"Imp of Verbal Darkness": Poetry Hoaxes & the Postmodern Politic

Rebecca Warner | December 2003

Rebecca Warner


"One of the two poems below is by a highly respected contemporary poet," wrote John Ashbery on an exam for MFA students at Brooklyn College. "The other is a hoax originally published to spoof the obscurity of much modern poetry. Which do you think is which?" The "real" poem turned out to be one of Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns; the other, written under the name Ern Malley, was designed to ridicule Hill's modernist predecessors and the editors who published them. "Can obscurity ever benefit poetry?" Ashbery asked his students. "Do you think it possible that the intellectual spoof might turn out to be more valid as poetry than the 'serious' poem, and if so, why?"1

Poetry hoaxes raise a number of questions that test our notions of literary value, authenticity, and authorial intention. The Ern Malley poem on Ashbery's exam emerged from a long history of such hoaxes. In the early 1760s Scottish poet James MacPherson published Fingal: An Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, which he claimed was a translation of an ancient Gaelic manuscript by "Ossian," a legendary third century bard. Several critics, including Samuel Johnson, contested its authenticity and accused MacPherson of fakery. It remains unclear whether the poems were authored exclusively by MacPherson or derived from a combination of sources. A few years later, Thomas Chatterton of Bristol sent to Horace Walpole poems he'd been composing since the age of 12, in the voice of a 15th century monk named Thomas Rowley. Walpole was initially impressed but returned the poems once he discovered they were fake. In despair, Chatterton committed suicide at the age of 17 by swallowing arsenic. Like MacPherson, whose poems were intensely popular despite their spurious attribution, Chatterton appealed to the Romantic sensibilities of the time. Keats admired Chatterton, as did Wordsworth, who eulogized him as "The marvellous boy, / The sleepless soul that perished in his pride."2

Another hoax occurred in response to America's infatuation with imagism, or "Amygism," as Pound nicknamed it after Amy Lowell. In 1916 American poets Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke sequestered themselves in a hotel room. Ten days and 10 quarts of Scotch later they had completed a manuscript of poems, which they submitted for publication under the names Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish. Titled Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments, the volume included an introduction elucidating the theory behind the Spectric technique. Spectric theory, which its writers later admitted to be deliberate gobbledygook, was embraced by numerous poets and critics, in particular by emerging imagists. Ficke and Bynner had specifically designed the hoax to parody writers like Pound, Williams, Amy Lowell, and their followers. The preface explains that Spectra

...speaks, to the mind, of that process of diffraction by which are disarticulated the several colored and other rays of which light is composed... 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... connotes the overtures, adumbrations, or spectres which for the poet haunt all objects both of the seen and the unseen world...3

The poems themselves, minimalist and imagistic, are at times strikingly original and at others ludicrous. Some images work, as in "Detroit," for example, which begins: "Centipede city, / Each little foot is a motor car / Speeding in many directions."4 Others are melodramatic or plain silly: "She is dead, they say— / Dead as a peacock,"5 or rely on forced rhyme: "Hope / is the antelope / Over the hills; / Fear / Is the wounded deer / Bleeding in rills...."6

Ficke later explained their motives and purpose: "...[B]oth of us were genuinely indignant at the charlatanism of some of the new 'schools' of poetry, and it was with the most deadly of intentions that we made our attempts to render their 'schools' patently ridiculous."7 Ficke and Bynner used the process of unconscious association as their primary method: "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."8

After Ficke and Bynner sprung the hoax in 1918, Spectra's followers maintained that the poems were inadvertently successful, that the joke was on the hoaxers for writing "fake" poetry that was better than their serious work. One letter to a newspaper editor claimed that the poets had freed their imaginations, allowing the "real Bynner" and the "real Ficke" to elude the mind's conscious censor.9 When Witter Bynner received a letter and poems from a young writer named Earl Roppel, he brought the poems to the attention of his colleagues, who like him admired their aura of naive simplicity. This time Bynner wasn't perpetrating a hoax but had become a victim of one: the poems were later discovered to have been written by Malcolm Cowley.

