"Bullets for Hands": Witter Bynner, Arthur Davison Ficke, and the Spectra Poems of World War I.
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. The movement was for the most part taken quite seriously and lasted until Bynner revealed the secret in April 1918.
William Jay Smith's The Spectra Hoax (1961) is still the fullest account of this fascinating episode in modernist poetic history, but for Smith its relevance lies solely in its parodic aspects: "While Spectra was merely a joke, it did much to clear the air of the stuffiness that tends to gather about literature when it loses its sense of humor and earnest but lumbering personalities take over" (1961, 67). Smith lists the "lumbering personalities" satirized in Spectra as the prime movers of Imagism and the various champions of the New Poetry of the 1910s. In particular, he names Amy Lowell as "the target" (37), (1) though in the 1916 Forum essay, Knish and Morgan attacked both Imagism and Vorticism, implicating Pound as well. While Max Putzel observes with interest that "the Spectrist movement twined through all the intricate politics that had overtaken the poetic revival" ( 1998, 231), Smiths 70-page treatment goes on to describe Spectrist poetry as mere "nonsense" (1961, 18). The Spectra poems that deal with the Great War escape Smith's attention, for example, and he is content to exploit the episode as a stick with which to beat the poetic avant-garde of both his time and theirs.
More recent criticism of Spectrism has illuminated issues of identity suggested by the participants' use of different personae. Suzanne Churchill, for example, explores the poets' subversion of gender roles and sexual orientation through their publication in little magazines such as Others. Her reading is valuable and insightful, but, following Smith, it too reenacts the dichotomy between the ostensible "conservatism" of the real Bynner and Ficke and the experimental nature of their hoax work: "Much to the shock of its enthusiasts, however, Spectrism proved to be merely a masquerade--a hoax concocted by conservative poets, Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke, to expose the pretensions of modernist poets and audiences alike, especially the Others extremists" (2007, 178). (2) Cristanne Miller, in her 2007 article, analyzes the Spectrists' engagement of Jewish identity (with particular regard to Anne Knish): "Posing as affiliated with Europe, (converted) Jewish, and multilingual placed these poets squarely in the circumstances [William Carlos] Williams, [Lola] Ridge, and [Mina] Loy associated with the birth of the new American idiom and of modern poetry itself--namely that of adapting to change through the personal experience of radical cultural difference" (2007, 468). Like Churchill, Miller's primary concern is with the performance of identity, but she provides a more sympathetic portrait of Spectrism than previously existed, treating its pseudonymous figures as effectually real poets, the parodic impetus of the project notwithstanding. (3)
In fact, neither Bynner nor Ficke was especially conservative, politically or poetically. Their politics (which were on the progressive side of the spectrum), however, do help to account for their oppositional stances toward both Pound and Lowell. Noting Bynner's early support for the women's suffrage movement, his biographer James Kraft goes on to highlight the "intense commitment to a type of democracy in America to which Whitman led him--the inclusive and generous world of diverse and independent people relishing their differences and living openly with them" (1995, 24) (exemplified in Bynner's 1915 collection The New World). The contrast with Pound's burgeoning fascism, elitism, and Eurocentrism is quite clear here, but while Pound's politics are well known, Lowell's own conservatism, elitism, nativism, and wartime jingoism are less often remarked on (perhaps because she herself is often read in contrast to Pound, and often lauded for her flouting of gender stereotypes). In Amy Lowell, Diva Poet (2011), Melissa Bradshaw points out that "during the years surrounding World War One, a pivotal moment in United States' history, as the country struggled to define and defend its ideological identity and its role in international politics," Lowell had a series of photographic portraits taken of herself in "a concerted effort to construct a conservative public persona": "The photographs subtly reinforce the anti-progressive, nativist patriotism subtending her lectures and critical writings on the creation of a definitively American poetics" (2011, 80). Where Bradshaw further characterizes Lowell during the war years as "a conservative, anti-socialist heiress" (83), "an emphatic proponent of United States involvement in the war, [and] a nativist" (84), Bynner was a pacifist who, in a 1917 letter to the New York Tribune, defended the rights of a suddenly besieged German-American population: "I am not opposing majority rule. 1 am only urging people against such Prussian folly as military or police suppression of law-abiding minorities" (1979, 270). Bynner thus had reasons to attack Lowell that went far beyond his annoyance with her perceived Imagist pomposity.
In regard to Ficke, William Roba observes that "Ficke had been an early supporter of Harriet Monroe's experimental magazine, Poetry. In the summer of 1912, he commented that 'the project has a fine ring to it--I rejoice to see that the Bull Moose movement is not confined to politics'" (1983, 54).Though light-hearted, this comment nonetheless implies an open attitude toward both the New Poetry and political progressivism. John Timberman Newcomb's recent study How Did Poetry Survive? The Making of Modern American Verse, gives a reading of Ficke's 1916 free-verse poem "The Dancer" as an endeavor on his part "to look critically at social distinctions and to identify himself with otherness," placing it among a handful of contemporary poems that "constituted one of the period's most significant critiques of the links between gender inequality and economic exploitation" (2012, 94). In an even earlier poem, "Lines for Two Futurists" (1915), Ficke had already tentatively begun to align himself with the radical poetry of the new generation. Ironically composing this poem in rhymed tercets, Ficke wonders, "Why does all of sharp and new /That our modern days can brew/Culminate in you?" (1915a, 48).
