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.