I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)

Here’s a hopeful song written by a worried man during the great trauma of the American Civil War.

Those who’ve followed along on this blog in 2018 will know that I’ve performed several pieces with words written by that man, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I’ve written about his once great fame and his steep fall from poetic fashion, but I’ve written little about his eventful personal life.

longfellows house in winter

Not all of what it seems: a picture postcard scene of Longfellow’s home during the Civil War.

 

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, there could be no doubt on which side Longfellow would be on. To the extent that Longfellow was political as a writer, he was resolutely against the institution of slavery. Longfellow was also philosophically a pacifist, but even before the war he was aware of the cost Abolitionist convictions could bring. His closest friend, Charles Sumner, a U. S. Senator and another Abolitionist, was sitting at his desk on the Senate floor in 1856 when three southern congressmen launched a planned assault on him. The leader of the crew beat Sumner into unconsciousness with a walking stick, while the other two held off any who rose to try to stop the assault, one brandishing a pistol to keep help at bay. Sumner was so badly injured from the attack he was unable to resume his Senate duties for three years after the attack.

By the spring of 1863, the Civil War over the maintenance of slavery was now two years old. No one knew how long it would continue or what the outcome would be, and once more someone close to Longfellow would feel its blows. Longfellow’s 17-year-old son Charley, who had firmly resolved his own feelings about the war, snuck out of the family home and made his way to Washington to join the Union army. In November of that year, his unit was reconnoitering around a Virginia location called New Hope Church. They found what they were looking for. A southern bullet ripped through Charley Longfellow’s torso sideways, just nicking his spine. Luck that, and luck that he was able to endure and survive a painful evacuation on a wagon and the woeful state of battlefield trauma care in his time. Over half-a-million fellow soldiers didn’t.

So, a month before Christmas, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was searching the maze of makeshift hospitals and camps in Washington until he found his wounded son. Son found, by Christmas the Longfellows could return home for further recuperation.

Today “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”*  if listened to casually may pass as just another carol, an obligatory musical evocation of some cheerful pealing on a winter’s holiday. But to the poet who wrote these words that Christmas, and to the nation torn apart, that he and his audience were part of, this was not merely another generalized Christmas card.

I wrote a couple of hundred words, meaning to put them here next, starting to say, preaching about, what Longfellow said in his poem—but Longfellow says what he needed to say pretty well and clear for an unfashionable poet. Maybe that “clear” thing is part of what is unfashionable, but despair shared and hope earnestly put forward is  a gift.

The player gadget below will let you hear “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)”  as I performed it. To sharpen Longfellow’s point, I trimmed back the number of stanzas in his original poem and then again from the shorter number of verses usually sung in the hymn that was made from it. I also reharmonized the chord changes a little. Guitarists wanting to play this themselves can use this shared link to see the details of the open tuning and chord voicings I used for this. The modified tuning, with the two lowest strings on the guitar tuned down even lower, makes this very easy to play.

 

 

 

*When Longfellow’s poem was published the next year it was titled “Christmas Bells,”  but it’s now best known through the hymn/Christmas carol set to music by John Baptiste Calkin.

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Father from the North

I have an LYL Band song again to share with you for Winter Solstice, but unlike last year’s cover of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Winter Love,”  this one is not so hopeful. Still, it comes from a tradition—or rather a revival of a revival of a tradition.

Back in my youth we went through an era that Martin Mull called “The Great Folk Scare,” a post WWII time when something called “folk music” grew to be a significant alternative youth movement. It’s going to be hard for me to mention this only in passing here, because there’s so much to be said about that—particularly if I’d try to explain things to those who weren’t around then—but one intensifier to the humor in Mull’s name for this was that it played on the more or less coincident “Red Scare.” That term too could cause me to break out into explaining. Short version: post WWII, the Communism that was an ally of necessity during the Big War was now a mortal philosophic and geo-political enemy. Each side was armed to the teeth, and some of those teeth held the new Atomic Era’s nuclear bombs.

Post 1948 there was no significant left-wing political party left in the United States. So, what were the lefties to do? Well they picked up string instruments and started singing “folk songs.” What did that consist of? It was a polyglot form: Actual traditional songs brought over by immigrants, including centuries-old British Isles tunes and stories, semi-commercial amalgams like Blues and Bluegrass and Country & Western songwriters’ songs, and newly-written songs composed by the young participants.