Portraying the lone "Futurist" out "On the broken wall ... / Peering toward some stony land," he pities his seemingly dismal fate, having rejected "Simple things and dear."
Yet suddenly Ficke's speaker sees himself, uncomfortably perhaps, in this very same figure: "I too stand where you have stood;/And the fever fills my blood/With your cruel mood." Despite some trepidation at leaving behind the comforts of convention, the poem concludes with the speaker actually joining the Futurist on the periphery:
Yet I come! I cannot stay! Be it bitter night, or day Glorious,--your way I must tread.... (50)
Despite Ficke's sometimes traditionalist reputation (often writing in the sonnet form, for example), we see him here participating in the social and poetic ferment of his era--indeed, he is clearly the second "Futurist" of the poem's title. Newcomb discusses the meaning of the term "Futurism" at this time, noting that more conventional literary journals such as the Dial saw poetry itself as "menaced by an ultramodern fringe that they called 'Futurism,' which in 1913 had become a catchall pejorative in American magazines, signifying everything that was threatening and incomprehensible about the modern arts" (2012, 40-41). Even before he became Anne Knish, then, Ficke had already begun to identify with the "threatening" new movement, suggesting an element of complexity that is often overlooked in his work of this period.
The bulk of the Spectra anthology also consists of well-crafted poems that speak to their cultural and historical moment, including the then ongoing war. It should be no surprise that the Spectra poets would react to the events in Europe. Having dragged on for two years when the anthology appeared (in 1916), the war became the central event of the modernist period, the significance of which Knish and Morgan acknowledge in their Forum article (with their aforementioned opening observation that Vorticism had been "snuffed out by the explosion of the war" [1916b, 675]). As it happened, the United States entered World War I just a year later (April 1917), and Ficke himself served as an Army captain in France (see Hart 1987, 90). However, American poets certainly did not wait until 1917 to write about the war. In his Introduction to Rendezvous with Death: American Poems of the Great War, Mark Van Wienen argues that, as opposed to the British model of the "soldier-poet" (for example, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg), American poets responding to the war "demonstrate, quite unequivocally, that frontline battle experience was not necessary to protest war effectively" (2002, 10). Poetry magazine jumped in immediately, publishing their war-themed issue (with work by Lowell, Carl Sandburg, Wallace Stevens, and Richard Aldington, among others) in November 1914, only a few months after the fighting began. Bynner and Ficke were undoubtedly aware of all this, and Spectra became a means of taking part in the discussion.
Of the Spectra anthology's forty-six poems, at least four respond directly to the war (aside from another ten or so that more broadly dwell on themes of death and decay). For examining these poems in depth, however, it will be helpful to consider the Spectrist method in general, especially in terms of the rhetorical distinctions between Spectrism and the other "schools," and the distinctions between it and the work of Bynner and Ficke as themselves. In the 1916 Forum essay, Knish and Morgan, in apparently nonparodic language, expand on their contention that the Vorticists "were actuated by a wrong theory of poetic expression": "These writers underestimated the amount of clarity which even the most daring poetic sketches must have; as a result, their works hardly resembled human speech"--and thus, "a measurable degree of communication" remains an aim of Spectrism (1916b, 675). Regarding Imagism, Knish and Morgan are somewhat less harsh, intimating that they might have had something in common with that group in regard to poetics, were it not "suicidally advertised by a concerted reciprocal chorus of poet-reviewers" (677). The propaganda skills of both Pound and Lowell, the formers successor as "leader" of the Imagists, have been widely noted, and clearly this is something Spectrism reacts against.
Despite these measured words about Imagism, in sharp contrast to Pound's dictum, "Go in fear of abstractions" (1913, 201), Spectrist poetry is heavily metaphoric and allusive. The Knish preface to the Spectra anthology sets out three related meanings of the term Spectric:
In the first place, it speaks, to the mind, of that process of diffraction by which are disarticulated the several colored and other rays of which light is composed. It indicates our feeling that the theme of a poem is to be regarded as a prism, upon which the colorless white light of infinite existence falls and is broken up into glowing, beautiful, and intelligible hues. In its second sense, the term Spectric relates to the reflex vibrations of physical sight, and suggests the luminous appearance which is seen after exposure of the eye to intense light, and, by analogy, the after-colors of the poet's initial vision. In its third sense, Spectric connotes the overtones, adumbrations, or spectres which for the poet haunt all objects both of the seen and the unseen world,--those shadowy projections, sometimes grotesque, which, hovering around the real, give to the real its full ideal significance and its poetic worth.
(Knish and Morgan 1916a, ix-x)
Far from being able to present any true image directly, Knish argues, poetry is a mediated and mediating form. The subject of the poem is inevitably "diffracted," like Cubist art, into constituent parts and then rendered into something original through language. Given the "luminous appearance which is seen after exposure of the eye to intense light," there is more than one possible image of the thing seen; light waves transmit an image, but they might also distort the viewer's sense of sight, creating "after-colors" that can be as interesting or substantial as the "real" image. Summing up the distinction between Spectrism and Imagism, in The Young Idea (1917), his contemporary volume on the New Poetry, Lloyd Morris writes: "The Spectrists thus seem, in a measure, to be chiefly interested in blurring and encircling with a haze of symbols the image which the Imagists, in their poems, are anxious to convey with photographic precision" (1917, 99-100).
