Hoax Poets: A Book Proposal

Inspired in part by Scoble and Israel’s The Red Couch, I am posting my book proposal, such as it is. Earlier, I posted a sample chapter on Thomas Chatterton. So, to the hundreds of editors who regularly read this blog: please contact me if you are interested in a history of poetic frauds with an attendant anthology. And who wouldn’t be? Really, it’s just common sense.


Hoax Poets is a book about a different kind of writer. Each chapter discusses a different person writing under a manufactured identity in order to spoof popularly accepted poetic sensibilities and standards. Some writers were satirists giving ruthless comeuppance to the arbiters of taste, some were merely pranksters looking for a bit of fun and others were devoted to recreating a past that never existed as a “harsh corrective” to the short-comings of their own age. But no matter the motivation, all of them successfully hoodwinked readers into embracing works that were something less than genuine.

Why do we want to read hoaxical poetry? Hoax poetry not only defies our literary standards and tests the integrity of our taste, it challenges our very faith in the relevance of the artistic act itself. Such challenges demand intelligent, thoughtful response, and serious readers of literature welcome the intellectual stimulus that a hoax poem offers. In addition, we naturally have an enduring fascination with hoaxes, wherever and whenever they are revealed. Why else have the Hitler Diaries, Howard Hughes’ Will, and Piltdown Man continued to grip our imagination many years after being declared bogus by authorities? At some level we admire the hoaxer. Just as we might respect an outlaw’s audacity or an art thief’s daring, we respect the hoaxer’s ability to reveal ourselves to ourselves—render naked our gullibility and puncture our pomposity.

Currently, there are no books about hoax poetry on the market. With Hoax Poets, we wish to fill that void. The popularity of recent titles such as The Professor and the Madman, The Web of Words, and Ether Day has demonstrated that audiences are eager for books that spotlight neglected areas of our culture. We believe that the mystery, intrigue, humor, and audacity inherent in our focus will be appealing to a wide range of readers. Formally, another option we may wish to consider is that of an anthology with each entry prefaced by a short essay.

Enclosed is a detailed table of contents that indicates the scope and vision of Hoax Poets. I have also enclosed a sample chapter, on Thomas Chatterton, that will give you some idea of the tone and inherent interest of these stories.

Hoax Poets: A Literary History of Manufactured Identities.
Table of Contents

Chapter One. An introductory chapter consisting both of a survey as well as analysis will open this first-ever literary history of poetic hoaxes. This analysis will discuss who perpetrates poetic hoaxes and toward what end. It will examine the intended results of these hoaxes and the actual results. The chapter will be the first complete assessment of poetic hoaxes and will appeal to the bright, demanding general reader, due to its humor and drama and the new light it throws on literature, the map of human thought.

Note: Each subsequent chapter will explain the anatomy of the hoax: who did the hoaxing, why, who got hoaxed, how, who exposed the hoax and what the outcome of the hoax and its exposure was.

Below are the first possible eight hoaxes; others may include Mlle. Malerais de la Vigne, Bob Folder, Trabeus and Hardy-knute.

Chapter Two. “Ossian, the Son of Fingal,” perpetrated by James McPherson. (1760s)
An 18th century minor Scottish poet named James Macpherson published what he claimed were fragments of an ancient Scots Gaelic epic poem. He fooled titans of the time such as Goethe and Napoleon. Samuel Johnson, poet and critic, and philosopher David Hume decried the hoax, but were not proven right until the 19th century.

Chapter Three. “Thomas Rowley,” perpetrated by Thomas Chatterton. (1769)
Chatterton was an 18th century golden boy, praised by Wordsworth, Rosetti and Coleridge. His “discovery” of the poems in Bristol was disbelieved by Horace Walpole and Thomas Gray. A year later, he killed himself at age 18.

Chapter Four. “Bilitis,” perpetuated by Pierre Louys. (1894)
Louys was a French male author of the fin de siècle, a friend of the poet Paul Valery and the composer Claude Debussy. Taking advantage of the age’s rage for Hellenism, and for ‘decadence, Louys united the two elements in the construction of Bilitis, a Greek-Phoenician Lesbian poet. In his Bilitis manuscript, Les Chansons des Bilitis, and its introductory essay, thick with artificial scholarship, he represented the poet in her three “Classical” stages of maiden, nymph and crone: first as a lover of Sappho and other (in both senses) Lesbians, then as a courtesan, finally as an old woman.

