Thursday, July 10, 2008

Kent Johnson’s “True Account”

Blue Scrim

Gadfly par excellence (if one measures the species by how regularly it irritates, or causes hysteria-fuel’d blinding rashes to erupt around the eyes of the prematurely “set,” the self-satisfy’d, the in-need-of-a-downpegging), cogent and sure-finger’d provocateur particularly at home amongst the “post-avant”’s most cherish’d and shibboleth-bound sentries and soldiers, buster of all institutional sod-bodies, be they man, beast, or edifice, Kent Johnson’s exercises in point’d authorial malarkey’s earn’d him not a few snarls of dismissal and loads of pettifoggery. At heart, though, he’s a kind sort, good-natured and -humor’d, darkly in love with all contradictory lapses and the too many human, too human foibles. He reminds me a little of the Akhaian warrior-girl Kinētikos Philoctetes who, mortally wound’d by the sight of the slaughter of comrades, her own dark blood easing out drop by drop into the Trojan sun, remark’d without rancor or puffery, “Wisdom dies in the plain.” Though some say her servant-girl, mad with premonitory grief, misheard the words (the mad battle’s tumult sketch’d its merciless designs unceasingly around about as the two great opposing armies look’d to “settle” some unsettleable accounts). They say what Philoctetes actually said—feverishly studying her renegade blood’s fatal pooling—is, “Wisdom lies in the plain.” Today, exactly fifty years after the writing of O’Hara’s stupendous reply to Mayakovsky, “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” Kent Johnson considers the poem’s strange authority and provenance in a reply to Tony Towle (and others) and a reposting of a “tape-essay” by Tosa Motokiyu. It is an oddly moving piece—both a “quasi-fictive” critical romp and a perianthic meditation on loss: “isn’t it strange how we abandon without explanation those who are so close to our hearts, those who intrigue us most?”

A Reply to Tony Towle (and Andrew Epstein and Bill Berkson) on the Subject of the Authorship of “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island”
Sometimes it seems to me I am possessed by the
spirit of Frank O’Hara and should write his poems
as he would have written them now but
the only ones I know are ones he’s already written
and those are what these turn out to be.
—Kenneth Koch, from “Homage to Frank O’Hara”
He falls; but even in falling he is higher than those who fly into the ordinary sun.
(The only entry in the new journal Frank O’Hara had begun soon before he was mortally struck, and which apparently fell, along with most of the poet’s manuscripts, into Koch’s possession shortly following O’Hara’s death)
Tony Towle has termed “absurd” Tosa Motokiyu’s hypothesis that Kenneth Koch is very possibly the true author of “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” a poem near-universally regarded as one of O’Hara’s greatest works, ever since Koch “discovered” it in 1966. Andrew Epstein, similarly, has called Motokiyu’s proposal “bizarre.” Bill Berkson has weighed in, dismissing it as “folderol.” (See my note at end on Berkson’s claim that his “distinct” memory puts the issue “to rest.”)

Well, it’s a formidable group of dissenters, to be sure! I greatly admire the poetry of both Towle and Berkson, and Epstein’s book on O’Hara, Ashbery, and LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka, Beautiful Enemies (Oxford, 2006), is one of the most engaging works of literary criticism I’ve read in a good number of years, so my argument here is with people I sincerely respect. And it is true, I readily admit, that an application of Occam’s Razor to what we know leads one to lean towards the conventional attribution—one I personally hope is soon definitively settled in favor of O’Hara; nevertheless, unusual gaps with strange questions remain. These gaps and questions are bibliographically, as it were, interesting in their own right, and I am going to offer some reasons, then, for why—at least for now—the proposal of a possible Kochean authorship is really neither “absurd,” nor “bizarre,” nor a piece of “folderol.”

In doing so, I’ll quote Tony Towle’s letter in full (as it appeared here at Isola di Rifiuti on June 11) and respond to each paragraph. I’ve put the passages from Towle’s letter in bold, below. Because Almost Island—the New Delhi magazine where Motokiyu’s tape-essay recently appeared—is currently off-line in preparation for its second issue, I have asked John Latta to append a copy of Motokiyu’s text beneath this response. Towle begins:

Dear John,

Your offhand comment about Kenneth Koch on April 25th in Isola di Rifiuti has continued to bother me and I must say something about it. You wrote: “(. . . I suspect the piece [re: some lines of Frank O’Hara’s] is just another [. . .] later intercollocation to the Collected by the dapper and dement’d Kenneth Koch.)” Now, Kenneth was usually well dressed, in a professorial kind of way (he did teach at Columbia), but what causes you to characterize him as demented? Perhaps you are confusing extravagant imagery with the personal character of the poet—because I knew Kenneth for almost 40 years and he was one of the sanest and most cogent people I have ever met, brimming in equal measure with common sense as well as erudition.

Sanity, cogency, common sense, and erudition, I trust, are qualities that could well inform a person who might choose, for any number of possible reasons, to write under the name of another. Not a few sane, cogent, commonsensical, and erudite writers have done so, over the centuries. It is a venerable part of the literary tradition, and Koch, as is known, held various examples of pseudoepigraphy in high regard.

You seem to be taking it as fact that Kenneth wrote poems and passed them off as Frank’s. This is a ludicrous and untenable assumption. The “Leroi [sic] Jones” poem found in Kenneth’s papers, and that you discussed on your blog, may or may not have been Kenneth trying out a poem in his friend’s style but, after all, it was in his papers, unsigned—he didn’t try to pass it off as Frank’s. And though it’s clear to me (for the reasons I gave you after you printed it) that this could not have been a poem of Frank’s, it is by no means certain that it is Kenneth’s, either, regardless of where it turned up. In fact, when Kenneth tried to imitate Frank, in a series of nine poems under the heading “Homage to Frank O’Hara,” published in Broadway 2 (Hanging Loose Press, 1989, James Schuyler and Charles North, editors), his style is most unconvincing. I would be happy to type these up for you (they are quite short) and you can judge for yourself Koch’s ability to take on at will O’Hara’s manner. This brings me to your link.

As it does me. Though a fascinating case, the ”Finding Leroi a Lawyer” poem is not central to my purposes here . . .

The another leads to a clever in parts but absurd document that you seem to endorse by default, the thesis of which is that Kenneth Koch wrote “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” after Frank’s death (July 25, 1966), passed it off as Frank’s when he read it at the first posthumous memorial reading for O’Hara, held that September in the auditorium at New York University’s Loeb Student Center, where Kenneth and John Ashbery read Frank’s work. The argument is set forth in a presumed tape transcription by a Tosa Motokiyu, who may or may not exist, talking about it with two friends, who may or not exist, and transcribed by Kent Johnson, who definitely exists and who seems to have a penchant for inventing texts in English purportedly from Japanese writers (as per the endlessly discussed Yasusada affair).

The thesis is, indeed, that Koch might have written “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” and that a bundle of curious circumstantial evidence makes this a provocative possibility.

However, as is stated in the essay, and has been acknowledged for some time, Ojiu Norinaga and Okura Kyojin are heteronymic collaborators invented by Tosa Motokiyu, the pseudonym, in turn, of the author, or authors, of the Yasusada works, as well as of various “tape-essays” on different topics, the latter which stand now, ipso facto, as quasi-fictive critical pieces. I would note, then, that the manifestly apocryphal status of Motokiyu’s work, about which Towle appears to have some confusion, is irrelevant, ultimately, to the legitimacy of the hypothesis the tape-essay puts forward.

Motokiyu supposedly quotes interviews from Joe LeSueur and Kenneth Koch from 1990, when Motokiyu was in New York, and he has LeSueur more or less agreeing with him that Frank couldn’t have written the poem. I was one of the many audience members at the NYU reading that was blown away by the beauty—there is no other word for it—of “A True Account.” No one had the slightest doubt at the time that Frank had written it—it was quintessentially him.

To repeat the tape-essay’s claim: Motokiyu, at a meeting in NYC with Joe LeSueur (O’Hara’s long-time roommate), tapes the latter’s comments on the matter of the mystery of “A True Account,” which LeSueur, subsequently, with aid of the transcript, transcribes, nearly verbatim, into his memoir, Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara (FSG, 2004). Motokiyu doesn’t, in this sense, have “LeSueur agreeing with him”; quite to the opposite, LeSueur’s marked, authentic puzzlement [see Digressions, pp. 180-190] over the poem’s origins form the very basis of Motokiyu’s speculations about its actual authorship.

As to Towle’s claim—and it is a moving one—that everyone was “blown away” by the (unquestionable) beauty of the poem and that it was “quintessentially [O’Hara],” I would offer two comments: The first by way of Brad Gooch, author of the O’Hara biography City Poet (Knopf, 1993), whom Motokiyu also quotes. Gooch says,
[T]he poem had been written by O’Hara on July 10, 1958, when he was visiting Hal Fondren at his rented house at Fire Island Pines, not far from the spot where he would be hit almost exactly eight years later. The poem consists of a conversation between the Sun, who wakes O’Hara and complains petulantly, “When I woke up Mayakovsky he was / a lot more prompt,” and the apologetic poet’s comment, “Sorry, Sun, I stayed / up late last night talking to Hal.”

“I almost fell off my chair,” remembers [Kenneth] Koch. “It was Frank talking about his own death.” 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 . . .
[my emphasis]
It seems to me perfectly understandable, given the emotion of the event, combined with the uncanny, almost “too neatly prophetic” tone and eerily coincidental mise-en-scène of the poem (the setting of it, again, is in the same location where O’Hara was tragically struck, almost precisely eight years after the composition date), that people would be “blown away” and unquestionably accept the poem as O’Hara’s.

But is the poem “quintessentially” O’Hara? In fact, though there are extended poems of like greatness and others with dialogue, “A True Account” has no real analogue in his work. What poem in his oeuvre truly echoes it, in mystical conveyance, dramatic presentation, transparently staged derivation, hallucinatory, over-the-top pathetic fallacy, and so forth? Towle’s logic here seems shadowed by a circular, wishful impression, though it’s not one for which he, or anyone, can really be blamed: For that the poem sounds “quintessentially” like O’Hara is largely due to its existing, since 1966, as one of “O’Hara’s” most powerful, weirdly prescient, and singular poems!

Everyone was definitely amazed that he had never published it, but, in 1971, everyone was further amazed by how many poems he never published, and how many that no one had ever seen, not Joe, not Kenneth, not John, not Jimmy, not Bill, not Ted. This casualness about his work was one of Frank’s salient, perhaps defining, idiosyncrasies.

Of course, his idiosyncratic casualness had more to do with tossing his poems around to friends, even giving them away, and most of the “unknown” poems had been put, through casual circumstances, into acquaintances’ hands by O’Hara himself, not concealed from the world. (“Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets,” it’s interesting to note, apparently written during the visit to Fondren’s house, with date of only one day previous to that of “A True Account,” was quite famous not long after its composition.) In any case, there is no poem that “no one had ever seen” that compares in any way, in scope or apocryphal status, to “A True Account.” As LeSueur says in Digressions, it is a “real mystery” that no one ever knew of the poem.

And especially, perhaps, not Ted Berrigan, whom LeSueur reports often came, during the 60s, to his and O’Hara’s apartment to pore over the master’s manuscripts—the same manuscripts which Koch, as a matter of record, spirited away in suitcases only hours after O’Hara’s death, and within which the poem was supposedly found. How is it possible that Berrigan, crazy about O’Hara’s work as he was, would have repeatedly skipped over this sui generis text in his study of O’Hara’s manuscripts—or perhaps have read it, since he apparently read everything by O’Hara he could get his hands on, but then have completely forgotten ever having done so? I’d propose that this is an important question. (I will stay agnostic here: Perhaps Alice Notley, or someone, could report a clear memory that Berrigan had seen the poem before O’Hara’s death?)

What defies logic and probability is that Kenneth would have known the exact date of a weekend that Frank had spent at a beach house that Hal Fondren rented at Fire Island Pines some seven years before, and used it as the basis for a fraudulent production he would have had to start on the heels of Frank’s funeral and finish up in five or six weeks. (Kenneth, with his academic credentials, was certainly responsible for the date of the reading at NYU; one would think he would have given himself more time to finish the poem!) Kenneth was not a friend of Hal’s, by the way, and if Kenneth was making up any part of the poem’s foundational mise-en-scène, Hal would have gladly revealed the deception.

Five or six weeks clearly allows plenty of time to compose a poem. O’Hara, so the history goes, knocked it off shortly after waking, no doubt with a hangover.

Furthermore, it would have presented no insurmountable difficulty for Koch to ascertain the approximate dates of a visit by O’Hara to Hal Fondren’s house at Fire Island. Koch, if he didn’t have the visit in general memory, could have learned the particulars from Fondren, LeSueur, or someone else the chatty O’Hara might have called from the location, later told about the visit, etc. The possibility hardly “defies logic and probability.”

What seems to more defy logic and probability is that O’Hara, in the generous habit of showing his poems to his friends, especially those whose names were mentioned therein, would have not shared or ever spoken about the poem with anyone—not with Fondren, who appears in the poem (Fondren, who died in 1999, appears, as implied in Digressions, not to have mentioned the poem to anyone), and not with his roommate LeSueur, with whom he spent the afternoon and evening at Fire Island the day on which the poem was purportedly written (LeSueur, in his memoir, cannot figure out why O’Hara would not have mentioned the poem to him or Fondren; nor when O’Hara, having slept late, would have found the time to write the poem; nor how he could have done so without Fondren or his companion, Jack Shaw, hearing the typewriter).

And, of course, not with Koch, who O’Hara well knew was also enamored of Mayakovsky (it is around this same time that the two were gobbling up and discussing Pasternak’s newly-translated memoir, Safe Conduct (New Directions, 1958), wherein Mayakovsky is somewhat the star)—and enamored, both of them, without question, of the Russian poet’s “A Most Extraordinary Adventure That Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky in the Summer, at the Rumyantzov Cottage, Mount Akula, Pushkino, on the Yaroslavl Railway,” which had appeared in translation as early as 1941 (in New Directions annual, with shortened title) and which is the direct, textually acknowledged inspiration of “A True Account.”

Then there is the matter of sensibility. The matter-of-fact poignancy in “A True Account” is nothing that was a part of Kenneth’s literary repertory at that time—it is not until New Addresses (2000) that he can be so direct and touching. Then there is poetic ego, of which Kenneth had a normal portion. If he could have written something this powerful for such a close friend so recently deceased, he would have put his own name on it and made it an hommage. The notion that he would have spent his literary energy on perpetrating a con, and then taking that knowledge to the grave, is simply not credible.

In fact, one could argue that the tropic fantasticalness of the poem is closer to Koch’s “sensibility” than to O’Hara’s. The touching, quirky poignancy (and wacky personification) of “Permanently,” one of Koch’s most famous poems, is contemporaneous with the given date of “A True Account”; and a major poem like “Some General Instructions,” written just a few years after O’Hara’s death, carries vividly suggestive traces of the Sun’s instructions at Fire Island. Other comparisons, from long before 2000, are possible; others might offer them.

Be that as it may, strong poets are capable, I hope we agree, especially in moments of great emotion and transport, to enter into voices other than their “own,” to write poems that seem to defy a signature style. (One could make this same point in defense of O’Hara’s authorship, actually, though Towle’s argument is the opposite.) Let’s not forget, as well, that Koch, rabid fan of both Mayakovsky and O’Hara, intimate with each poet’s voice, was—it seems to hardly need saying—quite capable of mediating a “meeting” between them.

So no, I am not in any way convinced by Towle’s categorical claims for the irreducible “O’Hara-ness” of the poem.

Now, as for it not being credible that Koch would perpetrate a “con,” I can only say that Towle’s point seems premised on the assumption that acts of radical poetic empathy and transference should be labeled as such. Why frame it as a “con”? Certainly, as a great fan of Thomas Chatterton, Ern Malley, and Fernando Pessoa, for example, or as the future author of the graciously parodic Some South American Poets, he wasn’t averse, in principle (hopefully no poet is!), to the idea of writing “as another.” I don’t at all think it is credible to say that Koch would be incapable of erasing his name in favor of that of his friend and gifting him a poem: After all, he loved O’Hara deeply, and if there is a modern poem that can be read as secretly speaking apostrophic love, “A True Account” is it.

And it is a poem that clearly remained a very personal one for Koch, who reprinted it in various venues over the years, spoke effusively about it, read it widely, and titled two subsequent books from its lines. One might argue he titled three books after the poem, actually: His last, posthumous collection, a gathering of early work he helped prepare, is titled, with somewhat peculiar evocativeness, Sun Out.

But let’s turn to the transcript itself, to the statements that Joe LeSueur as taped by Motokiyu-san is supposed to have made. I won’t bother to list the many unlikely and absurd phrasings that never would have come out of Joe’s mouth; and then there are the casual slip-ups of fact—such as that the Cedar was in the Village, not the East Village, and that July 10, 1959 [sic] was a Friday not a Thursday (the poem was supposed to have been written on a weekend, after all)—however, when Motokiyu calls up LeSueur from a pay phone with the expectation of meeting him that same day, he makes no mention of the fact that he would have had to make a toll call to Suffolk County, as LeSueur had already been living in East Hampton for some years by 1990, a good three hours from New York by either train or automobile, so it would be most unlikely that LeSueur would have said, “Let’s meet at The Cedar at 5 PM sharp . . . but it’s the next phrase in that very sentence that totally uncovers the hoax . . . at the outside tables in the sun,” and so we did. The Cedar has never had outside tables, not in its previous location between 8th and 9th Streets on University Place, and not in the “new” location a couple of blocks north, from 1965 to a few weeks ago, when it closed its historic doors. The purported interview with Kenneth Koch is also patently bogus, for reasons I will tell you sometime if you are still unpersuaded.

I’m afraid it is LeSueur, in Digressions, who reports it was a Thursday, so perhaps Towle was looking at the calendar for, as he has it, 1959? Regardless, and tables outside The Cedar, or not, the tape-essay in which Motokiyu makes his argument, as explained above, is of openly distressed authenticity, a factual fiction (Motokiyu’s admiration for David Wilson’s ongoing art-in-life masterwork, The Museum of Jurassic Technology, is a matter of record), so the points made in this section of Mr. Towle’s letter are not really relevant to the discussion. The fictive mode is simply the expression of Motokiyu’s own idiosyncrasies—though one might see how the mode is appropriate, ironically or not, to the topic.

