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Patrick Herron

Ruthven’s Faking Literature, Forging Literature and Faking Forged Literature

This piece is 5,800 words or about ten printed pages long

Endnotes and copyright credits are given at the end of this file. Click on the note to be taken to it; likewise to return to the text.

I. Introduction

bird image In the last 50 years, poetry stumbled upon two large controversies — two works of literary ‘forgery,’ two works that were meant to shake the hierarchy of the poetry world. I am thinking of the writings of Ern Malley, I am thinking of the writings of Araki Yasusada. Reactions to the work of each of the so-called authors have been different in many respects. In one important respect, though, both were treated similarly. Both works were at least briefly banished to the category of the non-literary. They were slapped with the ‘hoax’ label and discounted. Since both works were hoaxes and fakes, we were told that neither work was literature.

Yasusada portrait A dissenting minority in the literary community has consistently maintained the opinion that the works of Ern Malley and Araki Yasusada are literary. To date little if any scholarship has been undertaken to support the claim that these and other literary forgeries deserve to be considered literature.

Editor’s note: you can read six different articles
on the Yasusada phenomenon here in Jacket.

K.K. Ruthven’s Faking Literature may be the first such book-length study to justify the minority opinion that spurious literature is indeed literature. The book provides an excellent starting place for studying spurious forms of literature.

II. K.K. Ruthven’s Cultural Critique of Literature and Literary Forgery

bird image Throughout the history of Literature, authors have worked collaboratively. Writers have ‘borrowed’ lines and plot lines from one another without permission or even without conscious awareness. Writers have created imagined personae. Writers have created works of outlandish fiction claimed by their authors to be true. For the most part, works indulging in such spurious means were once upon a time considered imaginative but otherwise usual. Today it is commonplace to find spurious works discounted entirely.

Literature has been dominated historically foremost by rhetoric rather than by logic or truth-correspondence. The dominance of the rhetorical in literature has gradually dwindled in the last 400 years under the weight of commercial and legal considerations stemming from the rise of intellectual property and publishing as an industry. These cultural and economic factors have helped forge a new language of literary criticism, a language that prioritizes ‘originality,’ ‘authenticity,’ and the primacy of the author’s role in the production of literature. This new language is specifically a rhetorical language, a language relatively new to literary criticism. It is a rhetorical language that benefits, perhaps ironically, from its inherent ability to obfuscate its own subjectivity. It is a language that is deceptive.

The word ‘forgery’, once simply meaning ‘to make’, now carries an implication of fakeness and criminality (e.g., if you forge a Modigliani you might land in prison.) Copyright has cast a shadow upon the traditional classical practices of literary appropriation, recapitulation, collaboration, and imagination. Appropriation comes with the risk of being labeled a ‘plagiarist,’ surely a scarlet letter among contemporary writers and academicians. Works produced using spurious means, even traditional, classical ones, make it difficult for publishers to secure sole rights of ownership to published material or award literary prizes to individual authors. Traditional classical practices confound the business of literature. Without such practices, the publishing industry can operate with minimal conflict over authorship and property rights. Predictably, traditional classical values, practices, and works have been generally disregarded, relabeled, discredited, and discarded by many literary critics and literary journalists.

The exclusion of the spurious from the literary sphere neglects both the young and old. The relegation of spurious literature to the domain of the apocryphal threatens to exclude or ignore from contemporary evaluation and appreciation much of what we know about aged forms of literary practice. Further, contemporary works of spuriosity are frequently met with an almost fundamentalist rejection along with a condemnation of the author as a perpetrator. The severity of excluding the spurious from the domain of the literary has equally severe consequences for literature. The methods of the past may be lost and the works of the present may be missed.

