In the early years of the 20th Century, the European and American world of arts and letters was a swarm of competing “schools,” each with its manifesto and its elaborate æsthetic theory. Some of these schools were serious put-ons, others were serious and didn’t consider themselves put-ons, and others, like the Disumbrationist school of painting and the Spectric school of poetry, were deliberate hoaxes poking fun at the new artistic zoölogy.
“Our intent,” wrote Spectrist “Emanuel Morgan” afterwards, “was to satirize fussy pretence; and if we have in any degree focussed laughter on pomp and circumstance among poets we shall have had enough satisfaction in our fun.”
In 1916, the poets Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke invented the Spectric school of poetry and its main practitioners — Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish. Their intent was to mock the pretensions of those who flocked to the avant-garde, but they immediately became so carried away in their enthusiasm for the invented school that, as Ficke put it, they risked “perishing at the hands of the monster which we had created.”
Some critics later said that the Spectral poems were of better quality than that of Bynner & Ficke’s serious work. Bynner once remarked: “Once in a while we think so ourselves.” One critic, trying to explain why critics appreciated such deliberately bad poetry, wrote that the authors had freed their poetic muse from the “conscious censor” and had thereby unintentionally made 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.”
Some highlights along the way:
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.”
William Carlos Williams wrote: “I was completely taken in by the hoax and while not subscribing in every case to the excellence of the poems admired them as a whole quite sincerely.”
If there is today any firm boundary remaining between art and parody, be sure that somewhere there is a jester dancing along that line, writing verses first on one side and then the other, wondering which side you’ll read them from.
DESPAIR comes when all comedy
And there is left no tragedy
In any name,
When the round and wounded breathing
Of love upon the breast
Is not so glad a sheathing
As an old brown vest.
Asparagus is feathery and tall,
And the hose lies rotting by the garden-wall
I WOULD not in the early morning
Start my mind on its inevitable journey
Toward the East.
There are white domes somewhere
Under that blue enameled sky, white domes, white domes;
Therefore even the cream
Is safest yellow.
Cream is better than lemon
In tea at breakfast.
I think of tigers as eating lemons.
Thank God this tea comes from the green grocer,
Not from Ceylon.
I ONLY know that you are given me
For my delight.
No other angle finishes my soul
But you, you white.
I know that I am given you,
Black whirl to white,
To lift the seven colors up…
Focus of light!
HE’S the remnant of a suit that has been drowned;
That’s what decided me,” said Clarice.
“And so I married him.
I really wanted a merman;
And this slimy quality in him
No one forbade the banns.
Ergo — will you love me?”
BESIDE the brink of dream
I had put out my willow-roots and leaves
As by a stream
Too narrow for the invading greaves
Of Rome in her trireme…
Then you came — like a scream
|snig·gle (v) — To fish for eels by thrusting a baited hook into their hiding places.|