Witter Bynner (1881-1968) was an American poet, writer and scholar who, for much of his life, divided his time between homes in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Chapala, Mexico. While Bynner’s reputation is today eclipsed by contemporaries including T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W. H. Auden, he was in his day a literary superstar.
His talent was already evident by the time he enrolled at Harvard, where he was not only invited to join the student literary magazine, but was also published in The Harvard Monthly. He graduated with honors in 1902, and released his first book of poems, An Ode to Harvard in 1907. The university named him its Phi Beta Kappa Poet in 1911.
In 1916, Bynner and friends including Arthur Davison Ficke, all writing under pseudonyms, published an elaborate literary prank titled Spectra that was aimed at deflating the self-important poetry critics of the time. The work was enthusiastically reviewed as a serious contribution to poetry before the hoax was finally unmasked two years later.
A conscientous objector, Bynner was assigned alternative service teaching Oral English to the Students’ Army Training Corps in Berkeley, CA. during World War I.
While there, he met a Chinese professor with whom he began an eleven-year collaboration on the translation of T’ang Dynasty poems. He traveled to China in 1920 to study its literature and culture.
In that same year, Bynner was elected President of the Poetry Society of America. In an effort to encourage young poets, he created the Witter Bynner Prize for Undergraduate Excellence in Poetry, whose later recipients included Langston Hughes. The Spectra hoax, however had tarnished Bynner’s reputation within the poetry establishment, and his works which followed the scandal received far less attention.
In 1922 a lecture tour took him to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Exhausted and suffering from a lingering cold, he cancelled the remainder of his tour to recuperate there. Enchanted by the
setting and its artistic community, he returned four months later with his companion to take up permanent residence, and soon after met D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda.
In 1923, Bynner and his companion accompanied the couple on a journey through Mexico that inspired Lawrence’s novel The Plumed Serpent, which includes an unflattering character based on Bynner. In contrast, Bynner had high esteem for Lawrence, about whom he wrote three poems and a memoir titled Journey with Genius published in 1951.
Bynner stayed on in Chapala after the Lawrences left Mexico to continue working on his book of verse, Caravan (1925). At the time he noted that several other American writers and painters had already taken up residence there.
Between 1923 and 1929, Bynner penned more than a dozen poems that drew upon his Lake Chapala experience. Many appear in his collection Indian Earth (1929), which he dedicated to D. H. Lawrence.
In 1930 poet Robert Hunt visited Bynner in Chapala. They would become companions for the remainder of their lives.
Arthur Davison Ficke, Bynner’s friend and partner in crime on the Spectra hoax, spent the winter of 1934-35 in Chapala, and drew upon the setting to write his novel Mrs. Morton of Mexico.
In 1940 Bynner purchased a house in Chapala from Mexican architect Luis Barragán that became the second home to which he would often return over the next three decades. His acquaintances during these years included resident writers Nigel Millett and Neill James, and a visiting Tennessee Williams.
Bynner had a minor heart attack in 1949 and in the following year began to lose his eyesight, but neither infirmity prevented him from travelling with Hunt to Europe, where they visited acquaintances including Thornton Wilder, James Baldwin, and George Santayana.
He was almost completely sightless by 1964 when he lost his Robert Hunt to a fatal heart attack. The following year, Bynner suffered a severe stroke from which he never recovered, and he died in the U.S. in 1968.
The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry was founded in 1972, funded by a bequest from his estate. Since 1997, it has sponsored the Witter Bynner Fellowship, for which the recipient is selected by the U.S. Poet Laureate. The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters established a Witter Bynner Poetry Prize in 1980.
Witter Bynner’s works can be found here on Amazon.
Read more about the Lake Chapala area’s rich literary legacy here.
Check out the complete listing of RiberasAuthors by genre here.
(Posted by Antonio Ramblés.)