These and other hoaxes raise complicated questions about the nature of authorship and readership, bringing us back to Ashbery's question: "Can the intellectual spoof turn out to be more valid as poetry than the serious poem?" Are the poems still "good" once their biographical disguise is removed and their satiric intentions revealed? If editors and critics can't tell the difference between a real poem and a fake one, do we have any reliable standards for assessing literary quality?

In Australia another hoax raised similar questions, when in 1943 two men from Sydney set out to perform what they later defended as "a serious literary experiment." Trading lines between them to ensure discontinuity, using sources ranging from Shakespeare to an army manual on mosquito control, James McAuley and Harold Stewart wrote, in one afternoon, 16 poems in which their primary rule was that no two consecutive lines make sense. Their target was what they considered the incoherence of modern poetry and the associative methods that produced it.

Their vehicle was Max Harris, editor of an avant-garde literary magazine named Angry Penguins. Harris received several smudged copies of poems written by the late "Ern Malley," submitted by his sister Ethel. Confessing that she didn't know much about poetry, Ethel wondered if the poems were publishable. Harris was struck immediately by the unknown poet's talent and, inquiring further, received from Ethel a paginated manuscript titled The Darkening Ecliptic and further biographical detail on the author. Ern Malley had died of Graves disease at the age of 25, having lived alone and penniless in a rented room. A former garage mechanic and high-school dropout, his work had never been published. Now Harris worked feverishly to produce in 1944 a special issue of Angry Penguins, printed "to Commemorate the Australian Poet Ern Malley."10 As in the Spectra hoax, the poems were introduced with a pretentious and nonsensical "Preface and Statement" by the author, which explained that "To discover the hidden fealty of certain arrangements of sound in a line and certain concatenations of the analytic emotions, is the 'secret' of style."11

McAuley and Stewart had hit their mark. They disdained the kind of poetry Max Harris and those he published were writing. The Malley poems parodied what they later called the "decay of meaning"12 in poetry written by association. McAuley allowed for the murkiness of "a difficult and abstract idea," but warned against "lesser poets who substitute ingenuity for genius and obscurity for real subject matter."13 The hoaxers were skeptical of the current emphasis on the role of the unconscious in creating art, linking what they saw as a lack of discipline in the methodology to a lack of coherence in the work. They believed experience must be channeled "through the selecting and organizing powers of the medium," rather than being simply "translated in undigested form." "To hell with Art and the Unconscious—" exclaimed McAuley, "you don't have to invite the Unconscious in on the party; it's always been there."14 In order to mimic the style of modernism they disdained, they borrowed the free-association methods used to produce it, and to make it even more disjointed, derailed each other's trains of thought by taking turns writing.

Harris was thrilled to have discovered this native Australian genius. Australian poetry was floundering beneath the shadow of English and American modernism, and nationalism was running high, which created a demand for "authentic," i.e. unimported, Australian poetry which would still be sophisticated enough to be recognized overseas. Now they had found an unlettered prodigy they could call their own. His tragic life—lonely, penniless, ending with an early and anguishing death—lent further appeal to the image of what Michael Heyward labels "the romantic myth of the proletarian artist."15

Australians' general disinclination toward poetry had created an atmosphere conducive to the hoax. McAuley and Stewart, as well as Harris, reviled the nation's philistines, whom Stewart and McAuley referred to as "Porlockers," after the man from Porlock who interrupted Coleridge in the making of his unfinished masterpiece "Kubla Khan." Harris once delivered a lecture entitled "Surrealism, the Philistines, and You," and wrote a poem subtitled "Death is Non-Existent, Death is Bourgeois."16 The Ern Malley "discovery" was exciting partly because of Australia's perceived lack of culture and stagnancy in its poetry scene. Stewart and McAuley used this anti-philistine sentiment to their advantage, creating the figure of Ethel Malley, whose unsophisticated correspondences and indifference toward her brother's work bore the mark of the provincialism Harris and the hoaxers despised. Her ignorance made her brother's ingenuity even more striking, and Harris may have viewed himself as Malley's literary savior, rescuing the manuscript from its fate in the hands of the ignorant Porlockers.

