Thursday, November 08, 2012

Kent Johnson’s A Question Mark Above the Sun

Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch

1.   Reading / re-reading Kent Johnson’s lively romp / serious inquiry A Question Mark Above the Sun. Subtitled: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “by” Frank O’Hara (Starcherone Books, 2012). Being a reprint—with a heft-and-a-half of additional material—of the original limited edition (one hundred copies, by subscription only) impeccably produced by Richard Owens’s fearless and feisty Punch Press in 2010, against concerted attempts to thwart its publication. Subsequently made a “Book of the Year”—poet and critic Jeremy Noel-Tod called it “an extraordinary work of detective criticism” and publicly scolded “the poets who forced its redaction and suppression”—in The Times Literary Supplement (London).

2.   The poem in question: “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island”—Frank O’Hara’s reworking of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “A Most Extraordinary Adventure That Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky in the Summer, at the Rumyantzov Cottage, Mount Akula, Pushkino, on the Yaroslavl Railway.” It begins:
The Sun woke me this morning loud
and clear, saying “Hey! I’ve been
trying to wake you up for fifteen
minutes. Don’t be so rude, you are
only the second poet I’ve ever chosen
to speak to personally
                                          so why
aren’t you more attentive? If I could
burn you through the window I would
to wake you up. I can’t hang around
here all day.”
And ends:
                              “. . . Go back to sleep now
Frank, and I may leave a tiny poem
in that brain of yours as my farewell.”

“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.
3.   The mystery: “that ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’ may in fact have been authored . . . by Kenneth Koch”—“in a radical, secret gesture of poetic mourning and love”—“soon following O’Hara’s death on July 25, 1966.” Johnson:
Koch, in an act now immortalized in American-poetry history, read the poem to a stunned audience at a memorial gathering, eight weeks after O’Hara’s fatal accident—an accident that had taken place only a short stroll from where the strange premonitory masterpiece had supposedly been written, in the same month of eight years prior. There is no record of anyone knowing or hearing of the text’s existence before Koch’s spectacular revelation of it.
4.   The “redaction and suppression.” Novelist Ted Pelton, editor and publisher of Starcherone Books, in a “Note on Quoted Materials”—after noting the book’s “numerous redactions, implying the refusal of those who own the rights to these texts to grant permissions”—writes:
Indeed, permissions were denied by both the Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara estates for use of these quotations in the previous edition of this book; I quote from a letter to Richard Owens of Punch Press, dated October 12, 2010, from Bette Graber, Director, Copyright & Permissions Department, Random House, Inc.:
As you are well aware, the O’Hara Estate is not interested in cooperating with your publication and, accordingly, any request for permission to use material from Mr. O’Hara’s poems is hereby denied. I trust that you will not include any of Mr. O’Hara’s copyrighted material in your work. . . . Please confirm that Mr. Johnson is aware that no copyrighted material from Mr. O’Hara’s works will appear in his book.
The present edition has followed Johnson’s decision to feature elaborate redaction statements that create a type of symbolic commentary on Random House’s and the Koch and O’Hara Estates’ decision. Simultaneously, other parts of this second edition feature critical texts that make “fair use” of literary quotations in their commentaries . . .
Pelton quotes applicable copyright law (17 USC § 107) specifying precisely how “fair use of a copyrighted work . . . for purposes such as criticism, comment . . . , teaching . . . , scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.” Bluster and bullying by Random House, with the consent (or at the urging of) the Estates, and poets Bill Berkson, Tony Towle, Ron Padgett, and Jordan Davis ganging up to lend their misplaced righteousness as cosignatories to an attempt to quash Johnson’s intrepid and loving look at the poem’s oddly catalectic history and its premonitory gist: is there a stranger story in recent literary history, or one less bruited about, particularly by those principals who might be expected to reply to Johnson’s singular offering with fervors untempered by the usual corporate-model clutch and own pettinesses? (And, still, one awaits a reply to Johnson’s overwhelming question . . .)