Certainly, the third definition of Spectric (it "connotes the overtones, adumbrations, or spectres which for the poet haunt all objects both of the seen and the unseen world") takes much from Symbolism, with its emphasis on evocation, obscurity, the irrational, and the connection between the inner and the outer realms. An example of this can be seen in Morgan's "Opus 47," (4) where, in a dreamlike or even visionary state, the speaker and an unnamed lover transcend the ordinary world:
You open the window to myriad windows, The high triangular door of the world ... Till the walls and the roofs and the curious keystone, The carven rose with its petals uncurled,
Are swayed in the swathe of the uppermost ether, Where stars are the columns upholding a dome
(Knish and Morgan 1916a, 37-38; ellipsis in original)
Though lush with description, it is clearly of the "unseen" kind. Having reached the supernal plane, the two figures then merge into one: "We stand on the rose, we are images golden,/We move interchanging, attaining one crest" (38). Such scenes could never be described with, to use Morris's term, "photographic precision"--they are necessarily adumbrated--yet even if such phrases as "the window to myriad windows," "triangular door of the world," "the curious keystone," and "images golden" cannot be explained logically, they "haunt" or "hover around the real," working, like Symbolist poetry, by suggestion and association.
The Spectrist gesture toward Symbolism is not merely coincidental, and the influence of the poet Remy de Gourmont looms large here. In fact, Morgan dedicates the whole Spectra anthology "to Remy de Gourmont":
Poet, a wreath!--No matter how we had combined our flowers, You would have worn them--being ours.... On you, on them, the showers-- O roots beneath!
(Knish and Morgan 1916a, vii; ellipsis in original)
Gourmont, now somewhat overlooked in the English-speaking world, was a highly regarded French Symbolist poet, lauded by many in the early twentieth century. He is perhaps best known for his long poem "Litanies of the Rose" (1892), with its anaphoric list of differently colored roses (symbolizing various aspects of the feminine) and a repeating chorus, "Fleur hypocrite,/Fleur du silence" (Gourmont 1896, 206). Quite possibly, the phrase "our flowers" in Morgans dedication alludes to this poem, though Bynner claimed that the term Spectrism initially came from the ballet Le Spectre de la rose, which he saw in Chicago in February 1916 (see Smith 1961, 18). At any rate, Gourmont's work offered a touchstone as he began fleshing out the movements principles. In his study of the influence of Gourmont on Pound and Imagism, Richard Sieburth observes, "Such was the vogue for the author of the Litanies ... that Witter Bynner's contemporary American parody of modernist verse, Spectra, was dedicated to Gourmont" (1978, 31). One line of "Litanies of the Rose" begins, "Rose couleur de paille, diamant jaune parmi les crudites du prisme [Rose the color of straw, yellow diamond among the crudities of the prism]" (Gourmont 1896, 208; my translation), with "les crudites du prisme" suggesting the basic color-elements of light and perhaps inspiring the Spectrist conceit that "a poem is to be regarded as a prism."
Significantly, Gourmont was also claimed by Pound, who wrote the French poet's obituary in the January 1916 issue of Poetry. There Pound writes, "Suffice it to say that the litanies are a marvel of rhythm, that they have not been followed or repeated, that M. de Gourmont was not of 'the young French school.' If he is 'grouped' anywhere he must be grouped, as poet, among les symbolistes. The litanies are evocation, not statement" (1916, 201). Bynner would certainly have encountered this tribute in Poetry, which appeared the month before he began formulating Spectrism, and he might have taken Pound's claim that Gourmont had "not been followed or repeated" as a kind of challenge, seeing it as an opportunity. Where Pound's conception of Imagism is actually a departure from Gourmont, as Sieburth argues (1978, 12-13), it is not hard to imagine Bynner consciously seeking to fill in a gap by imagining a rival avant-garde that does in fact follow Gourmont (emphasizing in its method "evocation, not statement"). Lowell had also written about Gourmont in her critical volume Six French Poets, where, despite casting herself as an admirer, her compliments are backhanded, and she delivers some outright putdowns, remarking, for example, that Gourmont is "the least considerable" of the poets under consideration and that "nowhere among his poems is there one which can be considered a masterpiece" (1915, 107). Bynner's embrace of Gourmont does double duty, then, allowing him in different ways to counter his two primary modernist rivals.
The invention of Spectrism, of course, was also bound up in the specter of the European war. By early 1916, as Bynner sought to position himself vis-a-vis Imagism and Vorticism, the war was in full swing (though it would be another year before the United States would declare its part in it). In Pound's same January 1916 obituary for Gourmont in Poetry magazine, he frames the French poet's death as a casualty of the war, going so far as to argue that it was
another of the crimes of the war, for M. de Gourmont was only fifty-seven, and if he had not been worried to death, if he had not been grieved to death by the cessation of all that has been "life" as he understood it, there was no reason why we should not have had more of his work and his company. He is as much "dead of the war" as if he had died in the trenches, and he left with almost the same words on his lips. "Nothing is being done in Paris, nothing can be done, faute de combatants." (1916, 197)
The tone of Gourmont's latter statement, Pound then claims, is "almost the same tone in which Gaudier-Brzeska wrote to me a few days before he was shot at Neuville St.Vaast: 'Is anything of importance or even of interest going on in the world--I mean the "artistic London?'" Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the French artist and Pound's Vorticist colleague killed in action in June 1915 at the age of twenty-three here alluded to, highlights the effects of the Great War on the production of art. In this homage to Gourmont, Pound thus links the Symbolist poet to the recently killed Vorticist sculptor, and if, as is likely, Bynner knew of this essay and was perhaps inspired by it (even if as a foil), the connections could not have been lost on him. Many of Bynner's own interests were at stake--not only would Spectrism counter Vorticism and Imagism, it would also be partly framed as an independent, American response to the calamity of the war.
