Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 8.1 (Kent Johnson)

A Question Mark Above the Sun
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Johnson, Kent
A Question Mark Above the Sun:
Documents on the Mystery
Surrounding a Famous Poem "By"
Frank O'Hara

Given to me by the publisher, Richard Owens, by way of David Hadbawnik.

Much controversy surrounds the recent publication of this book, whose thesis is that the poem, "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island," one of Frank O'Hara's best-loved and most admired poems, MIGHT have been written by his friend and fellow poet (and Harvard classmate) Kenneth Koch as "a radical, secret gesture of poetic mourning and love" for his recently deceased friend.

If I have my chronology correct, Kent first posited this thesis in a series of four book reviews of recent British poetry published in the Chicago Review sometime between 2004 and 2008. All four of these "fictions," if you will, are reprinted here.

In them emerges the image of a shadowy conspiracy of opal ring-wearing British and American poets, headed by poet and Cambridge don Jeremy Prynne, to guard a dark secret regarding the poetry of Frank O'Hara. Regardless of your position on Kent Johnson, or Koch & O'Hara for that matter, this makes for some hilarious reading. Kent Johnson is a satirist of the first rank.

Following the publication of the Chicago Review pieces, Kent began guest writing on several blogs, most notably Isola di Rifiuti, by John Latta. There began a series of exchanges with poet and O'Hara acolyte Tony Towle, who vehemently denies the possibility that Koch could, or would have even thought of, performing such an act. These exchanges, along with a longer, much less hostile exchange with David Shapiro, are also reproduced here.

Chronologically preceding all of this, according to the author, whose history is notably suspect with regard to authenticity and authorial identity, there existed a transcript of an audio recording by three Japanese scholars of postwar American poetry, two of whom are fictional creations of the third, who is himself a pseudonym of another, unnamed writer, presumably Johnson, though we'll never know.

The content of this "transcription," originally published in a web journal in Japan, is comprised of a conversation regarding the possibility of Koch's authorship, including the claim that these Japanese academics confronted both Joe LeSueur and Kenneth Koch in 1990 about the possibility of Koch's having authored the poem. According to the transcription, both reacted in ways that created even more suspicion.

The whole book is bracketed as "fiction" and/or speculation, which fact is only the beginning of the controversy. When it was announced that Richard Owens, lately of Buffalo, currently of Maine, publisher of Punch Press and Damn The Caesars, intended to collect all of this work into a publication, the Koch and O'Hara estates, much like the fictional secret society imagined in the book, sprang into action.

According to the publisher, what began as some friendly queries about the content of the book quickly escalated into angry demands for pre-publication approvals, and concluded with cease and desist letters and threats of legal action in the event that the book were to be published. On the advice of lawyers, Owens was forced to take several protective measures before seeing the final copy into print.

First, he had to remove the cover from the book and print it as a separate, folded sheet, to be given out alongside the book itself as a sort of souvenir. It fits neatly around the attached cover, as you can see in my photo. I decided to violate my chronology rules today in order to show you the gorgeous letterpress work by Richard Owens.

It's a shame he had to do it this way, but so it goes.

Second, the author was forced to redact almost all quoted material from O'Hara and Koch from the book. In most instances he notes the redaction and paraphrases the original. This doesn't negatively effect the text that much because the argument is not based on a textual reading of the poem. Rather, it is an examination of the circumstances of its discovery after the poet had died, tragically, in a beach buggy accident on Fire Island, the very location of the poem in question.

I finished reading "A Question Mark" two days ago and was sad to put it down. It's a great read -- funny, witty, engaging, and also, oddly, for a work of satire, sincere in positing the questions it raises. Or maybe not so sincere, now that I think about it. The author himself admits that he is not convinced of his own thesis and that he hopes someone can uncover a document to prove it conclusively wrong. Alas, this has yet to occur.

If this is the case, then one has to ask what other motivation Kent Johnson might have in putting forth this provocative argument. Given his documented history of troubling the question of authorship, I don't think we need to look much further than that.

In much the same way he claims O'Hara foreshadows his own death in the poem, Johnson draws a portrait of the figures of authority who feel it their duty to protect the sanctity of authorial identity. He then manages through the publication of this book to bring those authorities to life in the real world. Or, at least, to make them visible.

The question he seems to be asking is not so much, "Did Frank O'Hara or Kenneth Koch write the poem?" as much as it is, "Why is it important to attribute a work of art to the name of an individual artist and to protect that name as a sign of artistic genius?" and "What, exactly, are they trying to protect?"

It returns us to the kinds of questions Kent has been asking publicly for years about the ways in which poetry hierarchies function and how coteries of friends, or alumni of prestigious east coast universities, or poets of a certain generation and/or geographic location, protect their own, while simultaneously claiming an objective and innocent love of great art, regardless of its source. These are often questions of class and race and gender, though I think Kent is more interested in the functioning of power qua power, less about its specific manifestations.

These questions are worth airing in public, one would think, though judging by the vehemence of the reaction against this book, it would seem that others disagree.

On a final note, the book raises some bibliographic questions of its own for me. It is written by Kent Johnson about Frank O'Hara. Normally, I would shelve a book about Frank O'Hara under "O." But if it the poem under hand turns out to have be written by Kenneth Koch, shouldn't I then put it under "K." Or, should I avoid the question altogether and file it under "J" for Johnson. And who the hell is Tosa Motokiyu, anyway?


Kyle said...

In some ways, Kent's A Question Mark Above the Sun reminds me most of the work of Randall McLeod--something of a fantastic, abstract and speculative form of bibliographic / textual studies. It was curious to me that there wasn't more attention to the conventions and difficulties with textual studies as a mode of discourse and tradition--certainly scholars like Mays, McGann and McLeod have gone there, and even poets like Susan Howe whose My Emily Dickinson has done much to broaden the discussion and enliven interest in manuscripts among poets and literary critics. Surely when I re-read Kent's book, I'll look to it with these questions in mind.

In any event, here's to Rich for lovingly publishing one of the most provocative books I've read this year. Handsome as all get out.


Michael Kelleher, Buffalo, NY said...

Thanks for the comment, Kyle. Seems like he is moving even more in that direction in the posts since the publication of the book -- seeking out typescripts and so forth to see if he can match various typewriters to them.

There's something tantalizingly inconclusive about the author question when analyzing the textual materials as evidence. Nothing ever concludes, it just gets more mysterious and interesting.

Kent Johnson said...


Wanted to thank you for this incisive overview of the book. And glad, of course, to hear your blog traffic has spiked "six-fold" because of it! Just to mention to those who might wish to read the book but didn't get a copy of the now-sold-out first edition, that a second edition with new materials is being prepared.

On this bibliographic thing raised by Kyle and you above, I thought I'd give this link here, which contains a letter I wrote to David Lehman, David Shapiro, and Jordan Davis some days back. As you can see, it concerns the issue of the typescript of "A True Account." I've not received any information in regard to its specific query to date, and I would welcome any information anyone might have. As I point out in the Introduction, the poems are written on a different typewriter than the letter to Hal Fondren, which supposedly accompanied the text of "A True Account."

To repeat, I am absolutely ready for anyone, at any moment, to provide conclusive textual evidence that the poem is O'Hara's. And I am hoping that someone can. But it's not enough to say, given the utterly singular, bizarre circumstances surrounding the poem, that it "sounds" like O'Hara. My introduction to the book, in presenting those strange facts and coincidences, attempts to argue that this poem--for the time being, anyway--is a case apart in the O'Hara canon.

And I should say that there are some prominent O'Hara scholars, now, who agree with me.