Faking Literature, cover K.K. Ruthven’s Faking Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2001) defends spurious literature, contesting its excision from the literary sphere. Ruthven argues that spurious literature should be considered literature because it participates in cultural criticism, often specifically in a form of literary criticism. Ruthven shows how ‘spurious’ practices such as appropriation or collaboration were once, if not commonplace, met with acceptance. Faking Literature accepts the practices of appropriation and heteronymity while deflating contemporary rhetorics of originality, novelty, authenticity, and authorial primacy. Perhaps most importantly, the book reminds us that all literature is, in some sense, spurious.

To my knowledge, no such academic study of our cultural revaluation of literature in terms of spuriosity and authenticity has been written to date. Faking Literature is a most necessary survey of spurious literature. The text examines spuriosity’s many works along with its critics, its language, its practice, and its history. The book shows the four century-odd downward course of the spurious, from its acceptance to its sometimes-embattled tolerance to its contemporary repression. Ruthven’s book is necessary, timely, and (perhaps by default) without peer. It seems Ruthven has discovered a niche essential to understanding literature though an understanding of its contemporary Other — the literary forgery.

III. A Closer Look at Faking Literature

bird image KK Ruthven’s treatment of literary spuriosity is refreshingly straightforward. Ruthven begins with a broad review of different forms of literary spuriosity. He sets his survey against the backdrop of the 1760s, ten years marked by the publication of three influential but spurious works of literature: the poems of a ‘Thomas Rowley’ written by a 15-year-old named Thomas Chatterton, James Macpherson’s ‘translations’ of the ‘original’ works of the ancient bard ‘Ossian’, and Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.

After Ruthven’s brief overview of the history of spuriosity, Ruthven analyzes the history of the concepts of ‘forgery,’ ‘genuine,’ ‘fake,’ ‘authenticity,’ and ‘originality’ to the present. Ruthven extensively discusses what he terms as the ‘faultlines of authorship’: how various works, even collaborative ones, are often suddenly considered ‘authorised’ (think authority) and ‘authored’ by one person who is deemed, sometimes quite arbitrarily, a work’s author.

No Thomas Rowley existed; Ossian’s works were not ‘translated’ because there were no works from Ossian or anyone named Ossian; and Percy had not unearthed any ancient relics but instead penned them in his own image of ancient poetry.

Ruthven begins Faking Literature by telling us that the book:

[...] is about the power of literary forgeries to disturb the societies in which they are produced, and to do so in ways resented by the guardians of cultural institutions such as literary studies, book-reviewing and the literary awards system.... But no writer is permitted to disturb those cultural institutions which accredit and mediate literature by demonstrating inefficiencies in their operations and thus questioning the grounds of their existence.

This book treats both ‘literature’ and ‘literary forgery’ as categories of writing with much in common. [Note 1]

Why take the time now, at this precise moment, to conduct such an analysis of literary forgery?

Ruthven writes,

Seeing that these supposedly ‘irregular’ and ‘abnormal’ literary phenomena occur more frequently than is generally acknowledged, the burgeoning archive of literary forgeries remains an unresolved problem for cultural analysts. Now that English studies is once again reappraising its activities, I think it timely to recall some of its repressed texts, and to consider how the discipline might refashion its agenda in the wake of such a reclamation. [Note 2]

Ruthven tells us we should revalue literary forgery:

[...] as an antinomian phenomenon produced by creative energies whose power is attested to by the resistance they engender in those who feel compelled to denounce and eradicate it. [Note 3]

Literary forgery, Ruthven tells us, is a political and cultural phenomenon; such works have power in their ability to both inspire various forms of disgust in those who are the targets of such political and cultural critique and flesh out those conflicts.

In order to explicate the notion that literary forgery should be considered primarily a cultural critique, Ruthven tells us that only since the 20th century have we possessed sufficient grounding for casting aside distinctions between the ‘genuine’ and the ‘fake’. He writes,

Two intellectual developments in the final decades of the twentieth century made it possible to reconsider the relationship between ‘genuine’ and ‘fake’ literature. The more important was post-structuralist critical theory, which seriously challenged commonsense assumptions about such key components in traditional literary studies as authorship, originality, authenticity and value. And the other was the continuing anatomy of what Jean-Francois Lyotard labeled in 1979 ‘the postmodern condition’, which enables us to see literary forgeries as in some ways normalised by the spuriosities of everyday life. Together they provide the tools with which to critique traditional strategies for concealing the scandal of literature as a cognitive mode. And by doing so they reveal how the ritual scapegoating of those caught perpetrating literary forgeries distracts attention from the spuriosity of literature itself. [Note 4]

Ruthven provides many historical examples of the spurious within what is commonly accepted without question as ‘literature’: the collaborative writings attributed to Homer or to John Keats (e.g., ‘Endymion’), Shakespeare’s frequent borrowings, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘plagiarism.’

Nevertheless, why after the delicious tastes of the historic that Ruthven feeds us must we believe that we possessed no basis for accepting spurious literature until the 20th century? Ruthven offers us little solace except for a brief explanation where he explains that we need both approaches, the cultural and the literary.[Note 5] Ruthven’s brief explanation, however, oversimplifies the literary approach. Further, Ruthven’s explanation does not acknowledge that he favors the Continentalist culture-critic approach, as is evident throughout the book.

Ruthven seems at once to argue that literary hoaxing, forgery, heteronymity, etc. are all mere extensions of literary expression inseparable from the corpus of literature. He contradicts himself slightly at times, claiming alternately either that spurious literature should be considered the twin of canonical literature or that literary forgeries merely share common traits with literature. Failing to maintain one or the other opinion may be considered a minor point, for in either case Ruthven reminds us of the acceptability of works of literature that do not get their justification from claims to authorial authenticity, originality, and from other under-questioned commonplace critical rhetorics. Ruthven in effect narrows the gap between literature and its forgery.

Practically speaking, despite Ruthven’s ability to deconstruct the basis for distinctions such as ‘originality’ and ‘authenticity’ in cultural studies, those very distinctions nevertheless exist and will not go away so easily. If a person whose name appears as the author’s has not written the work or does not exist, that work quite rationally can and should be considered to indulge in some sort of deception. People will inevitably reject certain forms of deception. After all, the terminology used to discount literature created by spurious means is now part of our language, as Ruthven himself has shown. No amount of deference to Barthes, Lyotard, Shakespeare, or Poe can erase that perception.

Given the inevitable common-sense rejection of spurious literature along with Ruthven’s relative willingness to accept that deception, it should not surprise anyone if Faking Literature stumbles upon any of a number of basic conflicts. It does seem to get stuck on a fundamental point, one so fundamental that it is easy to miss — Ruthven either contradicts himself or leaves us with a paradox in the ultimate conclusion of his Faking Literature thusly:

Literary forgery is a sort of spurious literature, and so is literature. Consequently, when we imagine the relationship between literature and literary forgeries, we should not be thinking of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but rather of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. [Note 6]

At once literary forgery is literature, and, at the same time, literature is the twin or shadow of literature. Ruthven is telling us, perhaps in so many words, that literary forgery is AND is not literature. Well, which one? If it is a paradox that he wished to leave us with, why not come out and tell us that his final position is indeed that: a paradox?

Whether Ruthven intentionally leaves us with a paradox, or, whether he accidentally leaves us with a contradiction, we now have the paradox. Understanding, on the one side, that literature always indulges in some sort of deception, and on the other, that certain forms of deception in literary practice might provoke more enmity and denial than other forms, implies an understanding of a conflict within literature — a conflict that literary forgery brings to the surface. That conflict? Literary forgery maintains a paradoxical relationship with literature: literary forgery is and is not literature.

IV. Literary Forgery Is and Is Not Literature: An Interlude

bird image I have in my possession several ways in which we may interpret literary forgeries while at the same time accepting what I will call Ruthven’s Paradox, this space of being and not-being that literary forgery inhabits.