Both as himself and as Emanuel Morgan, Bynner was unabashedly against the First World War and American involvement in it. Morgan's "Opus 63," a poem influenced by Gourmont's "litany" form, presents the "seven deathly spears of memory" (Knish and Morgan 1916a, 23), with each "spear" representing a country or region and connected to a color. The seventh spear is
The spear of Europe, Red, In the mouth's breath, The million-splintering scream of death ...
(24; ellipsis in original)
As Van Wienen observes, "American poets tended at first to denounce the European conflict as a colossal waste of humanity and culture" (2002, 5), and Morgan's stanza is a case in point, responding to the war with an inchoate, existential scream, the spear, it seems, hitting "the mouth's breath," thus rendering any more articulate response impossible. Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet points out that "injuries to the face and especially the mouth are often portrayed in [war literature] as instances of the worst kind of wound precisely because they are so dehumanizing in their effect.... They deprive their victims of the ability to speak and reassert their humanity through language" (2013, 177). In describing the "spear of Europe" in this way in "Opus 63," Morgan stands against the war by reducing it to an exaggerated, abstract image that reveals its dehumanizing effects. If this trope is a common one, as Monnet suggests, because it highlights the connection between language and humanity, then Morgan/ Bynner here implicitly posits poetry (arguably the quintessence of language) as a form of positive resistance to the nihilism of war.
Bynner's own political stance, as noted above, was similarly pacifist. Regarding the United States' entry into the war, in a 1917 letter to the artist Barry Faulkner, he wrote:
I believe that it is necessary for those of us with faith in something higher than the state to be very careful of our way, to adhere with cautious judgment and conscience and, if we must, to resist. No force on earth could make me kill.... There must be "peace without victory." Then, it seems to me, would come the real victory, inside Germany and inside Britain, and inside the United States. (Bynner 1981, 60-61)
Setting himself against militarism and imperialism, Bynner at the time leading up to and including this letter was swimming against the political tide. With the exigency of the war clearly informing the Spectrist project, however, it is understandable that Bynner's own views would filter in through the mouthpiece of Morgan. As Van Wienen shows, poetry was an important platform for arguments about America's involvement in the war: "At a number of junctures during the Great War, poetry did in fact fulfill a self-consciously political, and politically transformative, role" (1997, 16). Such poetic discussions went on throughout the war years, with the aforementioned war issue of Poetry magazine (November 1914), for example, and the selections in Van Wienen's 2002 anthology. In Spectra, we see that Morgan's opposition to the war lines up with Bynner's; in a largely nonparodic way, Bynner was eager to seize the moment.
One of the most striking of all the Spectra war poems is Bynner/ Morgan's "Opus 29." Combining rhyme with surreal and violent imagery, it offers a harrowing vision of a killing machine:
Knives for feet, and wheels for a chin, And the long smooth iron bore for a neck, And bullets for hands.... And the root runs in, The root of blood no stone can check, From the breasts of the grinding crash of sin, From engines hugging in a wreck.
(Knish and Morgan 1916a, 31; ellipsis in original)
In a grotesque mockery of modern-era mechanized warfare and its dehumanizing effects, the system substitutes weapons for body parts, as the human becomes robot. If the phrase "engines hugging in a wreck" perhaps recalls the car accident that F. T. Marinetti describes in his "Futurist Manifesto" (1909), a document that overtly glorifies war, here in time of an actual war Bynner/Morgan's poem focuses on its horrors. The second stanza's alliteration and assonance stress the destruction--"A thousand round-red mouths of pain/Blaring black,/A twisting comrade on his back"--before "back" is eventually rhymed with the Imagistic "sun on a bayonet-stack" (Knish and Morgan 1916a, 31).
The poem's final lines insist on the horror beneath the patriotic or religious shibboleths that urge young men to war:
Country, a babble of black spume ... Faith, an eyeball in the sand ... Mother, a nail through a broken hand--A kissing fume--And out of her breast the bloody bubbling milk-red breath Of death. (32; ellipses in original)
With "a babble of black spume" and "bloody bubbling milk-red breath," the lines suggest the effects of poison gas, and linking that with the sardonic subversion of patriotism uncannily anticipates Owen's famous poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" (which was not written until 1917, and eventually published posthumously in 1920). Though Van Wienen has quite convincingly demonstrated that American poets were making significant contributions to the corpus of Great War poetry long before the more canonical British "soldier-poets" came to prominence, we still tend to think of the likes of Owen, Rosenberg, and Sassoon as defining the poetic mood of the period. Yet, as Van Wienen also points out, however horrific their war imagery could be, soldier-poets such as the aforementioned "never were able to construct an effective resistance against World War I.... Rosenberg and Owen did not have significant numbers of their poems published until after their deaths and after the war; their protest against the war was largely a private, personal affair" (1997, 28).With "Opus 29," however, Bynner/Morgan seeks to influence American public opinion at a moment (1916) when the country's role in the war was still up for debate, however futile this attempt may have been in retrospect.
