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Catherine Daly

Marjorie Allen Seiffert and the Spectra Hoax

This piece is 2,500 words or about five printed pages long

When Witter Bynner decided to write hoax poetry in 1916, he thought he would found an entire hoax school called Spectra. The Spectrists would join the imagists, vorticists, and other groups, but satirize them. He first invited Arthur Davison Ficke, a friend of Bynner’s from Harvard undergraduate days. Ficke was a lawyer based in Davenport, Iowa, who spent an extensive amount of time in Chicago with the Poetry crowd. Ficke had published collaborative work before: a long piece Ficke wrote with Mary Aldis called ‘Chloroform’ was published in The Little Review in 1914, and then republished in Aldis’s book Flashlights in 1916. Together, Bynner and Ficke published a small pamphlet called ‘Spectra,’ but realized that with only two poets, the movement was too small. They quickly invited a third poet, Marjorie Allen Seiffert, a wealthy matron in Moline, Illinois, who had experience publishing hoax poems at The New Yorker under the name ‘Angela Cypher,’ to join them.
      The Spectrists located the hoax in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a spot they deemed unlikely to spawn a poetry ‘school.’ Ironically, the hoax was actually centered in ‘the Quad cities’ (Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, Moline and Rock Island, Illinois), a far grimmer locale known for frequent flooding, coal shipping by rail (‘the Rock Island Line is a mighty fine line’), farm equipment manufacture, and a maximum security prison.


Photo of A.D.Ficke, 1940





A.D.Ficke, 1940, photograph by Carl Van Vechten

Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten collection

As Emanuel Morgan, Anne Knish, and Elijah Hay, Bynner, Ficke, and Seiffert wrote and circulated a manifesto, submitted and published poems in the leading journals of the day, including Others, Poetry, and The Little Review, and engaged in correspondence with literary luminaries of the time. William Carlos Williams ‘wrote to Marjorie Seiffert (as Elijah Hay) complaining that he preferred the work of Morgan and Hay to that of Knish [Ficke] because “she” took the Spectrist affair too seriously.’[1] Actually, Williams wrote, ‘The woman as usual gets all the theory and — as usual — takes it seriously whereas the male knows it’s only a joke — serious as it is. A.K.’s things suffer from too much theory.’[2]

      When Marjorie Allen Seiffert published her first volume of poems, A Woman of Thirty (title based on a Balzac novel), she reported to Margaret Anderson that it was financed by her father, after an argument over its content,[3]but in fact the volume was published by reputable publisher Alfred Knopf in 1919, long after Seiffert’s marriage. This father-financing story is important to note. Although an independently wealthy person with a coterie of very well-published poets as friends, Seiffert’s relationships to family and community were undermined by publication. Her wealth reinforced non-publication and pseudonymous publication which had been a more common experience of women of the previous generations, since her family sought to preserve the status quo by limiting female accomplishment to the family circle. She included a section of Elijah Hay poems in her first volume, republished here.


Marjorie Allen Seiffert at the piano







Marjorie Allen Seiffert




Marjorie Allen Seiffert’s contribution to the hoax has until now been reduced. William Jay Smith first published the book The Spectra Hoax in 1961, seven years before he became Special Consultant to the Librarian of Congress (before the holder of that post was referred to as ‘Poet Laureate’ of the United States). In 2000, the book was re-issued by Story Line Press. Smith mentions — and pictures — Marjorie Allen Sieffert / Elijah Hay in his book, but only republishes two of Seiffert’s Hay poems, one an unpublished one from a letter to Bynner in 1917. By contrast, he includes the ‘Spectra’ pamphlet of Ficke’s and Bynner’s poems in its entirety as well as a further sample of sixteen Bynner poems. He also includes two poems by George Sterling which were not deemed ‘spectrist’ enough to include in the hoax.


Photo of Witter Bynner in Japan









Witter Bynner posing before a shrine in Japan. Hakone, 1917.

