Wieners, John

(1934–2002)
   John Wieners was born in Milton, Massachusetts, in 1934. After taking a B.A. at Boston College (alongside poet Steve Jonas), he attended Black Mountain College on a scholarship in spring 1955 and summer 1956 following a chance encounter with its rector charles olson in Boston in 1954. Though Wieners was immediately drawn to Olson’s forceful and energizing poetics and persona, he was quick to accommodate a broader range of then-available poetic idioms, finding equally significant orientations for his writing in the poetries of Robert Duncan (also a teacher at Black Mountain) and Frank O’Hara, who would later describe him (in “A Young Poet”) as “a poet exhausted by / the insight which comes as a kiss / and follows as a curse.”
   After the demise of Black Mountain College in 1956 Wieners returned to Boston and published three issues of a magazine, Measure. In 1958 he relocated with his lover Dana Duerke to San Francisco where he wrote his great debut, The Hotel wentley poems. This volume quickly found favor among his peers and elders across the country for its determined candor, its treatment of gay and narcotic themes, and its controlled, high lyric address, traits that would consistently characterize his work. Also from this period is 707 Scott Street (1958–59, but it was not published until 1996 by Sun and Moon Press, Los Angeles), a journal of writings—poems, aphorisms, diaristic fragments—that includes this useful statement on his project: “All I am interested in is charting the progress of my own soul. And my poetics consists of marking down how each action unrolls. Without my will. It moves. So that each man has his own poetic.”
   In 1960 he returned to the East Coast and during the next five years would spend time in both New York and Boston. In New York he shared an apartment with herbert huncke and stage managed and acted in the production of three of his plays at the Judson Poets Theater. In this period Wieners read closely such kindred writers as Friedrich Hölderlin and John Clare and was composing the poems of Ace of Pentacles (1964), which hint at the later, more-wry developments in his writing, in such O’Haran titles as “You Talk of Going But Don’t Even Have a Suitcase.” His narcotic ingestion remained keen in these years. O’Hara’s partner Joe LeSueur has this anecdote from a week that Wieners spent at their apartment: “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.’ ”
   In 1965 Wieners’s relationship with Olson regained intimacy, and he made appearances alongside Olson at two landmark poetry festivals in Spoleto, Italy, and Berkeley, California, also working as his teaching assistant at SUNY Buffalo. But his stints in mental institutions throughout the 1960s were frequent and debilitating, as the eviscerated emotions of Pressed Wafer (1967) and Asylum Poems (1969) suggest. With the support of his many friends he continued to write prolifically into the 1970s: The Jonathan Cape publication Nerves (1970) cemented an audience for his work in the United Kingdom, and a Selected Poems from Grossman in 1972 offered a valuable reckoning of his achievement to date. In the preface (itself a primary Wieners text), he restated the project of the Hotel Wentley years: “To stay with one’s self requires position and perhaps provision, realizing quality out of strangeness.”
   This first Selected Poems was followed with the stunning Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike (1975), by which time Wieners had settled permanently on Boston’s Beacon Hill; though continuing to experience erratic mental health, he was now active in local politics and the gay liberation movement. A local collective called The Good Gay Poets undertook publication of this collection, controversial for its pronouncedly disjunct logic, as in the poem “Understood Disbelief in Paganism, Lies and Heresy”: “Brevity; yes or no arsinine Coliseum / arrogance, attrib. Constant shout / Emperor Hippocratic misaligned.” Writings of such disassociated flourish, though not necessarily the book’s dominant tenor, gave previous admirers such as Robert Duncan some skepticism as to its merit, while many younger writers in the United States and abroad found it exhilarating. Certainly Behind the State Capitol marked exciting new terrain for Wieners, but frustratingly, from this point on, very little new work would see print. Raymond Foye’s editorial work on the 1986 Selected Poems and the 1988 Cultural Affairs in Boston made for crucial gatherings of previous collections and individual unpublished poems, and two wild, glamour-soaked narratives from Hanuman Books, A Superficial Estimation (1986) and Conjugal Contraries and Quart (1987), also served to whet readers’ appetites. In his last years Wieners found support from a younger generation of writers and editors, including William Corbett, Raymond Foye, Peter Gizzi, Michael Gizzi, Fanny Howe, Kevin Killian, and Charley Shively, who ensured that his work continued to circulate. The festschrift The Blind See Only This World (2000) testifies to the scope of his impact.
   In a statement for Who’s Who (circa. 1976), Wieners wrote: “I like my poetry to have an emotional validity or veracity. If I can get something out that’s emotionally true for myself and a few others that’s good enough, and I would subject the form to that statement or utterance. Charles Olson, robert creeley, Robert Duncan, ed dorn, joanne kyger, philip whalen, gary snyder, [jack] kerouac, [allen] ginsberg, [gregory] corso, Jack Spicer and Steve Jonas. These were the most interesting people I knew. It was not deliberate that we were influences on each other. We just did a lot of things together.” Wieners died of a stroke in Boston on March 1, 2002, on his way home from a friend’s book party.
 Bibliography
■ Corbett, William, Michael Gizzi, and Joseph Torra, eds. The Blind See Only This World: Poems for John Wieners. New York, Boston: Granary Books, Pressed Wafer, 2000.
   Thomas Evans

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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