One image in this poem, the "eyeball in the sand" of line 20, bears a close resemblance to a line from Wallace Stevens's poem "Phases," published in Poetry's war issue. Stevens's second section begins:
This was the salty taste of glory, That it was not Like Agamemnon's story. Only, an eyeball in the mud (1914, 70)
Bynner knew Stevens well from their mutual time at Harvard and in New York City, (5) so Bynner's maneuver here in "Opus 29" seems more like something of an in-joke than either overt plagiarism or the type of rebuke that Spectrism aimed at Lowell. Bynner and Ficke had even wished to coopt Stevens as a Spectrist, nearly mentioning his name in Spectra's preface as a poet who independently utilized their method, before finally deciding that, as Smith ironically relates, "the passage was too serious for inclusion" (1961, 67). (6) Whatever the case about Stevens's and Morgans shared "eyeball" image, or the former as a putative proto-Spectrist, "Opus 29" makes a powerful statement against the war.
While the Spectra war poems are largely serious, further elements of humor thread their way throughout the volume, not surprisingly given its satirical impetus. Morgan's "Opus 79," which closes the Spectra anthology, plays wryly on the pseudonymous nature of the project itself. It begins with the quatrain,
Only the wise can see me in the mist, For only lovers know that I am here ... After his piping, shall the organist Be portly and appear?
(Knish and Morgan 1916a, 66; ellipsis in original)
With hindsight, the joke is obvious, but at the time of publication Bynner most likely felt himself laughing internally, or among a very small group of insiders. Again there is an element of the "unseen" here, as Bynner's true identity remains for now concealed, as if he himself is the spectric ghost haunting the poem (which, in a way, he is). Brian McHale points out that such ironic gesturing toward the question of authorship is in fact characteristic of what he terms the "mock-hoax" poem: "In mock-hoaxes, issues of authenticity and inauthenticity are elevated to the level of literary 'raw materials.' ... Mock-hoax poems are made out of inauthenticity, and out of inauthenticity they make self-reflective art" (2003, 237), and, indeed, McHale asserts, they are created in order to eventually be seen through. Accordingly, Bynner/Morgan seems to suggest here at the outset of the project that he may be only half-joking, as the concluding lines to "Opus 79" forecast the eventual unmasking of the true author: "Someday touch me, all you wish,/In the wide sea" (Knish and Morgan 1916a, 66). Carl Sandburg once remarked, "I may yet live to write my argument that Spectra is a piece of creative art" (quoted in Smith 1961, ix), by which he meant that embedded within the Spectrist parody or "hoax" is real poetry, encompassing real sociopolitical commentary.
As Anne Knish, Arthur Ficke also readily parodied Imagism and Vorticism, while combining Symbolist strategies and his own commentary on the Great War. The Knish poem that the Spectra preface identifies as particularly illustrative of the method is "Opus 76" (Knish and Morgan 1916a, xii). In the first stanza, its speaker proclaims, "I have seen the grey stars marching,/And the green bubbles in wine,/And there are Gothic vaults of sleep" (4), and from this dreamlike atmosphere the second stanza then introduces the poem's central metaphor:
My cathedral Has one great spire Tawny in the sunlight. Gargoyles haunt its nave; High up amid its dark arches Forgotten songs live shadowy. Gold and sardonyx Deck its altars. Its mighty roof Is copper rivering with the rain.
This poem illustrates the Spectric "process of diffraction," its play of light and color, but the dominant hues are browns and shadows, with metallic tones punctuating the scene. More especially, "Opus 76" embodies the third aspect of the Spectrist method, conjuring the aforementioned "overtones, adumbrations, or spectres which for the poet haunt all objects both of the seen and the unseen world." The Spectra preface refers to "shadowy projections, sometimes grotesque," and these appear here as "Gothic vaults,""gargoyles," "dark arches," "forgotten songs."
However, the cathedral, its spire, the gargoyles, and the rain are also elements that occur in Lowell's prose-poem "The Bombardment," which first appeared in the 1914 Poetry war issue. It opens,
Slowly, without force, the rain drops into the city. It stops a moment on the carved head of Saint John, then slides on again, slipping and trickling over his stone cloak. It splashes from the lead conduit of a gargoyle, and falls from it in turmoil on the stones in the Cathedral square. Where are the people, and why does the fretted steeple sweep about in the sky? Boom! The sound swings against the rain. Boom, again! After it, only water rushing in the gutters, and the turmoil from the spout of the gargoyle. Silence. Ripples and mutters. Boom! (1914, 60)
The obvious references to the earlier piece reflect the wider poetic context in which the Spectrists were putting their work forward, as they make arguments about both contemporary poetry and the war that often reached beyond the simple hoax aspects of the project, including critiques of some of the era's most prominent poets such as Lowell.
While Ficke appropriates elements from "The Bombardment," he renders them, as Knish, in a vastly different manner than does Lowell, paradoxically creating something--new. The Lowell poem describes the effect of an actual bombardment on various people in an unnamed European city, adopting the third-person point of view as if in a prose narrative: "A child wakes and is afraid, and weeps in the darkness. What has made the bed shake? 'Mother, where are you? I am awake. "Hush, my Darling, I am here. "But, Mother, something so queer happened, the room shook.' Boom!" (61). In contrast, "Opus 76" sets the violence in the future tense and renders the poem in the first person, with one particular speaker only. The war does not begin to encroach until the end. Deliberately eerie in its mood throughout, in a Symbolist (or even Gothic) manner, the poem ends with a third stanza suddenly rife with more grotesque, violent action:
Tomorrow lightning swords will come And thunder of cannon. They will unrivet this roof Of mighty copper. Before the eyes of my gargoyles, In the sound of my forgotten songs, They will take it. And as the rain sluices down I shall have to follow my roof into the war.
(Knish and Morgan 1916a, 4-5)
The cathedral, clearly identified with the speaker ("my gargoyles," "my forgotten songs,""my roof"), is now subject to the spoliations of war but in a strangely meticulous manner--the roof is somehow unriveted and carried off intact, rather than being simply bombed, as it is in Lowell's piece. Nonetheless, this surreal act of plunder will inevitably involve the speaker (whose world has been desolated and who is now beleaguered by the metaphorical rain) in the war as a combatant, like it or not. While in "Opus 76" the violence of the war has yet to occur, it is unavoidable, on the verge of enveloping the first-person speaker persona.
If these poems make real arguments about the war, beyond serving merely as a hoax, then "Opus 76" suggests that Ficke's stance departed somewhat from Bynner's strident pacifism, however reluctantly its speaker "shall have to follow [his/her] roof into the war." Knish's "Opus 187," to take another example, attempts a modulated critique of war as arising out of our own flawed human nature:
But I know this-- That the storms of contempt that sweep over us, Ready to blast any edifice before them Rise from the fathomless maelstrom Of contempt for ourselves. If there be a god, May he preserve me From striking with these lightnings Those whom I love. (58)
Here, contemplating violence as part of our makeup leads the speaker to question even himself. But the poem is further complicated in the next, short stanza by the realization that the speaker of these lines is actually Friedrich Nietzsche's Zarathustra: "Saying which,/Zarathustra strolled on/Down Fifth Avenue." The unexpected appearance of the iconoclastic, imperious antiprophet on the streets of Pittsburgh exemplifies the madcap mode of certain of the Spectra poems, but at the same time it calls on the psychological insight of Nietzsche's work itself. (7) In contrast to Bynner's personal assertions that "No force on earth could make me kill" and that one should "resist" the war effort, Ficke (as Knish) suggests that, for him anyway, the situation is more complex. In 1917, partly under pressure from his family, Ficke joined the United States Army with an officer's commission and sailed to France (where, as an oft-told Spectric chestnut has it, a fellow officer confided to an amused Ficke that he himself was in fact Anne Knish [for details, see Roba 1983, 53; Smith 1961, 28-29]).
Writing as Knish required Ficke to approach the war from a different poetic standpoint, one that diverged both from what some of his American colleagues were doing and from what the British poets were starting to do--and even from what Ficke himself published under his own name. In this regard, it is instructive to compare the Knish work above with Ficke's "To the Beloved of One Dead," which appeared in the journal Scribner's in September 1917. Unlike his more oblique Spectra pieces, Ficke here comments on the war directly by addressing the lover of a recently killed soldier:
The sunlight shall not easily seem fair To you again, Knowing the hand that once amid your hair Did stray so maddeningly, Now listlessly Is beaten into mire by summer rain. (1917, 289)
The awfulness of the war is starkly summed up in the image of the dead soldiers hand lying in the mud (which recalls Stevens's "Phases"). The contrast between the passion of physical love and the destruction of the body in death is, as Paul Fussell points out in his canonical study of World War I poetry, The Great War and Modern Memory, one of the primary tropes of the British poets: "On the one hand, sanctioned public mass murder. On the other, unlawful secret individual love. Again, severe dichotomy" (1975, 271). Ficke himself, then, also anticipates certain of the strategies of these soldier-poets (just as Bynner/Morgan's "Opus 29" anticipates Owen), in contrast to the Symbolist and psychological approaches of Anne Knish. The form of "To the Beloved of One Dead" (rhymed and metered sestets) further distinguishes it from the pseudonymous Knish work (written in vers libre) and further places Ficke in the camp of the mostly later-published British war poets, who tended toward the formal strategies of Georgian verse.
Like much of the British poets' work, the third and last stanza of "To the Beloved of One Dead" idealizes the dead soldiers sacrifice, but not without recognizing the terrible loss to an individual survivor:
He died amid the thunders of great war; His glory cries Even now across the lands; perhaps his star Shall shine forever.... But for you, never His wild white body and his thirsting eyes.
(Ficke 1917; ellipsis in original)
Once again, the soldiers glorious death is set against the pathos suggested by the waste of his physical, now overtly sexualized, body. Ficke was no stranger to elegizing the war dead, having in 1915 published two poems in honor of Rupert Brooke (with whom he had formed a bond when Brooke visited Chicago in 1914). (8) For Newcomb, however, Brooke's poetic "portrayal of men about to go into hellish trench environments as 'swimmers into cleanness leaping' is a travesty" (2012, 66), and he discusses a letter from Floyd Dell to Ficke (dated September 16, 1915) in which Dell enclosed a poem that "condemns Brooke's delusional enthusiasm for the war as a form of nationalist currency, brought on by those who were now busy fetishizing his death for their own purposes" (67). "For Dell," Newcomb writes, "Brooke's life and death had become an appalling example of the conscription of literature into the patriotic and masculinist ideologies justifying the war." Yet Ficke is clearly guilty of this to an extent, practically deifying Brooke in his sonnet series "To Rupert Brooke" (published in Poetry, June 1915): "But you not as this age's sacrifice/Should have gone down; you were foredoomed to be /Not of the age, but of all time a light" (1915c, 114). Ficke's work as Knish declines such deification or fetishization, allowing him, for a brief moment, to step outside of the "delusional enthusiasm" embedded in Brooke's project. But "To the Beloved of One Dead," while it explores certain aspects of the war's human cost in perceptive, realistic terms, saw Ficke return to the idealizing tendencies of his Brooke elegies with the apparently uncritical assertion of the dead soldier's "glory."
