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:

  • 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.”

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.

See also:

Loves of the Triangles

Opus 15
Emanuel Morgan

DESPAIR comes when all comedy
  Is tame
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

Opus 67
Anne Knish

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.

Opus 46
Emanuel Morgan

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!

Opus 182
Anne Knish

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
Won me.
No one forbade the banns.
Ergo — will you love me?”

Opus 14
Emanuel Morgan

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
  Of beeves.

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On This Day in SniggleryJune 25, 2001: Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate, finally admits that the magazine’s report on the bizarre sport of monkey fishing was “willful inaccuracy.” (See News Trolls for more info)