[This redacted epigraph, a single-line quote by Kenneth Koch from Brad Gooch’s biography of Frank O’Hara, City Poet, is to the following sense: Koch remarks that he almost fell to the floor from where he was seated on “discovering” ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’ because he realized O’Hara was writing about his future death.]
[This second redacted epigraph, five lines from Koch’s ‘Homage to Frank O’Hara,’ is to the following sense: Koch writes that he sometimes feels himself taken over by the spirit of Frank O’Hara, who tells him he should write O’Hara’s poems, exactly as O’Hara would have done; but, says Koch, the only ones he knows how to write are those that O’Hara has “already written,” and thus the poems Koch writes as O’Hara turn out to be O’Hara’s.]
What you have in your hands is a kind of thought-experiment. It proffers the idea that a radical, secret gesture of poetic mourning and love was carried out by Kenneth Koch in memory of his close friend Frank O’Hara. I present the hypothesis as my own very personal expression of homage for the two great poets. The proposal I set forward here, nevertheless, is likely to make some readers annoyed, perhaps even indignant. Some already are. A few fellow writers, even, have worked hard through legal courses to block this book’s publication. 1 The forced redaction of key quotations herein (replaced by paraphrase) is one result of their efforts; the edition’s beautiful original covers have also been suppressed.
‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’ is universally regarded as one of the preeminent poems in the Frank O’Hara canon. And it stands as a very unusual poem among his works, to say the least. Indeed, countless readers have taken it in the very sense of the first epigraph by Koch above: as a haunting and stirring portent of the poet’s death.
Specifically, this book proposes the following possibility: that ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’ may in fact have been authored (or perhaps modified and re-dated from a lost text as noted below and in the Appendix) by Kenneth Koch, soon following O’Hara’s death on July 25, 1966. Koch, in an act now immortalized in American-poetry history, read the poem to a stunned audience at a memorial gathering, eight weeks after O’Hara’s fatal accident—an accident that had taken place only a short stroll from where the strange premonitory masterpiece had supposedly been written, in the same month of eight years prior. There is no record of anyone knowing or hearing of the text’s existence before Koch’s spectacular revelation of it.
Before I offer some defense for why I believe this controversial hypothesis calls for consideration, why the case remains intriguingly open, and why no “conspiracy” need be posited in support of its proposal, let me explain a bit the contents of this eclectic collection and suggest how it might be most productively read—which would be, in fact, more or less in reverse.
The place to begin, that is, following this introduction, is with the Appendix. The document to start with—for it is where the hypothesis of Koch’s authorship has its genesis—is the “tape-essay” by Tosa Motokiyu, Ojiu Norinaga, and Okura Kyojin, the heteronymous editor-translators of the much-discussed Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada (Roof, 1997). It has been known now for more than twelve years that I am the caretaker of the Yasusada manuscripts, which are attributed to “Tosa Motokiyu,” the fictive appellation of a writer who chose to not attach his legal name to the work. “Ojiu Norinaga” and “Okura Kyojin,” it is now also known, are his fictional collaborators, both in the translation and editing of the Yasusada writings as well as in a series of “tape-essays,” four of which have been publicly released, edited by me and Javier Alvarez, one of Mexico’s leading experimental composers and my co-executor, since 1995, of the papers of Tosa Motokiyu. The calling of a famous poem’s authorship into question by parties involved in a much-discussed apocryphal work will no doubt raise some eyebrows. But there is, as the pressing questions will show, no necessary connection between the two affairs. The reader is best served by setting aside the Yasusada controversy from the present one, for the two are of different kind, entirely.
Now, in the tape essay previously mentioned, where the “Kochean” hypothesis is first announced, Motokiyu recounts (in imaginary fashion) a meeting in New York with O’Hara’s long-time roommate Joe LeSueur, where LeSueur talks at length about the conundrum surrounding the composition of ‘A True Account…’ It is important to note that while much of the dialogue and circumstances in the tape-essay are clearly fictional 2 (again, it’s been known for over a decade that Norinaga and Kyojin are Motokiyu’s inventions), the comments by LeSueur are for the overwhelming part actual; indeed, most of his remarks here appear verbatim in his memoir, Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara (FSG, 2003), in the chapter “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.” It is essential to realize, in other words— numerous readers after the tape-essay’s first appearance seem to have not grasped the fact—that the person closest to O’Hara at the time of the poem’s supposed writing (and with him at Fire Island on the day the poem is dated as well as throughout the week following, when the two were traveling together) was completely at a loss to explain how, when, and where ‘A True Account…’ would have been written. Baffled, in addition, that O’Hara never mentioned the poem to him during the trip (or ever), LeSueur declares its existence to be “a great mystery.” His extensive testimony calls for close attention.