Source: Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

The reduction of Seiffert’s role is not surprising. ‘Spectra’ only featured work by Bynner as Morgan and Ficke as Knish. The letter-writing campaign and periodical publication included all three; Seiffert was the only participant to publish the poems in a volume with poems she wrote as herself. After the hoax was revealed, Bynner continued to write and publish free verse — whole volumes of it, and for decades — under the name ‘Emanuel Morgan,’ although readers knew Morgan was Bynner. Smith’s main informant was Witter Bynner, who also sought to keep the hoax alive by having his assistant compile a complete Spectra ‘sourcebook,’ and, apparently, talking about the hoax at dinner parties.[4]
      Unlike Seiffert, the others involved in the Spectra hoax, those involved in the Ern Malley hoax, Yasusada hoax, and other literary hoaxes use a hoax topos, i.e., they posit the poems written as hoaxes are better than the ‘real’ work by the poets concerned. Smith reports her writing in a letter, ‘It was basically a joke, but sub-basically it loosened up our styles....’[5] Seiffert claimed the hoax work as her own poetry, and applied what she learned in her own work. She was criticized for this. Arthur Kreymborg, writing in Our Singing Strength after the hoax was revealed, notes, ‘Mrs. Seiffert’s free verse is not as good as her debonair balladry, nor are the poems of Elijah Hay equal to those of Emanuel Morgan or Anne Knish.’[6] She was the first participant to reveal the hoax (to Arthur Kreymborg), and she quit writing hoax poems. Seiffert not only participated in a long history of pseudonymous publication by women but also her own history of pseudonymous publication. She addresses the problems of spoofed work by establishing ownership and continuity.
      Smith seeks to identify a twentieth century hoax poetry — including the Ern Malley poetry and hoax verse by Malcolm Cowley — which balances the plodding establishment verse such as that of Ficke solo, or Bynner as Bynner, and which also parodies avant guard poetry. For example, Smith casts Amy Lowell’s ‘A Critical Fable’ as an unsuccessful hoax,[7] while that poem was initially circulated anonymously, not signed with a pseudonym, nor composed as a parody of another poetical style.
      The hoax poetry did lead Seiffert to balance her more plodding establishment poetry, although she continued to write especially series poems both in form and in free verse, always influenced by her education in musical composition. Seiffert published a second volume called Ballads of a Singing Bowl. After a long hiatus explained by Knopf’s ‘fewer and better’ depression-era publishing policy as well as Seiffert’s analysis by an early psychiatrist who convinced her that women should not devote time to writing and publication, she published a third volume, The Name of Life. Like Ficke, she did not participate in Bynner’s later attempts to revive the Spectrist hoax.


Poems of Elijah Hay
from A Woman of Thirty by Marjorie Allen Seiffert
and Poems of Elijah Hay

The Golden Stag

O hungry hearted ones, sharp-limbed, keen-eyed,
      Let me have place!
I too would ride
      On your fantastic chase.

Your hunger is a silver hunting horn,
      I heard it sweep
The frozen, peaceful morn:
      Its note bit me from sleep.

I will ride with you, hunters, even I,
      Toward a far hill
To see the golden stag against the sky
     Uncaptured still.

To Anne Knish

Madam, you intrigue me!

I have come this far
Cautiously sneezing
Along the dusty highroad of convention,
But now it leads no farther toward you.

Today
I have reached the cross roads —
A weather-beaten sign-board
Blazons undecipherable wisdom
Of which the arrow-heads, even,
Have been effaced.

Eastward, it leads through cultivated fields
Of intellectual fodder,
Where well-fed cattle, herding together,
Browse content:
Are you of these?

Westward, is a lane, hedge-bordered,
Shady, and of gentle indirection,
In May, a bower of sentimental bloom,
But this November weather
Betrays its destiny, the poultry yard
Where geese foregather.

And there ahead, the ancient, swampy way
Modernized by a feeble plank or two:
But the morass of passion lures me not!
I see a vision of two plunging feet,
Discreetly shod, yet struggling in vain —
Slime
Creeps ankle-high, knee-high, thigh-high,
Till all is swallowed save a brave silk hat
Floating alone, a symbol of the creed
I perished shedding.

Yet somewhere you
Intelligent of my distress
Smile, undisturbed —
I have no pedlar’s license to submit,
No wares to cry, nor any gift to bring —
I do not know
Anything new —
In truth, then, what have I to do with you?

Yet, madam, you intrigue me!

Lolita

How curious to find in you, Lolita,
The geisha
Who sits and strums in the immortal
Attitude of submission.
There is a ledger in place of her soul!

Your shoulders sang
For admiration,
Your hair wept for kisses,
Your voice curved softly, a caress —
You came among us as a suppliant,
What had we you desired?

Bringing to market stolen goods,
Holding to view used charms,
Behold a hawker’s spirit!

Eagles perch proudly
In isolation,
They swoop to seize a living prey —
Crows hover to feed,
Waiting with patience till the soul is fled
Leaving a helpless body — carrion —
(Vile thoughts obsess me!)

What did you want, Lolita?

Spectrum of Mrs. Q.

Fear not, beautiful lady,
That I shall ravish you!
Your arms are languorous lilies —
There is not a thorn
In all your slender greenness,
And you are sweet to madden buzzing bees!

Fear not, beautiful lady,
A hard, black cricket
Inspects you.

Epitaph

Courage is a sword,
Honour, but a shield...
Here lies a turtle.

A Sixpence


      O B V E R S E

If I loved you,
You would rear
Eight healthy children
To our love,
(Forgetting me)
And be happy.

      R E V E R S E

But I do not love you,
So you will write
Eight hundred poems
To our love,
(Forgetting me)
And be happy!

Three Spectra

Of Mrs. X.

You —
Too well fed for rebellion,
Too lazy for self-respect, too timid for murder,
Disgracefully steal the trade-mark of the fairy-tale —
‘And they lived together happily
Ever after!’