A large percentage of those new “folk songs” wanted to make social and political points. Like all genres and social movements, folk music sub-divided avidly, soon developing wings that had no use for others that shared a music store section. Those new political/social comment songs, often written by and sung by those who might also do a Child ballad, a Carter Family song and something learned from a Leadbelly or an Afro-American gospel record, were called topical songs or protest songs. This was a happy accident. If you give a young, inexperienced person the charge to write about something that needs changing, the result may be strident and impassioned, but otherwise ineffective. But if you tell them that it has to fit into a set list or multi-act bill that includes “Mary Don’t you Weep,” “Matty Groves,”  “No More Auction Block,”  “Keep on the Sunny Side,”  “Gallows Pole,”  and  “Samson and Delilah”—well it can make you step up your game, and give you some moves to help you do that.

For example, in 1961, a 20-year-old folk singer Bonnie Dobson, who’d never considered writing a song before, was struck by the idea to write such a song. She recalls she was inspired by the fear of nuclear war. Judging by the audience response on a recording from a year later, her song worked well. It had a skeletal narrative that gave the song power from its incremental impact, despite saying nothing specific about the title’s “Morning Dew.”

This was recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, the engineer behind many of my favorite jazz records

 

Another folk singer, Fred Neil, heard Dobson’s song, and in singing it again himself, made an important change. He subtly changed the song’s opening line, mysteriously increasing its power. Dobson had written and sung it: “Take me for a walk in the morning dew.” Neil sung it as “Walk me out in the morning dew,” and the simpler line is now often used as the song’s title.

The song has gone on to a long life, sung by many singers and bands in their own way. I think part of why it worked over time, and works today, is the unspecified nature of the disaster. By not being a topical song, it retains some of its power as a protest song. Do you think that “Morning Dew”  not being straightforward helps or hurts it as a protest song?*

Today’s piece then is my own dark solstice song, “Father from the North,”  which you can hear performed by the LYL Band below. I was aiming for a first verse as good as “Walk Me Out in the Morning Dew”  when I wrote it. Notice that when Dobson introduces her song, she just says “This is a song about morning dew, and I hope that it never falls on us.” In the liner notes she expands that only by saying “this is a peace song and a love song,” and the LP’s notes writer, Arthur Argo, says of the song “Her portrayal of love and peace as dual aspects of a single phenomenon is a philosophical truth of great depth.”

Well, I might not reach that level, or ever have Jeff Beck cover my song, but you can hear the LYL Band’s “Father from the North”  with the player below. Happy Winter Solstice. More light is coming.

 

 

 

 

* There’s more than one way to skin a post-bomb radioactive cat. Here’s a rundown of 20 other songs that deal with the same subject, most of which have had less success over time than “Morning Dew” — which they leave out of their list, along with Tom Lehrer songs like “We’ll All Go Together When We Go.”  As Tom says in his intro to that: “Here’s a rousing and uplifting song that is guaranteed to cheer you up.”

And the most liked/listened to piece this fall was…

What makes for a “hit” in the small province of the Internet that is yours and mine?

We started off the countdown of the most liked and listened to audio pieces here this past fall by talking about the variety of poets and writers that we use for words. Yes, we present well-known poems and poets work, and yes, we like to go further and look at the poets that other poets were influenced by or admired. Sometimes we go yet farther down into the unclaimed storage locker of history, to the obscurities that you likely won’t encounter in school or standard literary surveys.

When looking for words I only ask to find some interest in them and that they are of a length and focus that can work with music, and that they are free for me to use (typically this means pre-1923 work that is in the public domain).

And you, the audience? If you’ve stuck with our efforts here, you’re broadly curious, or at least ready to wait for something to come along that strikes you. I’m so pleased to have you listening and reading, because, like me, you’re ready to have encounters with the unknown or new aspects of the known.

And look at what most captured your attention this fall. Four poems by well-known authors (Sandburg, Cummings, Blake, and Dickinson). Two by influencers/”poet’s poets” (Edward Thomas and Paul Blackburn). Two that are from classical Chinese poets (Du Fu and the unknown author from the Book of Odes).   And one observation I wrote myself (though I also arranged the short quotation from Blackburn and did my own translation of Du Fu).

This past fall’s most popular piece is yet another English translation from the Chinese Confucian Book of Odes.  Even though the words appear to be an inaccurate translation, they’ve gathered their own place in English-speaking culture in the same way that the King James version of the Bible, or FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat,  or Ezra Pound’s own take on classical Chinese poetry have, despite disputed translation accuracy.

