Two new books give poet John Wieners an overdue look
"I always had a wild, weird voice," the poet John Wieners once told an audience in San Francisco. That was 1990, and he was referring to his speaking voice — which he joked Martha Raye had left to him in her will — but he could as well have been accounting for his odd, belatedly lauded place in poetry at that moment.
Wieners, the self-described "Boston poet' who was raised in Milton and died in 2002 at Mass General, figured estimably into that insta-canonized cadre of Donald Allen's landmark 1960 anthology, "The New American Poets," but he never quite achieved the stickiness of his fellow News — John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley among them. The twin release of "Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners" from Wave Books and "Stars Seen In Person, Selected Journals of John Wieners" from City Lights could restore Wieners to our attention for good, and for better.
Wieners's exclusion from the standard tale of mid-20th century poetry was neither a question of proximity or productivity, as his lifelong devotion to his craft led him from the experimental wilds of Black Mountain College to the poetic awakenings of San Francisco's Renaissance to the rich academic enclaves of Buffalo and Boston (with a couple of stops at psychiatric hospitals).
Nor was it a matter of quality. From his 1958 breakthrough, "The Hotel Wentley Poems," to the later volumes composed over the decades he spent at 44 Joy St. on Beacon Hill, Wieners's lines never lost their fitful energy, their strange glow.
One explanation for Wieners's peculiar absence could be his singular presence. His poetry was unburdened and unbuoyed, free, breathless, reckless, and jarringly, frankly queer — wicking graceful elegance from grim exile. In his preface to the "Selected Poems" published by Black Sparrow in 1986, Ginsberg praised Wieners's way with a "[n]aked line, raw line, vulnerable line, a line of pain so fine it cannot be altered by primping or rougeing (i.e., correcting)."
"Supplication" doesn't come as a correction of the Black Sparrow "Selected" so much as a refinement. It offers a slimmer stack of poems, yet somehow feels more generous. Along with the complete "Hotel Wentley Poems" and handfuls drawn from subsequent volumes "Ace of Pentacles" (1964), "Pressed Wafer" (1967), the harrowing "Asylum Poems" (1969), "Nerves" (1970), and "She'd Turn on A Dime" (1984), "Supplication" gathers previously uncollected poems, works pulled from journals (including the only one published during his lifetime, 1996's "The Journal of John Wieners is to be called 707 Scott Street For Billie Holliday 1959"), and transcriptions of worksheets.
But it also reproduces a sprawling facsimile of "Behind the State Capitol: Or Cincinnati Pike," a work first issued in 1975 by the Boston-based Good Gay Poets. It's a striking mix of poetry, assemblage, typographical derring-do, and socio-politico-sexual fire, capturing both the spirit and the physicality of his work — Wieners was a tornado of papers, notes, and scraps. (Some examples of his epic paper trail comprise the exhibition "I Have You by the Ears: John Wieners Ephemera," collected by Jim Dunn and on view at Harvard's Woodberry Poetry Room until Dec. 1.)
Read alongside the four journals spanning 1955-1969 assembled in "Stars Seen in Person," the lilting, drifting highs, lows, and noise of his poems come to feel more like carefully distilled concentrates of his grander, wilder project of seeing, saying, and seizing as many moments as he could.
In his early "Untitled Journal of a Would-Be Poet," Wieners turns a crucial corner in embracing the faith in breath Charles Olson put into his "projective verse," and the young poet coming "back to poetry again" out of "an admiration of men, an enthusiasm for men, whose whole lives have been devoted to its perfection. Not to poetry really, but to the poem."
A second journal, "Blaauwildebeestefontein," is rich with poems figuring themselves out, brief flashes of budding poetics ("The Known is never complete/ enough. It is the unKnown which completes me."). The third and fourth come from his time in Buffalo, where he went to resume studies with Olson in the late 1960s. Dark and difficult, these entries trace the bloom and failure of his relationship with a woman; they also serve as undercurrent for some of his strongest poems.
A hazard of Wieners's long-held position on the fringe as a cult antihero is that we don't properly see how central his spirit figures into what American poetry was becoming at mid-century. Even these decades later, Wiener's poems — so fresh and fluid, lurid, and luminous — still feel too vital to leave behind. There's a sense throughout that he senses this responsibility as well. As he wrote in "What a Poet is For . . . ": "It's a dangerous racket,/ being regarded as a religious object,/ and it is a racket, if you/ don't admit to it.// Reign."
SUPPLICATION: Selected Poems of John Wieners
Edited by Joshua Beckman, CAConrad, Robert Dewhurst
Wave, 216 pp., $30
STARS SEEN IN PERSON: Selected Journals of John Wieners
Edited by Michael Seth Stewart
City Lights, 248 pp., $16.95