison Ficke." After World War I, Bynner told his colleagues that Ficke had informed him with "a distinct note of grief in his voice: `Do you know, some of my best work is in `Spectra'?" Bynner too became a victim of his own hoax recounting that poems he wrote as Emanuel Morgan were "freer and more well imagined" than his regular poems. Even after the hoax was revealed Bynner continued to write as Morgan.
If you would like to read more about their shenanigans there’s a very interesting book written by William Jay Smith titled The Spectra Hoax (Story Line Press, 1961).
Arthur Davison Ficke was born in Davenport, Iowa, on November 10, 1883. Witter Bynner was born five years later on August 10, 1888 in Brooklyn, N.Y. They met at Harvard University in 1900 and went onto become life long friends. Bynner worked for McClure's Magazine and as an assistant editor began writing poetry full-time in 1908. He moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico following an extensive tour of the Orient. He continued to write poetry until his death in 1968.
After a trip around the world, Ficke studied law and instructed in English at the State University of Iowa, later the University of Iowa and was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1908. After World War I he served in the U.S. Army until 1919. After a long and painful ordeal with cancer Ficke died in Hudson, New York, on November 30, 1945. At his funeral ceremony, his lifelong friend Edna St. Vincent Millay, read lines from one of his favorite poems, Milton's "Lycidas."
Public domain text for Opus 14 and preface couplet taken from:
Amazon.com: Books: The Spectra Hoax:
Marjorie Allen Seiffert and the Spectra Hoax:
Public domain text for the Spectra manfesto taken from:
The North American Centre for Interdisciplinary Poetics - NACIP:
Public domain text for Opus 14 taken from:
UIowa Libraries - Authors Mss. -- Arthur Davison Ficke Papers:
William Roba on Arthur Davison Ficke: