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September 06, 2010


A thoughtful and measured response to this issue. Three quick points, though:

1) Regarding the esteemed co-signatories of the complaint, I don't think it necessarily follows that they are in "the best position to judge the case." The connections and shared history you cite could just as easily reflect an interest in maintaining a certain status quo.

2) I don't think Kent posits any ill-will at all between Koch and O'Hara; in fact in the second of his posts at Isola di Rifiuti he's explicit that he sees the possible Koch authorship as an act of love and homage. He writes: "Such a 'forgery' would stand as one of the most beautiful, selfless, and idiosyncratically ethical gestures ever made in the history of American letters. It would ratify, and in singular, moving ways, both Kenneth Koch’s greatness as poet and Frank O’Hara’s greatness of spirit." Link here:

3) There's no attempt at "falsification of history" going on here at all. Kent is clear in everything he's written on the topic that he is merely entertaining a thought-provoking hypothesis, and while he no doubt sees Koch's authorship as a real possibility (and in my opinion makes a compelling case for it, as a possibility), he also concedes that the authorship is still most likely O'Hara's, writing in the same post I linked to above: “Yes, the odds are still on O’Hara, so far as the poem goes, and I’d probably bet on him myself.” (Hat-tip to John Shaw & his comment on Hansen's post at Digital Emunction).

Given these things -- all perfectly explicit in what KJ has written so far on the topic -- the response of the Koch Estate et al. seems like willful misreading, turf consciousness, and a bullying overreaction, and does not speak well of the seriousness with which they take their "literary responsibilities."


I appreciate your post and the calm tone of it, which contributes to defusing matters, I hope. A couple of points here, which I trust you'll allow me.

You say: "The suggestion that Koch wrote a celebrated O'Hara poem is not quite as harmless as some would maintain. For one thing, there is no history of rivalry and distrust between Koch [right] and O'Hara [above] and those who admire them."

The hypothesis for Koch's authorship of the poem (and it is just that--a *hypothesis* premised on some decidedly odd circumstances and evidence) is certainly not based on any sense of "rivalry and distrust" between the two friends or their admirers. Quite to the contrary! If the hypothesis is true, it would manifest how strong and extraordinary the bond between Koch and O'Hara was. The poem would stand as one of the most tender and powerfully moving gestures of love between poets *ever*, hands down. How could fans of one or the other, or of both (as most of us are!), complain about *that*?

And let's be clear: A hypothesis is not a "falsification of history," as you put it. How could it be? A hypothesis is something that openly awaits proof or falsification. Hypotheses put forward *potential truths,* and the plausibility of their propositions is open to honest debate.

And that's why it is more or less indefensible, so far as I can see, that this legal challenge has been presented (with the approval, it seems, of the four poets mentioned). For WHAT exactly is actionable about the *idea* that Koch, in a selfless gesture of tribute and grief, may have placed a beautiful poem under the name of his lost friend? WHAT exactly is being objected to? The only specific thing the admonitory missive proffers is that there are "questionable quotations" in the book. Well, there are some "fictional essays" in the mix, yes, and these contain some invented dialogue, but these pieces are unambiguously marked as imaginary. They operate like historical (poetic) fiction, the genre on the table. So it can't be that. And it can't be, again, the *idea* itself, since the poets are free to publicly counter it with their own evidence, claims, deconstructions, what have you. Why resort to these sorts of intimidation tactics?

There seems to be something else going on. What is causing all the commotion and anxiety? One almost begins to think that maybe there is something too-plausible-sounding about the hypothesis! Because otherwise, if it all just sounded *completely* idiotic, what would the problem or fear be? One can hardly be blamed for feeling that the legal threat is not so much a response to some perceived "injury" (again, What?) as it is a kind of preemptive blocking action, one designed to derail the book and keep its controversial, "revisionist" hypothesis from reaching any station. Do you see what I'm saying? It just all seems perfectly bizarre to quite a few of us.

One other thing, though I suppose it takes us into another speculative dimension--that of poetry and truth and how the latter often becomes very difficult to figure inside the former--so I'll leave the topic for another time, but just say, for now: I couldn't disagree with you more, David, in regards your concluding point: Such a radical act of transference as we're talking about would NOT make "a liar out of Koch." Such an act would be something much different from "lying."

OK, onward we go,


How do you pronounce Koch? I've heard "kotch," "kook," and "kock."

Sensible post about a flaky character.

This case also confuses me. It seems such an overreaction. It also seems out of keeping with Koch's and O'Hara's famous generosity of spirit. Also with O'Hara's love of collaboration and sense of fun. Perhaps I'm missing implications all over the place, but don't you think the whole tsimmis would make both men sad?

"'You're that famous COKE, aren't you, / That no one can drink?'"("The Pleasures of Peace"). I'm pretty sure there's another poem in which Koch gives the correct pronunciation of his name (coke), but the source is eluding me. I remember a poem in which a sergeant insists on calling him cock. Can anyone help me find it?

You're right, Jeff. The lines you quote are in "The Pleasures of Peace." In a conversation Kenneth told me an anecdote from his army days in which the commanding officer called him "Cock." I believe I tell the full anecdote in "The Last Avant-Garde."

A case of reverse plagiarism! Inventive, but you can see why the Koch and O'Hara estates are up in arms.

I wrote *Lunch Poems* for him. All those breaks spent walking around the city! Someone had to get the job done.

DL, Thank for setting me straight on the pronunciation of his name. All this time I've been saying "Coach" -- which, come to think of it, might be a good nickname.

A little more on the attempted censorship of Kent's book by the Koch Estate and Knopf Publishing:

This just posted beneath Edmond Caldwell's post today at The Chagall Position, link in his comment right above:

Frances Madeson said...
I sent links to this post to contacts at:

1.National Free Speech Week October 18-24 suggesting inclusion of this issue in a program
2.PEN America suggesting an expression of solidarity
3.The New York Center for Independent Publishers, same
4.I printed out a copy of the post to mail to John Whitman of Turtle Books who is the Smaller and Independent Publishers Committee representative to the board of the Association of American Publishers with a note encouraging him to try and persuade Tom Allen to slot a discussion of this issue on the agenda for the next board meeting
5.I also e-mailed Ralph Nader with a link to the post.
6.Printed copies to mail with notes to Ellen Nachtigall Biben, Special Deputy Attorney General for Public Integrity and Mylan L. Denerstein, Executive Deputy Attorney General for Social Justice, both in NYS AG Cuomo's office
7.E-mailed the link to Nannette Perez in the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association suggesting that the Intellectual Freedom Round Table discuss this issue and publicly weigh in
8.Printed a copy and sent it to Larry Flynt suggesting he also blog about it

September 8, 2010 6:10 AM
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Yes, I just don't see how Kent's inquiry into the authorship of a poem requires such animosity, ill-will, legal threats, and abuse. Richard Owens is one of the finest publishers of new and innovative poetry, with an amazing record of publishing some of the best work going on on both sides of the ocean. It's hard to believe that anyone would want to threaten his generous efforts to bring poetry, much of it neglected in other spheres, into the world. The Koched-up letter to Richard seems to be conducted either in bad faith to silence this project, or in ignorance of Kent's stated goals (not to mention the evidence of the text). In any event, I don't see how legal action could possibly take place, despite the invocation of Knopf. Critics and poets make claims about poetry all the time--and as long as they're plausible--huzzah! And Kent certainly states his intent within the realm of plausibility. It seems that we should all welcome new readings and contexts for the poetry we love--to help save it from our smothering affections if nothing else.

"Censorship"! Gimme a break. Brent Jones is more accurate in characterizing this as a case of reverse plagiarism -- or a shameless grab for attention.

In favor of plagiarism: Pierre Menard. But that's a special case.

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