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The Mystery Behind Frank O’Hara’s Most Famous Poem

IN SEPTEMBER 1966, a reading took place at New York University’s Loeb Center, near Washington Square. Less than two months had passed since Frank O’Hara’s death on Fire Island, and the event took on the flavor of a memorial for the recently departed poet. In his memoir, the poet’s longtime roommate Joe LeSueur recalled listening in shock as Kenneth Koch read a remarkable poem of O’Hara’s, which, until that moment, it seemed no one had ever heard. “We were not only moved by the poem,” LeSueur wrote, “but mystified as well. Why had he kept it a secret?”

The poem Koch read was “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” one of O’Hara’s most well-known and most beloved works. Koch, as he told O’Hara’s biographer Brad Gooch, had unearthed the poem in a stack of manuscripts that he had taken from O’Hara’s apartment just a few hours after his friend’s death on July 25, 1966. “I almost fell off my chair,” Koch told Gooch. “It was Frank talking about his own death.” O’Hara had been fatally struck by a dune buggy while sleeping on a beach not far from the house in which he had written the poem, and almost exactly eight years afterward. The poem, which ends with the sun telling O’Hara to go back to sleep, seemed eerily prescient:

[…] Go back to sleep now 
Frank, and I may leave a tiny poem 
in that brain of yours as my farewell."

[…]"Sun, don't go!" I was awake
at last. "No, go I must, they're calling
   "Who are they?"

[…];Rising he said "Some
day you'll know. They're calling to you
too." Darkly he rose, and then I slept.

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.

A Question Mark collects Johnson’s “evidence” for attributing the poem to Koch in the form of essays, interviews, and various literary ephemera. Exhibit A is a “tape-essay” in which three apocryphal Japanese writers “interview” LeSueur and Koch on the issue; the former’s testimony is taken verbatim from his book, the latter’s is entirely invented. There are two appendices—collecting reviews, discoveries, and blog posts—in which Johnson defends his theory against the criticism of poets Tony Towle and David Shapiro, whose letters are also included.

Taken individually, Johnson’s specific claims are far too baroque to be convincing—his machinations are entertaining, but ultimately a goose chase. Viewed as a whole, however, the book presents a serious question: if “A True Account” had been written by Kenneth Koch, or by Susie Q. from Peoria, Illinois and published in a high school newspaper instead of in The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, what would its perceived value be? A Question Mark, only semi-authentic itself, presents a challenging critique of authenticity in literature.

Johnson is a poet, critic, and translator and is known in certain circles as the enfant terrible of American poetics. He is a faculty member in Spanish and English at tiny Highline Community College in Freeport, Illinois, and the recipient of several PEN awards. It is widely assumed—although he has never admitted as much—that he is also the author of the Araki Yasusada manuscripts, the poems of a supposed Hiroshima survivor who came to prominence in the 1990s—until it emerged that no such person existed. If Johnson was involved, which seems likely, the Yasusada affair was the first act in the long-running work of literary performance art that continues in A Question Mark Above the Sun.

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.

The executors’ outcries make the authorship of “A True Account” seem like Johnson’s central concern, when in actuality, it’s nothing more than a tool. Johnson’s fabrications serve his larger project, which is to interrogate the freedom of text and the idea of authorship generally. Why, the question mark of the title asks, is it important to protect an author’s name when it comes to a work of supposed “genius” like “A True Account”?

This might—especially to other writers—seem a hard pill to swallow. But it is hard to deny that the ability of a text to acquire new and independent meanings may be its most valuable attribute. Suppose, as Johnson would have it, a poem could be free enough from its author to be given as a gift? Is this not as lovely, or lovelier, than what stern copyrights and intellectual hording allow?

Johnson’s questions, like his methods, are those of Borges, whose story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” asked: “To attribute the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand Celine or to James Joyce, is this not a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual indications?” That is, in ascribing the same text to multiple authors, don’t we just increase the range of meanings and interpretations available? Like “Menard,” A Question Mark challenges the fixed identity of a given text, and the authorities—Random House, for instance—that fix it. If we are as free as Johnson would have us, Pierre Menard could write Don Quixote. Kent Johnson, as one reviewer of the book’s first edition suggested, could have written Beowulf. So, in some sense, could we all.

Regardless of whether one is willing to endorse this premise, A Question Mark’s “distressed authenticity” creates an aesthetic tension between real and imaginary that can’t but provoke a sense of wonder. Leading from disbelieving bafflement to awed uncertainty, its shimmering layers enact an argument about what poetry can be and do, and about the very meaning of story and truth on their own. In A Question Mark’s novella, one character wonders whether “there [are] times when thermodynamics might be conceptualized into a kind of poetic fire over which to cook unusual recipes.” This might serve as a description of Johnson’s artistic project as a whole. Because whether you agree with him or not, it’s clear that his fire is a cleansing one—provocative yes, impertinent probably—but over which simmers the primordial soup of a new, utterly invigorating critical form.

Jenny Hendrix is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Paris Review Daily, among other publications. Follow: @HendrixJenny