Witter Bynner (as Emanuel Morgan) and Arthur Davison Ficke (as Anne Knish) published the anthology Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments in 1916. Although conceived of as a hoax, it constituted a quite striking body of poetry. Despite its parodic origins, Spectra included some of the most resonant poetic responses to World War I. Recent criticism of Spectrism understandably tends to emphasize the hoax aspects of this fascinating episode in modernist history, focusing for example on the performance of identity. Yet Bynner himself stated his genuine affirmation of the anthology’s work beyond the satiric circumstances of its creation, and the experience of this ostensibly mock-alternative avant-garde ended up having long-term effects on both his and Ficke’s careers. This essay argues that engaging with Spectra beyond its existence as a hoax allows us to explore its wider aesthetic and sociopolitical relevance to the period and sheds further light on contemporary perceptions of Imagism and Vorticism, particularly in the context of the poetry of the Great War.
“Bullets for Hands”: Witter Bynner, Arthur Davison Ficke, and the Spectra Poems of World War I
Michael S. Begnal is assistant professor of English at Ball State University. His research has appeared in College Literature, Studies, and elsewhere. A poet as well as a scholar, his most recent books of poetry are The Muddy Banks (2016) and Future Blues (2012).