Friday, August 10, 2012

Witter Bynner created poetry hoax

Witter Bynner
It is the birthday of poet Witter Bynner (1881), who may be less remembered for his poetry than for an elaborate hoax he and a friend perpetrated on the literary world. It is known as the Spectra Hoax, and it worked better than Bynner and his colleague expected, maybe too well.

In the early part of the 20th century, new movements in poetry materialized, modernist schools pretentiously espousing a stark departure from the pastoral imagery of the Romantic period and the idealization of the Victorian era.

Among them was the Imagism movement, a style using very specific word pictures, "luminous details,"  as Ezra Pound put it. It was developed in Paris in 1911 by Pound, along with Hilda Doolittle (who wrote as H.D.) and Richard Aldington. The idea spread in literary circles in Europe and the United States, and was soon considered a new school of poetry.

By 1916, Bynner, then a young poet living in New Hampshire, and his friend from Harvard, Arthur Davison Fricke, had had enough of nonsensical verses of the new poetry. They decided to spoof the Imagism School by creating a new tongue-in-cheek school, supposedly centered in Pittsburgh.

Fortified with 10 quarts of scotch, in 10 days they produced a volume of very bad poetry, complete with a suitably pretentious sounding preface explaining the Spectric School of Poetry. They adopted pseudonyms Emanuael Morgan (Bynner) and Anne Knish (Ficke) and proceeded to have the book published, letting the publisher in on the joke only as the volume was about to go to press.

To their surprise, a whole lot of literary types took the Spectric School seriously, including William Carlos Williams, Edgar Lee Masters, and John Gould Fletcher. Bynner was even asked to write a review of a book of poetry from the Spectric School that he had secretly published.

Years later, Bynner was giving a talk and someone in the audience asked him if it was true that he was really was Emanuael Morgan. Yes, he replied. And the secret was out. The two later admitted that they were, perhaps, better known for the hoax than for their poetry.

In 1918, Bynner taught oral English at Berkeley. He was rather unorthodox, often conducting his classes outside. He had rooms at a nearby hotel where faculty and students stayed. He started inviting students to his rooms, which he had turned into an incense-filled Aesthetic Movement retreat inspired by his visit to Japan. Clad in a silk kimono, he would serve undergraduates wine and cocktails. Naturally, when the head of the English department heard about it, Bynner was severely reprimanded. The university didn't renew his contract the following year.

Bynner eventually moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he presided over the artistic community for decades, making friends with actors, artists and writers, including such notables as Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Igor Stravinsky, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, Clara Bow, Errol Flynn, Rita Hayworth, Christopher Isherwood, Carl Van Vechten, Martha Graham, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Thornton Wilder.

Bynner died in 1968. His home is now a bed and breakfast called the Inn of the Turquoise Bear.

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