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.
is sent! and they are moved to believe, once more,
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.
the score of a man's
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"
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
streets of the city?
My hands coarsend, lovely bones
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? . . .
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;
With dreams, too . . .
Slumbering city, what makes men think you sleep,
but breathe, what chants or paeans needed
this end, except
you stand as first town, first bank of hopes,
paradise . . .
"After Symonds' Venice"
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
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
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.