“Ghost Forest” Cedars at Sleeping Bear Dunes
Tony Towle, spur’d by the recent announcement of the upcoming Punch Press edition of Kent Johnson’s A Question Mark Above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “by” Frank O’Hara, wrote me the following letter, and ask’d that I post it here. I am happy to do so. Sans commentaires, as René Daumal liked to say, muttering feverishly like an editor, cent cons m’enterrent.
As you certainly remember, two years ago there was a good deal of correspondence (touched off by chance, I think, with my letter of June 11, 2008 concerning another matter) about Kent Johnson’s theory that Kenneth Koch was the real author of “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” that he wrote it after Frank’s death, in July of 1966, and passed it off as O’Hara’s work. He purportedly took Frank’s typewriter from the loft, forged the poem, typed Frank’s name on it, added “Fire Island July 10, 1958,” and slipped it into the considerable number of unpublished poems that had been found in the loft. In this, Kenneth would have deceived Bill Berkson at the moment when it was “discovered,” when they were together making copies of the poems and, soon afterwards, the audience of the first memorial reading for O’Hara, held at New York University in September. Nobody had known of this poem before and, as I mentioned in one of my letters, it blew us all away. We wondered: why had Frank not published it? Let me add, though, nobody thought it sounded as if it had not been written by O’Hara—it was quintessentially him—only that it was an extraordinary poem. I would add that “A True Account” was one of the poems Kenneth read on this occasion (John Ashbery and others read O’Hara’s work, as well), but it occurred to no one that the voice in the poem was the counterpart of the voice that was reading it aloud.
Kent Johnson has spun a tale out of very little and defended his preposterous notion against any and all objections on the grounds that it can’t be disproven. Now, as per your blog entry of July 23rd, it seems that Mr. Johnson has seen fit to publish a 140-page book on this subject, apparently as a tribute to his own ingeniousness. I hope you will give me the space to review the entire affair.
The basis of Johnson’s hypothesis is primarily a couple of musings by Joe Le Sueur in his book, Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, who found it “mystifying” that Frank had never shown this beautiful poem to him, or to anyone; and a statement reportedly made by Larry Rivers. It does not appear from the chapter headings of Johnson’s book, which are readable on your blog, that he has changed his mind about sticking to his assertion, and I assume the appendix entitled “Letter to Tony Towle” is a reprint from one of his letters that was posted here two years ago. I invite interested readers to look at the Isola archives between June 11, 2008 and my concluding letter of July 21st of that year to put Johnson’s correspondence (which will include details in defense of his theory) in context with my own, and also to see how other individuals weighed in on the matter at the time.
It is a fact that no one of Frank’s friends had seen all his unpublished work—far from it—not Le Sueur, not Ted Berrigan (to whom Frank granted access to at least some of his unpublished work in 1963-64), and not Frank’s oldest and closest poet friends: Kenneth himself, and John Ashbery; it was not just “A True Account” that nobody had seen over the years (it was just the most impressive example). I can tell you that every single one of us was astonished when Frank’s Collected Poems appeared at the end of 1971, and his achievement was seen in its entirety (or almost; there have since been two editions of Poems Retrieved that supplement the Collected).
One of the things that puzzled Joe Le Sueur in Digressions is why Frank didn’t at least show “A True Account” to Hal Fondren—after all, he wrote it while staying at Hal’s house on Fire Island. It turned out that Frank did show it to Hal; it was enclosed in a letter sent from New York to Fire Island on July 19th, Frank and Joe having spent a week in East Hampton after leaving Fire Island. In the letter, along with the carbon copy of “A True Account,” was a carbon of the poem he had written at Hal’s the day before, the 9th—the well-known and by 1966 twice-published “Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets,” but in its (probably only) earlier version, with the title in French. This letter, in which Frank tells Hal that he is enclosing the two poems written during his recent visit, is discussed by Kent Johnson on your blog in his letter of July 17, 2008, and by me in my letter of the 21st—and quoted in part by me, and paraphrased by Johnson.
It bears repeating here, regarding the reliability of Joe’s memory, that Hal Fondren and Jack Shaw’s house was not in Fire Island Pines, as related in Digressions (misinformation Joe must have earlier passed on to Brad Gooch, as it appears in the 1993 City Poet), but in Fair Harbor (that Frank writes as “Fairharbor” in the letter), which is quite a bit further west (there are 16 separate communities on Fire Island), and the ferry that brings residents and visitors across Great South Bay, then as now, leaves from Bay Shore, not Sayville. So there was no ironic coincidence that Frank was killed near the spot where he wrote “A True Account”—as Joe mistakenly thought many years later.