News of the hoax was broken by a magazine supplement called Fact, which named Stewart and McAuley and printed a statement by them. The purpose of the hoax, the article said, was "to debunk what was regarded as a pretentious kind of modern verse-writing." The question they sought to answer was "Can those who write, and those who praise so lavishly, this kind of writing tell the real product from consciously and deliberately concocted nonsense?" To find out, they took care to allow "no coherent theme, at most, confused and inconsistent hints at a meaning held out as a bait to the reader." Not only did the poems lack literary merit, Stewart and McAuley claimed, they were utterly meaningless. They argued that the hoax "proves that a literary fashion can become so hypnotically powerful that it can suspend the operation of critical intelligence in quite a large number of people."17

The hoax was a success in that Harris and his circle bought it. But in some respects it backfired. After the hoax, Harris maintained his initial assessment, arguing that the poems were better than those previously written by either Stewart or McAuley. His view was that the hoaxers had demonstrated the validity of associative techniques,18 that they had freed themselves from inhibitions and, by using the methods of the medium they were spoofing, entered the medium itself. Michael Ackland, in his biographical study of McAuley and Stewart, agrees: "Although parodic in intent, verse of this complexity could only have been written in a few hours if its creators... had entered fully into their subject and been themselves masters of its craft."19

David Lehman suggests the lesson of the hoax was "that intentions may be irrelevant to results, that genuineness in literature may not depend on authorial sincerity, and that our ideas about good and bad, real and fake, are, or ought to be, in flux."20 Does the hoax prove the intentional fallacy—that meaning lies inside the work, regardless of a writer's intentions? In exposing what they saw as "meaningless" modern poetry and mimicking its associative methods, Stewart and McAuley were in effect setting out to prove that intention should matter, that a work must be subject to conscious control to have meaning or aesthetic value. McAuley and Stewart believed they'd shown that in the absence of authorial control, meaning is arbitrary. But to the editors of Angry Penguins, the hoax instead proved that genuine meaning can indeed be created without conscious intention.21

Along with the question of authorial intention, in terms of a work's meanings, is the issue of authorial sincerity—the author's stance and the spirit of the endeavor. Harris didn't change his aesthetic opinion after learning the authors' lack of sincerity. From his point of view, their parodic stance and intended lack of meaning were irrelevant to the quality of the poems. But is it really possible that Harris's interpretations didn't change after the hoax? It seems doubtful that his way of reading could have remained entirely stable. As long as one has knowledge of the hoax, it's difficult to read without being aware of it on some level. A writer's intentions may be wholly insignificant insofar as they are unknown, but once we become conscious of them, they're bound to alter our interpretations in some way.

Even if knowing the author's stance changes the way we read, there's no automatic reason it should affect a work's literary value. Yet critic Stephen Owen argues that "Whether we like it or not, the exposure of a hoax devalues the work of art."22 Marjorie Perloff, however, insists that "If [editors] thought it was such good writing, they should still think it was good writing."23 How we should read may be beside the point: if the emotional effect of a work changes based on the stance of the writer, then so does the experience of reading it, and for some, its value as literature. Perhaps instead we should begin asking how we do (and don't) read—and why.

The issues of authorial intention and sincerity are linked to the biographical fallacy. To what degree should we (or do we) base our reading on the author's life and person, in works that aren't strictly autobiographical? John Berger in his book Ways of Seeing demonstrates how a viewer's knowledge of a painting's context changes the way the painting is understood. He shows an image of Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows, with the caption "This is a landscape of a cornfield with birds flying out of it. Look at it for a moment. Then turn the page." The next page reproduces the image; underneath it is the caption "This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself." Berger concludes, "It is hard to define exactly how the words have changed the image but undoubtedly they have. The image now illustrates the sentence."24

Berger is undeniably right: the image becomes ominous, a premonition of the artist's suicide. Yet in spite of Berger's claim, there's considerable debate about whether this is really Van Gogh's last painting. Let's say we've always assumed it's his last work, and suddenly our assumptions are overturned when we find out it's not his last painting after all. Does the painting then lose its meaning and interest? What if we learned that Sylvia Plath didn't experience the emotional anguish that is so much a part of her mystique? Or that the person we know as Plath never existed? Max Harris, the editor of Angry Penguins, was taken in by Ern Malley's tragic biography, so he found what he believed were intimations of mortality throughout Malley's poems, in "Sybilline," for example: "It is necessary to understand / That a poet does not exist, that his writings / Are the incomplete circle and straight drop / Of a question mark..."25 Ironically, these were instead clues about the poet's nonexistence.