5.   Overlooked in the hubbub regarding the attempted suppression: the sheer brilliance of Johnson’s critical proposals. Beyond the serious query regarding the possibly troubled provenance of O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” is a gentle and sly assault against the narrowness of the usual critical ploys, objectivist, undesiring, plain. If one of criticism’s raisons d’etre is to place the reader repeatedly into the wild vicinity of the original work itself, to make it undeniably loud and humming with its unstained and unstinting own-ness, isn’t any maneuver that proceeds to do just that welcome? (Who, reading A Question Mark Above the Sun, isn’t finally inhabited by O’Hara’s poem, as if by a haunt—a remarkable thing considering the forcibly excised quotes—and in a way no mere close reading could possibly contrive.) Johnson works out some of the details of an expanded critical strut in the book’s midriff, the “unfinished critical novella” called “Corroded by Symbolysme,”* a serial review (originally printed in Chicago Review in 2007-8) of books by Andrew Duncan (Savage Survivals: amid modern suavity), J. H. Prynne (To Pollen), Tim Atkins (Horace), and Martin Corless-Smith (Nota and Swallows). Fueled by orthographic and typographical hijinks, by coincidences run amok (it’s giddy-making in a decidedly juvenile way how routinely sweat is noted to “pour off” each antagonist’s “sideburnians” at each climatic moment), and by a stubbornly-confected mystery (replete with several members of the burgeoning British avant-garde seen sporting a certain style of “large, whyte opal ring” and defiantly keeping mum—with threats and casual sudden violence—regarding “some dark secret related to the poetry of O’Hara”), Johnson therein posits (amid their wild enactment) some tenets for a new critical largesse. Asking, in a glorious prose accelerando:
Why is it that the reviewing of poetry is always more or less about the reviewer? That is, why is the review always about the view of the “reviewer,” as if what he or she had to say were more interesting or useful than the view of the author himself or herself? Why shouldn’t the poet who is the subject be the one to primarilie speak about his or her own work, be a protagonist, even, within the review’s fictitious world, the reviewer acting more as a kind of semi-amanuensis, a supporting actore, limited, in the modesty of his or her position as attendant (admiring or not), to telling a few Boswelllike stories here and there, adding a few supplementarie opinyons in the process, fusing at certain transgressive or luminous moments with the Poet’s Voice, but never losing sight of his or her Johnny-come-latelie fluctuating position? Would such an approach not be a salutary one, insofar as it might help gently unfasten the buckles and straps of a genre long bound by customs of epistemological presumption and claim, customs that render, in ritualized fashion, interior scenes or landscapes whose convincing, life-like, but decidedly simulacral critycal effects are fashioned by means of perspectival tricks carefully plotted out by the reviewer from whose eyes unseen lynes of axiology converge in multiple vanishing points that are, when one thinks about it, akin to tiny coagulations of ideology (inasmuch as the expectations of evaluation’s productive mode and relations of exchange are ideological through and through)? I mean, that’s a terribly long sentence, but really, what is the literary field, populated as it is by Authores, be they Poets or Critycs, if not a vast space of tinie bodies orbiting and crashing and disappearing in the vicinity of a great central Black Holum?
And, with a nod toward Nicanor Parra’s Anti-Poetry, Johnson wonders: “might some similar idiosyncratic formal gesture within the genre of reviewing—a sort of Anti-Reviewyng—provide for some refreshingly uncommon things to happen, such as the eruption into “evaluation” of auto-biographical, even fantastickal material? Material, that is to say, beyond the reviewere’s scripted and panoramic command, enacting a sort of drama that bears forthe, in a reverse Brechtian fashion, the basal artifice, arbitrariness, and hubris of the genre’s nature?” Potent, pertinent, exhilarating and smart: Johnson here joins a long line of poets willing to apply needed shocks to their era’s moribund critical beast, to make it march with brio and magniloquence equal to its “material” in the ongoing literary parade sauvage. One suspects the critical stomping ground is now forever changed.

6.   Johnson’s radical ambivalence: against his own excoriating wit and instinctual apprehending of effluvia, against the very excesses of his own deft critical outcries a counterforce of love and sympathy for the foibles and poignancies of humankind (precisely what allows Johnson to see both fealty and love in Koch’s supposed writing—“a spectacular, radical act of mourning and tribute”) and a searing self-deprecatory humor. So that: in reviewing J. H. Prynne’s To Pollen the increasingly pointed and brilliant Johnsonian monologue regarding the nature of Prynne’s work—I must needs repeat it—
. . . there does seem to be a move toward a kind of depurated, fractal rigor, like in Chinese prosody, actually, where one has a complex grid of semantic couplings, aural interlockings, intertextual allusions, and so forth, and the reader moves around and wanders, guided not so much by syntagmatic sequence as by attention to the multiplicity of non-linear textuyres that the excisions of normative grammar afforde. The controlling code gets smashed, information flows go a bit crazey, discursive frames bleed each into each and out beyond what we would have them mean when within the mirage of our controle. I mean in your recent work it’s as if what you wish to show, againe and againe, is two major things, and they seem to me perhaps somewhat contradictory, really: A) Language is a huge weather system of variegated pattern and effect, autonomous and self-reproducing beyond the conscious intentions of authore or reader, and B) that it is the responsibility of the poet to nail this overwhelming motherfuckere down, to get a handle on the ideological hail and fog and numbing cold and deadening heat we walk within and breathe; I mean, you seem to want to expose the imbricated otherness of these weathers through a sampling and splicing at phrasal dimensions of discursive micro-climates and to do so as a means of analytic counter-discourse to the simulacral phantasms of the cultural surround—a kind of display as the Language poets used to say, of “a mind in control of its language”. . .
—ends with Prynne, “chinum” sunk to “chestum,” in an indifferent snooze. He’s completely missed Johnson’s own stormy weather, the lyrical / critical outburst of precisely how “these avant-garde formalist / analytic gestures are getting openly, eroticallye . . . sucked right into the archive and shackled away in the Museum at ever increasing rates of speede.” As if all the razzmatazz and dazzle of our historical moment—and its meaning—were reduced to a napping interlocutor, and all our brilliant talk a vain fillip in a frankly fictitious tale.

