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The hipster of Joy Street. John Wieners left BC to live a Baudelairean life of poetry. Amazingly, he survived. So have his poems.
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photo of WienersBY PAMELA PETRO
PHOTOGRAPHY BY
GARY W. GILBERT


John Wieners '54 once wrote, "I will be an old man sometime / And live in a dark room somewhere." Today Wieners is an old man, but his small apartment on the far side of Beacon Hill--on Joy Street, where he has lived since 1971--is not dark. It is bright and disorderly and crowded with visual evidence of a mind constantly shuffling perceptions: a kind of four-room, lived-in collage. One of his own books, an out-of-print paperback, lies open on a Formica-topped table, spine broken, lines of poetry crossed out and rewritten in pencil as if the literary choices he made 40 years ago still gnaw at him. When he pulls another of his works off a shelf its cover seems a palimpsest. The original artwork--a close-up of a woman's face from an advertisement that Wieners eerily altered with tiny rips and tears--has been replaced with a magazine clipping Scotch-taped over the top. Peeling back the new image, which depicts a painting of a woman smoking before a mirror, to reveal the one below is like peering into the whirlpool of Wieners's imagination. For him, publication is not the summit it is for most artists. No work is ever finished.

When asked if he uses his poems as bookmarks to his past, as ways of thinking back about places and people, Wieners squints, furrowing his forehead like a tilled field, and runs his hands through his two thick tufts of pale, graying hair. The motion makes him appear more bird-like than ever: a gentle hawk, perhaps, with narrowed eyes, a sharp, stubble-covered chin, and a paunch, absently smoking a cigarette. He draws a breath and replies that it is too painful to think so deeply. Besides, he says in a slow, thin voice, indicating a table littered with empty eggnog cartons and full ashtrays, stuffed underneath with old liquor bottles, "It takes up all the energy I have to save for housekeeping."

A photograph taken in 1958 shows four handsome young men sitting on a stoop in San Francisco. Three, including the writers Michael McClure and David Meltzer, stare at the camera with flirty bravado. Only one, sitting by himself in a rogue shadow cast by something beyond the picture frame, glances away. He smiles good-naturedly, but seems uninterested in meeting the mechanical eye that will fix his image for posterity.

This is the young John Wieners, a Boston boy 24 years old, gone to the West Coast to experiment with life. Not to live it so much as to see if blood, bone, and sinew could--under self-inflicted pressure--be forged, or better yet, transubstantiated, into poetry. "These days," he wrote in his journal of the same year, published much later as 707 Scott Street (Sun & Moon Press, 1996), "shall be my poems. . . ." Several months afterward he added, "I will use the distractions of this world and erect a structure from them that will be of the poem. No matter how I go, [or] how ruined." By "distractions," Wieners meant sex and drugs and all-night Chinese restaurants and, if not exactly rock and roll, then certainly jazz: a lifestyle that came to be a hallmark of a group of writers called the Beats.

The patron saint of the Beats, indeed of all those like Wieners who seek literature in extremity, is Arthur Rimbaud, one of the great French poetes maudits. In 1871 Rimbaud wrote, "The poet makes himself a voyant through a long, immense, and reasoned deranging of all his senses. All the forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he tries to find himself, he exhausts in himself all the poisons . . . he needs all his faith, all his superhuman strength, in which he becomes among all men the great invalid, the great criminal . . . and the supreme Savant!"

The search for love and the pursuit of suffering, of "poisons," even madness--that might well describe the young John Wieners. Yet, unlike Rimbaud, who was an unpleasant genius, Wieners is a courtly and self-effacing man with far too much humility to call himself the supreme anything, much less Savant (the closest he ever came to youthful boasting was to claim that there were probably "10 or 15 poets in every 175 million men"). Rimbaud stopped writing at the age of 19, and died at 37. Wieners, despite the hardships inherent in following the Frenchman's advice, has never stopped writing, and continues to donate his years--66 of them now--to the building of a lifelong house of poetry. In contrast to his humble, 60-step walk-up, Wieners's house of words is one of the grandest literary structures of his generation.


Pain and suffering. Give me the strength
to bear it, to enter those places where the
great animals are caged. And we can live
at peace by their side. A bride to the burden

that no god imposes but knows we have the means
to sustain its force unto the end of our days.
For that is what we are made for; for that
we are created. Until the dark hours are done.

And we rise again in the dawn.
Infinite particles of the divine sun, now
worshiped in the pitches of the night.


From "The Acts of Youth"


John Joseph Wieners was born in 1934 on Eliot Street in Milton, Massachusetts. ("Look at his address," says Jim Dunn, a fellow poet and close friend. "He was destined to be a poet.") Wieners is the only surviving sibling of four children who grew up in an Irish Catholic household in a middle-class neighborhood. Their mother, a waitress and housecleaner, worked in a defense factory during World War II. "She loved a good time," Wieners recalls, and "liked eccentricity up to a point"--as long as a person put it to use within the conventions of middle-class "good taste." Wieners's father was a maintenance man in downtown Boston, and it was to him that Wieners dedicated his volume Asylum Poems (Angel Hair, 1969). It was written when Wieners was in the Taunton State psychiatric hospital, where his father had earlier been committed for alcoholism.

Except for John, the family went on to live conventional lives. His sister became a nun; one brother, a lawyer; the other, a soldier. "It's like a medieval play," observes Charles Shively, another friend of Wieners, who teaches at UMass-Boston and is a poet himself. "The lawyer, the nun, the soldier . . . and the fragile poet lives on."

As a child, John Wieners (Jackie, the family called him) "was a little eccentric, maybe, and extremely bright," says his cousin Arlene Phinney. "He had a double promotion at St. Gregory's. But what I remember best is his kindness." The excesses that Wieners's publisher Raymond Foye would later characterize as his "extravagant personality" were only hinted at during his years at Boston College. Wieners majored in English, worked in the library on a fellowship, and was literary editor of the Stylus, for which he wrote a poem about the death of the actress Gertrude Lawrence--his first publication. (Wieners has had a lifelong fascination with singers and actors. "He dreams of being a monied movie star," says Jim Dunn, "or a beautiful woman.")

While an undergraduate Wieners lived at home in Milton and commuted to campus every day. "I had a gang of girls drive me," he remembers, pleased. Twenty or so years later he went back to the college to give a poetry reading. Charles Shively recalls it as a great moment. "He wore a gold lamé bullfighter's jacket, and Father [Francis] Sweeney did the introduction. John's relatives were there, and John was splendid. It was sort of like home-boy-makes-good."

After graduating from BC in 1954 Wieners heard the poet Charles Olson give a reading at Boston's Charles Street Meeting House on the night of Hurricane Hazel. Wieners was literally swept out of town by Olson's work, and subsequently spent a year at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where Olson taught poetry. It was at Black Mountain that Wieners met the poet Robert Creeley, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship, and who was struck by his "great quiet and particular manners." (To this day Wieners's friends remark on his chivalrous demeanor; Jim Dunn says, simply, "he has the manners of a saint.")

Wieners's "great quiet" contributed, ironically, to the development of his hip image. Frank O'Hara found Wieners at 23 to be "always quietly mysterious." O'Hara biographer Brad Gooch commented that Wieners had a "shy and darkly retiring manner, which registered on many as the appropriately cool and aloof stance of a hipster." O'Hara was also infatuated with the whiff of danger that clung to the young poet, particularly his drug use and instability: what Wieners called his "avowal to mental illness as a youth." An incident from this time--when Wieners spent a week in New York City, sleeping on O'Hara's couch--was recounted by O'Hara's partner Joseph LeSueur. "Saturday afternoon John went to do some sort of research at the 42nd Street public library while we went to see The Curse of Frankenstein at Loew's Sheridan. That evening John, high on Benzedrine, came home and told us about the horrifying, hallucinatory experience he'd had at the library. Later I said to Frank, 'Isn't it funny? We go to a horror movie and don't feel a thing, and John just goes to the library and is scared out of his wits.'"

On the eve of his own fame, O'Hara wrote Wieners a poem called "To a Young Poet"


A YOUNG POET
full of passion and giggles
brashly erects his first poems
and they are ecstatic
      followed by a clap of praise
            from a very few hands
belonging to other poets.
           He is sent! and they are moved to believe, once more,
freshly
     in the divine trap.


His career launched by O'Hara, in 1957 Wieners made for San Francisco in the footsteps of another Massachusetts boy, Jack Kerouac, whose novel On the Road had appeared earlier that year. Asked recently how he had liked life on the West Coast, Wieners replied dryly, "Well, the weather was much better." So was the social and artistic landscape. Wieners had moved west with a man named Dana, his lover of six years. When they broke up Wieners retired to his room at a boardinghouse in San Francisco's red-light district and in less than a week composed a volume called The Hotel Wentley Poems (Auerhan Press, 1958; Dave Haselwood, 1965), which instantly became a classic of modern melancholy. It read, wrote Raymond Foye, "like a résumé of Beat poetry and of late romanticism as a whole: urban despair, poverty, madness, homosexual love, narcotics and drug addiction, the fraternity of thieves and loveless transients."

The word "Beat" comes from an offhand remark made by Kerouac, who called himself and his postwar peers "a beat generation," meaning down-and-out, or "finished." Beat poet John Clellon Holmes defined it as "the feeling of having been used, of being raw. . . . [I]t involves a nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul . . . of being pushed up against the wall of oneself." What began as a literary movement, practiced most famously by Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs, quickly became a sociological phenomenon: a rebellion against middle-class respectability, a belief that only in extremity can one feel anything in a world increasingly numbed by comfort and conformity.

The best-known Beat writing reveled in a kind of corresponding literary extremity. Ginsberg's primal wail against the atomic age--his long masterpiece, "Howl"--used profanity and slap-you-in-the-face staccato rhythm to get the reader's attention, as did Kerouac's On the Road, which read like a high-speed joy ride. John Wieners, on the other hand, lived the Beat aesthetic more than he practiced it stylistically in his writing, which through economy and elegance achieved a lyricism unknown in the poetry of his peers.



It is a simple song:
to long for home and him
lounging there under the moon.
Who is my heart, what is he
that he should mean this much to me?

-- From "The Woman"


Asked if he considers himself a Beat poet, Wieners leans forward in his squeaky chair, takes a drag on his cigarette, and courteously replies, "Yes, I do." Satisfied, he settles back again and waits in silence for the next question. Prodded into elaborating, he continues, "Well, the movement got some publicity, and I didn't." He adds that working at City Lights, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's famous San Francisco bookstore, "gave me a Beat image." Others find Wieners's association with the Beats purely a generational tag. Says Robert Creeley, "If 'Beat' is to cover poets at the time who had, as John, put themselves entirely on the line--'At last. I come to the last defense'--then he was certainly one. But I think better to see him as The New American Poetry locates him, singular and primary--not simply as a 'Beat' poet, nor defined only by drug use, nor a regional poet, nor one of a 'school.' Because that begs all the particulars of John's writing, his immense articulation of the situation and feelings in a relationship with another--literally, love. It's not a question of gay or straight--it's how we, humanly, are attracted to and moved by one another, how we know another as being here too. There is no greater poet of this condition than John."

Ultimately, the Beat hero resonated so deeply in popular culture that he became subsumed within it as the rebel without a cause and, inevitably, as Jumpin' Jack Flash on the stage of perpetual alienation known as rock and roll. The Beats themselves either became cultural icons (Ginsberg), died young (Kerouac), or quit smoking and moved to the suburbs (most of the others). Wieners did none of those things. His lifestyle was always in service to his poetry, so he simply went on living to write, often in poverty, sometimes in mental institutions, always in obscurity. He quietly became, in effect, Rimbaud's voyant.

In the introduction to Wieners's Selected Poems: 1958-1984, published by Black Sparrow Press, Ginsberg writes, "John Wieners's glory is solitary, as pure poet--a man reduced to loneness in poetry, without worldly distractions--and a man become one with his poetry. A life in contrast to the fluff and ambition of Pulitzer, National Book Awardees, Poetry Medallists." Robert Creeley says, simply, "His poems had nothing else in mind but their own fact." Wieners himself, questioned in his Joy Street apartment about what Ginsberg meant when he called him a "pure poet," says in his deadpan Boston accent, "He meant that I was Irish Catholic."

Not only did Wieners's inherent modesty conspire against potential fame, so did his poetry. It was the stylistic objective of the Beats never to be ignored--to be a cacophony of loud, new, aggravating voices. Wieners's lyricism, by contrast, held elegance and introspection but not modernity, the engine behind the celebrity-making machine of the 20th century. "Why the inattention?" critic Jack Kimball asks rhetorically. "Of all postmoderns Wieners comes closest to 17th-century intellectual laws, paying tribute in denial of pure patented mystique, free will, final causes." Wieners's "lack of modernity," Kimball says, has been "one motive for slackened interest."

Wieners is a poet but never a showman; in fact, his approach to his career has been casually negligent at best. Of the three plays and 29 volumes of prose and poetry he's seen published, only three remain in print; it is hard to picture him shopping his books around publishing houses to get them reissued. Possibly because of his penchant for mental recycling, he is notorious for throwing work away, imagining the crumpled scrap as but one incarnation of an idea. Boston publisher and poet Bill Corbett claims that Wieners is "self-effacing about his work to the point of almost erasing it." The poet himself once said, "I am living out the logical conclusion of my books, and those are out of print."

Relative obscurity hasn't meant that Wieners doesn't have a following, especially among other poets. "He's the poetic equivalent of the Velvet Underground," says Jim Dunn. "What's the famous saying about them? Only a thousand people bought their albums, but they all started rock bands. It's the same with John. He's an inspiration."



At last. I come to the last defense.

My poems contain no
                wilde beestes, no
lady of the lake music
of the spheres, or organ chants,

yet by these lines
I betray what little given me.

One needs no defense.

          Only the score of a man's
          struggle to stay with
what is his own, what
lies within him to do.

Without which is nothing,
for him or those who hear him
And I come to this,
knowing the waste, leaving

the rest up to love
and its twisted faces,
my hands claw out at
only to draw back from the
blood already running there.

Oh come back, whatever heart
you have left. It is my life
you save. The poem is done.

-- From "A Poem for Painters"


After returning from San Francisco to the East Coast in 1959, Wieners did graduate work at the State University of New York, at Buffalo, and eventually settled in Boston, where he has remained. He continued to use drugs and alcohol, often excessively. "You don't have the same self-protective faculties after you've taken narcotics," he said in a 1970s interview with Charles Shively. "The senses that the human organism has equipped itself with to take care of itself, to protect itself. . . . These all dissolve. I'd had two or three years of steady marijuana and peyote daily. . . . I was living in a visionary state, so that eventually the conscious faculties were being used to a minimum."

Understandably, Wieners's friends concentrate on the whimsical side of these years. Shively recalls riding the monorail at Disney World with Wieners and Allen Ginsberg in 1972, because they couldn't afford to go on the rides. "At first they wouldn't admit John because he was wearing only a Speedo bathing suit with a Zippie button. But I gave him my shirt and went in my undershirt. . . . Afterwards it rained and there was a big rainbow over the parking lot."
Another much-told tale features Wieners as a teaching assistant at SUNY Buffalo, arriving in class wearing pink hair curlers. These stories sum up Wieners as the benignly eccentric hero-poet, acting beyond the pale of conventional behavior, experiencing what others dare not. A kind of quirky, contemporary Romantic ideal. Because he was always scrupulously polite in his eccentricities, friends tended to mythologize him and protect him. But this was also the time that Wieners's "courting of madness in the Rimbaudian fashion," as Jim Dunn puts it, came to a head. "Of course he was tragically wrong," adds Dunn. In the 1960s and 1970s Wieners was repeatedly hospitalized for a series of nervous breakdowns and episodes of insanity. (During one such episode Wieners's sister Marian left her religious order to help their parents through the ordeal.)

It was at the Taunton State Hospital that Wieners wrote "Children of the Working Class," about the sons and daughters of the poor, whose mental and physical health was sacrificed before birth in factory and field labor: "gaunt, ugly deformed / broken from the womb, and horribly shriven / at the labor of their forefathers, if you check back / scout around grey before actual time / their sordid brains don't work right. . . . "
Against this backdrop of imbalance and despair, Wieners's poems take on a simultaneously wistful and heroic quality, not only in their yearning for stability, made manifest in "Supplication" (quoted below), but in the simple fact of their existence.



O poetry, visit this house often
imbue my life with success,
leave me not alone,
give me a wife and home.

Take this curse off
of early death and drugs,
make me a friend among peers,
lend me love, and timeliness.

Return me to the men who teach
and above all, cure the
hurts of wanting the impossible
through this suspended vacuum.


"Supplication" was included in the volume Nerves, which was published in 1970 and is considered by many to be Wieners's finest work. Raymond Foye points out that nerves can refer to tension and distraction or to strength and courage: the very poles on which Wieners's psyche is stretched. Supplication, of course, also carries a religious overtone; his plea to Poetry may be secular in name, but it has the cadence of a prayer. The poet, Wieners wrote, is "a priest / defrocked as Spender says." Like the priest, the poet stands outside experience. And like the priest, the poet uses words as intercessors--in Wieners's case, between the tumult of life and love and the lonely interior world of poetry. For him, words are like so many reliquaries and holy cards and prayers. In his San Francisco diary, 707 Scott Street, Wieners wrote that poetry "is an immortal art of man. Practiced by him alone in absolute silence in the middle of noisy bars and restaurants, on the back porches of houses from Gloucester to San Francisco."

Throughout his life Wieners has tried all kinds of means by which to ford the gully between himself and the world at large: heroin, alcohol, travel, sex tactics that superficially make him a Beat poet. But his most lasting bridges have been built with words. He is perhaps best understood as a poet with religious longings, one who calls on poems--secular prayers--to breach the divide between himself and humanity, or even between himself and God.



Is it enough my feet blackend
             from streets of the city?
My hands coarsend, lovely bones
                        gone to dust.

Is it enough? My heart hardend
arms thickend eyes dim.
Is it enough I lost sight of him
Ages ago and still follow after
      on some blind, dumb path?

Is this the aftermath? . . .

From "Impasse"


One of the constants in Wieners's life since his return from the West Coast has been the city of Boston itself. In an interview Charles Shively asked Wieners what label he'd put on himself as a poet--Black Mountain, New York, Boston, San Francisco--and Wieners replied without hesitation, "I am a Boston poet." For someone who in recent conversation defined the word "beat" as "homelessness," Boston is in many ways the foundation that reminds Wieners he is "home," in both the physical and literary sense, whenever he starts to stray.

He doesn't go out much these days: to a local market for cigarettes, or to Brigham's with Jim Dunn to get root beer floats (a weekly ritual). But Wieners remains of the city. Another close friend and fellow poet, Jack Powers, recalls catching a glimpse of him once on the street. "He had taken off his glasses, and he was holding them up like this, looking at the dome of the State House. I wish I could imprison that moment in sculpture, because it showed a reverence . . . for the city of Boston."



Boston, sooty in memory, alive with a
thousand murky dreams of adolescence
still calls to youth; the wide streets, chimney tops over
Charles River's broad sweep to seahood buoy;
         the harbor
With dreams, too . . .

Slumbering city, what makes men think you sleep,
but breathe, what chants or paeans needed
           at this end, except
you stand as first town, first bank of hopes,
           first envisioned
paradise . . .

From "After Symonds' Venice"


Robert Creeley, when asked what made John Wieners a Boston poet, apart from "simply living there," replied, "'Simply living' anywhere is not at all as simple as it may sound. So many people are on their way to somewhere else, always--dragged along by various need, confusion, or ambition. . . . To be somewhere right now is not easy. John is a dear and absolute person of the city of Boston--it's where he first found his life specific, I am sure. It's his ground, his defining place, his language, his need, his limit, and his pleasure. As Charles Olson would put it, it constitutes 'his habit and his haunt.'"

Five years ago Jim Dunn--a young poet living in Cambridge--met John Wieners at a reading in Jack Kerouac's birth city of Lowell, Massachusetts, and the two became good friends. "He offered me a copy of one of his books," recalls Dunn. "He'd written his name in it in careful, Catholic schoolboy script. I was so touched." Now the two meet for the aforementioned root beer floats, or just sit quietly together in Wieners's apartment, seldom speaking. "He has a sincere humility that is so rare," says Dunn. "No one else I know is so completely at peace with his situation in life."

Wieners still writes poetry. It is so much a part of his life that Dunn says it flows seamlessly into other things: shopping lists become poems, poems become to-do lists. To make ends meet, Wieners gives poetry readings, and sometimes even shows up for them; tales of his forgetting or deciding not to attend these literary events are legendary. Jack Powers tells of climbing six stories of fire escapes and into Wieners's kitchen window to persuade the reluctant poet to go to a painstakingly prearranged reading in western Massachusetts. (Wieners wasn't at all perturbed; "Oh, hi ya, Johnny," was all he said to Powers.) Another reading, at Old South Church in Boston--a neo-Beat event--was to have featured Wieners as the star attraction. A slight cold kept him away, leaving the small audience to make do with a hulking poet named Buddah, a thin old gentleman dressed in white sweatpants with flowing hair and beard to match, a bad-tempered Kerouac biographer, and a woman who compared her love to a luscious strawberry.

Wieners is not so much cavalier about his readings--or nonreadings--as he is unconvinced of the merit of his attendance. "Readings are best left to the young," he said once; another time he mused audibly before a rapt audience that no one really wanted or needed to hear his work anyway. In the fall of 1999 he did accept an invitation to read at the Guggenheim with his old friend Michael McClure, with whom he was photographed in San Francisco almost half a century ago. Jim Dunn recalls that he read for about 15 minutes then abruptly sat down halfway through the gig. "That was it," says Dunn, "he was done. He'd decided he was finished, and when John makes up his mind he can't be budged." Raymond Foye agrees. "To encounter Wieners personally," he wrote, "is to meet with a man who seems entirely given to ephemeral gleanings, unused to the practicalities of the material world; to know him well is to behold his stubbornness and tenacity."

Wieners's determination to be himself at all costs is perhaps the key to his endurance. "There's a certain courage to his fabric," says Dunn. "He perseveres, in body and work; in a quiet way. He is not one to scream and shout, but it's there." Not all days are good: Sometimes his thinking is more linear than others; sometimes his conversation is more like a mosaic of associations that pieces together an inscrutable image. His nephew helps with practicalities like finances; his friends form a protective shield against the world's rough edges. In fact, several of Wieners's friends, when they heard about this article, asked to be interviewed, to attest to his kindness and generosity, his low-key, whimsical sense of humor. As ever, Robert Creeley sums him up best. "[John] is very generous, very caring, always. If we are in a world where a friend such as John cannot have a life, given the mental illness he's had to manage all these years, then we've all failed, no matter what it is we think we do. But we are not taking care of John any more than he is taking care of us, if you hear me. We need him very much. We need what his poems can say."

Freelance writer Pamela Petro lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. She is the author of
Travels in an Old Tongue (HarperCollins, 1996); her book on Southern storytellers is due out next year.




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