Jared Schickling

Satire Toward Love: On the Possible Poetics of Kent Johnson’s A Question Mark Above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “by” Frank O’Hara

(Punch Press, 2011)

According to Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens, “while one can look at WikiLeaks as a (political) project and criticize it for its modus operandi, it can also be seen as the ‘pilot’ phase in an evolution towards a far more generalized culture of anarchic exposure, beyond the traditional politics of openness and transparency.” (1)  I don’t want to valorize this, as it also epitomizes the muckraking tactics we all know and love that tend to be perceived along entrenched, ideological lines, leaving habit (consistency) like something to go on.  Nonetheless, identifying and lambasting commonly held assumptions and (perhaps) coteries of the day often make for lively reading, at least.  And one can transmute the M. O. of expository journalism(s) into a satiric engagement that will, most certainly, achieve similar degrees of “exposure,” yet spare the reader any pretense of (un)certainty about one’s place and purpose within the revelation.  Satire engages the body politic in this way. 

Kent Johnson’s “antics,” but more properly, critical experiments, are well known to the poetry field. (2)  For that reason at least they would seem to deserve more conscious attention.  Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada has been widely considered and reviewed, a hoax of invented authorship that, according to one “Ron Silliman,” “infuriates folks with a proprietary interest in categories” (that is, according to the book—Johnson has been known to write these blurbs).  American Poetry Review, who published some of “Yasusada’s” poems,called it “essentially a criminal act.” (3)  Johnson’s work since then has been seemingly punished for not fixing [sic] his name’s relationship to its textual output.  Upon rejection by the now defunct POM-POM journal, or what became POM2, of a straight, very printable poem, he muses: “no doubt my presence on / this literary field would displease the head coaching staff / of the Buffalo Avantists football team, the team for / whom these editors, after all, shook their POM-POM’s!” (4)  This reluctance to submit [sic] most clearly takes shape in the recent book Day, (5)  a mere printing of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day (The Figures, 2003) with Kent Johnson’s name in stickers on it (whose limited edition signature is also forged by the “publisher,” Geoffrey Gatza).  The “original” by Goldsmith isitself a merely re-contextualized issue of The New York Times.  If Goldsmith’s found (chosen) texts, here and elsewhere, deploy abject appropriations to antagonize a nebulous aura of authentic creativity’s production (their value, for they are hardly readable), Johnson’s attention here antagonizes the centrality (Benjamin’s open-access “image space”) of the cover artist with erotically charged “‘hyperauthorship’ which wriggles and splits like mercury.” (6)   David Hadbawnik writes of “the ways in which every editor, not to mention every reader, in some ways contributes […] to authorship.”  He reads from Allen Frantzen’s Desire for Origins, citing the use of Said and Foucault’s theories of textuality and authorship in order to write on disputed authorship in Beowulf viz. Kent Johnson’s embodiment of the author function, (7) who voyeuristically brings us to it, upsets the (apparently un)necessary artist-audience transaction, erasing ownership (via copyright), and the result for us is something untenable and boring—the hollow, thieving name, pure products. 

Personally, at its most basic, to ask whether an invention like “Araki Yasusada” is adequate as a mode in which a scholar from these shores may write (of) the old Hiroshima, and beyond, is like asking which we prefer regarding the central figure of our language, Shake-speare—an illiterate poacher of rustic ilk or the gentler clique of patrons of the art.  For with satire, like Dryden says, you inherit “all the realms of Nonsense.” (8)  In a paper titled “The Poetics of Fraud,” delivered at the 1999 MLA convention in Chicago, near Johnson’s home, Charles Bernstein dismissed his work as an instance of “white male rage.”  Bernstein sounds ironic here.  I’m reminded of Swift’s “Description of a City Shower”: “Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow, / And bear their trophies with them as they go.” (9)

