i've had things to say about Kent Johnson on this blog before. i frequently find the things he says infuriatingly annoying. but there's no denying that he's a master provocateur, though i suppose you could deny that that's an impressive title. regardless, when Kent speaks, i generally pay attention.
and every so often Kent does something interesting with that attention. Kent wrote an essay in the Chicago Review, which has now, i believe, been expanded into a book (forthcoming) regarding a possible alternate authorship to Frank O'Hara's poem a true account of talking to the sun at fire island.
Kent proposes that the poem was written by O'Hara's friend and fellow NY school poet, Kenneth Koch.
as usual, Kent's claim comes without hard evidence, however, there is certainly basis enough for the claim to make it an interesting thought experiment.
it's a great little poem (linked above if you haven't read it). a little background: it's no random poem that Kent has chosen to challenge the authorship of; it's a well known O'Hara poem for several reasons. first of all (as i already said) it's a great little poem, but secondly, it was discovered posthumously. thirdly, and most importantly, the poem seems to anticipate O'Hara's untimely death (O'Hara died following an accident on fire island, 1966). i don't think it's unfair to say that the poem is well-liked because of how it seems to foretell the poet's death. not that it's not a good poem, but O'Hara's work is full of great poems that don't get this much attention.
Koch read the poem as a sort of memorial 2 months after O'Hara's death. it's not hard to see how important the poem must be to O'Hara's friends. not hard to understand that, for the poet's friends, Kent is treading, somewhat carelessly, on hallowed ground. really, you'd be hard pressed to convince me that Kent isn't doing all this precisely because of the response it gets. those familiar with Kent know that there's no question too hallowed, too infuriating, too sociopathic for him to ask. but at least this time: it's interesting.
i'm certainly not sold on the idea that the poem was written by Koch, but i have gone back and read the poem as if i believed that it was authored by Koch. i was fascinated by how easily i could switch assumptions, and how those assumptions changed even the "voice" in which i was reading the poem. the poem is written in a style that could, for those familiar with both poets' work, be believably written by either Koch or O'Hara. ultimately though, (and this is just bullshit) the poem does feel like O'Hara: the line breaks, the way particular he transcribes speech, even if the tone could conceivably feel like Koch.
i can't say i would have written about this, though, if it weren't for this next development:
apparently, the Kenneth Koch Legal Estate is threatening legal action against Kent for publishing this book. what the fuck? if this is true (and i'm still somewhat skeptical for a reason i'll go into later), this is pretty seriously cowardly. first of all, the estate must know that there is no legal basis for this. it is clearly a scare tactic. and more than that really. along with knowing they don't have a legal leg to stand on, they also know Punch Press probably can't afford to defend itself. this bullying of such a small press is pretty despicable even if Kent's book is somewhat malicious (which honestly... it probably is).
here's my reason for doubting though: where's the letter? Kent rarely makes mention of correspondences that he doesn't publish at least very large chunks of. but here, we are merely told that the letter threatens "legal action". we are assured it's "unambiguous", but then why is there no direct quote? given Kent's penchant for exaggeration, i can't help but reserve judgment. show us the letter, Kent.
even though i can understand where O'Hara's friends Padgett, Berkson, Towle, and Davis might be a little put off by this, i really don't think this is worth getting all worked up over. i believe even Kent's said it's more of a thought experiment than a serious argument that Koch definitively wrote the poem. it's just ideas, people. anyway, this alleged letter is only going to end up selling more books. it's called the streisand effect, and it's a beautiful thing.
i believe this is the original argument(pdf) put forth by Kent Johnson (ignore all the Japanese names, they're all Kent). also, someone correct me if i'm wrong.
Tony Towle, a friend of both O'Hara and Koch responds
Bill Berkson's response.
still looking for Padgett's response, help me out if you can.