Of Mrs. Z.

Madam, you are ever retreating,
But are never
Gone —
Some day I shall pursue you
Hoping to see you
Vanish.

Of Mrs. Andsoforth

Old ladies, bless their hearts,
Are contented as house-flies
Dozing against the wall.
But you,
Imprisoned in the forties,
Delirious, frenzied, helpless,
Are a fly, drowning in a cocktail!

Two Commentaries

      1.  T O   A N   A C T O R

You are a gilded card-case
Which J took for a purse.
Your spirit’s coin was squandered long ago,
And in its place
Are white cards, all alike,
Bearing a word,
A name,
Connoting nothing.

      2.   P H I L O S O P H E R   T O   A R T I S T

You are a raisin, but I am a nut!
What meat there is to you
Can be seen at a glance —
(Seeds, when they exist, are bitter)
My calm, round glossiness,
(For I am sound and free
From wormy restlessness of spirit)
Defies your casual inspection.

It takes sharp teeth
And some determination
To taste my kernel!

A Womanly Woman

You sit, a snug, warm kitten
Blinking through the window
At a storm-haunted world —

Sleet wind caterwauls
Through icy trees,
Which clack their hands at you
Tauntingly.

Why should you leave
Radiator and rubber-plant?
Do people stand at attention to mourn a hero
When they behold
A frozen kitten
In a gutter?

Lolita Now Is Old

Lolita now is old,
She sits in the park, watching the young men pass
And huddles her shawl against the cold.

One night last summer when the moon was red,
Lolita, hearing an old song sung
And amorous laughter down the street
Left her bed —
Lolita thought she was young.

With ancient finery on her back,
A lace mantilla hiding her grey head,
She crept into the warm and alien night.

Her trembling knees remembered the languid pace
Of beauty on adventure bent — her fan
Waved challenges with unforgotten grace.
Cunningly she played her part
For to her peering age
Love was a well-remembered art.

Footsteps followed her — footsteps drew near!
She dropped a rose — hush, he is here!
There came hard arms and a panting kiss —

He felt the fraud of those withered lips,
He cursed and spat —’Was it for this,
You came, old woman, to the park?’
Lolita gathered skirts and fled
Through the dim dark.

Lolita huddles her shawl against the cold,
She sits and mumbles by the fire. In truth
Lolita knows she is old.

The Shining Bird

A bird is three things:
Feathers, flight and song,
And feathers are the least of these.

At last I hold her in my hands
The shining bird whose flight along
The perilous rim of trees
Has made my days adventurous, my spirit strong.

And now her wings
Are still — her vivid song
But ceaseless twitterings.

Her words are feathers, falling
Lightly, relentlessly, and without rest,
Revealing to my face
Her pinched and starveling breast
Like poultry, dead and unashamed
And naked in the market place.

A shattered flash of wings,
A broken song,
Echo and shine along the rim of trees.

The King Sends Three Cats to Guinevere

Queen Guinevere,
Three sleek and silent cats
Bring you gifts from me.

The first is a grey one,
(I wanted a white one,
I could not find one snowy white enough,
Queen Guinevere,)
He brings you purple grapes.

The second is a grey one,
(I wanted a sleek one,
Where could I find one sleek enough,
Queen Guinevere?)
He brings you a red apple.

The third one, too, is grey.
(I wanted a black one,
Not Hate itself could find one black enough,
Queen Guinevere,)
He brings you poison toadstools.

I send you three grey cats with gifts —
(For uniformity of metaphor,
Since Bacchus, Satan, and the Hangman
Are not contemporaneous in my mythology)
I send you three grey cats with gifts,
Queen Guinevere,
To warn you, sleekly, silently
To pay the forfeit.

Ode in the New Mode

Your face
Was a temple
From which your soul
Came to me beneath arched brows:
And my soul knelt at your feet.

Then
Inadvertently
I saw your leg
Curved and turned like a bird-song
Dying into ecstatic silence at the garter...

Wretched
Women!
When you are wholly lovely
Man cannot forget either of his two afflictions,
Soul, or body!

Night

I opened the door
And night stared at me like a fool,
Heavy dull night, clouded and safe —
I turned again toward the uncertainties
Of life within doors.

Once night was a lion,
No, years ago, night was a python
Weaving designs against space
With undulations of his being —
Night was a siren once.

O sodden, middle-aged night!


References: books consulted and notes

Drake, William. The First Wave. New York: Macmillan. 1987.
Kreymborg, Arthur. Our Singing Strength. New York: Coward-McCann. 1929.
Seiffert, Marjorie Allen. A Woman of Thirty. New York: Alfred Knopf. 1919.
Smith, William Kay. The Spectra Hoax. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press. 1961.

[1] Drake, p. 41.
[2] Smith pps. 12-13.
[3] Drake, p. 120.
[4] Smith, p. vii.
[5] Smith, pps. 43-44.
[6] Kreymborg, p. 455.
[7] Smith, p. 43.


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