Review of Spectra


Several years ago 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 how they produce "spectres", or something like that. Then you get to the poetry, which contains 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--in 1929 he produced a wonderful translation of a Chinese poetry anthology called 
The Jade Mountain, and one of my favorite English versions of the Tao Te Ching: The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu (1944). Ficke is not as well known but deserves to be. The Internet Archive has some of Bynner's 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 and 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. 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.

But at the moment, you can read Spectra and enjoy. As for me, whenever I want my poetry fix, I pay no attention to contemporary American claptrap. I stick with the fin-de-si├Ęcle, or the Romantics, or the Elizabethans, and or maybe even old Epicurean fogies like 
Virgil, Horace, and Lucretius.

Read Spectra here.

Asparagus is feathery and tall,
And the hose lies rotting by the garden-wall.
--Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke,