“A Question Mark Above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “By” Frank O’Hara” by Kent Johnson— Detective Criticism

Johnson, Kent. “A Question Mark Above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “By” Frank O’Hara”, Starcherone Books, 2012.

Detective Criticism

Amos Lassen

In this new book, Kent Johnson that Kenneth Koch forged one of Frank O’Hara’s greatest poems. He claims that the poem is a posthumous tribute of poetic mourning and love. The book is interesting in that it is part fiction, part detective novel, part truth and always exciting—a literary mystery that pulls the reader in from the very first sentence. The book was held back with its initial publication but now we can read an exciting look at a modern author whose writing was almost always provocative.

I suppose this book can be classified as experimental criticism. He starts with the idea that O’Hara’s last poem, “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” was actually not written by him but by Koch and the fact that O’Hara died as the result of a dune buggy on Fire Island adds to that. It was, as Johnson suggests, attributed to O’Hara as a gift. The problem with this thesis is that Johnson was not allowed to quote directly from the original poem. Johnson decided that to make up for this, he would include essays by friends of O’Hara.

There is no question that Johnson has done his research well. We can easily understand why the book when first published was controversial yet it continues to bother literary scholars to this day. Johnson freely admits that his book is an experiment in thought and that it will annoy many. In it he takes a hard look at the traditional ideas of authorship and receives support from such scholars as Eric Lorberer, David Koepsell, Joshua Kotin and Ron Paste.

There is a value if Koch indeed wrote the poem and that  is that it serves as a love song and homage to a great poet and allows him to express his grief at his death openly. Just the way that this book appears is something special and I suspect that the book will be quite popular with those who love the poetry of Frank O’Hara.


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