Study of Fraud Poet Gives Him More than his Due... at Last
A Contrary review by Thomas Larson

        Long before the tushy university job for American poets there was a time when a few wrote verse for popular taste, published in newspapers, and eked out a living. In the early twentieth century, pro rhymesters like Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Edgar A. Guest were mainstays. If the poet could sing of democracy and motherhood, of religious awakening and moral virtue, then a modest career in writing poetry—forget selling insurance—might be had.
        Enter Scharmel Iris (1889-1967), an extremely minor (Is less than minor possible?) Italian-born Chicago poet, whose writing life was both a fraud and a failure. What’s amazing about Iris is not how infantile his poetry was (a sentimentalist, he hewed to the Hallmark tradition in the age of free verse), but how his fakery kept him in print. Iris’s lofty-themed poems were insipid and often plagiarized; he convinced himself of his genius, then spun literary repute out of whole cloth. He forged introductions, blurbs, letters, and critical reviews to reflect magnanimously on his six volumes of poetry, most of which was vanity-pressed during his sixty years of versifying.
        This falsified literary reputation forms the heart of Abbott’s spryly researched book, a critical biography of one man’s lies and pontifical, though harmless, behaviors. During his so-called career, Iris sought favor from major poets—Yeats, Eliot, Frost, Pound, MacLeish—and when they didn’t respond or else answered evasively, he just rewrote their words to fit his design. His most notorious sleight—to forge an introduction for his 1953 Bread Out of Stone from Yeats, in which the Irish legend claimed, some fourteen years after his death, that "of poets writing today there is no greater" than Iris. (At one time, Iris forged a letter from Yeats to himself!)
        In his hunt, Abbott finds a few who suspected the fraud. But since Iris was so minor, so derivative, few of his contemporaries bothered to out him. Which Iris used to his advantage. Being unknown helped him play the undiscovered card. One bit of chicanery was to fake a letter from a noted historian or clergyman, on behalf of his poetry, to a major poet. As the intervener, he’d enclose a sheaf of poems, testify to Iris’s poverty (apparently he never held a job), and ask for a preface or a kindness. Such entreaties fell flat, though a few replies, like the one from Ezra Pound, gave a nod to a misunderstood comrade. Whatever he got, Iris would convert to praise. In his next solicitation, he would include the fictitious praise as his next calling card. And so it went.
        Oddly, the only person to see promise in Iris was Harriet Monroe, the publisher of Poetry. She published his poems beginning in 1914, the first batch under his name. But as he ingratiated himself to her, pled for introductions to other poets and editors, she discovered he had forged a letter from her to win favor in a poetry contest, and he was banished from her circle. No problem. Iris submitted more poems under pseudonyms, and Monroe, inexplicably, took them. What the first modernist editor in America saw in Iris is a mystery.
        Rightly and wrongly, Abbott presents only a detailed narrative of Iris’s life of fraud. He rarely applies motive or judgment, his intent to chronicle the imposter’s deceptions. Though Abbott’s done yeoman service, I wanted some interpretive intervention. Abbott prefers to let the story stand on its own. But I wonder what the story really is, especially since Iris’s fraud damaged no one. Who are the victims? What exactly is the crime if the victims seek no recompense?
        So much time spent on one flub invites larger questions: why, at the time, was it necessary to fake a literary reputation? If Iris was an aberration, why does he deserve a book? (A New Yorker-style article may have sufficed.) If he wasn’t an aberration, who were the other pretenders? What’s the larger tale about American artists and their need to fudge or falsify their reputations? In the end, Iris seems to have got his tick-tock of fame but only via Abbott’s overdone account of a hack.

Thomas Larson is a contributing writer for the weekly San Diego Reader and the author of The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative, published in June 2007, by Swallow Press.

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Forging Fame
by Craig Abbott
2007, Northern Illinois U.
commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | winter 2008

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