© 2024 WVIK
Listen at 90.3 FM and 98.3 FM in the Quad Cities, 95.9 FM in Dubuque, or on the WVIK app!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Spectrist Hoax

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge who said that "poets are born, not made." But on at least on occasion in Davenport, Iowa, they were manufactured. The raw materials were simple: imagination and ten quarts of good scotch.

Here's how it happened. The young American poet, Witter Bynner, was visiting his friend and fellow poet, Arthur Davison Ficke, in Davenport, in February of 1916. The talk turned to all the new schools of poetry that were then littering the cultural landscape, many of them pretentious. One thing led to another, and soon the two friends had hatched a new school of poetry of their own as a joke. They called it the Spectrist School for no good reason.

At that point, had Mrs. Ficke not thrown the increasingly boisterous boys out of the house, and had they not crossed the Mississippi to a Moline hotel, and had they not consumed the ten quarts of scotch over the next week, the Spectrist School of Poetry might have died out. As happened, by the end of the week, there was not only a school, but a book of Spectrist poems and two invented poets along with it: Emmanuel Morgan and Anne Knish. "Americans," Ficke later said, were suckers for foreign-sounding names.

In the fall of 1916, Spectra, a Book of Poetic Experiments, by Morgan and Knish appeared in newspaper and magazine offices around the United States. A few reviewers did not quite know what to make of lines that read "If I were only dafter, / I might be making hymns / To the liquor of your laughter / And the lacquer of your limbs." The St. Louis Post Dispatch said, "for those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like." But most reviews were positive; a work of genius, they said, a fresh voice.

For the next year, Bynner and Ficke watched; the reputations of their manufactured poets soar far beyond their own. The Spectrists were all the rage in poetry circles. Bynner was even paid to do reviews and lectures on the poems.

Their mistake was eventually exposing the hoax. It might have been better for Knish and Morgan to have exposed Bynner and Ficke.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.