Thomas De Quincey traveled in the early 1820s to a book fair in Germany where he came upon a curious novel. The novel Walladmor, written in German, was alleged to have been translated from the English of Sir Walter Scott. De Quincey knew immediately that Walladmor was a fake, in the sense that no such book was ever written by Scott. However, De Quincey not only purchased a copy of the book. He also took it upon himself to translate the spurious German work into English (in the sense not only of merely changing the language from German to English but also of revising it from drivel into literature). In the process, De Quincey created a beautiful work of literature, a work now largely forgotten. De Quincey accepted the work’s fake status instead of explaining it away. Yet, De Quincey saw the work as a means for further creations of art.

Before me is the original 1825 printing of De Quincey’s Walladmor; interestingly enough, nowhere in the book does the name Thomas De Quincey appear; not on the cover, not on the frontispiece, nowhere. The association of De Quincey with the ‘translation’ of this work is itself an artifact, a remnant of a library archive, a piece of a history commonly accepted as fact.

By example, De Quincey downplayed the importance of the author by ‘translating’ the already heteronymous Walladmor and leaving it unsigned. Similarly, Borges explained that literature could be contemplated without regard to author, and that such contemplation is part of a long-standing literary tradition:

Around 1938 Paul Valery wrote that the history of literature should not be the history of the authors and the accidents of their careers or of the career of their works, but rather the history of the Spirit as the producer or consumer of literature. He added that such a history could be written without the mention of a single writer. It was not the first time that the Spirit had made such an observation. [Note 7]

Borges continued:

Photo of Borges [...] the pantheist who declares that the plurality of authors is illusory finds unexpected support in the classicist, to whom the plurality means but little. For classical minds the literature is the essential thing, not the individuals. George Moore and James Joyce have incorporated in their works the pages and sentences of others; Oscar Wilde used to give plots away for others to develop; both procedures, although they appear to be contradictory, may reveal an identical artistic perception — an ecumenical, impersonal perception. Another witness of the profound unity of the Word, another who denied the limitations of the individual, was the renowned Ben Jonson, who, when writing his literary testament and the favorable or adverse opinions he held of his contemporaries, was obliged to combine fragments from Seneca, Quintilian, Justus Lipsius, Vives, Erasmus, Machiavelli, Bacon, and the two Scaligers.

One last observation. Those who carefully copy a writer do it impersonally, do it because they confuse the writer with literature, do it because they suspect that to leave him at any one point is to deviate from reason and orthodoxy. For many years I thought that the almost infinite world of literature was in one man. That man was Carlyle, he was Johannes Becher, he was Whitman, he was Rafael Cansinos-Assens, he was De Quincey. [Note 8]

We may attempt to ignore the author in appraisals of literature, as Ruthven and Borges have both suggested, and we may ‘translate’ a work while ignoring its origins, but either way we are still faced with a contradiction, a paradox of literature itself.

Wallace Stevens wrote:

[...] a poem is like a man walking on the bank of a river, whose shadow is reflected in the water. If you explain a poem, you are quite likely to do it either in terms of the man or in terms of the shadow, but you have to explain it in terms of the whole. When I said recently that a poem was what was on the page, it seems to me now that I was wrong because that is explaining it in terms of the man. But the thing and its double always go together. [Note 9]

De Quincey teaches us the act is as important as the word; Borges, that the history of literature is of literature & not its authors; and Stevens, that to ignore the author is to imply the importance of the author, & to ignore differences is to ignore the thing itself. By contemplating each example we may become better able to contemplate the paradoxical state of affairs in which literature exists.

V. Cultural Critiques, Works of Literature, Authorial Intent, and Forgery as Practice

bird image Regardless of the apparent indecisiveness of Ruthven’s text, whether spurious works should be either considered no different from other works of literature, or whether, as Ruthven says, forgeries should be treated as the Tweedledum to capital-l Literature’s Tweedledee, I must repeat that Ruthven’s book is necessary and timely. To my knowledge, there is little other scholarly book-length work on contextualizing literary forgery. For one, the book contains a definitive bibliography and indices on the subject. Faking Literature touches on most topics germane to the subject, and it defends a relatively non-reactionary and historically balanced position, choosing arguments both from historical and multicultural perspectives.