The hoax attracted so much publicity it drew the attention of a police detective named Vogelsang, who charged Max Harris with publishing "immoral" and "indecent" material and put him on trial. The courtroom dialogue reaches farcical proportions. Vogelsang objected to lines like "Part of me remains, wench, Boult-upright / The rest of me drops off into the night." Asked whether "Boult-upright" might be given an indecent interpretation, Harris replied pointedly, "Some people could place an indecent interpretation on anything."26 Harris ended up defending the poems' value as literature, offering elaborate interpretations to lead the prosecutor away from the "obscene" images. He was not concerned that the poems had been written in parody. "I have no opinion of their intentions," he said. "I only worry about their content as poems."27

The trial raises another issue related to authorial intention: the role of the reader in determining meaning. McAuley and Stewart might argue that the meanings Harris found were subjectively created and imposed by his imagination. But Harris would argue, in keeping with the New Critics, that meaning lies inside the work, independent not only of authorial intention but also of the effect it produces for readers. He allowed for minor variations in interpretation, but essentially Harris trusted the stability of meaning. However, during the obscenity trial he was forced to defend himself by arguing the opposite. Harris's lawyer, alleging that the prosecution was "reading into" the poems, quoted Dr. Johnson's answer to a woman who objected to words appearing in his dictionary: "'Madam, you are looking for them.'"28

McAuley and Stewart meant to show that meaning is arbitrary in the absence of authorial control and traditional conventions of logic. They were essentially arguing for clarity, as well as a readerly respect for authorial intention, in response to what they considered false mysticism in modern poetry. But Harris, who told the prosecuting attorney that his interpretation of sexual content was "utterly arbitrary, having been torn from the general meaning of the sentence," would not have agreed that his own reading was arbitrary; he believed those meanings to be "there" in the text, accessible to most educated readers. Harris said that if the prosecutor would only "try" to understand it, "I can concede there might be minor differences of interpretation but substantially we would have the same emotional experience." Enigmatically, he added, "Further than that one is unable to go in modern poetry."29

How much do readers' "intentions"—the assumptions we bring to a text—shape the meanings at which we arrive? To what degree do readers impose subjective interpretations and aesthetic values on texts? Clearly the editors' preference for modernist poetry influenced their critical judgement, just as the moral vigilance and intellectual limitations of Detective Vogelsang affected his. Evidence that our assumptions do affect the way we read occurs when readers approach the poems with initial knowledge of the hoax. One can't read with the same innocence as Harris; something in the experience is profoundly altered. Knowing that the opening lines of "Culture as Exhibit" were lifted from a military report on mosquito control makes it impossible to read them with the reverence one might have otherwise. And knowing that a trick is being played by the writers makes the reader strikingly aware of the self-referential clues scattered throughout the poems. In "Durer: Innsbruck, 1495," for example, Malley refers to himself as an "interloper" and "black swan of trespass on alien waters."30 But since Harris didn't know it was a hoax, he imposed certain meanings and missed others that now seem obvious. So are the signs—what we read as clues to meaning—imposed by us because we're looking for them? Do we simply intend those meanings, thereby willing them into existence? And if the human mind does tend to impose its intentions on a text, can any poetry be truly meaningless? If the idea is pushed far enough, poetry becomes a kind of Rorschach test, perhaps (as Michael Heyward suggests) proving Freud's claim that it's impossible to talk nonsense.31

If anything, knowing the fraudulent circumstances of the poems' composition may increase one's appreciation of their genius. They somehow manage to be both terrible and brilliant at the same time, lucid and opaque, random and controlled. As Heyward argues, the experience of reading the Malley poems doesn't match their creators' claim that they lack meaning and merit. To understand their actual worth, Heyward argues, the poems must be read and assessed as works of parody.32

Not all poetry hoaxes can be read as parody, however: one recent hoax moved beyond satire to provoke serious ethical questions. In 1996 a series of poems by a Japanese writer and postal worker named Araki Yasusada had begun to appear in journals like American Poetry Review and Grand Street. Yasusada, according to his biographical note, survived the atomic blast in Hiroshima but had lost his wife and daughter, his other daughter dying subsequently from radiation poisoning. Yasusada himself had died of cancer in 1972, leaving behind a rough manuscript of poems.

