Wednesday, 25 August 2010

further along

John Latta has now published Kent Johnson’s reply to Tony Towle’s letter on the attribution of Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’. I’m not sure that Johnson’s refutation of Towle’s argument is convincing, though he suggests himself that all he’s really arguing for is a position of reasonable doubt. What do I think about this? Other than coming up with a kind of Ockham’s Razor type argument (i.e. let’s go with the proposition that needs the least structuring) I can’t say that I have any strong feelings on the matter. Do I care whether or not Christopher Marlowe wrote ‘Shakespeare’? Not really, though in the current age of celebrity authorship seems to matter so much more. Johnson’s book might be his own route to celebrity in the ‘bad boy’ mode.

I have often played with the notion of authorship myself and as I’ve said elsewhere on this site one of my earliest influences was a poet who wasn’t a poet (or a person) at all: Ern Malley. My interaction with other poets has, to an extent (I hope), kept the faith. Back in the early 1980s John Scott asked me for lines and fragments from poems I hadn’t completed. From these, and with considerable additions of his own, he composed the poem ‘Breath’ which both of us then printed in our respective books. Just a few years ago I composed a poem merely by breaking into short lines a couple of sentences from a letter Pam Brown sent me. The lines had suggested the rhythm of a Noel Coward lyric so the piece became ‘Pam becomes Noel Coward’. It was included in a book co-authored by Pam, Ken Bolton and myself entitled Let’s Get Lost. Within this book individual poems were not attributed. Pam subsequently published the poem as ‘My Noel Coward’ in her own book Authentic Local. At these levels authorship is a less than obvious proposition. Best of all though was another case from the early 1980s. I had written a group of parodies of my contemporaries. In one of these (‘Analgesia’) the subject was John Forbes. John so much liked the lines with ‘a cowboy riding out of/the bookshelf on a bottle/of brightly coloured pills’ that he used them in his own poem ‘Monkey’s Pride’ as ‘a cowboy appears from a bookcase/riding on a bottle of pills’. It was a double-edged honour. The lines seem so much his that it now appears as though I simply lifted them (as I had done with lines from other poets) and placed them in my own poem.


Kent Johnson said...

Thanks for mentioning the reply, Laurie. Any chance of giving it a convenient link for readers, as you did for TT's? David Lehman at Best Am. Poetry blog prominently does that today, which was nice of him.

I do, of course, think I DID effectively refute everything of substance in Towle's post, but the reader must judge, obviously.

And on the matter of "going with the position that needs less structuring," I would say this: It's true that the hypothesis I offer requires some structuring (though I should say that in last couple days I've realized there is a possible scenario that takes some of that need out so far as the Koch hypothesis goes--I will add this to the book). I don't claim the hypothesis seems unlikely on its face! The problem is that the "orthodox" account is arguably even *more* unlikely, inasmuch as it must accept a sequence of bizarrely improbable lacunae and events-- ones that render an O'Hara authorship nearly supernatural. I touch on this in my second addendum at the top of my reply to Towle. So in either case it is not an "easy" fit.

Your remark about this being "a route to celebrity in the bad boy mode" seems unnecessary to me and a bit on the ad hominem side of things. I've had a long and serious interest in the poetry and history of the NY School and this case genuinely fascinates me. I offer it NOT to assert Koch's authorship, but to show how this particular poem, a famous one, is a special case and must be regarded--given the strange circumstances surrounding it--with a question mark above it.

The examples of your own experiments there are really interesting.

all the best,


Anonymous said...

both Koch and O'Hara are enjoyable to read
maybe they enjoyed swapping a poem or two
maybe one or two Koch poems are by O'Hara!!!
lets muddy the waters write lots on it when
really the poem in Question is a fine poem
and loses nothing from who maybe wrote it
pete spence

Anonymous said...

talking about collaborations etc when Tom Weigel
sent me his book of 38 sonnets i wrote No.39
by using only his lines from his book
it was enjoyable and Tom was happy with
the result...i still think both O'Hara & Koch
were capable of doing a swap i think we
should now pore over the texts and
build a fat secondary industry on the matter!
i don't think!
pete spence

Adam Aitken said...

Forbes lifted my line

"I miss that book we both believed was true"

But at some stage I too thought it was so much his line that I must have lifted it from him