Poetry News

The Aesthetic Tensions in Kent Johnson's A Question Mark Above the Sun

By Harriet Staff

Over at The New Republic is a review of Kent Johnson's new book, A Question Mark Above the Sun (1st ed., Punch Press; 2nd ed., Starcherone Books) which aims to illuminate "the mystery behind Frank O'Hara's most famous poem." That's "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island," unearthed by Kenneth Koch at an O'Hara memorial reading; its authorship has recently been challenged, with Johnson's book suggesting Koch himself might have written the poem after O'Hara's death.::

In his latest book, A Question Mark Above the Sun, Kent Johnson suggests that Frank O’Hara did not write “A True Account” at all. Instead Johnson pretends that the poem was written by Kenneth Koch after O’Hara’s death, secreted among O’Hara’s papers, and then “discovered” as a kind-of self-effacing tribute to a dead friend. Johnson—who takes pains to declare his book a fiction—insists that far from denigrating the poets, his hypothesis is meant as an homage. Koch’s supposed dissembling, he writes, is “one of the most beautiful and moving gestures ever proffered.”

Johnson’s book was first published in 2010, in a limited run of a hundred copies, by the tiny Punch Press imprint. Its publication was funded through advance subscription, and the editor himself made the letterpress cover, which featured photographs of Koch and O’Hara. Word of the book’s impending release created a stir in the literary community—Eric Lorberer, in his preface, likens it to a “deafening fart at a formal gathering”—and A Question Mark was chosen as a Book of the Year for 2011 by the Times Literary Supplement. It is now being released in a trade edition from Starcherone, an imprint of Dzanc Books.

The controversy gets thick:

The bulk of A Question Mark is made up of an “unfinished critical novella” called “Corroded by Symbolysme.” Originally published in the Chicago Review, it consists of four joined reviews of books by contemporary British poets—Andrew Duncan, J.H. Prynne, Tim Atkins, and Martin Corless-Smith. The poets are real enough, but the reviews are conducted in profoundly fictional terms. Throughout, Johnson writes in a kind of pidgin Olde English and goofily plays the role of unreliable narrator, inventing “a sort of Anti-Reviewyng” that he hopes will “provide for some refreshingly uncommon things to happen.” In a series of repetitive, rather cartoonish vignettes, he meets each poet at a Cambridge pub, where ales are quaffed and verses recited until sweat drips from the poet’s “sideburnians.” Somehow, despite all these “refreshingly uncommon” hijinks, the poetry under review is meaningfully elucidated.

Within the narrative of the novella, a conspiracy comes to light: Johnson encounters a poetic cabal, headed by Prynne and charged with protecting a secret concerning Frank O’Hara’s poetry. When Johnson casually mentions “his friend’s” theory that Koch wrote “A True Account,” Prynne reacts violently, and has Johnson followed. The novella ends with Johnson getting mugged under Keats’s plum tree.

It is satire, of course, but this fictional skullduggery predicted with suspicious accuracy the real-world reaction to Johnson’s intrigues. In 2010, as Punch Press prepared to release its small run of the book, the press’s editor, Richard Owens, received a letter at his home from Karen Koch, Kenneth Koch’s widow and executor. The letter expressed her conviction that the book (which she had not read) was a “malicious hoax, one that denigrates Kenneth Koch’s character and dishonors his work,” and threatened legal action. This was followed by letters to the same effect from Maureen Granville-Smith, O’Hara’s sister and executor, and Random House. (Knopf, part of Random House, publishes both Koch and O’Hara.) All three entities denounced Johnson’s book as slander, and denied permission for the use of any materials—quotations, photographs, and so on—from Koch or O’Hara. By necessity, Johnson removed all quotations from Koch and O’Hara from the book, replacing them with elaborate paraphrases. The Punch Press edition was released, amid threats and protestations, under a plain black cover.

These events seem almost too much in keeping with Johnson’s anti-institutional agenda to be true. In bringing their authority to bear against a miniscule literary imprint, Random House and company amply demonstrated Johnson’s point about the wrong-headedness of protecting authorship at all costs, raised the book’s profile significantly, and brought credibility to Johnson’s spurious theory. It does appear, lest you wonder if Johnson fabricated it all, that the letters exist: Richard Owens of Punch Press provided me with scans of his correspondence with Koch, Granville-Smith, and Random House, as well as with the e-mails exchanged between them. Still, it is a testament to Johnson’s sly muddling of fact and fiction that the authenticity of even a certified envelope is thrown into question once it enters the performative milieu of his work.

Later, Jenny Hendrix writes that "A Question Mark’s 'distressed authenticity' creates an aesthetic tension between real and imaginary that can’t but provoke a sense of wonder...." Read it all here.

Originally Published: December 10th, 2012