Monday, July 14, 2014

Spectrism

Reading the history of 20th-century poetry, especially of avant-garde poetry, one naturally tends to hear a lot about Ezra Pound and Imagism, and his involvement with the slightly later (and slightly cockamamie) movement Vorticism. There is also Marinetti’s Futurism, and perhaps Chorism even gets a mention once in a while — but few write or talk much about Spectrism anymore. However, the Spectrists were a major force beginning in 1916 with the publication of their anthology Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments, by the movement’s originators Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish. This volume, comprising a manifesto and poems, is available in its entirety online, here:


Soon after it appeared, a third poet, Elijah Hay, joined the Spectrist ranks and the three contributed further work to a special “Spectric School” issue (Jan. 1917) of the little magazine Others, edited by Alfred Kreymborg, also available in its entirety online, at the Modernist Journals Project, here:


This is an excerpt from the Spectric manifesto, signed by Anne Knish, but with contributions from Morgan:
An explanation of the term “Spectric” will indicate something of the nature of the technique which it describes. “Spectric” has, in this connection, three separate but closely related meanings. In the first place, it speaks, to the mind, of that process of diffraction by which are disarticulated the several colored and other rays of which light is composed. It indicates our feeling that 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. In its second sense, the term Spectric relates to the reflex vibrations of physical sight, and suggests the luminous appearance which is seen after exposure of the eye to intense light, and, by analogy, the after-colors of the poet’s initial vision. In its third sense, Spectric connotes the overtones, adumbrations, or spectres which for the poet haunt all objects both of the seen and the unseen world,— those shadowy projections, sometimes grotesque, which, hovering around the real, give to the real its full ideal significance and its poetic worth.
One will note the clear difference between these ideas and Imagism, with its dictum of “Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective,” etc. Consciously working against such direct treatment, Knish explains that “If the Spectrist wishes to describe a landscape, he will not attempt a map, but will put down those winged emotions, those fantastic analogies, which the real scene awakens in his own mind.

Here is an example of a Spectrist poem, Morgan’s “Opus 41”:
Spectres came dancing up the wind,
Trailing down the long grass,
Shooting high, undisciplined,
To join the sun and see you pass. . .
The colors of the pointed glass.

Under a willow-maze you went
Unsaddened . . . But a violet beam
Fell on the white face, backward bent,
Of a body in a stream.

Into the sun you came again,
With sun-red light your feet were shod. . .
And round you stood a ring of feathered men
With naked arms acknowledging a god.

Indigo-birds, and squirrels on a tree
And orioles flashed in and out. . .
The yellow outline of Eurydice
Waited for Orpheus in a black redoubt.

With a beaded fern you waved away a gnat. . .
And maidens, hung with vivid beads of green,
One of them bearing in her arms an orange cat,
Held palms about a queen.

Then you were lost to sight
And locking trees became the clouds of you,
Till you emerged, the moon upon your shoulder, and the night
Bloomed blue.
(It should be said that while Morgan often utilizes rhyme, the others, Knish and Hay, tend toward free verse.)

Spectrism “officially” ended in 1918, with the little matter of it being a “hoax.” It turned out that Emanuel Morgan was the poet Witter Bynner, that Knish was Arthur Davison Ficke, and that Hay was Majorie Allen Seiffert — all three well-known poets in the early modernist period. But whatever about that, I personally think (for what it’s worth) that there is much in Spectrism that is useful, and it would be interesting to see what other contemporary poets could do with it.

Incidentally, like Pound, Witter Bynner translated Li Po and other Tang-dynasty Chinese poets. Here is Bynner on a trip to Japan in 1917, during the height of the Spectrist ferment:

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