The big problem with Yasusada, of course, wasn’t his purportedly found texts’ “actual” authorship, nor even its supposed bullying of multiculturalism (often given by critics as an explanation for the project), but the ability of the poet to dupe the translator / scholar /  editor with their own skills at using texts towards [sic] certain ends.  Roland Barthes’s S/Z, Goldsmith’s Day, his Weather, Traffic, and Sports, Tom Philips’s Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, Ammiel Alcalay’s from the warring factions—Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead—etc—these involve scribbling with someone else’s pages, generative infringing acts that can be relatively quickly absorbed into the critical discourse because “authorship” (and thereby, according to the lines drawn here, “readership”) was never formally enacted as a concern.Even in the case of pseudonymous authorship (thinking of the well-intentioned “Pauline Réage”), there’s always a body, visible or not, assumed to be attached to it (and according to Foucault, thereby accountable). That the text’s making, whatever it is, should be centered in a human name (individual) seems a liberal trapping in an age’s reason (that proves) indispensable to history’s (capital) trajectories in which (some of) the living do keep a vested interest. By renouncing authorship completely—and more importantly, by completely inventing it—Johnson at least artisticallydrove a stake through the question and commodity status of identity.  Johnson’s most recent project, A Question Mark Above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “by” Frank O’Hara, goes even further than fabricating texts—and authors—it alleges possible alternate authorship of a central poem in the Frank O’Hara canon, “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” wiping pages of anthologies and aging hearts clean.  

That said, as a reader very far from the subject (which has evidently offended many of O’Hara’s friends and admirers), I’m ambivalent about who in the end actually wrote the great poem, Kenneth Koch or O’Hara.  In fact, to know this would reduce the intriguing ways in which the hypothesis, totally plausible (a key point—it’s what lends the whole project its legitimacy), hangs suspended.  Moreover, the book invites this kind of reading.  The meat of it, if not in page numbers then by demarcation, is satirical fiction.  An Introduction and Appendix contain the actual “Kochean hypothesis,” which brackets the four-part “Corroded by Symbolysme: An Unfinished Novella,” which goes by a longer, more absurd name at its location in the text.  Here our protagonist is pursued by ring-carrying members of some shadow society most definitely interested in the question of who wrote O’Hara’s poem (an important fact about the book is that the Kenneth Koch estate has threatened to sue the book’s publisher, Richard Owens’s Punch Press).  It is a pastiche of literary devices chiming in and out of moderne dictions and decorum (Johnson also has an interest in relating “concepts of [modern] architectural acoustics” to “investigations into rigorous prosodic structure”)(10) and is part of a larger detective story—a real thriller.  The author’s friends and suspects come and go.  (Having been Introduced to the Kochean Hypothesis, which refers us to the Appendixed evidence, the novella draws the reader’s interest toward some emerging sense of another, unexpected center, away from the book’s more literal bracketingquestion of a poem’s author.)  The devices repeat—in orderly, planned ways you can anticipate—through each of the four sections comprising the “Corroded by Symobolysme: A True Account of Dark and Mysterious Events Surrounding a Famous Poem Supposedly Written by Frank O’Hara (An Unfinished Critical Novella),” an arabesque (of sorts) that lets the reader know it began as a serial work of “experimental” book reviews.  Figments of the imagination (perhaps) delve deep, over an abundance of cellar-temp ale, with the author, in Britain, and their later correspondence, into numerous topics—“the boundaries of translatione,” the “readiness to claim the privilege of an autonomous occasion which covertly [‘a rhetoricalized post-avant instrument’] exploits,” the chances of “building new structures of reality,” etc. (11)  The mysteriously American journey moves in and out of the best English pubs and beyond where poetic forebears once strolled and lived.  There’s even the hint of eternal events and the dreamy, supposed memory of a stroll with a British poet, Tim Atkins, in “the simulacral city,” Los Angeles, through The Museum of Jurassic Technology, a citizen’s Wunderkammer (and titled so). (12)  The romance is apparently connected to Johnson’s thesis, and is of course infected with the spirit of his oeuvre.  On the whole, this uncertainty regarding what’s real and what’s not, though playful, is purposeful.  And when more email correspondence stems [“Flowering,” sic] from the conceptual, programmatic, repetitious narration, we programmatically suspect it, while one “Martin Corless-Smith” replies:

So poems might be seen as sites of exultant language, rather than the home of a coherent self.  I believe there is a consistent and compelling argument for all poems being, in some sense, anonymous.  Now, this is easy to assert for anonymous poems, but does it remain persuasive even for poems under authorial signature?  Having argued consistently and variously for an understanding of authority as unstable, even a critic like Denise Riley (in her deep book, The Words as Selves, do you know it? [sic] ) seems to flinch at the sign of the signature: “even if creativity is conceived as really a matter of endless refashioning and involuntary plagiarizing, it still retains, in the lonely fact of the signature, its final flourish of individuation.”  But I think we need not see the lurking signature as too serious a threat to the thesis of communal necessity (and functional anonymity) in the making of a poem.  Of course, you likely disagree [sic, and emphasis mine], and I would like to talk with you about this next time we meet, hopefully under more peaceful circumstances than was the case at Keats’s house! :~) (13)

In positing itself as example—masquerade contiguous with shadowy, anecdotal allegations—about which it is deadly serious—the narrative voice gives a doppleganger to the appendixed object of critique: “Subjectivity and fantasy rule” (attributed to Andrew Duncan) (14).  