In a strange coincidence, "To the Beloved of One Dead" was taken up by the anonymous author of an epistolary war narrative, published in 1918, called The Love of an Unknown Soldier. As the publisher John Lane describes in "An Explanation" (1918) at the start of the book, the manuscript is composed of unsent love letters written by a British officer to an American woman, apparently found in a red box hidden in a bunker in France, before finally being delivered to Lane. In one letter, the author recounts a fellow soldier dramatically handing him a copy of the issue of Scribner's in which the Ficke poem appeared: "Just as he was leaving, he threw in a copy of Scribner's Magazine, all tattered and splotched. It was an old copy, as most of our magazines are. 'There's a poem in there,' he said; 'it's called, "To the Beloved of One Dead." It's true. Read it'" (Lane 1918, 101).The author goes on to discuss the poem, quoting the first and third stanzas verbatim, supposedly from memory, before commenting, "The poem was by a woman; I forgot to notice her name. It's too late now. But how did she, living in America, manage to express something which she had not seen, concerning which we, who have seen it, are inarticulate? Whenever I see a hand thrust out above the mud I have just such thoughts; 'the hand which once amid your hair did stray so maddeningly'" (102). In one respect, anyway, this passage confirms that, as Van Wienen argues, American poets offered effective commentary about the war, and that Ficke's poem resonated all the way across the Atlantic.
However, it is rather odd that the anonymous author of The Love of an Unknown Soldier, who is somehow able to accurately quote whole stanzas of "To the Beloved of One Dead," forgets the name of the author despite being certain that "she" was a woman. Given the murky provenance of the text to begin with, it seems possible that the author could in fact have been making a veiled reference to the Spectra hoax and Ficke's masquerade as the female Anne Knish. Critic Harold Orel explores the book's origins, suggesting that the whole thing may in fact be a "fictional contrivance," finally positing that "one might even begin to suspect John Lane's story of the lucky discovery of 'The MS. in a red box'" (1992, 219). By the time the book was being prepared for publication--John Lane's "Explanation" is dated September 1918--Bynner had revealed Spectrism's secret (during a lecture in April 1918), with accounts of the revelation reported in the major journals and newspapers in the months immediately following, including a story in the New York Times Magazine (see Smith 1961, 31-42; Ybarra 1918). Also in April, the editors of the Dial wondered "how far the [Spectrist] 'movement' might have gone but for the interruption of the war, which gave 'Miss Knish' a commission as Captain Arthur Davison Ficke" ("Casual" 1918, 411). It might be relevant here to note that Lane was publisher of the two issues of Blast, the journal of Vorticism, which Knish and Morgan had attacked in their Forum manifesto. If indeed it is the case that The Love of an Unknown Soldier alludes to the hoax aspects of the Spectra affair, then it seems that even Ficke's "real" war poetry could not be completely disentangled from his connection to Anne Knish--with the parodist himself here being subtly parodied.
If it is true that, as Knish and Morgan contended in 1916, Vorticism was "snuffed out by the explosion of the war," then so ultimately was Spectrism as well. Smith writes that "the hoax might well have continued months longer had it not been for Americas entry into World War I; but it soon became impossible to joke about anything, even about the state of American letters" (1961, 28). Putzel concurs, noting, "By the following spring  of bloody trench warfare, Bynner had grown weary of the business" ( 1998, 239). Still, the Spectra poems demonstrate that the war weighed heavily on Bynner and Ficke even at the outset of their modernist experiments. (9) They responded with some of the more formally unique and politically provocative war poems of the period, with the grotesquery of lines like Bynner's "Knives for feet, and wheels for a chin, /And the long smooth iron bore for a neck,/And bullets for hands," and Ficke's "I shall have to follow my roof into the war," sounding the surrealistic keynote that permeates much Spectrist work.
As the project came to a close, the problematic experience of pseudonymity (coupled with the war itself) had divergent effects on the career trajectories of the two poets. For Ficke, it seems to have caused him to reconsider his tentative embrace of the experimental aspects of the New Poetry. As Paula Hart avers, "Given the impact of his war experience ... and his Spectric experiments, one might have expected bold departures in his next major collection, Out of Silence and Other Poems (1924). Instead, reviewers found the same blend of pleasant lyrics ... and an odd mixture of contemporary and traditional" (1987, 91). No longer would Ficke contemplate identifying himself as a "Futurist," as he had in 1915. And, despite Bynner's claim in the 1918 New York Times Magazine article that Ficke had told him "some of my best work is in Spectral" (Ybarra 1918), he would never again write in the Spectrist mode. Such a revision of poetic strategies might have been stabilizing from his perspective at the time, but Ficke does not have a lot of readers today.