Whether a Mr. Motokiyu fabricated the entire text in Japan, or (much more likely) a Mr. Johnson invented them in the Midwest, these interviews obviously have no more historical reality than the hypothesis has validity.

To the contrary, given the “bizarre” genetic issues at play, the hypothesis has tantalizing validity. It proposes a possibility, one supported by a number of decidedly odd and frankly suspicious circumstances surrounding the poem. We have this ”too neatly prophetic” text, let’s not forget, on Koch’s authority alone. He (somewhat in the manner of the Yasusada texts, in fact) “discovered” it.

By baselessly muddying the waters of the authorship of “A True Account,” whoever perpetrated this irresponsible prank has done a disservice to two major poets—he has “de-accessioned” one of Frank O’Hara’s most extraordinary poems, and slandered the integrity and sanity of Kenneth Koch, who had a great deal of both.

The waters of the authorship of ”A True Account” are muddied by the weird, indeterminate dark matter floating within it. The lacunae that mark the poem’s history were not inserted there by Motokiyu! Nor does the reporting of unanswered questions that inhabit the text’s history and the offering of a possible explanation to its rather theological nature constitute an “irresponsible prank.”

Much less does it “de-accession” the poem, for the poem will always necessarily bear the name of O’Hara, absent any final hard proof to the otherwise. We even read “Shakespeare” as Shakespeare, after all, without being able to absolutely know if a pettily litigious man from Stratford with apparently no books in his house was the actual author. Some would even say “Shakespeare’s” work is just a tad more rich and beautiful for its mystery of provenance.

And much less, too, does it “slander the integrity or sanity of Kenneth Koch.” To the contrary, in terms of the latter unfortunate charge, the hypothesis, if true, would mean that Kenneth Koch is author of one of the most beautiful and moving gestures ever proffered in 20th century poetry—an erasing of self in strange, profound tribute to a lost friend (leaving “a tiny poem in that brain of yours as my farewell”) that takes the meaning of homage to very poignant heights, indeed: not least because such a gesture would speak, ultimately, to the inspiring force of O’Hara’s person and poetry.

* * *

Now, there is a possibility, which so far as I know, no one has yet brought forward: that “A True Account” is actually a very late poem by O’Hara, which holds a date marking an experience of years before. This might explain, in good part, why no one knew about the poem, until Koch suddenly uncovered it. This seems somewhat possible. And if the poem is truly by O’Hara, a late date would make it all the eerier.

Still, still . . .

“It is a real mystery, that poem,” to quote LeSueur again. And I would say that, on this day that is the 50th anniversary of the poem’s supposed composition, we do well, pending further evidence, whatever signature we may favor, to read the poem with a measure of authorial mystery in our minds.

(Oh, and by the way, to the claim I have heard that the poem seems typed on O’Hara’s portable Royal, and thus case settled: I have made, as did Motokiyu, various inquiries, and no one seems to know what happened to O’Hara’s typewriter in the period following his death. But then, since Koch took all the precious manuscripts with him, would it not be reasonable to assume that he took, for safekeeping, the irreplaceable typewriter, too?)

Darkly he rose, as the poem says of the Sun, and we have no reason, yet, to sleep . . .

Kent Johnson
Freeport, Illinois, July 10, 2008

[NOTE]: Bill Berkson, in his letter of July 8 to John Latta, states:
Firstly, Andrew Epstein should know that there are, or were, a least four sets of the O’Hara papers photocopied by Kenneth Koch and me a year or so after Frank died […] (By the way, to put to rest Kent Johnson’s folderol about who wrote “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” that poem was salient among the poems Kenneth and I discovered—“Hey, look at this!” I distinctly recall Kenneth saying—as we sorted through Frank’s manuscript files at the copy machine.)
Oh? I am frankly not sure what a 42 or 43 year old memory of Kenneth Koch, papers all around him, saying “Hey, look at this!” actually proves . . . But given that Koch revealed the poem at the famous memorial reading roughly six weeks after O’Hara’s death, it is hard to understand how Berkson “distinctly recalls” being present at the primal scene of the poem’s discovery / Xeroxing a full year or so later . . . With all due respect, we will need more accurately rendered memories than these, I’m afraid, to put the matter “to rest.” I will look forward to Berkson’s clarification—which I fear, however, may now be fated to remain somewhat in brackets, as they say.

* * *

Postscript / Nota bene:

The very night I had finished writing the above response, I received a long e-mail from Andrew Epstein, responding to a query I had sent him regarding the presence of any handwritten markings on the Ur-typescript of “A True Account.” Epstein was unable to say, indicating that he has never seen the actual manuscript, which is now, he believes, in the hands of O’Hara’s sister, Maureen O’Hara, who also holds most of her brother’s original correspondence, publication of which she has so far not allowed.

But in this letter, Epstein (who is not the first Epstein in my life, I should say, though that is neither here nor there) also provides a startling piece of information I had not known of. The information involves a piece of correspondence accompanied by two poems in carbon copy. Epstein had recorded the information years back while working from re-typed versions of O’Hara’s letters, in the Donald Allen papers at Storrs, Connecticut, apparently unaware, until he wrote me, of the whereabouts of the original. Neither Towle, nor Berkson, nor former friends of O’Hara and Koch with whom I have corresponded regarding Koch’s possible authorship of “A True Account” seem to have known of the existence of this item, for it would no doubt have been mentioned by now.

And this new information does put a new light on the situation: It concerns a dealer in rare books and manuscripts, who is selling the rarity in question for nearly $7,000, and I have placed a couple of inquiries there to find out further particulars. It is possible that this information will settle the matter. I immediately wrote Epstein for permission to publish his letter at Isola di Rifiuti, but he had told me he was “leaving at dawn” of the following day, for three weeks of vacation . . . Well, after all this, perhaps it is a vacation at Fire Island? Who knows?

(Some will no doubt say it is irrelevant, but I have been able to ascertain, in the past few hours, that the poem typescript bears no holographic traces whatsoever.)