Ruthven’s text treats literary forgery foremost as a creative expression of cultural critique. However, many of Ruthven’s examples of various types of literary forgery (for example, the writings of Shakespeare, in their unrepentant ‘borrowing’ from Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Plutarch, and Thomas North, seem written more for entertainment purposes than for any sort of cultural critique) belie Ruthven’s aim of placing forgery alongside literature purely in terms of cultural critique. Ruthven tells us that the tools necessary to argue that the divide between real and fake is imaginary have only been created in the 20th century. However, good old-fashioned philosophical skepticism has been around for thousands of years. In particular, David Hume’s undermining of the Cartesian self existed centuries before Lyotard lifted a pen.

A better tactic for Ruthven may have been to move away from political and cultural critique of literature and move instead toward a more literary critique. My suggestion perhaps sounds circular or redundant, but it is not. What I mean by ‘literary’ is that in addition to evaluating in cultural terms we may also evaluate a work in terms of narrative, dialogue, mechanics, thematics, structure, plot, conflict, character development, prosody, meter, reference to other works, and so on.

One reason for the chronic maligning of literary forgery is that forgery is regularly treated only on political and cultural terms, a treatment that is, ironically, usually advocated by the ‘perpetrators’ of such spurious works. Political and cultural evaluations inevitably and immediately divide opinion and reception. I feel Ruthven is precisely doing just that: relegating literary analysis and appreciation, including the analysis of literary forgery, to the exclusive domain of the cultural critic.

Ruthven claims that he maintains a position in Faking Literature that is balanced between cultural and literary points of view. In practice, though, Ruthven seems to strongly favor the approach of the cultural critic. I do not mean to say that reviewing a work of literature in terms of cultural terms is wrong; what I am saying is that evaluating works solely in terms of cultural critique precludes any analysis of a work’s literary merit. After all, just as literary forgeries may find quarter with postmodern thinkers, they may also find quarter with classicists, and for different reasons.

It is important, then, to develop ways to evaluate or appreciate forgeries on a literary dimension. One glowing example of a contemporary attempt to ‘rescue’ a spurious work from a purely political and cultural critique is the critical acceptance of the writings of Ern Malley. Even though the true authors of the works of Ern Malley revealed their intents, critics were able to divorce themselves from the authority of authorial intent and receive the writing on its own literary terms. The writings of Ern Malley, thought by their authors James McAuley and Harold Stewart to be a heap of rubbish, are now considered by many modern readers to be beautiful, creative, and compelling in their own right. Many readers no longer approach Ern Malley’s writings primarily as garbage or as a cultural indictment of modernist literati, despite the intentions of McAuley and Stewart. The writings of Ern Malley, in spite of the intentions of the authors, have reached canonical literary status with their inclusion in their entirety in the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry.

Heteronymity, for example, operates at least as powerfully on a poetic and literary dimension as it does on a political one. Examining the works of Ern Malley or Araki Yasusada in purely political terms loses much of what is rewarding in them. Ruthven has convinced me that most works of spuriosity are created with pointed political and cultural intentions. Ruthven’s recurring example of the works of Ossian as Macpherson’s attempt to deliver cultural primacy to the Scots underscores such cultural intentions. However, I am also convinced that authorial intentions are in many ways irrelevant to the results, particularly literary results. This is a powerful cultural and literary lesson found in Ruthven’s text and in Doubled Flowering. Shakespeare may have, for all we know, intended to ‘borrow’ from Kyd, Marlowe, North and Plutarch in order to provide us with a cultural critique, but the end product, the collection of gorgeous dramas and poems, deliver results that can be appreciated and analyzed without a cultural analysis.