The existence of this letter and its enclosures became known because they appeared in the on-line catalogue of James S. Jaffe Rare Books, located on Madison Avenue in New York. I will return to the letter after a digression of my own.
Kent Johnson first broached his notion of Kenneth as secret forger in 2007, in an on-line magazine called Almost Island, presumably a reminiscence (called a “tape-essay”) by three Japanese gentlemen—location and year unknown—about a visit to New York in 1990, during which they interview both Joe Le Sueur and Kenneth Koch, and through teasing, prodding and insinuation, seemingly get both Joe and Kenneth to admit there is something in Kent Johnson’s theory, though it is presented as their own. The information in this “essay” is presented as fact, not conjecture or fancy, and it is clearly bogus—I will point out examples in a moment—yet it is been an important device in propping up Kent Johnson’s flimsy structure.
Stilted and completely unbelievable dialogue comes out of the mouth of Joe Le Sueur—and it is in quotation marks, presented as if verbatim, from a tape that was supposedly recorded during the trip to New York. Kenneth’s speech is equally ridiculous, although it must be said that the conversation of the three Japanese themselves is not much more credible—even taking into account that English is not their first language. Johnson is certainly involved in this farce, because the primus inter pares of the three investigators is one Tosa Motokiyu, of whose existence more will be said below. Calling this a “tape-essay” seems to be an attempt by Johnson to evade responsibility for the document’s pervasive phoniness yet, murky as it is, the scenarios and dialogue are presented as having actually transpired. This is a fraudulent way to support a theory. Imagine the consequences in a civil or criminal court case in which it was discovered that one of the parties manufactured conversations and passed them off as genuine to bolster his version of events. Without this “essay,” Johnson’s case is composed of little but conjectures elaborated from the inconclusive and unreliable remarks by Le Sueur. The testimony of Rivers will be dealt with a little further on.
I need now to take a moment for a digression within the digression to remind your readers that Kent Johnson was strongly implicated some years back in presenting the work of an apparently, as it turned out, fictitious Japanese poet by the name of Araki Yasusada. Various publications and Wesleyan University Press were taken in by what was determined to be a hoax, which was generally laid at Kent Johnson’s doorstep. Johnson never admitted writing the poems but stated Yasusada was the pen name of a Tosa Motokiyu, itself a pseudonym (or “heteronym”), who—sadly or conveniently—passed away in 1996: “I have stated in print a number of times . . . that the author of the Yasusada materials is the late Tosa Motokiyu, the pseudonym of a writer who did not wish to attach his legal name to the hyperauthorial person he brought into being.”
Eliot Weinberger, in the on-line magazine Jacket (#5, 1998), in the Postscript to his piece “Can I Get a Witness?” writes that “The Yasusada poems are very much written in the style, not of Japanese poetry, but of American translations of Japanese poetry, including some witty intentional infelicities and bits of translationese. Yasusada, regardless of authorship, is very much an American Japanese poet: a product of the specifically American tradition of translating Japanese poetry.”
I find no difficulty in accepting the astuteness and expertise of such a respected scholar in Asian languages as Mr. Weinberger; and, if his analysis is accurate, Motokiyu-san has as much corporeality as Yasusada.
And so back to the first digression. Some of what Joe Le Sueur says in the “tape-essay” is clearly lifted from the text of Digressions—such as the description of Frank having saved a boy from drowning on the beach at Fair Harbor. So it couldn’t have been Motokiyu who trolled Joe’s book for likely material since, at the time Digressions was published (2003), he had been dead for seven years. Of course if Motokiyu never existed in the first place, there’s no reason why Johnson shouldn’t bring him back for a project once in a while.
Here are a few examples of the dialogue of Motokiyu and friends (the entire “tape-essay” can be found by Googling “Almost Island Motokiyu”):
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.
This “strong reason” is nothing but a baseless assertion.
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.
Tosa Motokiyu: 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 . . . Well, it was a glorious day in May.