For Bynner, as we have seen, the experience had a vitalizing effect, as his August 1918 letter to Poetry (in which he proclaimed that his Spectrist self had become "liberated") demonstrates. He continued to write as Emanuel Morgan, immediately after Spectrism and even later in his career. (10) The declaration of Morgan as "a liberated identity" (1918, 287) has a number of ramifications. It suggests that Bynner, despite his own lingering traditionalist reputation, saw beyond the hoax aspects of Spectra; it also signals (and indeed Bynner specifically advertised in the same letter) that Morgan's work would remain a significant part of his oeuvre. Two immediately subsequent collections, The Beloved Stranger (1919) and Pins for Wings (1920), would be composed by Bynner as Emanuel Morgan (with the latter book actually being published under the Morgan name). With the recently ended Great War clearly in mind, William Marion Reedy wrote of the personages inhabiting The Beloved Stranger that they are "like figures half awakened into life from dim tapestries erstwhile seen in since violated Belgium, who play their parts in the opalescent smoky dream dramas of [Flemish Symbolist playwright] Maeterlinck" (1919, xix). Yet, as Bynner/Morgan offers in a poem from that book titled "Crystal," "Between your laughter and mine/Lies the shadow of the sword of change" (Bynner 1919, 29). In a way, these lines sum up the whole Spectrist project, certainly accompanied by much laughter alongside its poems of war and wonder. And, at least one Spectrist, Bynner, emerged from the period a much-changed poet indeed.
(1.) In a footnote in Bynner's Selected Letters, James Kraft describes Bynner's rude (and sexist) treatment of Lowell: "WB did not like Amy Lowell ... and abused her and her poetry with his humor.... He mocked her as a 'Hippopoetess.' He also ridiculed her poem 'Bath' and ruined its delicate brilliance for many by suggesting the image of a naked Lowell in a bathtub" (Bynner 1981, 48).
(2.) In this regard, Churchill also reproduces the misperception that Spectrism's aim was to attack vers libre and that Bynner's "own real motive ... was to discredit the free verse movement" (2007, 190). Responding to similarly misplaced criticism in 1918, Bynner in his letter to Poetry points out, with reference to the Spectra preface itself (which treats formal and free verse on an equal footing), that this was simply never the case (Morgan 1918, 286-87). For Ficke's part, while it is true that he argued in favor of rhythm and meter in a 1915 Dial article (see 1915b), he quickly clarified in another, more in-depth essay that vers libre "has been used admirably" and that "there is no sense whatever in the popular objections that have been raised to the free verse of the modern poet," going on to assert that "it is only with those who proclaim free verse to be the sole possible poetic medium that one has a right to quarrel" (1916, 440).
(3.) See also Frances Dickeys The Modern Portrait Poem: From Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Ezra Pound (2012), which devotes significant space to analyzing the work of Ficke (as himself), along with all three Spectrist poets (as Spectrists).
(4.) Morgan and Knish titled the poems in Spectra by nonsequentially numbered "Opera" ("Opus 88,""Opus 47,""Opus 122," etc.), suggesting their project's broad scale and musical qualities. It would be tempting to see this as a satire of Pound's "Cantos," but the first of the latter did not appear until 1917, a year after the Spectra anthology had been published.
(5.) See Kraft 1995, 19-20. Putzel claims that "At Harvard [Bynner and Ficke] had been drawn together partly by a common dislike of Wallace Stevens" ( 1998, 228-29), but Kraft gives a more nuanced view of Bynner and Stevens as "two Harvard friends and poets, rivals who went separate ways in literature" (1995, 19) but who maintained a relationship. Upon the publication of Stevens's poem "Sunday Morning" (in Poetry in November 1915), Ficke wrote to Harriet Monroe that "perhaps it's the most beautiful poem ever written" (quoted in Smith 1961, 67).
(6.) To muddy the waters, Bynner, in a letter to Ficke dated March 25, 1916, also suggested mentioning Lowell in their preface, though in less flattering terms, proposing the following language: "If Miss Amy Lowell were as able a poet as she is a critic she might be a Spectrist.... In fact some of us fail to see that she is an Imagist at all" (Bynner 1981, 48).
(7.) Since Pittsburgh is where the Spectrists were meant to be located, the Fifth Avenue mentioned here is the one in Pittsburgh (one of that city's major arteries)--rather than the Fifth Avenue in New York.
(8.) See Browne 1956, 142-43. Unlike most of the British soldier-poets whose reputations emerged posthumously, Brooke achieved transatlantic fame while still living, with his group of war sonnets "1914" appearing in early 1915 (three of which were published in the United States in Poetry, April 1915). Ficke's other poem to Brooke, "Rupert Brooke (A Memory)," appeared in The Little Review in June-July 1915.
(9.) Putzel, in a note on Ficke's papers, informs us that "Ficke's tragic war sonnet, 'These are the thunders,' is dated March 5, 1916, right after Bynner's departure" ( 1998, 335), the two having just completed work on the initial Spectra poems. Upon reverting to his "true" poetic self, then, Ficke immediately turned his attention back to the war; clearly it had become something of a preoccupation for him, before and throughout the Spectra period.
(10.) Marjorie Allen Seiffert similarly continued to write and publish as Elijah Hay even after Spectrism had been revealed (see Russek 2009).
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Michael S. Begnal is assistant professor of English at Ball State University. His research has appeared in College Literature, Studies, and elsewhere. A poet as well as a scholar, his most recent books of poetry are The Muddy Banks (2016) and Future Blues (2012).
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|Author:||Begnal, Michael S.|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2018|
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