Kent Johnson’s A Question Mark Above the Sun: Another Look

Kent Johnson Question Mark

Back in July, I wrote about the wealth of elegies for Frank O’Hara which appeared after his tragic death in 1966, written by many of his friends, including Allen Ginsberg, David Shapiro, and James Schuyler.

At the time, I didn’t mention the possibility that there may be one more, called “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.”

This poem, of course, is one of Frank O’Hara own best-loved poems.  However, according to a controversial and much-discussed hypothesis advanced by the poet Kent Johnson, “A True Account of Talking to the Sun” may not have been written by O’Hara in 1958, as we’ve always thought.  Johnson speculates the poem may have actually been written in 1966 by Kenneth Koch in the wake of his dear friend’s death and then attributed to O’Hara by Koch, in a surreptitious act of tribute and mourning.

Set on Fire Island, the exact place where O’Hara would tragically die eight years later, the poem portrays O’Hara speaking with the sun (in homage to a poem by Mayakovsky) about his life, his poetry, and his own mortality (“darkly he rose, and then I slept”).  The usual story goes that a grief-stricken Koch was shocked to discover the poem among O’Hara’s things after his death (like many other O’Hara poems).  As Brad Gooch writes in his biography of O’Hara, “In the following months, Koch often read the poem at poetry readings to audiences who were invariably moved by its almost too neatly prophetic parting stanza.”

Struck by “the almost too neatly prophetic” details surrounding the poem, Johnson developed an admittedly far-fetched theory about the provenance and authorship of the iconic poem.  It began as speculation on various blogs, and later became a book called A Question Mark Above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “By” Frank O’Hara.  It is now out in a second edition from Starcherone Books with an elegant cover and complete with ancillary texts, emails, defenses, and so on.

The book has received a lot of attention, including a favorable review in the New Republic, a new piece in the Los Angeles Review (about which more below), and much heated commentary. Johnson — who is perhaps best-known for his involvement in the Araki Yasusada hoax, as well as other provocations and subversive literary play — has faced stiff resistance from the O’Hara and Koch estates, which refused to cooperate with Johnson or grant permission for materials to be quoted.

I should say that I’m not an entirely disinterested observer here, as I was in contact with Kent during the period (in 2008) when he was originally speculating about this hypothesis.  In fact, I alerted Kent to the existence of a letter O’Hara wrote to his friend Hal Fondren in 1958, a copy of which I had read in an archive while researching my book Beautiful Enemies — a document in which O’Hara seems to refer to and enclose the poem in question.  I was also responsible for Kent learning that this letter could be found in the possession of a rare book dealer in New York, a lead Kent follows and discusses in exhausting detail in the book.  To most people (though not necessarily to Kent), it would appear that the existence of this letter to Fondren, in which O’Hara seems to have enclosed a copy of “A True Account,” is evidence that puts the matter to rest.  However, Kent investigates this letter, the circumstances of its writing, and its possible enclosures at great length in the book, with sometimes head-spinning detail, as he attempts to raise a sliver of reasonable doubt, in the hopes of proving the poem could have been the result of an elaborate but well-intentioned hoax engineered by Koch.

I’m given several walk-on appearances in A Question Mark, appearing as a scholar who has called Johnson’s thesis “bizarre.”  I still do find the thesis bizarre, and not very convincing.  I’m not alone: Johnson himself calls it merely a “thought experiment” and a “critical-fictive” exercise, and admits at one point that “the poem’s authenticity is, still, with all its surrounding weirdnesses, most probably the correct assumption.”

However, to judge the theory unconvincing is not to say that the questions Johnson raises aren’t interesting, fun, or worth thinking about.  First, there are some oddities about the poem (some of which O’Hara’s close friend and roommate Joe LeSueur had discussed in Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara).  But more interesting, to me at least, is the work’s status as a playful yet unsettling conceptual critical-fictive experiment — an avant-garde provocation designed to attack and destabilize conventional attitudes about authorship, an issue Johnson probes in many of his projects.

In a new review of the book in The Los Angeles Review, Michael Shea focuses in on this aspect of Johnson’s strange book:

Kent Johnson’s status as an outsider in American poetics—and here outsider refers to a decisive non-compliance with the standard workings of po-biz rather than a codification of voice-driven dissociative poems—has been established since the outset of his career, with his never-quite-confirmed involvement in the Araki Yasusada “hoax” and the questions about authorship that it raised. Fittingly, then, A Question Mark Above the Sun finds Johnson exploring and demystifying the mythic status of the author through the lens of a spurious claim about Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun At Fire Island”—namely, that the poem was not written by O’Hara but by Kenneth Koch, who, in a selfless and moving tribute to his friend, passed off the great poem as O’Hara’s, one final act to ensure the latter’s legacy. Various critics have discussed the proposition at-length, and interested readers would do well to simply read Johnson’s argument rather than a summary of it. But that the proposition can even be considered controversial—worthy, apparently, of cease-and-desist notices from the folks at Knopf—speaks not only to the hyper-insularity of the poetic community: it also gives Johnson’s critique a self-perpetuating basis on which to stand. So what if Koch wrote the poem? the book asks us. What is it that we’ve invested in the idea of the author such that this proposition bothers us? How is it holding us back?

As Shea points out, Johnson has long made it his particular quest to challenge deep-seated assumptions and attitudes about “the author” — not only within so-called canonical and “mainstream” writing, but even more so within the world of avant-garde poetics, where skepticism about authorship and platitudes about the “death of the author” are de rigeur but often mask quite conservative and nostalgic beliefs about the author’s importance and singularity.

Shea writes that “the question raised by the O’Hara thesis serves as direct evidence of blind acceptance of authorship by the poetic community at-large,” and notes that “the question of authorship becomes an ethical question.”  He goes on to argue for the book’s merits as a moving tribute to the friendships at the heart of the New York School, and as a work of art in its own right:

Yet while these critiques are more than valid—sorely needed, it seems, by American avant-gardists—what has often been elided in discussions of the book is just how much fun it is to read. A Question Mark Above The Sun is a startling, hilarious work … But what also emerges from the text is a deep respect for the work of these great poets. The near-endless probing of the compositional circumstances of “A True Account…” only makes clear the enviable sense of friendship between Koch, O’Hara, and their friends. Inasmuch as it is a critical assault on some of our deepest-held notions, A Question Mark Above The Sun is still a sort of love-song for generative poetic communities, one that sends readers back to the work of both men, not with skepticism so much as awe.

Whatever one thinks of its intent or effects, Johnson’s Question Mark now seems to be part of the history of New York School poetry.  For better or worse, it has become a significant and intriguing chapter in the reception and afterlife of O’Hara, Koch, the New York School, and one remarkable, haunting poem.

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