Norinaga then spouts a pastiche of Frank’s “walking around at lunchtime” poems and implies he and his two friends had been in Times Square and saw the Camels smoke-blowing sign—which was dismantled in 1966—and the Bond “waterfall” sign, which was taken down in 1954. Then Motokiyu calls Joe Le Sueur (outside the Automat, also nonexistent in Times Square by 1990) and, after some ridiculously unauthentic-sounding dialogue, Joe “. . . 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.”
There were never any outside tables at the Cedar Tavern, in either of its two incarnations on University Place. And why these guys take a detour through the “Lower East Side” to get from Times Square to the Cedar (which was in the Village) demonstrates Johnson’s lack of familiarity with New York in general and the Cedar in particular—and his ignorance is duly passed on to his surrogates.
It is also worth mentioning that in 1990 Joe Le Sueur was living in East Hampton (in the Springs, with Patsy Southgate), so that coming to New York for any reason would mean a three-hour train ride planned around a notoriously spotty schedule—either the 11:47 a.m., which would arrive at Penn Station at 2:44, or the 3:15 p.m., which would get in at 6:20; so “5 PM sharp” is not a time he would have suggested (and who says “5 PM” in this kind of a conversational scenario, anyway?). Then, after drinking martinis for “one or two hours” (Joe was 65!), Le Sueur would have had to be sure not to miss the last train back, at 8:30. This would get him home around midnight, having spent either 9 hours or 12 on the excursion, out of which one, maybe two, was spent actually socializing. This meeting never took place.
Then the trio say goodbye to the martini-laden Joe Le Sueur and take a ride in a “yellow automobile” to go to “the house of Kenneth Koch, after calling him on the telephone.” It’s pretty clear that whoever is writing this has no idea where Kenneth lives in relation to the Cedar Tavern. They would have been in the yellow automobile at least 45 minutes, depending on the traffic, to go from 12th and University to the Upper West Side slightly north and west of Columbia University. This would now make the time around 8 o’clock.
Letting complete strangers drop in out of the blue at night was very much not Kenneth’s M.O. Nonetheless, our intrepid interviewers knock on his door and are greeted with “Come in, come in!” he [Kenneth] said, enthusiastically, waving his arms. “So nice of you to stop by and say hello!” The plausibility of the diction speaks for itself, as well as the gesticulation. Here is some more:
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. . . . “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.
Kenneth may be a master forger, it seems, but is totally inept at hiding his guilt. The exclamatory sentence above is ludicrously distant from anything the real Kenneth Koch would have uttered.
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.”
The sentence above indicates that Kenneth brought Frank’s typewriter into the loft before he took it away again. Johnson knew from City Poet that Kenneth, Frank Lima, and Larry Rivers went to Frank’s loft to remove his poems and papers, although if this visit was made on “the day after his death” is not clear. Larry is reported to have taken back paintings that he had loaned to Frank, Frank Lima took O’Hara’s passport as a souvenir, and Kenneth concentrated on gathering the unexpectedly large number of manuscripts from the closet, the sheer volume of which was to surprise everyone. The book quotes Kenneth as saying, “Jesus, he’d written a lot that no one had ever seen.” Nothing is mentioned about the typewriter. Considering the patent unreality of the interviews with Le Sueur and Koch, why should any credence be given to “We understand from Mr. Larry Rivers, with whom we spoke on the phone two days ago, that you took Mr. O’Hara’s Royal . . .” Really? This indirect quote from Larry is close to achieving the absurdity of the Le Sueur and Koch conversations. I don’t believe such a phone call was ever made. I don’t believe these three amigos ever existed. By the way, Frank’s sister Maureen remembers that the typewriter was still in the loft after the poems and papers and paintings had been removed.
TM: [quoting Kenneth from a tape recording] “. . . 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!”
Another passage that is nothing like the way Kenneth actually spoke. The whole “essay” is composed of fictive people talking among themselves, or fictive people eliciting fictive statements from real people made fictive.
Now, back to Frank’s letter to Hal Fondren of July 19, 1958, with the enclosed poems (which is being offered for sale by James S. Jaffe Rare Books). As I mentioned, Mr. Johnson and I each talk about this letter in detail in our respective final contributions to the discussion in your blog in June-July of 2008, but reach different conclusions. I thought this letter and the copy of “A True Account” that was enclosed ended the matter in favor of Frank’s authorship and Kenneth’s sanity, and so, I must admit, didn’t read Johnson’s letter of July 17th carefully. If I had, I would have discovered that this proof was not enough for Mr. Johnson, who declared: But let me say, for now, however counter-intuitive the claim may seem, that even this new material I will now present [the letter with its enclosures] does not completely close the mystery of “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.”
