Two men walk into a hotel room, and…

I can’t say what day this happened, but it was sometime in 1916 in Davenport Iowa. A well-off, Harvard-educated man in his mid-thirties named Witter Bynner was visiting a former Harvard classmate Arthur Davison Ficke in the latter’s elegant home. Besides family wealth, both men shared an interest in the arts, and both were published poets and art critics. A variety of fine-arts could have been discussed by these highly educated men, more so than any yet-to-be-invented concerns that random recently-young men might discuss today. Bynner later recalled the high-spirited discussion got raucous enough that Ficke’s wife asked the men to take it outside.

Nijinsky Le Spectre de la Rose crop

What the F.T.D! Nijinsky as the spirit of the rose

 

We know where the conversation started: Bynner had recently seen a new modern ballet, The Spectre de la Rose  based on a poem by Théophile Gautier with music orchestrated by Hector Berlioz from a piano piece by Carl Maria von Weber. I don’t know who the dancers were in the performance Bynner had seen, but the titular role of the spirit of the flower was first danced by Nijinsky, and the piece’s choreography ended with the extravagant gesture of Nijinsky leaping out of a stage-set window and disappearing as if he had flown off into the ether of the rose’s wafted scent.

Ficke and Bynner drawings

Arthur Davison Ficke and Witter Bynner. Bynner’s portrait is by Kahlil Gibran.

 

The two men retired to a cross-town hotel room with a bottle of whisky. Bynner had had an idea while watching that ballet. The romantic artistic styles of his birth century were now being challenged by new 20th Century modes. The kind of poetry that the pair wrote: carefully crafted metrical, rhymed verse was being challenged by new verse. It too had extravagant expression, but not only did the new free verse not care about symmetrical forms, it didn’t seem to care about extracting from its expression sense or meaning—things didn’t mean, they were, in these new poems. And some of the new poets were so deadly serious about how important this was! They wrote manifestos about how poetry should work without the old frameworks, yet they didn’t seem to care about how meaning worked!

The levels of the whiskey in the bottle lowered quietly as the levels of whisky in the two loud poets increased. Here was the plan: Oh, this was so good! They would write a bunch of these new poems, just whip them out while they were good and drunk and no longer bound by anything other than sounding like these new Imagist, Vorticist, Futurist poets. Great fun! So much so that nine more sessions and nine more bottles followed in close succession.

Intoxication didn’t stop these two educated, upper-class men from some structure and planning. They’d publish the poems under assumed identities. Bynner, a gay man, was to be Emanuel Morgan, a painter/poet who had dallied in Europe and dug the French poetic influences. Ficke, the straight, goyim man with day job as a lawyer, was to be an exotic eastern-European Jewish poetess Anne Knish. Later that year they roped in another well-off child of local Midwestern privilege, Marjorie Allen Seiffert, whose contributions would be signed as Elijah Hay*, who would be (like Ficke) a cisgender lawyer/poet. Ficke was drafted to write the new movement’s manifesto**, and Bynner supplied the name, taken from the ballet: “Spectrism.” Prophetically anticipating the birth a dozen years later of Andy Warhol there, these Spectra poets were said to be living in the Pittsburg area. Well, maybe it wasn’t Warhol. Maybe Pittsburg was chosen because it was half-way between the East Coast-based Bynner and the Midwestern Ficke, or perhaps they shrewdly judged it as sufficiently nowhere to evade detection.

They submitted Spectrist poems to magazines and some were published. They submitted a manuscript of the drunken hotel room poems to their own publisher and had a good laugh when it was accepted (they did tell the publisher about the hoax after the acceptance however). Perhaps the strangest publication was a “theme issue” of Alfred Kreymborg’s Others  magazine. Others: A Magazine of the New Verse  was the  publication of the Modernist Avant Garde in America, promoting William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, Marianne Moore, Fenton Johnson, Mina Loy, Man Ray, H. D. and Wallace Stevens. If it was “free” or “new” or “modern,” Others was associated with it. It seemed particularly open to redefining sexual and gender roles. Recent “theme issues” before the Others’  Spectra issue for January 1917 had focused on Spanish-American poets and “A Woman’s Number” (which included work by Seiffert).

Spectra Covers

Mysteries of the Spectrism. The 1916 published collection and the 1917 special issue of Others.

 

What would happen if the Spectra hoax occurred this year? I’m certain there’d be considerable criticism of the perpetrators. Other than the inherent dishonesty the goes into a hoax (though “honesty” is always ambiguous in art) the audacious usurping of the Anne Knish persona by a WASP scion of wealth would draw additional condemnation for sure. Rich white men tweaking the always struggling to stay in business little magazine Others seems particularly cruel on the face of it.

