A poet, scholar and translator, Bynner's reputation was nonetheless made as a hoaxter, and he is now remembered most prominently as the translator of Chinese poetry, particularly the work of Lao Tzu, and as the founder of one of the preeminent foundations supporting contemporary American poetry.
Bynner was born 10 August 1881 in Brooklyn, NY, and educated at Harvard, where he was appointed to the staff of the Harvard Advocate by Wallace Stevens, the first of many associations with the major literary figures of his time, from Henry James to O. Henry, and including Edna St. Vincent Millay, to whom he once proposed marriage. Millay accepted, but later both thought better of it and the engagement was cancelled. Upon his graduation from Harvard in 1902, he joined the staff of McClure's magazine, where he gave A. E. Housman his first American publication. After a four-year stint at McClure's, he left the working world to devote full time to writing, though in 1910, as a consultant to the publishing house of Small, Maynard, and Co., he arranged for the publication of Ezra Pound's first collection.
In 1916 he made his first trip to the Orient, which was to have a lasting impact on his aesthetic. In 1922 he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he played host, in 1923, to D. H. and Freida Lawrence, on their first trip to New Mexico. He remained in Santa Fe for the rest of his life, along with his longtime companion, Robert Hunt. He devoted himself to his writing, the development of a literary circle, and the rights of minorities and women. He died in 1968, after a series of debilitating illnesses. A bequest in his will established the foundation which bears his name, which supports poets, translators and poetry programs.
Bynner was a prolific poet, whose work underwent a series of transformations throughout a long and productive life. His early poetry was powerfully influenced by his Harvard experience. His first collection, published in 1907, was An Ode to Harvard and Other Poems, later reprinted in 1925 as Young Harvard. Yet its literary influences are elsewhere: in its evocation of youth and place, the early work has been compared to Housman; in its democratic openness, to Whitman.
Although Bynner was instrumental in getting Pound his first publication, the Imagists and followers of similar movements — Vorticism, Futurism — grew irksome to Bynner. He and his friend Arthur Davison Ficke decided to parody them. They created a literary hoax — a movement called Spectrism, made up out of whole cloth. The Spectrist manifesto concocted by Bytter and Ficke made reference to breaking the image into fragments similar to the effect of a prism on the colors of the spectrum, and to the development of "spectres" — images which existed in shadowy relationship to real objects. In short, the manifesto was a justification for writing poetry that cohered virtually not at all. Bynner chose the pseudonym Emanuel Morgen, Ficke was Anne Knish. Their book, Spectra, was published in 1916.
The hoax both made and undid Bynner's reputation. The Spectrists gained a notoriety of their own, and when the hoax was finally revealed, some critics who had been fooled declared that they liked "Emanuel Morgen's" work better than Bynner's. Perhaps more interesting, Bynner had created in Morgen a doppelganger of his poetic self who never entirely disappeared. His next book under his own name, The Beloved Stranger (1919), which represents some of his best work, has a looseness and allusiveness that owes much to the Oriental poetry he had begun studying, but also to the spectral allusions of "Emanuel Morgen."
However, the Modernists whom Bynner had lampooned rapidly became the central force in American poetry, and Bynner came to be considered a fringe figure. Nevertheless, he continued to write, and to produce a varied and always interesting body of work. Pins for Wings (1921) and Guest Book (1935) contain portraits, sometimes devastating, of his friends and contemporaries.
In 1929, Bynner published two books. The Jade Mountain is his free translations of Chinese poetry from the T'ang Dynasty, and marks, in an important sense, his break with "Emanuel Morgen." The Spectra hoax had given Bynner the freedom to explore the quirks of his imagination; the T'ang poetry brought him back to the unembellished simplicity of the lyric. In Indian Earth, often considered his best book, he used the techniques of Chinese poetry to describe the Native American cultures of Mexico and New Mexico.
The Way of Life According to Laotzu, Bynner's translation of the Tao Te Ching, appeared in 1944. It became his most commercially successful book, and is the only one still in print.
His last poems, collected in New Poems 1960, were written in longhand when he was virtually blind. They are spare of words, and all were written in one draft. They show a mind and a poetic sensibility which has not yet done with engaging the world.