In an effort to keep his theory afloat, Johnson discusses the possibility (and asked James Jaffe to investigate) that the paper on which “A True Account” had been typed might have been manufactured after 1958 (though it was the same paper that the copy of the “Ode” was typed on), thus leaving open the door that Kenneth Koch could have switched his forged “A True Account” with whatever poem had been originally enclosed along with the “Ode” (since Frank says to Hal that he was enclosing copies of the two poems he wrote at his house).
That would mean there was an unknown, unpublished poem by O’Hara enclosed with the letter, a poem that Koch would now have to dispose of.
Here’s Mr. Johnson on this possibility. It would “. . . obviously mean the carbon copy was inserted with the letter at a date subsequent to its first mailing (replacing another poem originally enclosed). . .” Italics mine. Mr. Johnson is suggesting that Kenneth would be capable of destroying an unpublished poem of Frank’s so that he could replace it with a copy of his forgery! I guess the loss of an authentic, real poem of Frank’s would be acceptable collateral damage—anything to fulfill the “strange and moving tribute to the poet’s memory” as one of Johnson’s Japanese phantoms solemnly intones in the “essay.”
“Strange” doesn’t begin to describe it. But it is no more outlandish than the notion that Kenneth could have written a poem completely outside the scope of his sensibility and style immediately after Frank’s death; or that in this allegedly forged poem written in 1966 he needlessly pins himself down to a specific time and place of eight years before that could ultimately expose the deception—“Fire Island, July 10 1958” or include the line “talking to Hal last night”; as I pointed out two years ago, Hal and Kenneth were not friends—if Hal discovered that Kenneth had perpetrated a fraud involving Frank, especially one connected to his own letter, he would have exposed it in a New York minute.
But if Kenneth destroying an unpublished poem of Frank’s to cover his tracks seems beyond the realm of possibility to any sentient being except Kent Johnson, let me also discuss the chronology involved. Hal Fondren died on July 2, 1999, marked by an unobtrusive, three-line Paid Death Notice in the Times; in other words, there was no attention-getting obituary. He was survived by one brother—who was not socially connected to the New York art and poetry scene. Kenneth Koch passed away on July 6, 2002. This leaves a three-year window for Kenneth, 74 in 1999, to find out about a letter he could not have known existed, get it from Hal’s brother, whom he had never met, tamper with the contents of the letter, and sell it to a dealer. He had two years, really, as I think Mr. Johnson would agree that, after the diagnosis of leukemia in 2001, Kenneth’s attention would be concentrated on more serious matters. Also, I think it would be fair to speculate that Hal’s brother would not have brought those effects of Hal’s that were saleable instantly to the marketplace.
James Jaffe has provided me with the following information: I bought the O'Hara letter and poems in April of 2007, at the New York Book Fair at the Park Avenue Armory, and I bought them from another dealer. My impression was that he had just acquired them, and that they had not been on the market before.
From this, it would appear more than likely that no one outside of, perhaps, Hal’s brother, knew about the letter until well after 2002. I am not at liberty to permit the letter to be reproduced here, but I would like your readers to examine the facsimile copies of the two poems in question. They appear with the following credit line and caveat: “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” and “Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets” (in an earlier version, titled “Ode en salut aux poetes negres francaises”) are published in The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., copyright © 1971 by Maureen Granville-Smith and reprinted with permission. All rights are reserved.
Manuscript copy of Frank O’Hara’s “Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets” Manuscript copy of Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island”
Note the parallel signature patterns of the two poems (with the exception of the comma after “Island” on “A True Account”). Consider the odds of someone who had not seen the first poem arriving at this exact formulation for the second (allegedly inserted) one. Kenneth could as easily have written: Frank O’Hara July 10, 1958, or Frank O’Hara / Fair Harbor July 10, 1958, or Frank O’Hara 7/10/58. Or a completely different date.
