Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Tony Towle’s Letter

Some Dogs

Tony Towle wrote me a letter (dated 9 June 2008) regarding my Koch-poking flippancy of some weeks back:
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.

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.

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).

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. 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.


I reply’d immediately:
Dear Tony,

“Offhand” is right, and “tongue in cheek” ought to’ve been evident, though mayhaps it wasn’t. I figured the cheekiness of Kent Johnson’s piece would buoy up that of my own. (Though, truthfully, I reread Johnson’s piece when I post’d my April 25th piece, and thought “it’s possible,” whereas earlier (my first reading) I’d thought, “there goes mischievous Kent again.” In fact, when Kent read my piece, he want’d to know if I thought he’d uncover’d something, and I reply’d that he ought to “ask Tony Towle, he’d know.”)

Shall I run your letter on Isola di Rifiuti? I’d be happy to, with a short response [. . .] probably pointing out that the modicum of whimsical sass or aspersion I toss Koch’s way (or O’Hara’s) would not tarnish even a square inch of anybody’s reputation. “Demented” I likely arrived at by alliterative speed (with “dapper”)—it’s not a particularly pejorative word in my vocabulary (I could’ve said “zany” more safely I imagine). The truth is, I’m not terribly serious about most things, including slander and repute—there are only two faults (and I learned them both from O’Hara, absolutely a hero of mine I shouldn’t need to add): one fault is over-seriousness, being too earnest particularly about one’s “work”; the other, the failure to be attentive to the world.

[. . .]

All the best,

What about a series starring a hard-boil’d New York City detective by the name of Tony Towle? Mild manner’d poet, connoisseur of the Village’s haunts and hideouts, a good man for a stake-out, ever-willing to plug a thug, even for something’s old-fashioned as honor, or a man’s memory. Sam Spade. Tony Towle. ’S got a certain ring to it.

What I did—minor sleuth myself—is, I went and collar’d that Broadway 2 number. Ran down its line-up—John Ashbery, Bill Berkson, Maxine Chernoff, the Gizzi brothers, that dangerous moll Barbara Guest—oh knock it off. What I found—the Kenneth Koch “Homage to Frank O’Hara”—made me jump like a loose budgie at the sign of a tom. Surely here’s proof of something, the whiff of Koch’s ambition so strong you could build a two-bay garage on top of it (I say knock it off—“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”):

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. Oh
well! There should be more of Frank O’Hara
written at any time! Even if his are
better, why not have some of these? And I can
at least add subjects—the decease
of the Williamsburg Bridge might
have inspired him. Williams! What ever got into your steel
supports? How am I going
to get to Brooklyn to see
the nineteenth-century American
drawings at the Brooklyn Museum if you won’t
lift me? Remember you’re named for William
Carlos Williams and he didn’t just
write a few poems and collapse, did he? No! Get up!
And about that “dapper”—didn’t I attend a reading Kenneth Koch deliver’d in Paris circa 1980, rue du Dragon, the American Cultural Center, a place that seem’d slightly affront’d by my clothes that look’d slept in, and didn’t Koch read “Fate” beginning—“In a room on West Tenth Street in June / Of nineteen fifty-one, Frank O’Hara and I / And Larry Rivers (I actually do not remember / If Larry was there . . .” and containing the lines “John / Unhappy and brilliant and silly” and, too, “they / Tended except Frank to pooh-pooh / What I said about Europe”? And didn’t a squad—ravening posse or guard?—of statuesque (and wealthy-looking) women surround Koch (who look’d tan and vif and quipping—a man clearly en pleine forme), defeating my standard desire of the moment—precisely, to acquire news of Frank O’Hara in New York City in the ’fifties? And didn’t I flee, fleeting it down to Convention where I inhabit’d a ding’d up cold water room in a lone building surround’d by rubble, and where I regularly dosed (and doused) my own ambition in bottles of high-tannick’d red Arabic wine? I did. Oh I did.

Frank O’Hara, 1926-1966

Tony Towle, c. 1966

Kenneth Koch, 1925-2002
(Photograph by Larry Rivers)