The tape-essay was first published in 2007 at the New Delhi-based web journal Almost Island and referenced, with link, in early June 2008, by John Latta, at his widely admired blog, Isola di Rifiuti. A few days later, June 11th, an angry response (the first of two) was published there from Tony Towle, a poet who had been in O’Hara’s circle during the 60s. As well, a lengthy letter partly touching on the matter by the critic Andrew Epstein,3 author of the important O’Hara study Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (Oxford, 2006), and a missive from one of O’Hara’s most prominent acolytes, the poet Bill Berkson, followed Towle’s posting at Isola di Rifiuti. Epstein called Motokiyu’s proposal “bizarre,” and Berkson scornfully referred to it as “Kent Johnson’s folderol,” offering as proof of O’Hara’s authorship an inconsequential and also glaringly erroneous (as I point out in a couple of the documents here) “memory” of the poem’s “discovery.”
The reader may wish to consider these ample interventions in the Isola di Rifiuti archives. In any case, I quoted Towle’s initial letter in a point by point riposte on July 10th (as chance would have it, the exact 50th anniversary of the dating of the poem at issue!), again at Latta’s blog, and the text of Towle’s post is present here, as well, inside my response to it; Towle’s first complaint and my reply, then, would be the next thing that should be read so as to properly grasp the fuller context of the debate.
Also reprinted here, from July 15th and with Latta’s original introductory comments, are letters to Isola di Rifiuti from the great poet David Shapiro, who in his youth was very close to O’Hara. He argues forcefully, even movingly (in his inimitably idiosyncratic style), that the poem is surely O’Hara’s, that it is fully in his voice and could have been written by no other; conversely, he insists the voice of the poem bears little register of Koch’s own. As I point out, I find Shapiro’s frame of argument surprising, given that there is, in fact, no real parallel to the poem–his reference to personification in “Second Avenue” notwithstanding–anywhere in O’Hara’s production, whereas certain pieces by Koch (such as ‘Some General Instructions,’ or ‘The Art of Poetry’) do indeed carry tonal and dictional echoes of an intriguing kind. But this would not be decisive to my argument here, in any case.
I have a deep respect for Shapiro and his work: He is one of the magnificent figures in contemporary U.S. literature; his achievement, I am not alone in feeling, easily matches or surpasses that of any member of the New York School second generation. In terms of the canon, he more accurately belongs in the first. However, his spirited Berensonian arguments (despite his negative remark about Berenson!), though a vital part of the disputed case, ultimately fail to settle the fascinating and confounding lacunae and coincidences presented by Motokiyu in his tape-essay (and summarized by me, with some additions, in my first reply to Towle). 4
Following this is a post from July 17th titled “Quick Notes on a ‘Hidden’ Frank O’Hara Document.” It concerns a correspondence of some emails I’d had, in the week previous, with James S. Jaffe, the most important bookseller of manuscripts and editions pertaining to the New York School of poets. As I report there, Jaffe generously photocopied for me a barely known four-page item he is offering for sale, at $6,500: an original typewritten and signed letter, dated July 19th, 1958, by O’Hara to his close friend the art expert Hal Fondren (at whose rented Fire Island cottage O’Hara and LeSueur had been ten or so days previous), and two separately enclosed poems, these being carbon-copy typescripts of ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,’ dated July 10th of the same year, and an early—and French titled— version of the soon-to-be-famous ‘Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets,’ dated July 9th (a poem, incidentally, that not only strikingly differs from its partner in matter of bibliographic history, but also in staging, mood, form, and topical concern—a radical mismatch of affect for near-simultaneous pieces that Towle himself finds bewildering). Both poems bear, at their conclusions, the typed designation “Fire Island.” The fascinating letter to Fondren is written on a different typewriter than the one used for the poems; the contents of the letter are summarized by me (for the first time ever, to my knowledge) in the post.
Finally, then, there is in the Appendix the most recent exchange at Isola di Rifiuti between Tony Towle and me, with respective postings on 8/19/10 and 8/23/10. His long letter, which like the first is quoted entire for fairness—my replies interlineated—was prompted by the announcement of the forthcoming publication of this book.
Very well, then. Let me now turn to the case for the hypothesis of Kenneth Koch’s authorship of ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.’
I begin with a surprising detail set forth in Towle’s August 2010 intervention. It is an important detail, for it directly concerns a key problem my hypothesis must explain: If Koch did compose “A True Account…,” how is it that its typescript matches the early version of ‘Ode: Salute…’–a poem which is decisively ascribed to O’Hara, accompanies ‘A True Account…,’ and is dated contemporaneously with it?
I roundly dismiss the mostly irrelevant objections by Towle in my reply at Isola di Rifiuti (see Appendix). But he does offer an important revelation there of which I hadn’t been aware, having assumed, as I did, that Koch would have required O’Hara’s portable Royal typewriter to produce the text of ‘A True Account…’ and thus match the font of its sister poem. It’s a piece of information that, despite Towle’s intent, could be seen as giving yet more credence to the possibility of Koch’s authorship: that the two poems extant with the letter to Fondren are not typed, as is almost all of O’Hara’s work of the period (and as is the case with the letter), on O’Hara’s trusty portable, but rather on a machine of undetermined origin.
The notion of Koch producing the poem, in other words, need not be predicated now on his somehow having O’Hara’s typewriter to hand. Brought into play, instead, is the prospect that Koch could have 1) matched the typewriter (or model) used for the accompanying early draft of ‘Ode: Salute…’ in his typing of ‘A True Account…’, or 2) made in interests of consistency with his typescript of ‘A True Account…’ a faithful copy of ‘Ode: Salute…’ from O’Hara’s Royal version of it.
I discuss the first possibility in my final response to Towle in the Appendix, pointing out that it’s a matter of record Koch and O’Hara were closely together in the week after the Fire Island visit when O’Hara (as Towle himself suggests) may have produced the original two poems linked to the epistle and that Koch may well have had knowledge of, and later access to, the mysterious typewriter his friend used for them. In point of fact, it’s quite conceivable that ‘Ode: Salute…’ and whatever poem initially accompanied it were typed by O’Hara on a portable that Koch had with him at the time, something that would, obviously, have made the matching of typescripts in 1966 a simple exercise.
As for the second possible scenario noted above, that Koch could have made an exact copy of ‘Ode: Salute…’ from O’Hara’s original Royal version of it, I would ask the skeptical reader (nearly everyone, up to this point, I presume!) to consider the following facts:
LeSueur unambiguously reports in Digressions that O’Hara did have his portable Royal with him, as usual, on the July, 1958 Fire Island trip. And the poem is not only dated and marked at bottom as written at Fire Island; O’Hara also obscurely refers in the letter to Fondren to “the 2 poems I wrote out there” (emphasis mine).
Given the aforementioned particulars, the enigmatic typewriter used for the poems poses the question: If O’Hara had his customary machine with him, and if he did, as he clearly asserts in the letter, type two poems at Fire Island, why are the extant texts written on a mysterious source—one on which no other poems by O’Hara are known to have been written? Let me repeat that rather startling bibliographic detail, which the reader may want to hold in mind while considering the other puzzles about the poem I present below: ‘A True Account…’ and the accompanying poem come from a platform not matched to anything else in the O’Hara archive.
To Towle, Berkson, Epstein, Shapiro, and no doubt others, the epistle to Fondren—wherein O’Hara casually remarks that he encloses “the 2 poems I wrote out there,” inviting Fondren to make any changes to them he wishes—and the accompanying typescript of ‘A True Account…’ held by Jaffe settle the matter. But, in point of fact, as the prior comments and those that follow show, they in no final way do.
Key to note in this regard is that the poems’ carbon typescripts (they are in perfect copy; the letter page contains some strikeouts and corrections) bear no signature or other holographic markings—an uncommon thing, in fact, for poems gifted by O’Hara, who was customarily generous in his handwritten dedications. Key, too, is that Jaffe has no actual record of the epistolary item’s history and sequence of ownership. Specifically, Jaffe has told me the materials were purchased in “the trade” and not from Fondren or his estate. And he has stated he cannot deny that the letter may have been in Koch’s possession for a period of time. It is clear, given O’Hara’s signature, that the letter itself to Fondren is authentic. Clear and known, as well, is that Koch, who famously—and fortunately!—took away all of O’Hara’s manuscripts from the poet’s apartment barely hours after O’Hara’s death, quickly sought out, from mutual acquaintances and friends, other materials not present in the papers he’d appropriated.
The following is essential to understanding the hypothesis: The plausibility of Koch’s authorship rests on his having access to the July 19th letter shortly subsequent to his friend’s death, for the poem is marked to the weekend and place of the visit with Fondren. How would Koch have been aware of the epistle?
Two years back, Towle had posed the question to me rather sarcastically, suggesting that Koch could never have known O’Hara was at Fire Island on July 9th and 10th of 1958. But we now know the two poets were in each other’s extended company immediately after the weekend visit. And we can reasonably surmise, in any case, that Koch came upon the carbon copy of the letter amidst the trove he’d packed into two large suitcases on his archive-salvaging visit. That is most likely, in fact. And there is no doubt that feelings of nostalgia and poignancy would have been present for Koch on seeing the letter, for he is mentioned memorably therein (more on this below). Even if not, though, the undeniable possibility exists that the original item of correspondence could have come into Koch’s hands from Fondren or someone else shortly after O’Hara’s death. The undeniable probability exists, too, that Koch soon became aware of a small journal the poet had with him at the scene of his fatal accident—one that contains, as we will see, only a single handwritten entry whose coincidence of imagery and allusion in relation to the “prophetic” poem is so breathtaking as to defy belief. In combination with the journal, then, this letter, which makes no specific reference to ‘A True Account…,’ would have provided the mise en scène inspiration for the suddenly “discovered” poem—a poem, good to restate here, that “all too neatly,” as O’Hara’s biographer Brad Gooch has it, foreshadows O’Hara’s death at the very place of its claimed composition.
And whose manifest shadow text, it should be kept in mind, is a famous poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky, the most closely shared hero of the two friends, whom they avidly read and discussed together… They both had, indeed, close knowledge of the Russian poet’s Sun-talking masterpiece, ‘An Extraordinary Adventure Which Happened to Me, Vladimir Mayakovsky, One Summer in the Country,’ a poem also set, interestingly enough, in July. It is peculiar, to say the least, that O’Hara, in the space of eight years, would have not seen fit to share such a clear and rare allusive gesture with his fellow Mayakovsky aficionado. Actually, it is simply bizarre that he wouldn’t have. Already in 1955, in an August 6th letter from Paris, Koch excitedly responds to O’Hara, praising a poem sent by the latter—one now disappeared—which Koch refers to as “the Imitation of a Russian.” The other poem accompanying this letter is well-settled in the canon and its copy is still present, apparently, in Koch’s papers. In all likelihood the “Imitation” was of Mayakovsky. I discuss this missing “Imitation of a Russian” in footnote below and in the second reply to Towle.5
Perhaps O’Hara shared ‘A True Account…’ with another close friend, John Ashbery, who’d been avidly corresponding from Europe about the Russian poets with O’Hara and Koch at the time? Ashbery, like his companions, was a great fan of Pasternak’s Safe Conduct (Pasternak, actually, is the only author acknowledged by epigraph in his first book), at whose heart is Mayakovsky. Yet Ashbery seems to have been taken by total surprise, in 1966, like everyone else.
Even stranger, perhaps, is this: Another keen fan of the great Soviet bard (he titles an early poem ‘Homage to Mayakofsky’ [sic], itself an open riff on Ashbery’s appropriation in ‘Two Scenes’ of the Russian poet’s imagery and rhetoric) and one of O’Hara’s most devoted followers, the young Ted Berrigan, had spent many hours on different occasions in the O’Hara/LeSueur Broadway apartment during the early 60s, as LeSueur himself reports, “poring over” his hero’s manuscripts— the same manuscripts wherein O’Hara’s secret omen was supposedly, and quickly, found by Koch. Berrigan, unaccountably, seems to have never seen the poem during his assiduous reading and copying—or, as inexplicably if he did see it, to have never made mention to anyone of recognizing it following Koch’s spectacular revelation. (Curious, too, that he and Koch were quite aware, and soon after its dated writing, of a less original poem, set in Southampton, whose extant version is dated 1959: ‘Getting up Ahead of Someone [Sun],’ an occasional lyric notable for its rapidly and widely adopted “I do this I do that poems” phrase. Or perhaps not so strange, if one entertains the possibility that this early morning solar poem—readily shared by O’Hara, as was his custom—may have had something to do, for Koch, with the “1958” one? It seems very possibly set at Koch’s, who had a place in Southampton at the time, 6 and its theme strongly hints at the headlong transience of life.)
The oddities pile up. Taken together, they certainly unsettle, at least, the conventional, comfortable ascription. Yet, to be sure, the reader will reasonably ask: What about the document held by Jaffe? For it would appear the evident sticking point, if indeed the poem is “forged,” concerns the presence of the ‘A True Account…’ copy currently with the letter to Fondren. For some, as I’ve mentioned, this closes the case in favor of O’Hara.
Let me put forward some further speculations, proposing three potential scenarios, the last as the most conceivable:
If the poem originated with Koch, it is by no means impossible that a third party, having the letter to hand and seeing the carbon copy of the poem among the O’Hara papers at some point not long after 1966, noticed the matching dates and location and then innocently connected the two texts. Perhaps…
But in the context of the hypothesis for Koch’s authorship there would be a more compelling—even if much more controversial—prospect that would explain the presence of the typescript copy with the epistle: that Koch, fully committed to keeping the poem in O’Hara’s name, took an atypical but logical step to instantiate the strange text’s “provenance.” For if Koch had indeed been inspired to write the poem and reveal it as his friend’s mystical premonitory masterpiece, and if he did so as a radical act of creative, empathic, and selfless tribute to his beloved comrade, one might ask: Would it not also have behooved him at some juncture to place, for decisive authentication, his carbon copy of the preternatural poem with the letter of its “circumstance”—a letter that would ratify its prior reality and confirm its prophetic visitation to O’Hara at the very place his life would end? Indeed, Koch could have done so at any time during a very long period, following O’Hara’s passing. 7
As scandalous as such measure in the abstract may seem, it would hardly have been an inconsistent or unethical one, were Koch’s intent to perpetually gift such “dictated” homage to his poetic companion, to have the poem truly and forever belong to him. Possibly replacing, that is—to assert the anomalous but circumstantially possible scenario—’A True Account…’ for another, no doubt less extraordinary text, one still extant in the O’Hara oeuvre but now unmoored from its occasion. [Nota bene: If Koch had the letter to Fondren, we can’t be sure whether the “two poems” mentioned by O’Hara still accompanied it. But here, and though the absence of such would not settle the matter (for some texts by O’Hara are known to be lost), it would be relevant to ascertain what other manuscript poems among holdings or private ownership also bear “Fire Island” as their place of composition, assuming, that is, a replaced poem would have carried the designation.] 8
I present the second scenario above as one possibility against the backdrop of the poem’s weird and unexplained history. I want to be clear, however, that the hypothesis for the presence of Koch’s hand doesn’t at all require us, actually, to believe he would have personally placed the poem in company of the July 19th letter. And this would be the third, and to my mind, most ordinary and simple scenario underlying the Koch hypothesis. To explain:
We’ve seen it is likely Koch encountered the letter’s carbon (with or without the two poems unnamed in the letter attached) in the mass of manuscripts he’d taken for safe-keeping. There’s little doubt he would have seen the carbon of the ‘Ode: Salute…’ version somewhere there as well, a poem widely known at the time from Donald Allen’s anthology. With that epistle-tethered poem, then (the date and location at bottom clearly link it), he could have created in writing ‘A True Account…’ (recalling from a decade back the enigmatic “Imitation of a Russian”?) a typeface match, locking its composition to the place of the poet’s eventual death and decisively “authenticating” the poem as a prophetic, uncanny work.
Therefore, following his revelation of the poem, Koch—or someone else—could well have given or sent a copy to Fondren, in light of his name appearing within it. It would have been a natural thing to do. In turn, Fondren (or his companion, Jack Shaw) would have naturally taken the poem as something O’Hara had written and dated retrospectively (immediately after, or sometime later), in memory of the visit, and—noticing the date—have placed it with the letter. A normal and casual act. Granted, this leaves us with a missing poem from the “two poems” originally sent. Yet it’s hardly a stretch to think the missing poem could have been taken out and gone its own way over the years: perhaps innocently put in another place, or taken by Shaw or another, maybe even sent back to O’Hara, if he’d lost his copy and needed it to make a record or to revise it. 9 One could think of yet other possibilities… Anyway, I know myself, from the days before e-mail and document attachments, that at least half the poems friends had enclosed to me are no longer located in their original envelopes! And who knows where most of them now are. The point is that we needn’t necessarily think a missing poem is so odd, nor to assume any “replacement” was made by Koch. As a matter of fact, there is no reason to assume Koch found in O’Hara’s papers the second of the unspecified “two poems” referred to in the letter! He may have well ascertained the original companion to ‘Ode: Salute…’ was missing.
Regardless, and as previously mentioned, the crucial thing to note is that the letter and enclosed poems have no established history of possession. Jaffe, again, has told me he obtained the letter from an unnamed source, and not from the Fondren estate, so it is unclear, ultimately, through whose hands the item has passed, where and when it had been, and so forth. And there is no record, in any case, written or anecdotal, that Fondren ever spoke, before or after Koch’s reading, of the sui generis poem as being in his ownership. And it’s mystifying—as mystifying as Berrigan’s own silence—that he seems to have not, in touch as he was with artists and poets of the time, particularly given the shocked reaction the text’s unveiling evoked. If anyone can attest that Fondren confirmed the poem had been sent in 1958, he or she can step forward. A piece of correspondence on the matter by him— something fairly reasonable to expect—would put the matter to rest.
Plagiarizing, stealing, hoaxing for punitive purpose or personal advantage, the history of literature abounds with intricately rendered subterfuge. (O’Hara, interestingly enough, was not altogether above such “spurious” temptation himself, having promoted the undoubtedly bogus and widely accepted myth of composing his Lunch Poems collection on a showroom Olivetti during noon breaks, a joke Koch was surely in on.) Koch was well familiar with this history, and he was an expert enthusiast of some of those escapades, the Ern Malley hoax in particular. It’s of note, too, that he was quite practiced in writing “as another”: Witness the astounding ventriloquisms of ‘Some South American Poets.’ His keen knowledge of authorially distressed writing may well have provided a background nudge, of sorts. But the point is that here we are hypothesizing something fundamentally opposite in spirit, something constituting not a self-interested trick, so much as a wholesale benefaction—a gesture meant to immortalize a friend.
And how spooky and fitting, both, speaking of spirit, that a poem first read so “successfully” to the world by Koch, in the fall of 1966, a poem where O’Hara prophesizes his own death, should appear with a letter where O’Hara also seems, in a sense, to prophesize the mystical poem’s public revelation: “Kenneth’s reading was very successful,” he writes breathlessly to Fondren. Does he praise a public reading by Koch in any other piece of correspondence? I don’t know for sure. But one cannot be blamed for asking: What, really, is less likely? That Koch, following through on a generous act of tribute, would have intercalated an imagined poem into a letter that had provided its ideational frame (or, more likely, simply provided it to that letter’s original recipient), or that O’Hara would have written an inexplicably cached, Mayakovsky-allusive farewell-ode that portends his own death at the very place his life would end—with eerie adumbration in accompanying letter, to boot, that Koch, his fellow Mayakovsky worshipper, would one day reveal the manuscript with such success?
And more: that the last lines of poetry he carried with him in his otherwise empty journal when struck down at Fire Island (like the famous last poem in Mayakovsky’s pocket, one could say) echo back to the very poem that foretold his death at that very place? At the very least, one scenario above doesn’t seem any more implausible than the other. If anything, really, the second one (commonly taken for granted) is more implausible, for it involves explaining the poem’s unaccountable disappearance on top of a nearly supernatural happenstance. 10
Still, caution seems to say Occam’s razor would parse things in O’Hara’s favor. And I want to be clear, despite all I have said, that the poem’s authenticity is, still, with all its surrounding weirdness, most probably the correct assumption. One would certainly be safest to “go chalk” if betting on it, and I, for one, would be perfectly delighted to have the odds confirmed. In this regard, incidentally—though to my knowledge no one has yet distinctly proposed the notion—what could be seen as the most likely scenario, especially given LeSueur’s “logistical” bemusements related to the day in question, is that O’Hara wrote the poem in the week of subsequent travel—when he was with Koch, Lee Krasner, Patsy Southgate, and others—and not at Fire Island. For would O’Hara really have had a faultless version of the two-page, emotionally complex text ready to hand, pounded out on the typewriter on the prior weekend in some small space of early morning hung-over time? LeSueur writes, with emphasis, that O’Hara slept late on July 10th, after heavy drinking, and lounged on the beach into the early afternoon. A composition later that week would at least help explain the unknown machine used for the poems, even if not the quasi-impossible history of ‘A True Account…’ itself.
At any rate, in absence of further evidence, the unsettled “probably” for O’Hara is the necessary and tantalizing qualifier in the case of this singular work. Because farfetched and suspicious, also, are the numerous, barely believable circumstances surrounding ‘A True Account…,’ and these surely throw enough reasonable doubt on the case to bracket comfortable assumptions. The reader will judge. As the Popperian proposition goes, something must be falsifiable to be potentially true. And the hypothesis of a Kochean authorship, provocatively hinted at by hanging circumstantial evidence, awaits its definite falsification.
If the quirky suspicion Motokiyu and I hold is by some chance proven right, then Kenneth Koch’s position as one of the greatest, most idiosyncratic, and memorable poets of our time will be doubly assured. As will the irreplaceable position of his camerado, Frank O’Hara, who would have inspired such wild and unprecedented homage… For what poet could claim such immortal honor? How many poets, in the end, could hope to inspire such a moving gesture of selfless transference?
The reader may like, after reading the Appendix materials, to turn to the actual “body” of the book, though it is not essential to do so: the four, extended crypto-critical reviews of contemporary British poets. These were published, serially, in consecutive issues of the Chicago Review, in 2008 and 2009. They were written, as the reader will see, under the spell of my obsession with the mystery surrounding “O’Hara’s” poem. The reviews constitute the first four chapters of a projected twelve-part “critical novella” I had intended to write. Alas, I seem to have run out of steam in the engine of it, and it seems fated to remain as is, cut-off at the point where an unknown member of a sub-rosa society charged with preserving the secret surrounding O’Hara’s poem inflicts physical violence upon my person. The simulacrum plum tree outside Keats’s house in Hampstead Heath seems as good a place to conclude it all as any. I hope what is extant may have some critical perspicacity to recommend it, perhaps some enchantment, too. I do feel poetry criticism, so presently locked in a kind of positivist snit, could benefit from more of the latter, a more exploratory engagement with the energies of fiction and speculative fancy, as it were. I should say, too, and with not a little wonder, that certain events shortly before this book’s publication (events which are not over, I suppose) do simulate the paranoid fantasies of my short-circuited novella in some heavily ironic ways.
But to return to the more serious point, I will end by saying something emphasized herein by both Motokiyu and me. And it is something I think is very important.
The centrality and greatness of Frank O’Hara’s achievement, obviously, is assured. No question mark suspended above one of the poems under his name—even a canonical one like ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’—can change that. And as I suggest previously, there is a real sense, I believe, that the poem’s new status as an ultimately apocryphal text can only add to the beloved man’s aura. For what could be a deeper, more poignant and perpetual testimony to the measure of his person and work than that a poem may well have been written for him by another, and as if by him, in mourning, love, and homage—a poem in which the departed speaks through the dark Sun of his own death and from the very place he will die? And what could be more beautiful, more apropos, than the unanswered—perhaps ultimately unanswerable—mysteries about its making? Would O’Hara mind the mystery, if the poem is actually his? I dare suspect he wouldn’t.
One final note, if I may, about that strange and little-known journal entry I’ve called attention to: Again, the journal on O’Hara’s person at the site of the tragic accident was certainly among the materials that came into Koch’s purview in the days following the poet’s passing. In its otherwise blank pages there is only this single and chilling entry, in O’Hara’s distinctive handwriting, and titled “Oedipus Rex,” that figure who is framed by prophecy and whose relation to it eludes any settled interpretation:
[This redacted single line, the strange journal entry, taken from LeSueur’s Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, is to the following sense: The poet “falls,” but even in doing so he achieves heights greater than those who soar into the common Sun.]
As LeSueur reports, they may be taken as Frank O’Hara’s last lines of poetry. Impossible to not recall that the last lines of Sophocles’ play have the chorus repeating that no man should be considered fortunate until he is dead… The terrible irony would certainly not have escaped Koch. And it should be plain to see how it might have inspired in him the “linked” prophetic poem.
On the journal’s cover is O’Hara’s full name, in holograph. But the signature itself is, enigmatically, in another writer’s hand. Is the name perhaps written there by Koch? In light of some of the previous questions raised, I’ll leave it to the reader to puzzle further the potential meaning of O’Hara’s almost impossible “last-written words.” I mean the meaning they may have had for Kenneth Koch, the poet whose first book-length manuscript, written under O’Hara’s direct inspiration and counsel, was the poem entitled When the Sun Tries To Go On, and who titled his final book, a collection of poems from those early years (posthumously published), Sun Out. And who titled two other of his books in literal relation to ‘A True Account…’ And who also wrote the [redacted] lines from ‘Homage to Frank O’Hara,’ which epigraph this introduction…
As our poem says, in the voice of the Sun:
[These redacted three lines, toward the conclusion of ‘A True Account…,’ are to the following sense: The Sun tells “Frank” to “go back to sleep” so that he may deposit, as his final adieu, a small poem in Frank’s sleeping mind.]
And as it concludes, in the voice of “Frank O’Hara”:
[This redacted brief passage, the last line of ‘A True Account…,’ is to the following sense: “O’Hara” says that the Sun rose “darkly” and that he then “slept.” It is in the strongly implied sense of forever…]
- The poets Bill Berkson, Jordan Davis, Ron Padgett, and Tony Towle. More details will emerge in the future.
- The meeting with Koch, for example, is entirely fanciful.
- Epstein’s letter is mainly a defense of another poem credited to O’Hara, ‘Finding Leroi a Lawyer,’ which Latta had in a previous post proposed, and rather persuasively, might have been forged by Koch. Towle, interestingly enough, accepts the possibility.
- In advance of the reader’s consideration of Shapiro’s plea on behalf of O’Hara’s “tone,” for I did not answer it directly during the 2008 discussion, I would offer the following demurral: Even if we grant the poem as in O’Hara’s mold, do matters of voice and style always trump the ways of mourning and tribute? For in grief people often lose themselves, attain realms of otherness. The deepest, most powerful writing, surely, often leaves authorial register in the dust. As O’Hara himself once wrote to Shapiro’s friend Frank Lima, “Poetry is the most difficult of all the arts.” And it is, much because of its difficult, treacherous, often-ventriloquized nature, sometimes the most difficult of all the arts to pin-down and attribute with certainty, particularly in instances, as this one, where normal indices of genetic verification have gone weirdly astray.
- This letter has recently been printed in The Correspondence of Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara 1955-1956 [Parts I and II], ed. by Josh Schneiderman (Lost and Found: The CUNY Poetics Documents Initiative, 2010). As Schneiderman states in a bemused footnote, “No collected poem from this period fits Koch’s description.” But here one might ask: Could the 1955 “Imitation of a Russian” have been a blueprint of sorts for Koch, modified and “relocated” in 1966 into ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’—an imitation of an Ur-imitation that had so impacted him a decade before? In the August 6th Paris letter (whose historic date does not escape me), the well-known ‘At the Old Place’ is described by Koch—in clear nod as well to the accompanying and now-missing “Imitation of a Russian”—as follows: Redacted single sentence to the following sense: Koch states the poem is marked by what he regards as one of O’Hara’s greatest gifts—a fantastical, onrushing “Russian futuristic breathlessness.” About the now-lost “Imitation of a Russian,” Koch directly says, Redacted single sentence to the following sense: Koch states the “Imitation” is flawless and gives the exciting feeling of everything unfolding “in the exact present moment.” The focused immediacy of ‘A True Account…’ is, of course, very decidedly “in the exact present moment.”
- As did Fairfield Porter and Larry Rivers. There may be hints of setting in the poem I am missing. Two other O’Hara poems that would have been important to Koch bear intriguing possible resonances in this regard: ‘Poem (So many echoes in my head),’ written in 1960, begins by quoting a line from Koch’s ‘You Were Wearing,’ complaining that its memory blocks O’Hara from writing anything of his own. O’Hara ends the poem by writing the following: [Redacted to the following sense: O’Hara says he will allow the sun to wait until summer because affection has moved into a dark area that represents depth, secrecy, and mystery, and he goes on to say that when the sun’s light returns meaning will become clear, even as others’ interpretations remain like statues on the pedestals created by the poet and his friend, so long as they are “still wearing each other” when apart and alone]. Another poem, ‘Joe’s Jacket,’ written in 1959, has O’Hara waking in dark spirits at Koch’s place in Southampton, near Fire Island, during the summer, and opening a book to read D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Ship of Death.’ But then O’Hara sees Koch through the window, going out to stop a car horn that has for no apparent reason begun to sound, and the image of his friend takes his mind to the Paris of the libretto O’Hara has been helping Koch write, and to the spirits of “beauty and art.” O’Hara writes that (thanks to the apparition of his friend) he “did not die,” and that then the sun, “musical and strange,” rises above.
- Up to ca. 1970, at least, when Donald Allen began his bibliography of O’Hara’s letters in preparation for his edition of the Collected Poems. Though I’ve made inquiries with Lytle Shaw, who was connected to the curatorship of the Allen bibliography at University of Connecticut/ Storrs, it is unclear whether Allen had the original July 19th item to hand, or if he was working from copies in the O’Hara materials that Koch had taken in 1966–and to which ‘A True Account…’ could have been attached around that time. If the latter scenario is the case, then the replacement into the original letter itself could (if the more likely case of Koch [or another party] giving the poem to Fondren is incorrect) have hypothetically occurred any time during the following thirty-six years before Koch’s death.
- There’s a question here the skeptical reader might reasonably ask: Assuming a placement in the original item was made by Koch himself before Fondren’s death in 1999 (Koch died three years later), what would Koch have said on the chance Fondren had noticed the different text within the envelope, upon its return? In fact, it’s hardly unreasonable to think that Fondren would not have checked, as anyone who files away old correspondence can attest. But in the event Fondren had looked back at the item, and assuming that Koch himself inserted the carbon copy, it would have presented no problem, really, to accept that the poem had been, and quite understandably, placed therein by error—a poem found within the papers, written retrospectively by O’Hara, one could imagine, and post-dated to the time and place of inspiration. Moreover, Fondren would have had no requisite reason, upon first hearing it or hearing of it (I’ve been unable to determine if he was at the memorial reading), to link the work to the 1958 visit and letter: though he is named in the poem—he and the poet were close friends and former Harvard roommates—O’Hara had been with him at Fire Island on other occasions. Indeed, inquiries I’ve made suggest—though the reports are certainly provisional, given elapsed time— that Koch offered no reference to the poem’s specific “date” when he presented it.
- In the letter to Fondren, O’Hara mentions he is thinking to “make changes to each of them.” ‘Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets’ did undergo revision before its publication in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry. Of course, there is no other version of ‘A True Account…’ besides the one we have.
- I’m not the only one to hold these doubts. Lytle Shaw, author of the singular study Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie (Iowa), readily agrees, in response to my correspondence with him, that there are anomalous circumstances surrounding the text. The day after this book’s prepublication announcement was released by Punch Press editor Richard Owens, the renowned critic and O’Hara scholar Marjorie Perloff wrote to tell me that she has for many years harbored suspicion the poem is not O’Hara’s, that “it does, just by internal evidence, sound more like Koch.” As well, the poet and noted Nation magazine art critic Barry Schwabsky wrote me to say that he “always thought [‘A True Account…’] sounded like Koch too.” He went on to express marked skepticism, however, that Koch would have written the poem without eventually taking credit for it. Interestingly, I later received a letter from David Lehman, who was Koch’s student and knew the poet intimately for many years. Lehman praised the gesture of the hypothesis and remarked on its potentially worthy repercussions, but expressed, like Schwabsky, that “it is hard for me to imagine him writing a terrific poem and not taking credit for it.” At the heart of my essay, of course, is the proposal for precisely why Koch would have declined credit, if he is, in fact, the poem’s author.
A RATHER SHOCKING LAST-MINUTE DEVELOPMENT
On September 28th, 2010, at his blog Isola di Rifiuti, just as this book was going to press, John Latta posted (with some expressed astonishment) the poem that follows. It was published in issue #8 (Spring 1966) of Art and Literature. The issue of the journal is held by the University of Michigan Library, where Latta works. The journal copy is date-stamped as received “May 18, 1966.” The poem, that is to say, was published approximately three months before O’Hara’s death.
‘Phone to the Poets in Moscow’ is credited to “Koichi K. O’Hara.” The poem, there is no question, is a parodic channeling of Vladimir Mayakovsky. The poem references Mayakovsky by name. It mentions Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara. It refers to the author’s “office” at Columbia University.
The poem’s “pseudonym” would suggest a collaboration between Koch and O’Hara. It’s possible. But as Latta points out (see quote in footnote), there is little, if any, trace of O’Hara’s timbre here.
The poem, lost and forgotten, is by all signs authored by Kenneth Koch.
The implications, in context of the hypothesis presented in this book, are quite stunning. Not to forget the rather odd fact that the poem is in the voice of a “Japanese” poet, when the very hypothesis of this book was first advanced by a “Japanese” poet…
But let me put the main matter succinctly and leave the reader to mull it over:
Short months before Frank O’Hara’s death, Kenneth Koch is writing, at least in part, as O’Hara—and doing so via a channeling of (and direct reference to) Vladimir Mayakovsky. Five months or so after this poem was published, Koch presented ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,’ an unknown poem “by” O’Hara he claimed to have discovered shortly following O’Hara’s passing: one that also calls out the name of Mayakovsky, in the act of channeling his spirit. ‘Phone to the Poets of Moscow’ demands insistently that poets “Wake up.” ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’ calls quietly on Frank O’Hara to “go back to sleep now.”
Here is the poem by “Koichi K. O’Hara.”
Kent Johnson September 28, 2010
For further infomation:
– for a review in the New Republic, see https://newrepublic.com/article/110852/frank-ohara-poem-kenneth-koch-question-mark-above-sun
– for a discussion of the book by a leading scholar of New York School poetry, see https://newyorkschoolpoets.wordpress.com/2013/09/21/kent-johnsons-a-question-mark-above-the-sun-another-look/
– for background information on the scandalous attempts by Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, the Random House Corp., the Frank O’Hara Literary Estate, and a coterie of associated poets to suppress via legal intimidation the book’s limited first edition (published by Punch Press in late 2010), see http://thechagallposition.blogspot.com/2010/09/you-and-what-army.html
– for a complete version of the poem “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” (otherwise redacted in the below essay due to legal threats), see The Paris Review Daily (2/6/2018) https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/02/06/redux-frank-ohara-joy-williams-roberto-bolano/