Legend has it that if you find your doppleganger, you’re dead.

In other words, another way to think about this intertextual satire is the way in which it identifies a group’s soft spot, exploits it, then mocks the quibble of its fallout and in doing so, only heightens the tensions and anxieties it helped inspire.  Satire will but won’t own up to itself, and as intertext, builds up what it means to knock down—indeed, in order to knock it down.  A Question Mark Above the Sun convincingly argues why evidence suggests Kenneth Koch could have written Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” while developing the ground for its own heroic dismantling.  

Johnson writes in an interview, “The driving point of the hypothesis is that such a gesture [Koch attributing “his” poem to O’Hara, after his friend’s death] would have represented a kind of sacred, mysterious act of transference,” (15) a possibility that begins with the simple question of which person actually typed the words on the paper.  On the one hand is the metaphysics of what love can do, and even why (especially as seen from the venom directed at “another Kent Johnson infestation”) (16).  On the other hand there are questions, and therein suspicions, regarding what we do, and what’s at stake, when confronted with the chance of realizing we’ve been duped (especially by the one we love; it’s no secret Johnson is enamored with the surrealist élan of the early New York School).  Nonetheless, there is something disappointing about what all this mystery and obfuscation (however revealing it may be) finally amounts to, in the sense of where the attention thus far given to the project, mostly in blogs, emails and newsletters, is focused, including the defenses and explanations given by Johnson himself.  Notwithstanding the question of who wrote what, the seemingly exclusive concern regards what questions of (and inquiries into) authorship mean for poetic communities:

…poetry will require a movement out of composition restricted to grammatical experiment and open into a broader conception of the syntactic—one where poetry more daringly takes stock of its status as marginal branch in the Culture’s Total Syntax—a marginalization due to Poets so obediently accepting Authorship as the Noun Phrase of the Literary sentence’s structure. (17) 

The frames drawing the question of “authorship” in Kent Johnson’s career have, to my knowledge, not yet been expanded to include what would seem to me to be a more interesting and promising and operative question, namely, the question of the means by which identity (of any stripe, really) strives to possess its purported expertise.  Does the text always actually know more?  I’m thinking of someone like John Haberle, his tromp l’oeil, who can forge the “currency” equally well.  

Kent Johnson’s work seems bigger in these areas.  


1.  “Twelve theses on WikiLeaks,” Eurozine, December, 2010: “Thesis 1.” http://www.eurozine.com/pdf/2010-12-07-lovinkriemens-en.pdf.
2.  cf. Lain Marshall, “more of Kent Johnson’s antics,” Pathologos, September 8, 2010, http://pathologos.blogspot.com/2010/09/more-of-kent-johnsons-antics.html: “i was fascinated by how easily i could switch assumptions, and how those assumptions changed even the ‘voice’ in which i was reading the poem”: par. 7.
3.  In Bob Perelman’s “Doctor Williams’s Position, Updated,” Contemporary Poetics, ed. Louis Armand, Northwestern, 2007: 83.
4.  In “Rod Smith,” Epigramititis: 118 American Living Poets, BlazeVOX, 2004: 193.
5.  BlazeVOX, 2009.
6.  Esther Leslie, “Explosion of a Landscape”, Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism, Pluto Press, 2000: 1-40; Emily Nussbaum, “Turning Japanese: The Hiroshima Poetry Hoax,” Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life, November 1996, http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/japanese-hoax.html: par. 6.
7.  “Kent Johnson Is the Author of Beowulf: Literary Hoaxes and the ‘Desire for Origins,’” Sous les Pavés 1.1, October 2010: 7-8.
8.  “Mac Flecknoe,” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature 3: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, Broadview, 2006: 87-90.
9.  305.
10.  cf. Poetic Architecture, BlazeVOX, 2008: 15.
11.  74, 66, 50, respectively.
12.  “After the Wunderkammer.”
13.  93.
14.  52.
15.  With Peter Burghardt, MARY: A Journal of New Writing, Winter 2010,  http://www.stmarys-ca.edu/external/Mary/winter2011/reviews/interview-pb.html: par 17.
16.  Posted on a listserv: unsourced, yet true, so as to allow it was a slip of the tongue.
17.  Question Mark: 64.