»  Anne Knish's "Opus 118"

 

Opus 118

by "Anne Knish", 1883-1945

 

•  Background

Here you should listen to the poem and read it, before reading any further here.

[Pause while you do so.]

Well, what did you think? I think it's not at all bad, as poems go nowadays. It is better than many of the selections in the current poetry best-seller, Camille Paglia's Break, Blow, Burn (which I reviewed here).

In fact this is one of the poems that made up the Spectra hoax of 1916. Two actual American poets, Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke, hiding behind the pen-names "Emanuel Morgan" and "Anne Knish" launched this "Book of Poetic Experiments" and the "Spectric" movement it was supposed to herald, upon an unsuspecting world in the Fall of that year. Their intention was to send up the fad for new schools of poetry — Vorticists, Imagists, Futurists, Chorists — that had taken over the poetry world of their time. Of their method of composition, Bynner later wrote:

Sometimes we would start with an idea, sometimes with only a phrase, but the procedure was to let all reins go, to give the idea or the phrase complete head, to take whatever road or field or fence it chose. In other words it was a sort of runaway poetry, the poet seated in the wagon but the reins flung aside.

William Jay Smith gave a full account of the incident in his 1961 book The Spectra Hoax, which Smith revised and republished in 2000. Smith's book contains the full text of the original Spectra volume.

Several big literary names were taken in, most notably (though she tried to deny it) Imagist Queen Amy Lowell, who never forgave the hoaxters.

The hoax set off some oddly recursive ripples. Some Wisconsin undergraduates did a spoof of the Spectrists — a spoof of a spoof — calling themselves the "Ultra-Violet" school of poetry. And some of the Spectrist poems weren't bad. Bynner and Ficke were both good poets, and it is an interesting question whether a good poet can write poetry as bad as a bad poet's, at least by the methods Bynner described. Smith actually sees Spectrist influences in the work of Wallace Stevens …

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•  Play the reading

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•  Text of the poem

If bathing were a virtue, not a lust,
I would be dirtiest.

        To some, housecleaning is a holy rite.
For myself, houses would be empty
But for the golden motes dancing in sunbeams.

        Tax-assessors frequently overlook valuables.
Today they noted my jade.
But my memory of you escaped them.