Wild Plums scroll

A mid 12th century Chinese scroll illustrating another plum poem in the Book of Odes

 

Someone first wrote, and likely sung, this poem nearly 3000 years ago in some southern province of China. Given that it’s another of the Odes  written in the voice of a woman, we may assume it was a woman. English translations I have read generally portray the speaker as a well-born eligible woman who is more or less saying “Hey suitors. I’m a catch. If you want to marry me, get your proposal in quickly.” A minority contrastingly represent the woman as being too picky, rejecting too many suitors, and in that view, she needs to stop fiddling around and choose. Either reading is interesting. At least on the face of it, it’s reflecting some (though likely upper-class) female empowerment in bronze-age China. But these are not the translations I used.

Here’s the text of the translation I used for my performance. It can be found all over the Internet, but more importantly and intimately, it was known by my wife who sent it to me.

ripe plums are falling

now there are only five

may a fine lover come for me

while there is still time

 

ripe plums are falling

now there are only three

may a fine lover come for me

while there is still time

 

ripe plums are falling

i gather them in a shallow basket

may a fine lover come for me

tell me his name

When I first posted my performance as “Wild Plums”  I didn’t know who did this translation, and despite several hours of reading and searching, I still don’t. Translators generally are attracted to and retain the poem’s litany of plums* decreasing in number, regardless of how they render the situation, but the outlook presented by this version is different. The woman has less agency, or at least in this matter of desire and longing over the course of the poem, she is willing to cede for the moment her power (other than hope). And that is one of the things lyric poetry allows: no one need expect that the moment of emotion or perception in a short lyric is a person’s whole thoughts and feelings on a matter, or themselves. We only ask that it shows us something vital that we wish to have shared between ourselves. As such, this version strikes a chord in our time and our culture.

I still don’t know who this translator is. I have a theory. If that writer didn’t write the translation herself, she popularized it, as I can find no references to this version of the ancient poem before Susan Sandler’s 1985 stage play and then screen play for the 1988 movie Crossing Delancey. Here’s how the poem was used in the movie:

I saw the movie when it came out, and I remember liking it. A different take on the RomCom formula.

 

The woman in this scene (played by Amy Irving) is the movie’s unmarried heroine, and the somewhat smarmy dreamboat across the table (Jeroen Krabbé) captures the heroine’s attention immediately with the personal resonance she feels with this version of the poem.

The person who posted the movie’s poetry scene on YouTube says the translation was by Arthur Waley, but I’ve already found other references to a completely different translation that begins “”Plop fall the plums; but there are still seven” by Waley. So, what’s my mystery translator theory? Could it be by Susan Sandler herself? If anyone knows, please give me info in the comments.

Well after all that, here’s my performance of this piece. If you haven’t heard it yet, the player is below.

 

 

*Poets and writers seem attracted to the plum when choosing their imagery. The wild plum is referenced elsewhere in the Book of Odes, and Horace, Laura Ingalls Wilder, James Joyce, Mary Oliver, and William Carlos Williams (meme-worthy, if non-wild, plums). I even decided to use wild plum blossoms in my own ode about my son.

Fall 2018 Parlando Project Top 10 Numbers 4-2

4. Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant words by Emily Dickinson. It should be no surprise that Dickinson turns up often here. I’m attracted to short poems that have a word music of sound or thought, and Dickinson has both in abundance in this, another very short text: 41 words.

This poem is often read as Dickinson’s private artistic credo. In summary paraphrase: “I’m going to write about things obliquely, because you people can’t handle the truth.” Still, I think there are other elements here, other harmonic overtones. One is the human tendency to slant the truth. In the poem’s one simile, she likens this slanting to the pleasant myths told to children threatened by lightning, and I don’t believe that’s Dickinson’s goal in her writing.

Another aspect, reflected in another Dickinson poem, There’s a Certain Slant of Light,”  is the Transcendentalist outlook, one that she seems to have been aware of. In that other poem there’s that word “slant” again, but here we are to know it’s nature itself that’s slanting reality. The transcendence in Transcendentalism is the belief that the surface of reality is not all there is, that study and insight and a visionary approach can reveal a deeper reality.

In that harmony, Dickinson isn’t saying “Hey poets, just do what I do! Obscure your real thoughts and insights so the non-hip won’t gather what you’re talking about until someone takes a post-graduate course a hundred years from now.” Rather she’s saying “Reality will seem to tell you children’s-story myths. Get around them. Keep looking, and gradually the blinding surprise will come.”

