Speaking of Rich Owens, I've just finished puzzling over Kent Johnson's somewhat controversial book on Frank O'Hara's Fire Island poem, published by Owens' Punch Press, and I'm still not sure what to make of it. To be perfectly honest, I'm not even sure I can write about it here without suffering some form of legal persecution! I'm sure you're all familiar with the story, dear Disinhibitors, but for those warding off poetry gossip, O'Hara's estate (supposedly) threatened to take Johnson and Punch Press to court over the book, a dispute Johnson refers to in a short note enclosed with my copy:
"Although the original cover for this title was so rudely suppressed and is not included here, Kent Johnson and der Punch Presse hope to lovinglye expresse our heartfelt gratitude for your advance subscription by including a unique art object which is completely independent of the bookum A Question Mark Above the Sun (copyright Punch Press, LLC) and is in no meane wayes to be considered a part of this publickation. Given the singularity of the art object included—and for the sake of the press's continued survival—we muste insist that you do not reproduce the object mechanically or digitally but maintain it instead as a modest and utterly private gesture or our appreciation."
So I'm not sure if this "art object" or book (or whatever it is) has sold out or has been removed from distribution or has been suppressed by the "O'Hara Estate," or if this additional drama is simply part of Johnson's performance—a pretty familiar performance at this point, in which he blurs the boundaries between the authentic and the ersatz (in order, seemingly, to gain a bit of notoriety while doing so). However, according to Owens, the threat of legal action has been all too real, so I got his permission to write about the book before proceeding.
So, what can one say about a project that is as much about its reception as its content? First, let me say from the outset that I'm not convinced by Johnson's argument, which is not to say, of course, that it isn't worth making. And what's his argument? The very short version (without all the back and forth which frankly muddles the point, in my opinion) is that there's a bit of mystery behind the authorship of O'Hara's seminal poem "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island," a poem long read by O'Hara acolytes as a premonition of his death. According to Johnson,
"...this book proposes the following possibility: that 'A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island' may in fact have been authored (or perhaps modified and re-dated from a lost text...) by Kenneth Koch, soon following O'Hara's death on July 25, 1966. 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."
It's not so much that this thesis is totally implausible—Johnson levels some persuasive points. It's more the book’s form that bugs me. Johnson runs us through the squabbling blogosphere, chronicling in loving detail the conditions by which it could hypothetically be true that Koch wrote the poem; as he proceeds, the argument seems more and more implausible to me: the back and forth around whether Koch knew of the existence of a letter O'Hara wrote after a trip to Fire Island, why that letter was written on a typewriter other than O'Hara's Royal, the timeline in which Koch would have had to write the poem if he did, Koch's reasons for doing so (and for keeping it a secret his whole life), etc. etc. The more Johnson tries to prove his point, the less I believe it, and I think this has more to do with Johnson himself, his veracity as a narrator (and what he stands to gain if he's right), than the argument at hand.
Which is why, I suppose, I'm not completely on board. The poetry-mystery makes the text imminently readable (in the way one cocks an ear toward gossip), and all the talk about O'Hara's late writing brought me back to the thick collected poems gathering dust on the bookshelf. It seems utterly silly to me that the "O'Hara Estate" could be so worked up about this project (if they really are!), because the end seems to pretty clearly justify the means: folks will certainly return to O'Hara's work because of A Question Mark Above the Sun with renewed gusto, and whether or not one believes the thesis, Johnson promotes the poem's greatness and O'Hara's greatness and Koch' greatness, etc.
I guess what really bugs me is not the project as such, even its play with authorship and authenticity, but Johnson's affect. Sure, the book was obviously meant to be controversial from the beginning (which does cheapen its power a bit, at least for me), but it's really Johnson's portrayal of himself that rubs me the wrong way. For instance, his brief readings of British poets in the section entitled "Corroded by Symbolysme" are pretty brilliant, but the content is often eclipsed by Johnson's somewhat irritating style. He seems unable to write about poetry without contextualizing himself as a great provocateur, and the brilliance of his argument suffers because of it. Take for instance this probably staged but maybe-partially-true exchange between Johnson and Andrew Duncan in which Johnson displays his very real poetry chops:
"...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?
So, fundamentally, I interjected, if I am understanding you, Andrew, what you mean is that ideologye feeds off the very avant gestures that would earnestly wrestle with the structures of its Form, that the construction of mythe, for you, constitutes a means, via excess, of eluding its frame, which is really the frame of the 'Rules of the Game'? Yes, said Duncan, the Guinness globe behind his head like a black moone, it's a matter of what attitude Poetry assumes before the social order: if one takes the latter as primary field, then one is scaffolded from within, ipso facto, by a closely spaced lattice of symbological struts; but if the social structure is made a small thing, something that can fit inside one's head, well the area of poeisis suddenly becomes infinite and free."
Or latter, this bit from Johnson's "conversation" with J.H. Prynne:
"I suggested to Prynne that his recent work reminded me a bit of late Zukofsky, "A"-22 and 23 and 80 Flowers, and such. Well, of course not that the language is so thoroughly distilled, in your case, grammatically speaking, I said. But 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 crazy, 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: !) 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.'"
Nice, no?! But just as he draws me in, he reminds me that he's Kent Johnson writing a "super provocative" book about a poem only a handful of people care about. I admit that the conceit did pique my interest for the first ten pages or so, but after quickly tiring of Johnson-playing-Johnson (if I see the word "bookum" again I'm going to scream!), it's really the thinking here that kept me afloat till the end. While I'm glad someone is challenging notions of authorship, authenticity, and reception, at the end of the day his projects read super thin to me (that is, once you've stripped away the "controversy"). But here, there's some real thinking about poetry and I wanted more of that...that is, less "Kent Johnson" and more Kent Johnson writing about poems.