Rumors began to circulate that there was no Yasusada, and suspicion focused on his literary executor Kent Johnson. Johnson denied the allegations with this coy disclaimer: "It is still inadequately explained how a community college Spanish teacher with little poetic talent could have produced work that caused fairly unbridled admiration amongst such a range of well-placed arbiters in the world of poetry."33 But he did allow, in what is likely a half-truth, that Yasusada was the fictional creation of his friend and former college roommate Tosa Motokiyu, who had been named as one of Yasusada's translators. The name Motokiyu, according to Johnson, was itself a pseudonym for this writer, now conveniently dead, who had requested eternal anonymity. Johnson defended the author, arguing that the pseudonymity was a "radically sincere expression of empathy"34 on the part of "Moto," merely a poet's imaginative construction rather than a parody or malicious hoax. Only Johnson, who claims to be no more than Moto's literary executor, is available to speak for the motives of the pseudonymous poet.

Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada contains the text of the original manuscript, framed by an introduction and appendices that follow the course of the hoax's debut through its eventual exposure. The volume opens with an introduction by the poet's purported translators, in which they detail the tragic life of the poet and the circumstances of the notebooks' "discovery." The poems are followed by an appendix written by Kent Johnson, in which he reveals the true Yasusada as the pseudonymous Tosa Motokiyu.

What's curious is the way Johnson, who presumably chose the ordering of the manuscript and appendices, fuels the debate rather than subduing it, by framing the volume with a disjunctive sequence of commentaries. The introduction that begins Doubled Flowering maintains the hoaxer's original pose, so that the reader is persuaded to go along with it as he or she reads the poems. The appendix which follows the poems contains a partial admission in presenting Motokiyu as the author; Johnson explains that he has included in the book an interview of himself, as well as a letter and commentary by Russian critic Mikhail Epstein. Following that is an essay by Marjorie Perloff in which she proposes that the Yasusada author is Kent Johnson. The sequence of these appendices is significant: Perloff's essay, which appears last, was originally published before Johnson's semi-admission, which appears in the first appendix to the book. Rather than giving himself the final word, Johnson ends with the accusations he denies. Moreover, he ends with a nod of affirmation, if not admiration, from Perloff.

These editorial decisions suggest that Johnson has deliberately left the questions open rather than attempting to resolve them. The barrage of criticism surrounding the Yasusada poet, the fury it created in the literary world, seems to have fulfilled the hoaxer's purpose exactly. In fact, Johnson's explanation for including the commentaries is that they provide an "argument for modes of imagination and writing that transcend the conventional ways we think about authorship, [which] strikes us as very worthy of consideration."35

Marjorie Perloff in her essay "In Search of the Authentic Other" (which appears in Doubled Flowering) argues that Michel Foucault helped set the scene for the initially enthusiastic reception of the Yasusada poet, because the literary community, fed on the Foucauldian notion of an author as a cultural construct, was hungry for "novel and interesting cultural positioning."36 Not only may Foucault have influenced the conception and subsequent success of the hoax as Perloff maintains: the public's reaction to it puts Foucault's theories on the nature of authorship to work.

Foucault argues in "What is an Author?" that traditionally an author's name functions in our society as a "means of classification" which "characterizes a particular manner of existence of discourse."37 Classification depends on the status associated with that mode of discourse; how a text is received by an audience is based on the status of the author's particular discourse in relation to the readers.' But Foucault questions this view of the author's role, which is based on our tendency to conceive of authors as isolated individuals. He sees authorship as an historical process, the author as merely a vessel that carries and transmits a larger ideological discourse. Foucault diminishes the role of the author by referring to it as a "function" of discourse. His prediction is that the author may one day disappear behind the text, since contemporary writing "is primarily concerned with creating an opening where the writing subject endlessly disappears."38

Foucault derives his concept of the "authorless" text from Roland Barthes' essay "The Death of the Author." Like Foucault, Barthes views authorship as a collective cultural process: "Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away."39 He defines the text as "a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture."40 The problem as Barthes sees it is that critics too often strive to "discover" the author in order to reach a definitive interpretation. To give a text an author is to impose limitations on the text, says Barthes. Though Foucault shares Barthes' vision of authorship he finds unresolved problems in it, and suggests that the death of the author has yet to come since we continue to live in an author-centered age.