I would like to point out that the original of the carbon copy in Frank’s papers—forged by Kenneth, according to Johnson—would have been the copy used by Don Allen for the Collected Poems and is designated Ms 494 in that volume’s notes. I would bet that this would match the carbon copy enclosed in the letter of July 19th exactly. If so, would Mr. Johnson suggest something so off the wall as Kenneth Koch making a carbon copy of his forged “A True Account” back in 1966, in the case that a letter such as the one to Hal of July 19, 1958 ever surfaced in the future and he would need that copy to switch it with the original poem by O’Hara enclosed in this hypothetical letter after he purloined it? He has already suggested it.
And there is one more thing. As Mr. Johnson pointed out back in 2008, the letter to Hal has come from one typewriter and the poems from another. Johnson assumed that Frank typed the poems on his portable Royal and the letter was written on another machine—but the reverse is the case. The letter was typed on the Royal and the poems on another typewriter. As it happens, it was easy for me to determine this. I have a draft of a poem I wrote on Frank’s typewriter in 1963, when he let me use it one evening (July 25th) because mine had been stolen from my apartment (Frank and Joe’s old space on East 9th Street that Frank Lima and I had taken over). There is no question that my poem and the letter to Hal came from the same typewriter.
So much for the core concept of Johnson’s theory. If Kenneth took Frank’s typewriter he didn’t write “A True Account” on it. Recall the quote from the faux Kenneth Koch in the “tape-essay,” in which the real authors, Kent Johnson and / or collaborators, have him insist that the copy of “A True Account” found in Frank’s papers in 1966 was typed on Frank’s Royal—to thus incriminate himself and support Johnson’s theory.
Frank never made revisions to “A True Account” and the poem as it appears above is identical to the text in the Collected. However, in the “Ode en Salut aux Poetes Negres Francaises” (francaises is an error; it should be francais, masculine plural—and I am leaving off the French accent marks, as Frank did) the title was translated into English, as were the two lines in French—quotes from Aimé Césaire—with subtle alterations that transformed Césaire’s poetry into O’Hara’s. This revised version, with “Fire Island” omitted, was sent to Don Allen in 1959 for inclusion in the anthology, The New American Poetry: 1945-1960. “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” was put away, for authorial reasons unknown. Since Frank’s later draft of the Ode would most likely have come from his own typewriter, and since the “Fire Island” part of the signature lines was not carried forward (as per the notes in the Collected), no one (except Hal Fondren) would have realized that these were “companion” pieces, of a sort, written in the same location on successive days with “Africa” as an oblique connective. I wonder if Mr. Johnson will now assert that Kenneth used a different typewriter to forge “A True Account.” and replaced both poems (to keep the typewriting consistent), gratuitously back-editing the published version of “Ode” to this draft version that included three lines of French with one grammatical error—and thus accuse Koch of “disappearing” two unpublished poems of Frank’s. Stay tuned.
Where and on whose typewriter did Frank type the first drafts of these two poems? Maybe Hal had a typewriter on Fire Island and told Frank he didn’t need to bring his. (Bill Berkson has informed me that Frank did not invariably bring his typewriter along on these visits to his friends.) Frank certainly had the copies above and their respective originals when he got back to town on the night of Friday the 18th, for he wrote the letter to Hal the next day on his own typewriter and did not have to use it for the poems. If he typed them in East Hampton, what did he type them from; he wrote them on Fire Island. Could he have, atypically, written drafts by hand? Both of these poems seem to me to have been composed directly on the typewriter. It is interesting to speculate about this but it does not affect the certainty of who wrote the poems.
In his letter of July 17, 2008, Mr. Johnson opines that Frank “. . . would have been perfectly delighted that true questions remain”—over who wrote “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.” Mr. Johnson is confusing O’Hara’s sensibility with his own. Frank would have been quite the opposite of delighted at the bizarre and deceitful behavior with which Johnson characterizes his close friend Kenneth Koch, especially the suggestion that Koch would have no qualms about destroying his (Frank’s) unpublished poems to cover up a rather insane and purposeless deception. As to Johnson’s attempted pilfering of “A True Account” from its rightful author, it would be unlikely that Frank would have allowed himself to get publicly upset about it; but he might have delivered an offhand remark along the lines of: “What true questions? Listen, I may not have been completely myself that morning when I wrote the poem, but I certainly wasn’t Kenneth!”
With best wishes,
(Photograph by Diane Tyler)
(Photograph by Diane Tyler)