Witter Bynner


 A leader is best
When people barely know that he exists,
Not so good when people obey and acclaim him,
Worst when they despise him.
‘Fail to honor people,
They fail to honor you’;
But of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’


by Witter Bynner, reprinted from The Chinese Translations: The Works of Witter Bynner (F.S.G. New York, 1978) with permission of The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry

Witter Bynner was born in Brooklyn, New York. He attended Harvard University, where he was invited by Wallace Stevens to join the Harvard Advocate. After college he edited McClure’s in New York for four years. His collections of poetry include An Ode to Harvard (1907), The Beloved Stranger(1919), Pins for Wings(1921), Indian Earth (1929), and New Poems (1960).

In 1916 Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke co-authored Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments, which they published under pen names. The book was a spoof on the literary movement known as Imagism—the poems in the book were allegedly written by “Spectrists.” The hoax was uncovered in 1917, and soon after, Bynner and Ficke traveled to Japan.

The style of Bynner’s early poetry is comparable to that of A.E. Housman. His later poetry reflects his familiarity with Japanese and Chinese poetry, becoming less traditionally structured in form. Bynner translated The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology: Being Three Hundred Poems of the T’ang Dynasty 618–906 (1929) from the texts of Kian Kang-Hu. He also translated a version of the Tao Te Ching—The Way of Life According to Laotse (1949).

Bynner was a professor of Oral English for the Students’ Army Training Corps at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1918. When World War I ended, he taught a course in poetry writing. In 1922 he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he and his partner, Robert Hunt, entertained artists and literary figures such as D.H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Carl Sandburg at their home.