Regardless of the outcome, I will write more, with John Latta’s permission, as soon as I have more details. For now, I bow my head to the greatness of Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, thanking them both for the gift of the mystery, purposeful or accidental, and whether it be shortly closed, as it may be, or not.     KJ

The Strange Account of “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” [1]

A Tape-Essay by Tosa Motokiyu, Ojiu Norinaga, and Okura Kyojin (date and location unrecorded)

Tosa Motokiyu: We are gathered to talk about the nature of “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” a poem that is attributed to Frank O’Hara and one that is considered central to his great oeuvre.

Ojiu Norinaga: By “nature” of this poem we mean its authorship. Our thesis, so to speak, is that there is strong reason to suspect it was not written by Mr. O’Hara.

Okura Kyojin: Indeed, it is our proposal, let us say it at once, that it was written by his dear friend, Kenneth Koch, shortly after O’Hara’s death in a tragic accident on Fire Island—written in homage to the poet, its spurious attribution to him a strange and moving tribute to the poet’s memory.

TM: We realize this will be controversial.

ON: Well, not only controversial, but downright blasphemous to many!

OK: However, we hope the reader will bear with us, hear out our hypothesis, which is based, in part, on conversations we have had with central people “in the know,” as it were, and our putting of “two and two” together. I mean, of our putting certain very suspicious circumstantial clues together . . .

TM: Some might consider our hypothesis—that the poem was written by Koch—as a denigration of sorts of O’Hara.

ON: But of course this isn’t so at all: To the contrary, that another poet would so selflessly subsume his name under that of his friend is actually testimony to O’Hara’s greatness, as a poet and no doubt as a person.

OK: So let us proceed, explaining our reasons for believing that “A True Account” is one of the most important instances of “mistaken” authorship in the history of 20th century poetry.

TM: Yes . . . Well, the story begins with a phone call I placed in 1990 to O’Hara’s long-time roommate and friend, while the three of us were on a trip to New York with the Mexican composers Mario Lavista and Javier Alvarez. Well, it was a glorious day in May.

ON: Yes, we walked among the bright-colored cars, while the workers fed their sweaty bodies and drank Dr. Pepper through straws, with orange helmets on. And the skirts flipped above high heels and a huge cowboy man in a sign blew smoke into the sky and a waterfall fell, though it was just electricity, not water. And an Arab man was chewing on a pencil, diffidently, in the doorway of the Seagram Building, and there was so much neon in daylight, and all the earth was as full of life as death is also full of these things, it was memorable, so memorable, I shall never forget it . . .

TM: It was from a telephone booth outside the Automat that I dialed. And so Mr. Joseph LeSueur answered the phone. Hello? He said pleasantly. Hello, I said, and I then proceeded to tell him that I was a poet and translator from abroad, very interested in discussing with him the work of Mr. Frank O’Hara.

OK: This was right on the cusp of O’Hara’s great rise to canonicity, and so our request was received with more openness by Mr. LeSueur than it might otherwise have been later, once the deluge of fans and acolytes had descended like a great rain.

ON: That sounds funny, “deluge of fans descending like a great rain.” It makes me think of that painting by Magritte, where men in bowler hats are falling from the sky!

OK: Well, there’s no need for sarcasm. My point is perfectly clear, I think, and a good one. It isn’t necessary for you to get on your usual aggressive horse.

TM: Well, if we could refocus now, please, and get to the heart of things, without distractions, gentlemen: Mr. LeSueur pleasantly said, “Let’s meet at The Cedar at 5 PM sharp, at the outside tables in the sun,” and so we did, walking through the legendary streets of the Lower East Side. And he was simply a delightful and gracious man.

ON: And so handsome!

OK: Yes, well Motokiyu and I were more interested in the waitress, but the attraction seemed mutual between the two of you, you rascal.

ON: Alas, I wish circumstances had afforded a longer acquaintance between us. Such a kind and handsome man . . .

TM: Well, let’s move on. The waitress brought us our drinks, martinis all around, and Mr. LeSueur smiled, made a gracious toast and asked, “So then, what would you mysterious gentlemen like to know about Frank O’Hara?”

ON: Immediately, I nervously asked him, “Don’t you think, Mr. LeSueur, that ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’ sounds like someone else speaking?”

OK: And I remember how awkwardly . . . how you stuttered as you asked it!

ON: Mr. LeSueur, confused, looked at me quizzically, and replied, “Well, yes, it is the sun, of course, who is speaking to Frank . . .” I laughed gently, and then said, “No, no, sir, you see, I mean, rather, that the whole poem sounds like someone else is speaking—I mean, that another author has written it.” Mr. LeSueur took a sip of his martini, looked at me in a funny sort of way, and said, “Well, I never did even think of this. Do you really think so, Mr. Norinaga?” I replied with the following question: “I wonder if you could tell us if you ever saw Mr. O’Hara type this poem or if he showed it to you?” Mr. LeSueur put his finger on his chin and said, “Hmm. No, actually, it’s funny that you should mention it, because there’s always been a great mystery, to me, about that poem.”

TM: May I read what he said so that this doesn’t become a Norinaga monologue? [Laughter and clinking of sake cups in toast] Well, Mr. LeSueur then continued, as I secretly clicked on the tape recorder in my book bag, carefully placing the expensive miniature microphone in my lap. [TM reads from transcript of tape]: [2]

Yes, it’s strange, that poem. Let me see if I can explain . . .

I was in the city when Frank wrote his account of talking to the sun, a poem whose existence I was completely ignorant of until Kenneth Koch read it at New York University’s Loeb Center in the fall of 1966. Less than two months had passed since Frank’s death, so the reading was like a memorial. Many people spoke and read some things. But the only poem I remember is “A True Account.” After Kenneth read the final stanza . . .
“Sun, don’t go!” I was awake
at last. “No, go I must, they’re calling
          “Who are they?”
                                          Rising he said “Some
day you’ll know. They’re calling to you
too.” Darkly he rose, and then I slept.
. . . well, you could have heard a pin drop, there was a total stunned silence—one that bespoke, no doubt about it, the shared feelings of grief, melancholy, and mystification among those members of the audience who knew and loved Frank. Then Kenneth gravely proclaimed something to the effect of, “This is truly the work of a great poet.”

