Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Bullets for Hands": Witter Bynner, Arthur Davison Ficke, and the Spectra Poems of World War I

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Bullets for Hands": Witter Bynner, Arthur Davison Ficke, and the Spectra Poems of World War I

Article excerpt

Originally conceived as a parody of the avant-garde literary movements of its day (for example, Imagism, Vorticism, Futurism, Chorism), the anthology Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments was published in 1916. Its authors, Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish, were really Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke respectively, and they kept up their facade for nearly two years, producing unexpectedly striking poetry in the process, including some of the most resonant responses to World War I. For Spectrism's detractors, of course, the whole thing was easily dismissible as a joke. However, in an August 1918 letter responding to criticism of the hoax in Poetry magazine, the secret finally out, Bynner (still using the Morgan name) sought to clarify the meaning of Spectra as he saw it, stating his genuine affirmation of the anthology's work beyond the satiric circumstances of its creation: "Having given vent to Witter Bynner's irritation at smug and pedantic pretences, Emanuel Morgan soon found himself a liberated identity glad to be agog with a sort of laughing or crying abandon, of which, in other poets, the New England soul of Witter Bynner had been too conscientiously suspicious" (Morgan 1918, 287). Clearly, then, Spectrism had become something more than merely a joke and, for Bynner, it quickly assumed a much deeper and, as I argue here, long-term significance.

Though many of his literary colleagues were angry at having been taken in by the hoax, Bynner was not alone in defending the work of the disguised Spectra poets. For example, William Marion Reedy, editor of the influential journal Reedy's Mirror, wrote in 1919 that "some of their pseudonymous performances were better stuff than they had ever done under or over their own names" (1919, xvi). Not only is the work of Knish and Morgan valuable poetry in its own right, but the Spectrist project also sheds light on contemporary perceptions of Imagism and Vorticism, movements now seen as canonical in early modernism but whose principles and stances were not initially uncontested. As Leonard Diepeveen avers, "mock" texts like Spectra "don't just mock, ... they interpret modernism's works and the movement as a whole, the social conditions that were granting it attention, and the conditions under which someone could take such work seriously" (2014, 9). Another such serious but understudied context for understanding Spectrism is as documenting a reaction to modernism's signal event, the First World War. Though this aspect of Spectra has rarely been commented on in recent decades, Bynner and Ficke, in publishing what they originally conceived of as a hoax, also made an important intervention into the contemporary discourse of the war. Thus, engaging with Spectra beyond its hoax limitations allows us to explore its wider aesthetic and sociopolitcal relevance to that period, as well as to Bynner's and Ficke's other work.

The first public appearance of Spectrism came in June 1916, as the First World War raged in Europe, with a provocative new manifesto appearing in the American literary journal the Forum. Tided "The Spectric School of Poetry" and authored by Knish and Morgan, the essay opened by attacking Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis's recent Vorticist departure in no uncertain terms: "The Vorticist School of poetry died an ignominious death in London, snuffed out by the explosion of the war. This was no great loss, because the experiments of this school, though interesting, were actuated by a wrong theory of poetic expression" (1916b, 675). Inextricably informed by the presence of the Great War, the Spectrists also clearly intended to wage a poetic war. Their Spectra anthology followed that autumn from the publisher Mitchell Kennerley and garnered much notice. Said to be based in Pittsburgh, Knish and Morgan were soon joined by a third member of the group, Elijah Hay (in real life, Marjorie Allen Seiffert, another well-known poet of the early twentieth-century modernist period), and in January 1917 the three contributed additional work to a special "Spectric School" issue of the little magazine Others, edited by Alfred Kreymborg. …

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