You’d also expect pieces to be written about how the hoax “proves” that Modernist poetry is, consciously or unconsciously, a hoax itself; that Spectrist poetry had shown that if the right signals are made, any word-jumble will pass as art. And yes, that happened after Bynner revealed the hoax in 1918, just as it would likely happen now.

Interestingly, at least in my limited research into this, the 1918 response did not seem to include much if any anger toward the perpetrators though. Class, ethnic and gender privilege might have shielded them. Perhaps even those who might have standing to complain were cowed by the perpetrators prestige and power, or maybe they hadn’t developed an analysis of “cultural appropriation” yet. AFAIK, Ficke, Bynner, and Seiffert never suffered “you’ll never work in this town again” repercussions.

Those fooled by the hoax generally followed a line that the Spectrist poems, regardless of the author’s intent, had some vitality as Modernist expression anyway.*** As the 20th century progressed, automatic writing, cut-up, exquisite corpse, chance and computer-generated composition, found poetry, psychedelic poetry composed while intoxicated, and more would be tested as tactics. Spectra might have started in Davenport Iowa not at the Cabaret Voltaire in Switzerland, but does Dada require intent to be Dada? Can one draw a line from the Ficke’s Spectrist manifesto to the First Surrealist Manifesto?

For myself, more than the philosophical and aesthetic questions, I wonder at the personal impact, and not just on the hoaxed. Modernism had not yet triumphed in its campaign to take over poetry in the 1916-1918 era, but all three of the Spectra hoaxers began to agree with the hoaxed that when they freed themselves from their birth personas and the formal rules of poetry and meaning, that something else emerged that their poetry hadn’t seen before they put on the mask. All three later wrote some free verse as their careers continued and Modernism won the post-WWI war for literary respectability.

On the other side, I’d suppose that the Spectra hoax may have helped give impetus to New Criticism and it’s move to establish objective criteria for what makes a poem good, even if it’s Modernist in language, structure and word-music.

What of the poems themselves? I read the original Spectra book and found it disappointingly forgettable. There are some good lines, but fewer than pure what-the-hell wild improvisation should have engendered. You can laugh at the unhidden humor present in some of the poems, and I can recognize and smile at some of the references to common early Modernist tropes that they are parodying. I was drawn more to Ficke/Knish than Bynner/Morgan, and couldn’t help but think that Ficke, part-way down that bottle of whisky, might have found his invented exotic anima therapeutic.

Therefore, I’ve chosen to perform one of Ficke’s Spectra poems today, “Opus 131.”  I think Ficke—a son who grew up in a house wealth-filled with his father’s world-spanning art collection and who had followed his father into the practice of law—may have needed something more, may have wanted something that Millay or Kreymborg or Mina Loy had, even in their not-having. He may have wanted to leap out of that hotel room window, like Nijinsky in that ballet, and never come down.

Here’s my performance of Ficke/Knish’s Spectra poem:

 

*Although it’s usually not filed under “hoax” there’s a fairly long tradition of women writing under masculine pen names, from the three Bell/Bronte sisters onward. Davenport itself was home to Octave Thanet, a successful popular writer born Alice French.

**Sample lines from the manifesto: “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… Just as the colors of the rainbow recombine into a white light,— just as the reflex of the eye’s picture vividly haunts sleep,— just as the ghosts which surround reality are the vital part of that existence,—so may the Spectric vision, if successful, synthesize, prolong, and at the same time multiply the emotional images of the reader.” I can only think of the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

Spectra Poets Dark Side of the Moon LP Cover

 

***However, the funniest critical quote from before the hoax was revealed was William Carlos Williams remark that he preferred the Elijah Hay’s Spectrist poems to Anne Knish’s because the “Woman as usual gets all the theory and—as usual—takes it seriously whereas the male knows it’s only a joke.” Mirror upon mirror in that quote.

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The Book of Lu T’ang Chu

Why bother with little-known poets of the early Modernist age? Well, it’s conceivable that we can better understand the context the better-known poets were operating in by looking at the field the greats stood out from. And frankly, I get a kick out of looking at the left-behinds and odd corners. Like a crate-picker at a used record store, I’m looking for those weird finds that you can’t quite believe exist or that reflect some transitory moment in the culture.

I’ve already mentioned Arthur Davison Ficke in an earlier post as one of the Davenport Group, a bunch of Iowans, who with their rural Illinois cross-river neighbors, made a bit of a splash in American culture in the first part of the 20th Century. Ficke is not as obscure a character as Muriel Strode from our last post, but the separating distances of fame and achievement shrink as time moves on, so you’re not going to run into either of them in any survey course or even specialist literary class in school.