TM: And it certainly is a great work!

[LeSueur continues] Yes, and a work Frank never showed to anyone, let it be said, including Kenneth, or John, or Jimmy. Thus, understandably, we were not only moved by the poem but completely mystified as well, thrown for a loop. I mean, Why had he kept it a secret like that? That might seem an overstatement, but isn’t that really the case? Because no one knew . . . While he wasn’t in the habit of sending out his poems, Frank usually made a personal practice of showing what he’d written to his friends. But with this work he made an exception. Why? It’s really strange! And, you know, actually, when we lived at 791 Broadway, Ted Berrigan, Frank’s numero uno acolyte, was permitted to go through Frank’s papers, pore over his poems, and the kid did this often and with great vigor, such intense attention . . . Didn’t this most avid fan of Frank’s come across “A True Account”? Apparently not; if he had, he would certainly have recognized it as a major work and mentioned it to someone. I mean, this is the poem Ted just would have gone crazy for, there’s no question! So, for whatever reason, Frank seems to have been reluctant, to say the least, to let anyone see a copy of the poem—or, to put it more provocatively, he must not have wanted us to read it until after his death. But where was it? If Ted didn’t find it, why did it suddenly appear later? For me, the mystery deepens when I cast my mind back to mid-July 1958. You see how you have me talking now . . .

ON: Yes, but this is so fascinating, please do go on!

[LeSueur continues] Sure. Let’s see . . . Well, I’d been Gian Carlo Menotti’s secretary for the past year and now, with Menotti in Spoleto, Italy, running the festival, I was taking care of New York-related business in a little office I had on West Fifty-Seventh Street. Then it was discovered I had nothing to do, so I was given my walking papers and instructed to close the office. This happened toward the end of the week that Frank was spending with Hal Fondren at the Fire Island beach house Hal and his wonderful beau, Jack Shaw, rented each summer. I wasted no time in getting hold of them. “I’m free! I’ve been fired!” I said excitedly to Frank, who answered the phone. Hal, the best cook any of us knew, was preparing lunch. “Tell Joe to come out,” I could hear him call to Frank after he’d been given the news. Of course, that was all I needed, I was gone.

OK: And when was this again?

[LeSueur continues] Well, this was Thursday afternoon, July 10, the very day, you see, Frank communed with the sun and wrote his poem, as the text reports. I dropped what I was doing and was able to make our usual eastbound 4:19 train, except I’d be getting off at Sayville where I’d catch the ferry for Fire Island Pines. Frank was at the dock to meet me, and Hal must have been back at the house, making yummy hors d’oeuvres for our cocktails. I would have given Frank whatever news I had, and he probably filled me in on what they’d been up to, mainly eating, drinking, swimming, and lying in the sun, all of which is conjecture now on my part—plus what we know from the poem: “. . . I stayed / up late last night talking to Hal,” as he says there. Anyway, the only thing I actually remember concerns a young boy we encountered on the boardwalk as we made our way to the house . . . Not that there was anything unusual about him. He was just an average-looking nine or ten-year-old with tousled hair, and I wouldn’t have noticed him had it not been for the way he acted when he caught sight of Frank. A look of recognition came into his face, while at the same time he appeared embarrassed by their running into each other. Frank smiled and said hello, and the boy nodded back, sheepishly, as he walked past.

“Who was that?” I said.

“A boy from the beach,” Frank said.

“And?” I looked at him when he failed to reply. “You’re being awfully mysterious.”

Later it occurred to me that Frank had so completely empathized with the boy that, out of deference to his tender feelings, he was reluctant to enlighten me about their shared experience. Perhaps he wouldn’t even have told me about it had we not run into him. “It’s just something that happened on the beach this morning,” Frank said, going on to explain that he was stretched out on a beach towel, dozing, when he heard distant cries for help. He quickly sat up and saw someone struggling in the surf, caught in an undertow. It turned out to be a boy he’d seen on the beach, an unusually self-possessed child for his age who was always arguing with his mother about going into the water unattended. “Don’t worry about me so much!” he insisted, according to Frank. “I know how to swim.” And now the boy was in trouble; the beach was virtually empty, and nobody else was in the water. But Frank, being an expert swimmer, something few people know, was able to reach him in good time and bring him safely ashore.

ON: Frank O’Hara saved a boy’s life!

[LeSueur continues] “So that was why he acted funny, running into you just now,” I suggested . . . “He felt chagrined about the whole thing,” Frank said. “He came over and thanked me later—at his mother’s insistence, I’m sure—and that only made it worse.”

OK: That’s so poignant . . .

[LeSueur continues] Yes, but there you have it, and with everything that was going on that day, Frank sleeping until ten or so, as Hal had mentioned to me, the boy’s rescue, my phone call, preparations for my arrival, etc., it is a wonder Frank found the time and solitude to write his poem, really. Of course it didn’t take him long to knock off a poem, and he never needed peace and quiet. But it’s still hard to imagine when or where he would have written it. And why didn’t he show his memorable “True Account” that day or ever to Hal, particularly since Hal’s name comes up in it? Or why didn’t Hal hear him typing, or say anything to me about Frank writing it, for Hal was in the habit of recounting the details of the day, and Frank’s writing of a poem at his home would have pleased him, immensely, for he was keenly interested in Frank’s work.

TM: Hmm . . .

[LeSueur continues] Yes, it’s strange, isn’t it? It’s the big mystery poem, no question. Someone has suggested to me that Frank wasn’t sure of the poem, that he put it away and forgot about it. I doubt that. But I don’t doubt that he was awakened by the sun and thought of Mayakovsky and then recorded his own dialogue, partly in tribute to the Russian poet he admired so much, a sort of gloss on Mayakovsky’s poem. The account is described as “true” for good reason, I guess, and Frank must have transcribed it right away, on the Royal portable he’d brought with him. But wouldn’t his typing have been noticed by Hal in the next room? And as I said, what of his rescue of the boy later that day? In a sense, was it not an extension of the poem, its occurrence as clandestine as Frank’s conversation with the sun? Why wouldn’t Frank, so attentive, as we know, to the charms of the quotidian, to the unexpected occurrences of the day, have entered even an allusion to such a poignant and special occasion as the boy’s rescue? What a perfect thing to tell the sun, after all . . . Well, anyway, I don’t know if any of that is useful to you gentlemen, but you’ve gotten me to thinking. You may do with this what you wish, I suppose. But why are you so interested? We have the poem, and that seems enough, doesn’t it?