Consider the attempts at humor in both the poems of Ern Malley and the notebooks of Araki Yasusada. It appears that the humor in both works is intended to implicate the reader in something or at least make the reader uncomfortable. The humor is intentionally obscure and the eroticism is wry. Such a style of writing is confrontational. This sort of humor may lead to certain limitations of the work along with automatic rejections, but the humor may also lead to unexpected and accidental successes, successes that are not necessitated by the original authorial intent.

For example, readers often find ‘tasteless’ sexual humor funny. Sometimes readers may find such humor funny even if they know that humor is lampooning them. Humorous ‘tasteless’ works can travel beyond the intents of the authors. The underestimation of the reader in the text is fundamentally interpreted by the reader to usually implicate some other reader. Like a comedy routine about someone stupid — ‘it’s not me that he’s talking about!’ ‘Tasteless’ humor confronts the reader, making itself apparent while pointing out that is occupying the reader’s own space. Further, the use of tasteless humor in literature, particularly in poetry, adds a taste of the contradictory — it adds conflict to the work and thus propels it.

‘Forgeries’ may indeed be valuable as shots across the establishment’s bow, as Ruthven claims. Perhaps they are at least as valuable as works of literature, works that aspire to illuminate the conflict of being itself, conflicts evident on every side of a cultural argument. Serendipity, unintended but fortunate results, may be the very foundation of creativity. Perhaps with serendipity the value of a work as literature may endure beyond the work’s critical efficacy.

I find it remarkably ironic that McAuley and Stewart seemed to draw inspiration for their joke from Keats and Shakespeare, or rather, their illusions about the originality of Shakespeare and Keats. As Ruthven illustrates in Faking Literature, Keats’ work was in some cases collaborative — there was no solitary author. Ruthven really does not even have to remind us that Shakespeare famously ‘borrowed’ from Kyd and Marlowe, though of course he does. Ruthven importantly points out that Keats and Shakespeare wrote in a time before copyright, before ‘borrowing’ became some sort of cardinal sin, before literature became property, before the ‘original genius’ was invented by critics desperate to forge their own objectivity. Once upon a time, Ruthven reminds us, ‘forge’ meant ‘make’ not ‘fake.’ Though they borrowed from two of their own favorites, Keats and Shakespeare (neither of whom wrote exclusively in an ‘authentic’ or ‘original’ way), McAuley and Stewart somehow, perhaps despite themselves, regarded their spurious assembly as pure drivel. They discount their own work despite their deliberate inclusion of lines from their beloved literature, from Keats and Shakespeare. Their practice superseded their intent.

VI. Forging Literature and Translating Literature

bird image The concept of translation is deeply tied to the issues of authenticity and identity (identity both in the sense of personal identity and in the sense of ‘being the same’). I am reminded immediately of Jack Spicer’s After Lorca, which he fervently claimed to have translated, perhaps without unpacking what he meant by ‘translation.’ I am reminded of course of Araki Yasusada’s Doubled Flowering. I am reminded of James Macpherson’s Ossian ‘translations.’ I am reminded of the Thomas Percy ‘translations’ of ancient English poetry. I am reminded of the famous Borges quote, ‘The original is unfaithful to the translation.’

I am also reminded of an essay on translation by Murat Nemet-Nejat. Specifically:

[...] Chaucer's ‘Troilus and Criseyde,’ Sidney’s translations from Petrarch, the King James version of the Bible, Ezra Pound’s ‘The Seafarer’ from the Anglo-Saxon and ‘Exile's Letter’ from Li Po . . . [as translations] played a key role in reorienting the English language. These translations are based on a different concept of faithfulness. They fragment the original totality, starting with a conception of ‘lack.’ The translations sense a quality in the original language, reflected in the original poem, which the second language lacks. The translator is faithful to this conception and tries to recreate it in the second language. A translation in this sense starts with criticism and ends by pointing, not to the first, but to the second language. It explores the second language and, if successful, changes it by assimilating this lack. I define this kind of translation a transparent text. [Note 10]

Once again we are confronted with an embodiment of a contradiction, a contradiction that is made apparent by or perhaps even created through the analysis of literature. The contradiction is: by assuming that one’s language can never capture what was in the original language, one can successfully incorporate what was missing into the final translated product.