 

The Emily DIckinson Internal Difference

My soul’s been Transcendentalized!

 

3. Crepuscule (I Will Wade Out) words by E. E. Cummings. More slanted light here, as Cummings meditates on the arrival of a sensuous night. If the 19th Century American Transcendentalists were the ancestors of the 20th Century American beats and hippies, Cummings here seems to be heralding the Surrealists that would soon emerge within a decade in the dreams of a European night.

With much extravagance of language, Cummings risks ridicule without a care.

I’m quite fond of the music I wrote and played for this one. The acoustic guitar is tuned in “Pelican tuning” which is named after a piece by John Renbourn that used it.

 

Bjork Lipping Flowers

“I will rise after a thousand years lipping flowers.” No, I’m not covering Björk Guðmundsdóttir, I don’t have enough diacritical marks or musical genius.

 

2. Cold Is the North Wind words by unknown. This is a piece taken from the Confucian anthology of ancient Chinese poetry titled variously in English The Book of Odes, The Classic of Poetry, the Book of Songs,  or just Poetry.  Since the collection’s poems date from deep antiquity, perhaps as far back as 1000 B. C., authorship is unknown, though not a few of them are written in a woman’s voice, and the subjects of the first section, The Airs of the States, are often everyday people and everyday activities, not Emperors or scholars, not heroes and their great battles.

The reason for collecting the poems and making them required reading is also hard for history to remember. The consensus over time was that in studying these poems an understanding of the Chinese empire’s subjects and concerns would be engendered. In England and its colonies, it was contrastingly once assumed that its future leaders would study ancient Latin and Greek poetry as a core subject.

Weighing something as large as history is hard, and I can’t say if either of these two traditions helped much. Evil and ignorance, mendacity and violence—how far can we range in history without running into lengthy annals and imposing monuments to those things? We can’t avoid these monsters, and yes, and so, we must study them. Yet, yet, what if our leaders were expected to study a song such as this? I can’t believe it would help most. I also believe it would help some.

 

Chinese  flying Teapot

Cold enough that some hot tea would be good, but Gong have flown off with the teapot.

We have just one more number in our countdown of the most liked and listened to audio pieces this past Fall. We’ll be revealing Number One in our next post.

Fall 2018 Parlando Project Top 10 Number 7-5

7. A Poison Tree words by William Blake.  When I posted this piece this fall, I remarked that Blake never seems that popular with the blog readers/listeners here. Dave and I have always sung Blake pieces since the early days of the LYL Band, and so we persist anyway.

Well, this piece finally allowed William Blake to break out. I can’t say exactly why, but I’m just glad it found an audience.

When I first encountered Blake as a young man, one of the things that I admired about him was his DIY/Indie spirit: apprenticing as an artist/engraver, doing his own coloring, writing his own texts, devising his own mythology, making his own prints. In the psychedelic Sixties there was this appeal because Blake was a visionary, the man who was reported out talking to angels in trees. Well those are the reports—but the work says he did a lot more than that, using his hands and applied energy. Reminds me of one of my mottos: Creative people aren’t people who have great ideas. Creative people are people who make things.  Of course, you’ll need some ideas, some vision that we need to see—but sometimes you’ll come upon those on your workbench scattered and shining amid worn tools.

 

 

The Angel by William Blake

In pickup basketball games, Blake always played skins. Also no pants.

 

 

6. Gone Gone Again words by Edward Thomas.  Thomas has been a blog favorite here ever since I followed the connection from Robert Frost to him, and discovered that I had unwittingly nearly reenacted his most famous poem Adlestrop  on a visit to England.

Thomas seems to have suffered from depression and other issues throughout his life. I don’t think that sadness inspires deep poetry, so much as battling it does, and Thomas’ poem is a compressed record of that battle as well as his beloved countryside of England during WWI.

 

Edward Thomas thin and thoughful

The return of the thin white duke, throwing darts at Blenheim oranges

 

5. Jade Flower Palace words by Du Fu.  I’ve noticed that I was using a string section of some sort (or its Mellotron equivalent) for every piece so far. Finally, we break that pattern as a conventional, unadorned LYL Band rock-combo instrumentation is used in this live recording.

There’s something I feel in Du Fu’s poem that is very near to Edward Thomas’ that is just above in the countdown, so it’s a nice coincidence that they slot together in popularity this time.

