A Few of my Favorite Cons: Spectrism

I enjoy poetry, from seventeenth century to Silverstein, and it’s probably no surprise to anyone who has browsed this blog looking for actual content that I have a certain fascination with prop bets, scams, and hoaxes.

Imagine my excitement when I found a combination of these two interests right in my own backyard.

It’s fate, I tell you.  And a  really long post.  Sorry,  I got excited.


Opus 80
(By Anne Knish)

Oh my little house of glass!
How carefully I have planted shrubbery
To plume before your transparency.
Light is too amorous of you,
Transfusing through and through
Your panes with an effulgence never new.
Sometimes I am terribly tempted
To throw the stones myself.

According to old newspapers and poetry books, Spectrism was one of the most popular  of the ‘free-verse’ schools of poetry that started popping  up before World War I.  Coming onto the scene in 1916 with Spectra: A book of Poetic Experiments, its members— Emanuel Morgan, who wrote in rhyme, Anne Knish, who preferred passion, and Elijah Hay, who preferred Anne—gained both notoriety and fame.*  Magazines interviewed them, critics fought over them, and readers read them.

But the whole thing was a joke.  Or at least it started out that way.

Arthur Davison Ficke and Harold Witter Bynner were both well-known poets who were unimpressed with these ‘free-verse’ movements that traded  lyricism, scansion and  common sense for pretentious philosophies and new-fangled psychology.

While visiting Ficke, Witter who came up with the idea of making up a fake school of poetic thought, writing a collection of truly awful poems under pseudonyms, and publishing it as a parody.    Everyone would have a good laugh at the expense of self-satisfied free-verse, and everything would settle down.

Bynner created Emanuel Morgan, a working-class man with a Walt Whitemanesque beard, and Ficke became Anne Knish, a Hungarian divorcée.  And, as Ficke said afterward, the Spectrism movement was born “from ten quarts of excellent Scotch in ten days.”**

The rays which the poet has dissociated into colorful beauty should recombine in 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 spectres should touch with a tremulous vibrancy of ultimate fact the reader’s sense of the immediate theme.

(Spectra, preface)

It must have been very good Scotch indeed.

The parody was sent to Ficke and Bynner’s publisher.  They expected him to get the joke immediately—instead, he offered Mr. Morgan and Mrs. Knish a contract.

In retrospect, that should have been the first clue that this wasn’t going to go exactly as planned.

Everyone took Spectra seriously—Bynner was even asked to review it  for the New Republic.  At that point, the whole thing could have been written off as a poorly executed practical joke.

Instead, Bynner did the review and pocketed the fee.  After that, the joke became an ever more elaborate hoax.

Bynner seemed to have the most fun with it:  he began viciously criticizing Spectrism during his lectures, saying that all schismatic verse was complete crap*** . . . though this Morgan guy showed some talent.

Still, no one sussed—and Spectrism was accepted as a legitimate school of poetry for the next three years.

But all weird things must come to an end, and people became suspicious as the coincidences piled up:  the Spectrists were rumored to be everywhere, but never seen.  They wrote letters, but never gave interviews or allowed photographs to be taken.  And when America joined the war in Europe, Anne Knish disappeared just as Arthur Ficke enlisted in the Ordinance Corps.

Finally, during a lecture he was giving in Detroit, Bynner was asked point-blank, if he was Emanuel Morgan and Arthur Ficke was Anne Knish.  Bynner said, “Yes,” and told his audience the whole story.  He said later than he just couldn’t tell such a big lie in front of so many people.

There were no legal repercussions, but Ficke and Bynner lost some good friends who had been vocal supporters of Spectrism and now felt like fools.   They also lost the readers who thought their bad poetry was better than their good poetry.^

After the air cleared, they admitted that the joke had been on them—although they never lost sight of reality, their identities had become almost real.   Bynner even published a few collections in the Spectric style under Morgan’s name, saying that he missed the freedom of the form.

Ficke finally admitted that his best work had been written by Anne Knish and that he’d learned a lot about composition from her.  Although he still primarily wrote sonnets, he also began working in different forms, and eventually left his law practice to write full-time.

I doubt money was the sole motivation for continuing the hoax, though Spectra sold very well and magazines bought all they could.  From what I’ve read,^^ it was most likely a combination of pride and embarrassment that kept them from revealing the truth.  But there’s also that special kind of amused amazement that comes from successfully pulling the wool over the eyes of a great number of people.

And you know . . . I kind of like Spectral poetry.

Opus 6
(by Emanuel Morgan)

IF I were only dafter
I might be making hymns
To the liquor of your laughter
And the lacquer of your limbs.

But you turn across the table
A telescope of eyes,
And it lights a Russian sable
Running circles in the skies….

Till I go running after,
Obeying all your whims –
For the liquor of your laughter
And the lacquer of your limbs.


* Remember, kids, radio killed the poetry star.

** As the story goes, they were so loud and gleeful as they shared bottles and bits of doggerel that Mrs. Ficke kicked them out of the house until they were done.  She was, by the way, the first Mrs. Ficke.  I’m just sayin’.

*** I’m paraphrasing a bit.

^ I can relate.

^^ The Spectra Hoax, William Jay Smith, 1965.  Good information, fun read—and the full text of Spectra, plus bonus poems.  Woo-hoo!


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