Chapter Five. “Emanuel Morgan & Anne Knish,” perpetrated by Witter Bynner & Arthur Davison Ficke. (1916)
Perhaps the single most famous poet hoax, Bynner and Davison unleashed on the credulous world of modernist poetry a furious condemnation of poetic excess in the form of the “Spectra” movement. Taking in everyone from Edgar Lee Masters and William Carlos Williams to politicians on the campaign trail, Bynner and Davison wound up with an event that in itself was praised by Carl Sandburg as fine art. Most critics retained their feeling, even after the hoax was exposed, that Morgan and Knish were simply better poets than Bynner and Davison.

Chapter Six. “Earl Roppel,” perpetrated by Malcolm Cowley, S. Foster Damon. (1917)
Earl Roppel, “the ploughboy poet of Tioga county” was a hoax by the critic, poet and novelist Malcolm Cowley and his poet friend S. Foster Damon, as a response to the Spectra hoax. Roppel’s verse was stiff and faux-rural, extolling the virtues of America and nature. Among the achievements of this hoax was a letter of praise by Witter Bynner and the setting of one of the poems to music by a San Francisco composer and its subsequent, and non-ironic, debut where it was sung by 3,000 voices.

Chapter Seven. “Isidoro Capdepon Fernandez,” perpetrated by Federico Garcia Lorca & friends. (1920s)
Modern Spain’s most important poet, Federico García Lorca, held a tertulia at the Café Alameda in Granada for years where poets, scholars, musicians and others would meet to discuss art and life. A great booster and detractor of Spain in general and the city of Granada in particular, this Rinconcillo, or “Little Corner” created the personification of hopelessly outdated and florid academic poets in the person of Isidoro Capdepon Fernandez. Among other activities they put his name forward for a chair in the Royal Academy and succeeded in placing three articles on his work in a prestigious Madrid weekly.

Chapter Eight. “Ernest Malley,” perpetrated by James McAuley & Harold Stewart. (1944)
Two bored Australian officers stationed in-country during the Second World War, McAuley and Stewart created Malley as an expression of what they loathed most about their contemporary poets, such as Dylan Thomas and Henry Treece. Using lines culled from random documents on their desks and a dictionary of quotations, which they mangled and misattributed, and assigning him an early death, they gave the avant-garde what they believed they most wanted: a tragic hero. After their exposure, which was worldwide news, and the publication of Malley’s verse in Australia’s most important magazine, the Australian police seized the issue for obscenity! Of all the hoax poets, the reputation of “Malley’s” work has lasted the longest, supported by poets such as John Ashberry and Kenneth Koch.

Chapter Nine. “Araki Yasusada,” perpetrated by Kent Johnson. (1997)
A spectacularly successful, and very recent, hoax, Yasusada was made out to be a victim of Hiroshima. His ultra-modernist verse was embraced by the American poetic establishment whole-heartedly, including widespread publishing and praise in American Poetry Review and Grand Street and book plans by Wesleyan University Press. One of the hoax staples was used to create Yasusada, the mysterious notebooks of a dead poet. In the insulated world of hyper-specialized post-modern poetry and semiotic criticism, Yasusada was snapped up as an emblem and venerated. He was the Perfect Victim and when the hoax was exposed, the rage was humourless. The hoaxed spent hours and pages decrying the alleged hoaxer as little more than a racist and decrying the “criminal act.”

Chapter Ten. A concluding chapter will tie the individual instances, in which the tones or themes of hoaxing are visited with subtle difference, back into a single stream. What does hoaxing tell us about ourselves? About authorship, about identity?



  1. Paul Hoffman says:

    I loved your book proposal. I was hoping at the end that you would have a book ready, I would love to have bought it. I have several books on the topic, but would love one along your lines. Any suggestions?
    I am not very good with html and other web protocol,but I hope you get this.
    In case you are interested, I too write an occasional blog, though no one has yet seen fit to comment on them.
    The address to it and my business website, along with my email address, are also below.

    email: blog@paulhoffman.com
    When I have time I will read your other writings.

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