During the Parlando Project I’ve taken to doing my own translations from non-English language sources, including this one. Particularly with classical Chinese poetry this is risky or audacious on my part. I’m not sure if I should be encouraged by the number of inaccurate translations that are out there, including some that are fairly well-known—for example: the Chinese translations of Ezra Pound, which I’ve loved even after learning of the translation errors present in them.

I sometimes view my task as translator like I view my job as a musician who wishes to cover someone else’s song without merely duplicating it. I don’t want to be unfaithful to what the writer intended, but I do want to express it, in my own country’s language, in my own time, to my own audience. To do so, I may pull things toward my own language and my own grasp of the author’s imagery to keep what comes out vital.

That may just be an excuse for my own weakness in foreign languages and other skills of translation. Still, though Ezra Pound’s River Merchant’s Wife or South Folk in Cold Country  are not what Li Bai wrote, they are powerful works. But then, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”  isn’t Otis Redding’s “Respect”  played back faithfully either.

 

Jade carving

“There are many paths away from here. How long are any of them? None of them go on forever.”

Fall 2018 Parlando Project Top 10 Numbers 10-8

 

Here we go with our quarterly run down of the most liked and listened to audio pieces over the past season. We’ll be counting up to the most listened to piece over the next few days as we approach winter solstice. Who’ll chart? The most famous poets with their best-loved words? The literary poets’ poets? The poems of the now largely forgotten figures I like to dig up sometimes?

10. “Seventeen Almost to Ohio,” words by Paul Blackburn arranged by me.  Where does Paul Blackburn fit now? Probably in the poets’ poet bin, though he’s also verging on forgotten. He doesn’t seem to have benefited from connections to a poetic movement, though he had them in overplus. He’s sometimes associated with the Black Mountain School, though he himself says he wasn’t really. He visited Ezra Pound and shared Pound’s interest in imaginative translation and the old French Provencal poets, and he is there connected to the original English language Modernist movement. He was based in New York coincident with the New York School of poets though he’s never mentioned as one in any summary roundup I’ve read. The Beats touched edges with the New York School—and with Blackburn, and again there are similarities in their approaches. Perhaps the most significant connection is that Blackburn was a leading NYC-based encourager of spoken and recorded poetry, including being the original organizer of the St. Marks poetry readings, a spoken word radio host, and a recordist of many other poets reading.

“Seventeen Almost to Ohio”  comes from an aside Blackburn made while recording Mina Loy in 1960, where he (apparently) spontaneously recalls an event from his own youth while asking Loy about hers at the dawn of Modernism. I lightly edited and arranged his anecdote and then composed the music.

Cowboy_Paul_Blackburn

Paul “Does Jeff Tweedy look like me when he looks in the mirror” Blackburn

 

9. “Fog”, words by Carl Sandburg.  Early Modernists were fascinated by extreme compression and very short poems, and anthologists since then so often include Pound’s “A Station in the Metro,” Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,”  and this 21-word Sandburg poem. And because it so baldly displays its central metaphor of fog and cat, the poem is often used to introduce grade-school children to metaphor.

In writing about “Fog”  this fall I wondered if there’s anything we’ve overlooked for over a century in this short poem, and came up with this question: Might it matter what kind of cat it is?

 

Carl Sandburg, Marilyn Monroe and some cocktails, 1962
Marilyn: Carl, Carl, you simply must tell me what kind of cat it was!
Carl: In good time, my dear—but first I need to finish inspiring Sonny Bono’s Sixties look.

 

8. “The Temple of Summer,” words by Frank Hudson.  Well, I’m almost as short-winded as the Sandburg of “Fog”  in this 31-word Mellotron drenched goodbye to summer. Longtime readers here will already know of my devotion to the sound of this primitive attempt at a sampling instrument used memorably in many late 60s and 70s British Prog-Rock recordings. The real thing is finicky, bulky, and hard-to-find and maintain, but the Mellotron’s sampling of real instruments to strips of recording tapes, whose notes can then be played by a keyboard press, is an easy trick for the computer-hosted Virtual Instruments that the Mellotron inspired and I use.

King Crimson with Mellotron on stage

Robert Fripp, on the right with King Crimson, declared after dealing with voltage issues on tour: “Tuning a Mellotron, doesn’t”

 

Want to nerd out on things Mellotron? This site looks very complete, and for the dabblers, they have just a listing of all the English Top 30 singles that used a Mellotron, which might refresh your memory on where you’ve heard that sound before.

 

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.