Unlike Strode, I could find out about Ficke’s family background. He grew up in one of Davenport’s richest and most cultured families. His father was a prominent lawyer and had amassed a considerable oriental art collection. After education in Davenport, Ficke was sent to Harvard where he was a classmate of Franklin Roosevelt. After graduation he was granted one of those traditions of the well off, an overseas tour which included travel to Japan.

Throughout his school years, Ficke was drawn to the arts, and yet family expectation dictated that he was to practice law. A career as an art critic and poet therefore progressed alongside lawyering. During WWI, and while serving as a military Judge Advocate, he met Edna St. Vincent Millay and eventually a post-war love affair blossomed. You may see some similarity to Millay in today’s Ficke-written piece, a rhymed, metrical sonnet, a form Millay also worked in.

Arthur Davidson Ficke and Edna St Vincent Millay

Arthur Davison Ficke with Edna St. Vincent Millay.

 

Like Millay, Ficke mixed with the Modernists socially while not consistently writing in the new Modernist style. This ambiguity of Ficke’s toward Modernism played out in an event we’ll cover in a future post.

I don’t find Ficke’s poetry as musical as Millay’s, but his“The Book of Lu T’ang Chu”  still has its charms. The poem combines Ficke’s interest in the Orient with a subtle observation about art in the modern age. This poem’s ancient Chinese emperor and Ficke himself are now both dust in the wind, as we all will be—but we can still listen to his meditation, set to my new music and performed on acoustic guitar, piano, and an attempt at playing (via a MIDI controlled “virtual instrument”) the Chinese traditional zither that came to the fore during the Tang dynasty, the guzheng. Use the gadget below to hear this.

I Am the Clod that has Taken Wing

Those new here may not know that the Parlando Project intentionally varies the words and writers whose work we present, and the types of music that we combine with them. We tend to use poetry as our word source, because compression and musical expression is baked in, but we don’t always use the most famous poets or poems (though I do enjoy trying to find something new in a well-known poem too)*.

Because obtaining rights to present poetry has difficulties, most of what you find here is from before 1923, but that doesn’t mean we won’t surprise or puzzle you with our authors. Today’s piece was written by Muriel Strode, who is an extreme case of biographical and critical obscurity. Almost nothing is known about her, and rather than Wikipedia, or one of the online poetry-promoting orgs or education sites, what info I could gather about Strode is largely from a single blog post.

As it often is with me, finding out a few things about someone opens up further questions. The bare bones reported in Terri Guillements’ blog post, partially informed by surviving relatives, is that Strode was born in 1875 in a rural township in Illinois, south of Galesburg where Carl Sandburg and Don Marquis spent their youth at nearly the same time. Her father was a “naturalist, teacher, and physician” and her grandparents were pioneer farmers and settlers according to Guillements. Her mother died when she was around 13 and her father remarried. At around the same time as her father’s remarriage, it’s said that she left home at age 15 (1890) to attend a business school, and a year later she started work in Long Beach California as a “stenographer and typist.” No context is given on this, but the remarriage and move far away from her childhood home happening at near the same time does lead one to suppose some friction.

The next markers in her life come in 1906, 15 years later. Guillements’ says Strode was able to buy two parcels of land in the Signal Hill area of Long Beach and the same year move to New York City. Also in 1906, Strode published her first book My Little Book of Prayer with Open Court Publishing out of Chicago. Open Court was the closely held venture of a German immigrant who had made it big in the zinc business, Edward Hegeler. Hegeler was a believer in something he called “the religion of science,” discussed briefly and tantalizingly in his Wikipedia entry, and Open Court worked to promote those ideas.

My Little Book of Prayer  might seem puzzling without those connections. It’s not a prayer book in the usual American Christian sense. God, even implied, is not present in most of its entries, nor are any conventional religious texts or figures present to an appreciable degree. The entries are short, aphoristic, and poetic enough that one might consider it an early book-length work of American free verse. On the other hand, they don’t exactly seem to want to work as poetry as Pound or the English and European Modernists were re-casting it. My Little Book of Prayer reads more like a self-help book expressed in strongly worded and rhapsodic affirmations. The general attitude is the that with the too-rarely understood right goals and attitudes, human potential is unlimited. You start out thinking this is Stuart Smalley in 1906 guise, then wonder if you aren’t reading a follower of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and finally end up considering if you are reading a very concise American and female Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche-piano

For today’s audio piece we feature Fred “Sonic” Nietzsche on the keys. Makes me think of the Bonzo’s “The Intro & the Outro”—which is a very good thing!