Borrowing a concept similar to Barthes's and Foucault's collective authorship, Mikhail Epstein uses the Yasusada poems to propose the notion of "hyperauthorship," which he defines as "a paradigmatic variety of authors working within one (allegedly one) human entity." He distinguishes it from ordinary pseudonymous writing because, he argues, "We don't produce our own works under different names but we produce works different from our own under appropriate names."41 Intriguing as it is, the theory of the authorless text is difficult to apply without practical and ethical complications. Arthur Vogelsang, editor of American Poetry Review who initially published a "special supplement" of Yasusada's writing but who later, according to Emily Nussbaum, condemned the hoax as "a criminal act,"42 scorns Foucault's notion of an authorless text. In a letter to Joshua Cohen of the Boston Review he proposes that "a wide acceptance of authorless texts could prove beneficial to professors if the texts led to studentless classrooms and editorless academic journals. Much of the drudgery associated with the position of professor would thereby be eliminated, freeing the individual to create more criticism and more authorless texts."43

Jack Lynch argues in "Authorizing Ossian" that in the age of Foucault scholarship we need to know the identity of the author, since the author's cultural and historical circumstances define the discourse and the way it is received. "...[O]nly when the historical identity of the author is settled can a text be read with confidence," Lynch claims; the reader must be "informed which set of codes to employ, and these codes depend nearly inevitably on the identity of the author."44 In the Yasusada case, we know for certain he never existed, but we still don't know the identity of the real author(s). So we don't know which codes to use in reading Yasusada, but we do know which codes not to use: we know that the author is not a Hiroshima survivor. That the cultural status of the author is unknown also creates uncertainty for the reader. Is the pseudonymous "Moto" (if he even exists) Japanese, and does that make the work more authentic than if it were written by a white American like Kent Johnson? And is the emotional impact of the Hiroshima context diminished merely because the author didn't personally experience it?

Whether we read with the traditional notion of an individualized author or a Foucauldian "author function," poetry hoaxes suggest that when the identity of the author shifts, some texts may be read very differently. When the author's identity shifts radically, the authority of the text may be undermined, the text rendered illegitimate or inauthentic. As the etymological link suggests, a text's authority and authenticity has traditionally rested on the identity of the author. For Foucault it rests not on the writer's individual identity but on the author's social and historical position. Either way, the degree the author's role is modified by a change in status depends on the degree of biographical association between the work and its author.

In both the Ern Malley and Yasusada hoaxes, as well as the earlier Chatterton and MacPherson controversies, the author's discursive position shifted dramatically once the hoaxes were revealed. The Yasusada put a (presumably) privileged white middle-class male in place of a Japanese war victim. Ern Malley placed academics in the role of an unschooled primatif and, further complicating matters, replaced the single entity with a collaborative authorship. Chatterton and MacPherson changed their historical positions by adopting the identities of medieval or ancient personas. Having assumed a certain set of parameters that surround a mode of discourse, readers had to assimilate the text with a new mode of discourse once the hoaxes were disclosed.

Perloff emphasizes the role that identity politics, created in part by Foucault scholarship, played in the gullibility of editors and critics in the Yasusada case. Eliot Weinberger in "Can I Get a Witness?" suggests that the hoax relied on a further theoretical division in the academic community. He points out that

Yasusada had appeared at a moment when the English Department had split into two contradictory "post-modernisms": multiculturalism and deconstruction (and its spin-offs). One side wanted to hear the stories that hadn't been told, and the other doubted that stories could be told; one side promoted authenticity, and the other inauthenticity. The former embraced Yasusada and then violently rejected him when his identity became questionable—the precise moment when the latter embraced him.