7.   At some point—talking of visiting, with Tim Atkins, David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, and recounting some of the “fantastickal collections in that small, darke wunderkammer of a place**—Johnson stops with a half-admonitory “one easily gets carryed away in the pleasure of naming.” And isn’t it there in that “carryed away”—boundarylessness and excess deployed—that Johnson’s genius exerts itself, though seemingly without ardor, and with a goodly portion of humor. See, say, the casual impropriety of Johnson’s report in “Corroded by Symbolysme” of bumping into Stephen Rodefer and Mark Nowak “by the wyne cooler” at a conference in Cambridge, England:
The day before, Stephen had said something insultynge to me and I had grabbed him by the collar and pinned him against the wall; Mark, who had once been my good friend when we were grad students in the famouse and prestigious Creative Writyng Program at Bowling Green State Universitie in northwestern Ohio, had been studiously avoiding me all weekend, though I could not blame hime, I suppose, since I had stolen two of his essays on Experimentale Poetry and Trade Unionisme verbatym and published them as my own in my dissertatione.
The obviously puffed-up descriptors “famouse and prestigious” lend a fictitious credence to the tale of the stolen “essays . . . verbatym” that keeps some vaguely immeasurable truth-quotient high (even if there’s little or no truth to the story). (One of the notes Johnson “excitedlie” jotted down while reading Martin Corless-Smith’s work reads: “—A dissolution of attribution and agency throughout the work to the point of almost hearing Beckett’s question, ‘What does it matter who is speaking?’” And another: “. . . it is hard to tell where the author, Martin Corless-Smith, begins and leaves off, where the branch of his identity in the bookum stops and all these othernesses begin branching and flowering. Not petals on a wet, black bough, as it were, but petals scattered and drowned in a flowing stream . . . . Why this prosody, if prosody is the word? Why this writing of oneself into utter dispersal?”) A large part of the Tim Atkins chapter of “Corroded by Symbolysme” is fueled by a giddy sense of the limitlessness of translation—
If we can have the works of, say, both Brahms and Cage understood as music, the art of both Watteau and Duchamp understood as painting, the writing of both Tennyson and Mac Low understood as Poetry, why can’t we imagine that the task of Translation might extend, for the sake of certain purposes, beyond the relatively stable protocols and boundaries that currently “define” the practice.
A giddiness that is “both incomparably thrilling and potentiallie grave”: “And in asking these things, of course, we right away encounter other shimmering boundaryes—ethical boundaryes—ones that are, again, innere and outere, inside us and outside us, and at the core of translation, in all its multiple expressions, from the get-go. For translation is, and I think it is one thing I’d allow myself a bit of certitude on, a bringing of Otherness—that most mysterious and wavy of matters into new beinge.” Certitude, that complacency. It’s as if that’s what Kent Johnson—in all his provocatory wonder and indefatigable vigor for sheer possibility—is constant in combatting. It is the gadfly’s realm, and the artist’s. It damns all those who’d merely desire a cozy stall in the current big barn, there to placidly cud-chew and flick the whisks of their brittle tails at such flies . . . As David Shapiro puts it in the appended “Correspondence,” addressing all comers: “Certainty of which Whitehead said: there can be false precisions. Don’t ask me how I know your E-flat is terribly sharp.” And, turning to the purported matter of the book, Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island”: “Let’s find out everything about the poem, particularly if it leaves us loving the poem that much more and seeing its qualities. . . . We shouldn’t be like Berenson and make authorship seem like a good financial transaction.”
* The title—a phrase by the eighteenth century impostor George Psalmanazar, who concocted “a full-blowne ethnography, a detailed cultural study of the land of Formosa, by which he meant Japan, and this included, even, analysis of its language, which he himself invented, a full-blown lexicography and grammare”—is pertinently interpreted in the novella thus:
. . . the avant-garde thinks it intervenes through art into a world whose codes it can read and understand and thus foil and subvert. It is deconstructive in push and aim, but its target is a picture it falsely takes to be the Real. And this is why the Culture Industry always wins . . . The avant-garde, always-already aestheticized, through and through, down to its analytical smirk and cool, gets sucked into a symbolic canvas that ideology has primed—it becomes part of the scenery, and what is History, if not corroded scenery?
** See:
. . . the Megaloponera foetens, the stink ant of the Cameroon; the anthropological studies of Maston and Griffith of the Deprong Mori of the Tripiscum Plateau; the anonymous Fruit Stone Carving upon which a vast theological landscape unfolds; the seventeenth-century horn from the head of Mary Davis of Saughall . . . the bizarre Delani / Sonnabend Halls, with their dream-like discursions on memory and its tricks; the barely believable studies of bees and their psychic capacities, by the eccentric but genius bacteriologist Alexander Fleming; the Garden of Eden on Wheels collection, magical detritus from LA trailer parks, old and modern; the Decaying Dice of Ricky Jay; the memorabilia and history of the Dog Heroes of the Soviet space program; the Floral Stereoradiographs of Albert G. Richards; the Microminiatures of Hagop Sandaldjian . . .