Sep 20 2008

Spectra

Published by at 12:00 pm under American Literature

Recently, thanks to Algabal, I discovered a wickedly delicious volume of poetry called Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments, written by Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke, and published in 1916. Spectra was a literary hoax which fooled just about everyone who mattered in literary America of 1916, up to and including Amy Lowell, Edgar Lee Masters and William Carlos Williams. The book is fabulous nonsense from beginning to end. It begins with a gasbag manifesto explaining how the spectrist “movement” was supposed to be about the colors of the spectrum and and how they produce “spectres”, or something like that. Then you get to the poetry, which contain a howler in practically every line. Bynner used the pseudonym of Emanuel Morgan, while Ficke was Anne Knish. Further details of the hoax are online here.

I have long admired Bynner’s work–he produced a wonderful translation of Chinese poetry, The Jade Mountain (1929), and an excellent version of the Tao Te Ching: The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu (1944). Ficke is not as well known but deserves to be. Google Book Search has some of Bynner early work online here, and Ficke’s here. Spectra was their only joint effort and deserves to be rediscovered.

Particularly at the present time. One of the most interesting aspects of Spectra is the remarkable similarity of the spoof poems to what passes for “serious” poetry here in the 21st century. Study the pomposity, the flights of inanity, the disconnectedness, and the pretentiousness on display in Spectra, and behold, you will discover identical crap everywhere in cutting edge contemporary poetry—especially the stuff on display at The Page. Sometimes, whenever I am feeling sufficiently masochistic, I try to search through the prestige offerings at this prestige site, but what I always seem to discover are nice little doohickeys like this, which starts off:

Child waking up in a dark room
screaming I want my duck back, I want my duck back

in a language nobody understands in the least —

There is no duck.

But the dog, all upholstered in white plush —
the dog is right there in the crib next to him.

Years and years — that’s how much time passes.
All in a dream. But the duck —
no one knows what happened to that.

Witter and Arthur, where are you when we need you? Why doesn’t someone write spoofs of the prize winning doggerel being tossed about these days? Well, maybe one day it will actually happen. So ye of the fancy MFA degrees: beware! beware! There really is a duck! With my own eyes I have seen the duck! One of these days the duck is going to stomp out all of academe’s lethally boring postmodern vacuousness, and then you will be seen for the frauds that you are!

Spectra is now available at my website here. Read and enjoy. As for me, whenever I want my poetry fix, looks like I’ll have to stick with the fin-de-siècle, or the Romantics, or the Elizabethans, and or maybe even with old Epicurean fogies like Virgil, Horace, and Lucretius.

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