July 5, 2017

Fake Art, Not War


Witter Bynner

Imagine you—a well-studied, discerning critic—watching the film Airplane! and mistaking it for a sequel to Airport 1975. That is, imagine mistaking the spoof for the original.

In 1916, Witter Bynner, ardent disliker of Modernist poetry and notable mischief-brewer, managed to dupe a good number of discerning critics into making this same category mistake.

The story begins when, on a lark, Bynner asked a handful of those-in-the-know if they’d heard of the (entirely nonexistent) school of Spectrist Poetry, or Spectrism. They bit. So Witter tested the boundaries of the joke.

As no hoax is complete without an accomplice, Bynner, himself a budding writer, brought his buddy Arthur Davison Ficke in on his high-concept project to satirize Modernism. As no movement is complete without a manifesto, the duo, with the assistance of a heroic amount of scotch, donned pseudonyms and produced just such a thing — complete with bogus, Modernist-sounding poems. But in the right light, it really looked like the real stuff.

According to Michael Waters, writing at Atlas Obscura, that’s where the movement really starts to gain traction:

Bynner submitted the resulting Spectrist manifesto to his publisher, thinking its contents were so ridiculous that his publisher would immediately see through the prank. But, in an omen of things to come, the publisher agreed to print it, thinking it was a real work. Only shortly before publication did Bynner and Ficke let him in on the joke—he agreed to publish it anyway. That year, the release of Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments added the movement to the pantheon of Modernist poetry.

Knowing full well that (most) publishers are no suckers, I nearly waver in my belief of the story at this moment. But, sure enough, the movement began to garner attention from the New York HeraldThe New Republicand the poetry magazine Others.

Like any movement, though, Spectrism was doomed to be crushed under the weight of its own success. Waters writes:

In April 1918, when Spectra was announced to have been a hoax—apparently because Bynner admitted to being its true creator during a Q&A—the revelation provoked a flurry of media coverage, including a feature in the New York Times Magazine. But the general reaction was bafflement. Though many poets—including William Carlos Williams—admitted to having been duped, they expressed confusion as to how such thought-provoking pieces could be mere spoofs.

For the rest of his life, Bynner had a devil of a time shaking the consensus that his pseudonymous writings surpass his more transparent ones. The legacy of Spectra, then, is ideal fodder for theorists of literary intentionality.

Who can say with confidence that Airplane! doesn’t soar higher, and nearer to art’s truest purpose than the target of its satire? A fool, that is who. Airplane! is a tremendous film.

Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.