OK: Ah, it is such a great monologue, isn’t it? We felt it would be inappropriate at that time to tell Mr. LeSueur of our specific suspicions. But we did ask, I can’t remember who did: Do you know if Mr. Kenneth Koch took Mr. O’Hara’s typewriter shortly after Mr. O’Hara died? “No, no,” said Mr. LeSueur. “I don’t know that and I never thought about it. Why do you ask, pray tell?”

TM: Yes, and a pigeon hopped up on the table all of a sudden then, and we all laughed, and we chatted some more, pleasantly in the falling sun, asking him to tell us more about Mr. O’Hara, his small habits, his way in the quotidian sequence of things, his humanity, in other words, and O, what an interesting hour or two it was!

ON: He was so eloquent and charming!

OK: Then we said goodbye, we shook hands, and watched him walk away, he turning back to us, smiling and waving, we never to see him again nor to have contact with him.

ON: Which is just terrible of us, of course!

OK: But you, who were so taken. Why did you not write him subsequently?

ON: Oh, I don’t know, isn’t it strange how we abandon without explanation those who are so close to our hearts, those who intrigue us most? How sad.

TM: Be that as it may, we then paid the bill and rode in a yellow automobile to the house of Kenneth Koch, after calling him on the telephone.

OK: Yellow automobile? I think they call it a taxicab . . . [Laughing and clinking of sake cups in mock toast]

TM: And so we knocked upon his door.

ON: It opened, and there stood a man with a handsome head of hair, a black turtleneck, grey slacks, and fluffy beige slippers. “Come in, come in!” he said, enthusiastically, waving his arms. “So nice of you to stop by and say hello!” And it struck me how his breezy manner was just like the sound of his poetry.

OK: So many books all around, and the sunlight, it was late now, and I remember its soft glow in beams through window slats all around. “What can I do for you three gentlemen,” he kindly asked, smiling, inviting us to sit on the divan, which we all did, somewhat awkwardly, in a row.

TM: Yes, I remember thinking to myself, “Perhaps we look like the Three Stooges sitting here, facing him.”

ON: “Mr. Koch,” I said, clearing my throat, “You will forgive us if this question seems impertinent or presumptuous. But are you the true author of ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’?”

TM: Mr. Koch’s mouth fell a little bit open. There was a long silence . . . The honking of car horns filled the air for a long time, or so it seemed. Mr. Koch, who only moments before had been so full of joie de vivre now appeared to become ill at ease, his hands moved to and fro, he took off his glasses and rubbed, affectedly, the corners of his eyes. He started to get up but then sat down once again. “What?” he exclaimed. “Just what in the freaking blazes are you talking about?” And then he laughed, but in a way that was very forced, quite nervous.

ON: There was another silence. I interjected: “Mr. Koch, forgive us, we know our question is unusual, but it does appear that no one knew of this now very famous poem before you suddenly read it at the memorial for Mr. O’Hara shortly after his death, and this is very strange, since Mr. O’Hara was always effusively sharing his poems with his friends, no?

OK: “Really? Who told you this?” said Mr. Koch. “Yes, yes, so no one knew . . . And what of it? And anyway, how do you know he showed every poem around? Forgive me if I’m a bit confused here.”

ON: “Mr. Joseph LeSueur told us this,” I said. “We just had martinis with him at The Cedar.”

TM: “Joe?” said Mr. Koch. “Well, Joe’s been acting a bit odd lately. Joe . . . Joe . . . Anyway, all I can tell you is the simple fact that I discovered the poem in Frank’s papers. It’s unmistakably typed, like a great deal of his later poems, on his personal portable Royal, for goodness sakes, which he habitually took with him out of town!”

ON: “Yes,” I continued. “But we understand from Mr. Larry Rivers, with whom we spoke on the phone two days ago, that you took Mr. O’Hara’s Royal with you went you went with your suitcases to Mr. O’Hara’s apartment the day after his death. He said you carried it away from his apartment and that in the grief of it all neither he nor Mr. Frank Lima gave it a second thought.”

OK: “Huh? Look,” said Mr. Koch, “Larry is famous for imagining all sorts of things after getting into his cups. And anyway, I think this is all pretty strange to say the least. I don’t know what you are all getting at, and I really don’t feel comfortable with the silliness of all of this, and come to think of it, I’m not even sure who you people are. Frank O’Hara is the author of ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,’ and that is the end of that. This is truly quite ridiculous!”

TM: And with this remark he showed us to the door, smiling somewhat tightly and bidding us, curtly, a good day, for, he said, “I’m afraid I am late for a previous engagement.”

OK: We heard the bolt and dead lock behind us.

ON: And then we went back to The Cedar and had some more martinis. But I’ll never forget his fluffy slippers!

TM: Well, so what are the issues here? In addition to the very intriguing, tantalizing clues presented in Joseph LeSueur’s account, is there anything in the poem that might seem to hint at its Kochean authorship?

ON: Well, let’s see . . . There is first of all the obvious fantasticalness of the poem, the Mayakovskyan theme of a conversation with the sun, and one can well see how the whole scene strongly suggests an event in the afterlife, for only there may such an impossible incidence hold any water.

OK: And there is, for me, a passage that is a dead giveaway, so to speak. [Reads]:
                                                            “. . . And
always embrace things, people earth
sky stars, as I do, freely and with
the appropriate sense of space. That
is your inclination, known in the heavens
and you should follow it to hell, if
necessary, which I doubt.
                                                Maybe we’ll
speak again in Africa, of which I too
am specially fond. Go back to sleep now
Frank, and I may leave a tiny poem
in that brain of yours as my farewell.”
Indeed, what are those words if not the words of a friend or lover or brother speaking to a departed friend, softly announcing, as he does, his gift of authorship?