 

None-the-less at the beginning of The American Century as education, industrialization, science, and an expanded political franchise were in motion, the book seems to have struck some sky’s-the-limit chords. The St Louis Globe-Democrat published this breathless notice:

If you want to know the greatness of a soul and the true mastery of life, apply to the Open Court Publishing Company for a slip of a book by Muriel Strode, entitled simply ‘My Little Book of Prayer.’ The modern progress of sovereign mind and inner divinity from the narrow cell of the ascetic to the open heaven of man made in God’s own image, is triumphantly shown in it, yet a self-abnegation and sacrifice beyond anything that a St. Francis or a Thomas a Kempis ever dreamed of, glorifies the path. To attempt to tell what a treasure-trove for the struggling soul is in this little volume would be impossible without giving it complete, for every paragraph marks a milestone on the higher way.”

How Strode hooked up with Open Court and its philosophy is one mystery. Even Strode’s southern Illinois childhood is not in Chicago’s orbit, and we know too little about her parents’ social class or connections. One theory that occurs to me is that somewhere in that Stenographer/Typist job title was an intelligent and ambitious woman who made social, commercial and philosophical connections with entrepreneurs and businessmen in those 15 “lost years” that may have been in California.

One piece of evidence for that: two years later she married Samuel Lieberman, “the president of an iron and steel firm in Chicago where Muriel had worked.”

Today’s piece, taken from her later work, 1921’s A Soul’s Faring Instead of Open Court, this one was published by Boni & Liveright, a New York-based imprint much associated with literary Modernism.**  By this point someone had dubbed Strode as “The female Walt Whitman,” and her free verse is, if anything, more unabashed and heroic*** than Whitman, which takes some doing. One has to be of the right mind to read much of it—it’s so over the top. The same Nietzschean philosophical concerns remain from her Open Court books, and the individual, roman-numerated, sections are barely longer at times than her earlier aphoristic “prayers.” There may be a growing mysticism entering into the work as well as elements that at times echo deep-ecology thinking about nature.

After reading three of her books, doing this research, and working on incorporating something I took from the XXXV section of her “Songs of the Strong”  inside A Soul’s Faring, I still don’t quite know what to make of Muriel Strode. The gushing visionary true-believer attitude, even for a reader such as myself who enjoyed William Blake as a young man and who also appreciates Whitman is just so strong, and some underlying “Like attracts like” Law of Attraction elements seem unavoidable.****  So, I can’t say I’ve become a fan, as much as I must acknowledge her audacity and extremity of expression. Perhaps she’s best taken in small doses, in disconnected aphorisms?

In seeking to maximize that element in Strode’s poetry, I’ve adapted her poem, trimming even this already short work back even more, and turning one of its lines into a refrain. And for music? Well, I told you at the start we like to mix things up. Our last piece was orchestral, featuring strings and English horn, but today’s piece, which I call “I Am the Clod that has Taken Wing”  in my adaptation—it’s metal, and of the sludgy type. Maybe in honor of Open Court and the Gilded Age Mr. Hegeler (who must be a Galvanized Age figure), it’s “Heavy Zinc?” Metal is a type of musical expression where you can say anything, no matter how outrageous, and get away with it; so maybe that fits in an odd way, which is what we do here at the Parlando Project. Here’s the player to hear it.

 

 

 

*If you’re not in the mood to adventure into this unusual story of a small town girl who makes her way in the world and some transitory literary notice, our archives here have lots of  better-known poets from this same era and before.

**You, and the world, may have forgotten Muriel Strode, but Boni & Liveright were the first American publisher of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemmingway, E. E. Cummings, Jean Toomer, and Hart Crane and the US publisher of T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.”  So, between the boards, Strode was in high-lit company.

***There’s also an erotic element in A Soul’s Faring  that might remind one of Whitman.

****What we know of Muriel Strode’s life story reads like a romance novel, doesn’t it? Here’s one more novelistic touch, and if you’re a skeptic about the “Law of Attraction,” you’d best ascribe it to a failure of authorship: those two parcels of land Strode bought before leaving California? Turns out about the time A Soul’s Faring  was published, they found oil under them. Lots of oil. If you listen to today’s audio piece over and over, and perhaps play it backwards, who knows what riches will come to you.

Walter de la Mare’s Winter

I know nothing interesting about the life of Walter de la Mare—other than he was a successful writer in poetry and prose for roughly half of the 20th century*. There appear to be no interesting movements or manifestos to tie him to, and though his lifetime corresponds roughly to those 20th century Modernists I often like and present here, he’s not considered one of them.