Just as this contradiction may hold true for literary translation, so too may it hold true for literary forgery, hoaxes, and the like. For in imitating that which may be considered inimitable, something of a sort of perfect imitation results, but only if it is assumed a priori that no perfect imitation is possible. Complicated but astute. If a literary forgery’s author assumes that she can never imitate perfectly what it is she wishes to forge, if she believes that the forged work can never be as ‘authentic’ as the ‘original,’ the translation obtains the opportunity to exist in its own right, in its own ‘authenticity.’

VII. The Forged Forgery: A Third Form?

bird image How are we to interpret the paradox that literary forgery is and is not literature? More pointedly, can we find works of literature that attempt to occupy this paradoxical space, the space of being forgeries yet being literature, of being literature yet not being literature, of being perhaps literary forgery and not literary forgery?

To take lessons from literary forgery and its production, it is indeed possible to forge the forgery, to fake the fake. One way to fake the fake is to recast a forgery, as modernists like Max Harris and John Reed did in their critical acceptance of the Ern Malley writing. They maintained their position after the hoax was revealed, thus recasting the heteronymous work. Modernists Harris and Reed managed to maintain that the modernist poetry of Ern Malley was beautiful even if Malley did not exist and even if McAuley and Stewart wrote the poems in order to ridicule modernist aesthetic values.

Another way to fake the fake is to create a fake and obviate its lack of ‘authenticity,’ perhaps in the hope of illustrating the contradictions present within readers or within literature itself. One such example is Armand Schwerner’s The Tablets; another, the post-Oulipo pseudo-internet writings of a ventriloquist doll named Lester in Be Somebody. Another? The collected works of Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet who wrote under the name and personalities of many different and fictional individuals. None of these works carries any pretense to fool anyone. Schwerner was not an ancient Sumerian, nor has he tried to convince anyone that the works in The Tablets are in any way ‘authentic.’ Pessoa never maintained that his different author-personae were real people in the strict sense. Lester is a puppet, not a real person, merely a conduit; much of the writing is outlandishly confrontational and multi-stylistic.

Perhaps the foremost example of a sort of forgery, a ‘translation’ that attempts to fake the fake, that attempts to fool no one, is Jack Spicer’s After Lorca. Most readers knew Lorca was dead when Spicer ‘translated’ Lorca’s introduction. Spicer was not making a serious effort to convince anyone that the introduction was literally authentic. The text’s authenticity was entirely beside the point. And yet the work is and is not ‘authentic’ simultaneously; it is a ‘translation’ and it is not; it is literature and it is not. Most if not all of the poems in After Lorca are credited as ‘translations,’ though to my knowledge only one poem is closely similar in its entirety to the original Lorca poem (‘Ode to Walt Whitman’). Several of the ‘translations’ do not have even remotely similar analogues in the Lorca catalogue. ‘Translation’ is given its appropriately broad meaning.

After Lorca explores a spuriosity that refuses to bog itself down in temporally confined cultural conflicts. Instead, Spicer’s work indulges in a spuriosity that plays on the very conflict of living — perhaps the essential conflict of poetry — the contradiction of being and not being. The contradictions of self and not-self, intimate confession and blind inspiration, originality and borrowing, collocation and unity: all of these conflicts establish tensions, and such tensions inherently provide the work with a dramatic force. Spicer the poet is and is not a fiction writer; he is and is not the original author; he is and is not translating Lorca’s poetry. Further, the book thrives on its diversity of poetic forms. Both the letters to Lorca and the dialogues with Buster Keaton only add to that variety, helping After Lorca subvert traditionally accepted notions about what makes a poetry book cohesive. In a sense, After Lorca is and is not a book of poetry.