ON: And the Sun’s voice . . . It registers as unmistakably Kochean, I’d say: Consider his later poem, “Some General Instructions,” for example, an uncanny echo, there, of the Sun’s voice in “A True Account . . .”

OK: And the odd, awkwardly self-conscious reference to Africa, so slyly, it seems, an allusion to O’Hara’s off-handed mention of the “poets of Ghana,” in his famous poem, “The Day Lady Died.” And then this, at the poem’s very end. [Reads]:
“Sun, don’t go!” I was awake
at last. “No, go I must, they’re calling
          “Who are they?”
                                          Rising he said “Some
day you’ll know. They’re calling to you
too.” Darkly he rose, and then I slept.
TM: Ah yes, there is hardly need to comment much on those concluding stanzas . . . the tiny poem left “in that brain of yours” as “my farewell,” the dark rising, the mysterious “They” calling, the poet now “sleeping.” In fact, introducing this stanza, Brad Gooch has this to say in his biography, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara:
[T]he poem had been written by O’Hara on July 10, 1958, when he was visiting Hal Fondren at his rented house at Fire Island Pines, not far from the spot where he would be hit almost exactly eight years later. The poem consists of a conversation between the Sun, who wakes O’Hara and complains petulantly, “When I woke up Mayakovsky he was / a lot more prompt,” and the apologetic poet’s comment, “Sorry, Sun, I stayed / up late last night talking to Hal.”

“I almost fell off my chair,” remembers [Kenneth] Koch. “It was Frank talking about his own death.” 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 . . .
ON: “Almost too neatly prophetic” indeed!

OK: A death, to be sure, that took place on Fire Island, only a short stroll from where the poem was supposedly composed, when the sun had gone down, before it again darkly rose . . . Ah, the sun, the sun . . . It is the most ubiquitous figure across his oeuvre, really, appearing again and again.

ON: Yes. And let us observe the following: It’s well known that the New York School of poets were very open to false attributions and writerly dissimulations. Koch himself was a great fan of Ern Malley, for example, the famous invented Australian poet.

OK: Not to mention that he wrote one of his greatest books, Some South American Poets, under a variety of names . . . So one might ask: Is it not possible to conceive that a poet sympathetic to authorial subterfuge and indirection would adopt a grief-mask in selfless offering for the beloved, dead friend? That he would do so in a poetic ritual of oblation to his friend’s afterlife?

TM: Well put. And speaking of books he wrote, there is the marvelous, reader-friendly late book of “criticism,” entitled Making Your Own Days, this phrase taken, of course, from “A True Account.” And also his last book of poetry pedagogy, Talking to the Sun. The poem never seems to have left the forefront of his mind, does it? But let us reemphasize here the central and curious fact, a matter of record: Kenneth Koch removed from O’Hara’s apartment all available poetic notebooks and manuscripts in the hours after the mortal accident. In such strangely rushed act, he made possible, obviously, the addition we suspect him of making to O’Hara’s corpus. And it appears that he also, shortly after the poet’s death, came into possession of the brand new journal O’Hara had with him on that fateful night. Its only entry, in the poet’s unmistakable holograph, and in all probability, the last lines written by him, read:
He falls; but even in falling he is higher than those who fly into the ordinary sun.
ON: Needless to say, this sends a shiver up one’s back.

OK: It seems impossible, doesn’t it.

TM: But here is something else: We have examined this otherwise empty notebook, [3] and there written on its decorative cover is the poet’s name. But what is clear is that the holograph on the cover is not in the poet’s hand. It is, we strongly feel, in Kenneth Koch’s dissimulated hand.

ON: And so this entry, these final words by O’Hara, very likely stand, if one puts one and one together, as the direct inspirational impetus of Koch’s miraculously beautiful tribute to his dear friend, the poem “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.”

OK: And there is one final thing, isn’t there?

TM: What’s that?

OK: That Kenneth Koch, the Sun who darkly puts a poem in his friend’s brain before the latter finally sleeps and goes away to those calling him, prepared his final book, a selected early poems, shortly before his own death, published under the title, Sun Out—a collection of poems written when he and O’Hara and Ashbery and Schuyler were so full of life and life was so full of them. Within, is its strange and most famous poem, “When the Sun Tries to Go On.”

ON: I hadn’t thought of that!

TM: And neither had I! [4]

[Clinking of sake cups in toast. Tape ends.]


1.     The tape-essay is by Tosa Motokiyu, acknowledged now as the pseudonymous author of the Araki Yasusada writings. Norinaga and Kyojin are his invented collaborators—though the conversation recorded here with Joseph LeSueur is by all indications actual [See the next note]. Unlike most of the other essays in the “tape-essay” series, this piece—with exception of “tinkling of sake cups in toast”—excludes Motokiyu’s eccentric notations of “ambient sounds.”

2.     These remarks by LeSueur on “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” later appear, albeit in somewhat revised form, in his memoir, Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara (FSG, 2004). It is our assumption, for no other explanation seems possible, that Motokiyu sent LeSueur either the tape or the written transcript of the comments, which the latter incorporated rather directly into his book. It is clear that Motokiyu did meet with Mr. LeSueur and that the account that appears in LeSueur’s book originates in the meeting between the two, for Motokiyu’s manuscript predates the publication of Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara.

3.     LeSueur, also, reports in Digressions that the signature on the cover is not in O’Hara’s holograph. For reasons that cannot be discussed here, Motokiyu has chosen not to reveal the circumstances surrounding his access to O’Hara’s last journal.

4.     Of course, the Koch books mentioned toward the end of the tape-essay, Making Your Own Days, Talking to the Sun, and Sun Out were published after Motokiyu’s supposed death in 1996, which was announced in a note by us [KJ & JA] in the appendix section of Doubled Flowering. It is with this tape-essay, in other words, that Motokiyu has chosen to reveal that his purported passing was a fictional move within the conceptual unfolding of his much-discussed work. Indeed, “Tosa Motokiyu” (the pseudonym of the primary author of the Yasusada corpus) is still quite alive. Though the Yasusada material is now complete, he intends to continue writing, in coming years, as best he can, under his chosen nom de plume.

Kent Johnson, La Paz, Bolivia, 2004
(Photograph by Forrest Gander)