Famous British Authors Willis Trading Cards

20th century British authors who got trading cards in cigarette packs level fame.

 

Certainly, his poetry doesn’t sound or look like Modernist verse. It’s frankly musical, and supple yet regular musical verse of his type is not that easy to write in English. Modernists took up with free verse for a number of reasons, partly because they were likewise enamored of the wider and more fanciful rhythms of Modernist music and visual arts, and because they wanted to explore new ways of relating reality, and the tight and formal clothing of metrical forms and rhyming seemed to restrict their range of movement.

There were folks with a Modernist sensibility who worked in rhyme and more regular metrical forms. Early Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay did. Frost in particular is often writing Imagist poetry with fresh, plain diction that rhymes in the era when his fellow Modernists were immerging.

Today I use a short poem of de la Mare’s, “Winter,”  and the first thing that struck me about it is the word-music. Every line rhymes, and with perfect, not partial rhymes. Though de la Mare uses common rhyming words, the poem seems effortless, there are no lines that seem twisted to make the rhyme. But notice something else about “Winter:”  the way it treats its matter, as opposed to its music—that’s close to the Imagists credo. It directly shows a winter scene. The opening lines “And the robin flew/Into the air, the air,/The white mist through;” are solidly in the Imagist mode. That opening “and” making sure we know this is an immediate experience. The entire second stanza too is Imagist through and through. Nothing is “like” anything. This is a real, immediate scene, and we stay there. The robin** flying through white mist is a bird flying through white mist, not a mere symbol, a counter for something else. Frozen bushes waver in the slight breeze casting varying reflections from the new rising moon or last sunlight. Yes, what we are apprehending through the poet has connotations, has feelings that will be invoked, but we aren’t told by the writer what they are, he assumes we’re capable of forming those ourselves.

Only in the ending stanza does de la Mare break the rules of pure Imagism. In his last two lines he personifies a speaking star or cardinal direction which speaks the final line. For me this works largely because this contrasts with the rest of the poem. If instead, de la Mare had started with talking stars giving us messages in so many words and continued in that vein through the poem with bushes and birds telling us what the poet wants them to say, the impact of the conclusion would be lessened, and the poem would be trying to work, not just sound, in the old way.

Musically, I unabashedly say I like what I did for this one. The piece began for me with the guitar part, which I was going to play on acoustic guitar, but my family came home early and there’d be no chance to record that with an open sensitive mic, but then many acoustic guitar parts translate well to the Telecaster which I substituted. The bass guitar part is unusual in that it’s played entirely on open strings, a sound that the instrument is rarely allowed to use. But it’s the orchestral parts which really pleased me. There’s a bunch of tracks here combining “real” strings played via a virtual instrument with a somewhat overdriven Mellotron violin mixed in there which brings the string section some grit***. I gave a top line part to an English horn. Use the player just below this to hear my performance of Walter de la Mare’s “Winter.” 

 

 

English Robin in Winter

English robin showing its all-weather operational capabilities

 
*I recall reading some of de la Mare’s ghost stories decades ago, but I hadn’t really considered his poetry until I was reminded of that by Toby Darling, who does a lovely job of writing and playing music to sing many de la Mare’s poems to.

**Residents such as I who live in the Northern parts of the U.S. may be surprised that de la Mare has a robin in his winter scene. The American robin is a different species, which migrates south for the winter, and as such the robin here has a strong symbolic association with spring. English robins stay put. The same name for different North American and European species could lead one to read some promise of spring that de la Mare didn’t intend in his poem, in the same way that Robert Frost’s American winter hemlock branch may not have been a Socratic hemlock branch. Anyway, both robins have a bright red-orange breast, which even though de la Mare doesn’t state it, adds a dot of color to the white mist flight.

**The Mellotron was an early, primitive attempt to do what modern “virtual instruments” do. Typically, if a virtual instrument wants to present a “real” violin it will sample a violin playing various notes, and the notes as well with a variety of articulations which are stored and organized as digital audio files to be played later. The 1960’s Mellotron had a simple tape strip of a violin playing a note in one legato articulation assigned to each key of an organ-style keyboard. The former can sound strikingly realistic if care is taken to make use of the various articulations (vibrato, marcato, pizzicato, etc.) while the later sounds artificial despite the tape strips being conceptionally the same. Of course, “artificial” is a state of mind, and the close-but-not-quite sound of a Mellotron instrument always reads as “England” to my ear due to it use on many 1960s and ‘70s recordings by English groups.