After Lorca is and is not a book, and it is and is not a work of poetry, since to be a book of poetry it is expected that it be formally consistent. After Lorca was written in a classical mode — Spicer claimed to have been tuning into a sort of otherworldly literary radio station when writing the book, and After Lorca is the transcript of that broadcast.

Spicer’s After Lorca, Lester’s Be Somebody, the poems of Fernando Pessoa, and Schwerner’s The Tablets — none feigns to fool the experts; they instead obviate their spuriousness in order to access a fundamental conflict within poetry and literature — to grapple with the very being and un-being of being. These four works do not dare challenge the experts: to argue with an expert ignores the dubious nature of expertise itself. They instead choose to grapple with literary and philosophical problems, mostly related to contradictions and conflicts of existence and identity. Of the four, Spicer’s After Lorca is perhaps the most accomplished and most complete. His work indulges in a polyvalent sense of ‘translation:’ a sense that accommodates the spurious sense similar to Ossian or Yasusada, while also accommodating both the classical sense that accommodates the classical one-author sense and the straightforward ‘from-a-foreign-language’ sense. Perhaps Spicer was onto something: namely that literature, forgery, and translation in all of their senses and contradictions are inevitably bound together.

We are encouraged by Spicer’s own words to believe that Spicer was appreciative of a contradictory state of affairs that literature, particularly poetry, inhabits:

It's again like music. It doesn't really mean a goddamn thing, and yet it does. It's this kind of halfway into reality and halfway out of it that does seem to me important [...]. [Note 11]

Photo of Patrick Herron
Patrick Herron lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina where he creates poetry, music, software, and web art. Patrick has recently completed his second collection of poetry, entitled Hyperlustrous Purse (forthcoming). He is the creator of Patrick’s poems and criticism have recently been published in journals such as VeRT, Blaze, Readme, and A Chide’s Alphabet. Some of Patrick’s new web art is coming soon to the Iowa Review Web.


[Note 1] K.K. Ruthven, Faking Literature, Cambridge Press, Cambridge, 2001, pp2-3.

[Note 2] Ibid. p4.

[Note 3] Ibid. p3.

[Note 4] Ibid. p63.

[Note 5] Ibid. p61.

[Note 6] Ibid. p200.

[Note 7] Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Flower of Coleridge,’ from Other Inquisitions, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1993, p10.

[Note 8] Ibid. pp12-13.

[Note 9] Wallace Stevens, Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1966, p354.

[Note 10] Murat Nemet-Nejat, ‘Translation and Style,’ Talisman, Spring 6, 1991, pp. 98-100.

[Note 11] Jack Spicer, ‘Poetry in Process and Book of Magazine Verse’ Vancouver Lecture 3, June 17, 1965.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. ‘The Flower of Coleridge.’ Other Inquisitions. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.

De Quincey, Thomas. Walladmor. London: Taylor and Hessey, 1825.

Eshelman, Clayton. ‘The Lorca Working.’ Boundary 2, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 31-49, 1977.

Lester. “Be Somebody.” MS. Forthcoming, Raleigh: Horse & Buggy Press, 2002.

Macpherson, James. The Poems of Ossian and Related Works. Ed. Howard Gaskill. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996.

Mead, Philip and John Tranter, eds. The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry. Ringwood: Penguin Australia, 1993. [In the U.K. and U.S., published as The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry ]

Motokiyu, Tosa, Ojiu Norinaga, and Okura Kyojin, eds. Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada. New York: Roof Books, 1997.

Nemet-Nejat, Murat. ‘Translation and Style.’ Talisman, Spring 6, pp. 98-100, 1991.

Pessoa, Fernando. Fernando Pessoa & Co : Selected Poems, ed. Richard Zenith. New York: Grove Press, 1999.

Ruthven, K.K. Faking Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 2001.

Schwerner, Armand. The Tablets. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1999.

Spicer, Jack. ‘After Lorca’, from The Collected Books of Jack Spicer. Ed. Robin Blaser, Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow, 1999.

Stevens, Wallace. Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

Jacket 17 — June 2002  Contents page
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