Some months ago I was posting a link online, and encountered one of those charming security checks which demands that you type out two words in order to prove that you’re a human being capable of transcribing nonsense rather than a computer program that isn’t.
Imagine my shock and excitement, therefore, when I was asked to type out ‘exhibitions wanton’.
This, I thought to myself, was no mere security check. This was poetry.
Rather awkwardly constructed poetry, I had to admit – a pyrrhic foot followed by two trochees (exhi | bitions | wanton) – but it had a flavour that I couldn’t deny.
Taking this fortuitous phrase as my starting point, I wrote this couplet:
Exhibitions wanton do so beguile
That Chastity herself doth blush and smile.
You wouldn’t (though I say it myself) be altogether surprised to learn that it came from one of Shakespeare’s early comedies, would you?
And this in turn got me thinking about accidental poetry. In particular, I thought about two celebrated literary hoaxes: the Ern Malley affair, which was native to my own country, and the Spectra hoax, which hails from America.
The intention of both of these hoaxes was to discredit modern schools of poetry by showing that nonsense could be published to acclaim. In some senses, this aim succeeded: in Australia, Max Harris (the editor who published ‘Ern Malley’ in Angry Penguins) was a national laughing stock after the hoax was revealed, and in the US, William Carlos Williams was entirely taken in by Spectra.
But in a more important sense, both of these jolly pranks backfired. Because sometimes the poetry involved was actually quite good.
Have a look at this ‘Malley’ piece (written by James McAuley and Harold Stewart):
Dürer, Innsbruck, 1495
I had often, cowled in the slumberous heavy air,
Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,
As I knew it would be, the colourful spires
And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back,
All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters —
Not knowing then that Dürer perceived it too.
Now I find that once more I have shrunk
To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,
I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters.
Now let’s be clear: ‘The black swan of trespass on alien waters’ is complete tripe. But can you honestly say that ‘the mind repeats/In its ignorance the vision of others’ is either a poor insight or bad writing?
I can’t. I think it’s rather good. And what about ‘I have shrunk/To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream’?
It’s the same thought – but it’s a worthy thought when we reflect that it becomes increasingly clear that absolutely original art seems more and more of an impossibility.
And here, from Spectra, is ‘Opus 118’ (by Arthur Davison Ficke, writing as Anne Knish):
If bathing were a virtue, not a lust
I would be dirtiest.
To some, housecleaning is a holy rite.
For myself, houses would be empty
But for the golden motes dancing in sunbeams.
Tax-assessors frequently overlook valuables.
Today they noted my jade.
But my memory of you escaped them.
I love those opening lines: they’ve got sass is spades and a cheeky rhythm that seems to me to fit perfectly.
The final stanza is pure cliché, conceptually, but again you can’t shake the feeling that, if you came across it in an anthology, you’d think twice before skewering it completely.
I think that ultimately, in both the Malley and Spectra affairs, we’re dealing with writers who were a bit too good. Their talent came through even when they were trying to be absurd.
And that really makes you think. After all, even security checks can write poetry now.