Weinberger criticizes the rise of what he calls "witness poetry," writing based on extreme personal experience such as wars and genocides or other forms of cultural and political oppression. What concerns him is the way the authenticity and value of the Yasusada poems were measured by the author's experience rather than by the writing itself. Weinberger is disturbed by how the personal takes precedence over the political, which he says "confines the act of writing to a factual narcissism."45

Perloff too is astonished and troubled by the uncritical reception of the Yasusada poems, noting the abundance of clues, either deliberate or accidental (such as a reference to "scubadivers," dated before scuba equipment was invented), and the self-consciousness of Johnson's pseudo-Orientalism. None of the editors caught these inconsistencies or if they did, they dismissed them. Perloff attributes this not only to the editors' eagerness to publish work from a "novel and interesting cultural positioning," but also to their lack of familiarity with Japanese poetry and culture. She points to the way Johnson catered to America's romanticized (and often inaccurate) view of Japan.46 Perhaps it was the exotic nature of the poems that allowed them to slip through the usual critical censors: it may have led the editors, sensing their own lack of cultural authority, to question or suspend their judgment. "This is just Japanized crap," concludes one professor of Japanese culture about the Yasusada poems.47

What these hoaxes demonstrate is how easily any reader may be fooled, which in turn reminds us how unstable our critical standards may be. We have few reliable criteria for determining meaning, value, or authenticity, and secretly we know it. We all experience a certain anxiety when faced with a piece of writing with no credentials attached. What reader, even a highly trained one, hasn't questioned her abilities at one time or another? Rather than viewing this instability as a flaw in our critical system, we might regard it as a blessing, since it is our shifting perceptions that allow for innovation to occur in art.

"Is it art?" we wonder about most artistic innovations. That's because experimental art sets out to challenge our assumptions about what art is. One might ask if William Carlos Williams's poem "This Is Just to Say" is really a poem. Exactly what are the boundaries of art, and how far can they be pushed? the experimental artist and the hoaxer both ask. In some sense all avant-garde writing and artwork might be viewed as hoaxes, because innovative art, like poetry hoaxes, seeks to persuade its viewers that it's a genuine art form; thus in effect it sets out to "trick," or hoax, its audience. John Ashbery points out the role of doubt in the avant-garde. Not only is the audience bound to be skeptical of a work's value, but the artist as well may be unsure of himself. Ashbery suggests that "It must often have occurred to Pollack that there was just a possibility he wasn't an artist at all."48 If the artist is uncertain about the validity of his own art, some form of deception must be taking place when the artist presents that work as being worthy of recognition.

Another characteristic hoaxes share with experimental art is that they often rely on elaborate theoretical justification to persuade their readers. The Spectra and Malley works included convoluted prefaces explaining the methods and philosophies of composition. The prefaces were meant to ridicule the sometimes incomprehensible manifestos of certain avant-garde poets, but also may have helped to convince editors of the poems' validity.

Poetry hoaxes tend to target avant-garde writing, either to make fun of it or perhaps because novel forms of art have fewer precedents to define critical standards, thus making the hoax more likely to succeed. Innovative forms of writing, especially imported ones, may be easier to imitate because editors can't determine the accuracy of the reproduction, as in the Yasusada case where (according to Perloff) Japanese poetic forms were misrepresented. Hoaxes seem to aim typically for either the old or the new: while Spectra, Malley, and Yasusada focused on avant-garde forms of expression, Ossian and Chatterton employed ancient personas. Hoaxes also accommodate the demands of times: Ossian and Chatterton were embraced during a fever of Romanticism; Malley satisfied Australia's need for native genius; and Yasusada fulfilled the quest for the exotic Other.

Plagiarism and forgery have been around for centuries, but poetry hoaxes seem to fall into a slightly different category. Plagiarism and forgery are opposites: the plagiarist takes credit for another's work while the forger denies it. But the hoaxer adds another dimension: he denies credit for the work of an invented other. Another distinction is that typically the plagiarist and forger have something to gain, either money or fame, while hoaxers have little to profit from when their identity is unknown and the poetry business notoriously unlucrative. Moreover, the goal of most plagiarists and forgers is to remain undiscovered, whereas many hoaxers seem compelled to reveal their handiwork by leaving a trail of clues. A hoax has to be good enough to first deceive its audience, but must later be revealed (or at least suspected) in order to fully succeed. This is especially true if the hoax's purpose, as claimed by several participants, is to deliver a statement of literary criticism.

David Lehman suggests that hoaxes and pseudonyms are by nature postmodernist. One reason is that hoaxes accomplish "the triumph of irony"49 that Lehman argues is characteristic of postmodernism. Perhaps another reason is the way hoaxes make artifice transparent in art, forcing the work to become referential to itself. Hoaxes remind us that art, and even our notion of the artist, is constructed. A general postmodern tendency is to view human characteristics and endeavors as cultural constructs (gender, for example, as well as authors and texts), to view meanings as unstable, to be suspicious of fact and truth. Because hoaxes pull the rug from under our ways of thinking, forcing us to question and redefine our assumptions, they are postmodern in conception. In the end, poetry hoaxes do nothing but open up endless questions, a hall of mirrors or set of revolving doors. But though they ultimately raise more questions than they answer, their most positive effect is to foster a healthy critical dialogue about the relations between author and reader, meaning and intention, the ways we write and read.


Rebecca Warner teaches creative writing at Bucknell University and is Associate Editor of West Branch. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Notre Dame Review, Paterson Literary Review, Passages North, Minnesota Review, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. Her poetry collection Northwest Passage will be published by Orchises Press in January 2005. "Imp of Verbal Darkness" in the title of this essay is borrowed from Patrick O'Leary (qtd. in Heyward, 172).


  1. Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair (London: Faber, 1993), 234.
  2. Grevel Lindop, ed., Thomas Chatterton: Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Books, 1972), Introduction 22.
  3. William Jay Smith, The Spectra Hoax (Ashland, OR: Story Line Press, 2000), 91.
  4. Ibid, 158.
  5. Ibid, 100.
  6. Ibid, 103.
  7. Ibid, 61.
  8. Ibid, 31.
  9. Ibid, 58.
  10. Heyward, 77.
  11. Ibid, 65.
  12. Ibid, 137.
  13. Michael Ackland, Damaged Men (NSW, Aust.: Crow's Nest, 2001), 18.
  14. Ibid, 78.
  15. Heyward, 103.
  16. Ackland, 20–21.
  17. Heyward, 137–139.
  18. Ibid, 152.
  19. Ackland, 79.
  20. David Lehman, "The Ern Malley Poetry Hoax," The Big Question (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan P, 1995), 52.
  21. Heyward, 236.
  22. Stephen Owen, "The Paradox of Values," Boston Review 22.3, 1997, <http://bostonreview.mit.edu/bostonreview/BR22.3/owen.html>
  23. Qtd. in Emily Nussbaum, "Turning Japanese: The Hiroshima Poetry Hoax," Lingua Franca, November 1996, <http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/japanese-hoax.html>
  24. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: BBC and Penguin, 1972), 27-28.
  25. Heyward, 247.
  26. Ibid, 187–188.
  27. Ibid, 195.
  28. Ibid, 207.
  29. Ibid, 204–205.
  30. Ibid, 243.
  31. Ibid, 24.
  32. Ibid, 148.
  33. Kent Johnson, Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada (New York: Roof Books, 1997), 123–124.
  34. Ibid, 126.
  35. Ibid, 123.
  36. Marjorie Perloff, "In Search of the Authentic Other: The Poetry of Araki Yasusada," Ibid, 164.
  37. Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?" Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. Donald Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977), 123.
  38. Ibid, 116.
  39. Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author," Image, Music, Text, ed. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 142.
  40. Ibid, 146.
  41. Mikhail Epstein, Doubled Flowering, Appendix 134.
  42. Qtd. in Nussbaum.
  43. Arthur Vogelsang, "Dear Editor," Boston Review 22.3, 1997, <http://bostonreview.mit.edu/bostonreview/BR22.3/
  44. Jack Lynch, "Authorizing Ossian" (Minneapolis: MWASECS Conference, 1995), <http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/papers/ossian.html>
  45. Eliot Weinberger, "Can I Get a Witness?" Jacket 5, 1998, <http:///www.jacket.zip.com.au/jacket05/yasu-weinberger.html>
  46. Perloff, 163.
  47. Qtd. in Nussbaum.
  48. John Ashbery, "The Invisible Avant-Garde," Reported Sightings (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989), 390.
  49. Lehman, "What Is It? The Question of Postmodernism," The Big Question, 5.

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