The Spectra Hoax

Arthur Davison Ficke was born in Davenport in 1883, and although he studied law and went into business with his father, Charles August Ficke, he was a poet at heart, publishing his first two collections, From the Isles: A Series of Songs out of Greece and The Happy Princess, and Other Poems in 1907.  He was, as so many Quad-City writers have been (and continue to be), a critical and popular success. 

But what Arthur Davison Ficke is best known for is the three-year hoax he and fellow poet Witter Bynner perpetrated on the literary world—a trick that backfired in some unexpected ways.

It all started in 1916, when Harold Witter Bynner visited his good friend Arthur in Davenport, Iowa.  Neither of the two poets, both known for their classic styles, cared for the new ‘modern free verse’ movements that had arisen prior to World War I.  In fact, they didn’t consider any of it poetry at all and thought the people who wrote it took their philosophies—and themselves—far too seriously.

Bynner proposed that they mock the entire business by creating a fake school of poetry and writing a collection of the the worst poems they could, under pseudonyms.

According to William Jay Smith, a mutual friend, the two men were so excited about their new venture and so loud in their glee that Evelyn Ficke kicked them both out of the house until they were done.   So it came to be that the seeds of Spectrism were planted in Davenport, but the movement itself was born in a hotel room in Moline, Illinois, “from ten quarts of excellent Scotch in ten days.” *

They renamed themselves Emanuel Morgan (Bynner) and Anne Knish (Ficke) and wrote up several impenetrable rules and guidelines for the new school:  “The insubstantiality of the poet’s spectres should touch with a tremulous vibrancy of ultimate fact the reader’s sense of the immediate theme.”    The poems—written to be awful—were eclectic, to say the least: 

Opus 182
(by 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?”

Ficke and Bynner assembled a collection of these randomly numbered verses, titled it Spectra:  A book of poetic experiments, and sent it to their own publisher, Mitchell Kennerley, who they assumed would see through their ruse.  To their surprise, Kennerley accepted Spectra as a legitimate manuscript by two new poets and decided to publish it.  Once he was let in on the joke, he agreed to keep the secret and published anyway.

Some readers and critics loved this new style of free verse, some hated it, but all of them fell for it.  Bynner was even asked to review Spectra for the New Republic, which he did—for a fee.  The review was favorable, but he wasn’t so kind during his lectures and speeches:  “Most of the schismatic poetry is nothing but rot.  How one can take up his time with it is beyond me.”  He had to admit, however, that Emanuel Morgan had some talent.

Spectrism grew by leaps and bounds, and soon another poet, Elijah Hay (actually Marjorie Allen Seiffert), joined the school.   The movement rose to such acceptance and popularity, that  Brynner and Ficke feared it had all gone too far. 

When war broke out in Europe and Ficke went to fight in France, he and Bynner decided the joke had gone on long enough.  They hoped that the next Spectrist collection, published in the literary magazine Others, would be so far over the top that everyone would realize the fakery.

This seems to have worked.  On April 26, 1918, when during a speech Brynner was giving in Detroit, someone in the audience stood up and asked him,  “Is it not true, Mr. Bynner, that you are Emanuel Morgan and that Arthur Davison Ficke is Anne Knish?”  

Mr. Brynner’s answer was just as straightforward; it was “Yes.”  . . . Then and there, to the vast amusement of the audience, he related in detail for the first time the true story of Spectra.”**

Both Brynner and Ficke admitted that the hoax had backfired on them.  Instead of showing the world how dreadful modernistic poetry was, many readers preferred the work of Morgan and Knish to their real life counterparts.  The two friends also had a difficult time separating themselves from their alter egos as well, since they’d become so adept at writing in the ‘false’ style.  And some of Spectrism’s staunchest supporters, included several fellow poets, never forgave them for the trick.

This being said, the time he’d spent as Anne Knish appears to have had a beneficial effect on Arthur Davison Ficke, who admitted later that he’d learned a great deal about poetic composition from the experiment . . . and that some of his best poems were spectric.   Instead of ruining his literary career, the hoax seems to have inspired it; soon after the reveal, he quit law to become a full-time poet.  And while Ficke still published sonnets and lyrical poems until his death in 1945, he also experimented with new forms.


* The Spectra Hoax, p.17.

** The Spectra Hoax, p. 15

Sources used:

Ficke, Arthur Davison and Bynner, Witter.  Spectra: A book of Poetic Experiments

Smith, William Jay.  The Spectra Hoax. (Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT), 1961.

(posted by Sarah)

This entry was posted in Local History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *