Consequently, I had decided not to republish the piece until news came last week that Wieners had collapsed on a Boston Street and died a few days later, on March 1, in Massachusetts General Hospital. Without any identification upon him, he lay in the hospital for several days, hooked up to a machine, until a worker traced a prescription in his pocket to a local pharmacy. Soon after, the hospital connected with John’s friends Jim Dunn and Charles Shively, who sat with him as he died.
Los Angeles, March 12, 2002
Revised July 2, 2008
John Wieners Ace of Pentacles (New York: James F. Carr and Robert A. Wilson, 1964)
John Wieners Selected Poems (New York: Grossman, 1972)
From the beginning of his career John Wieners has been a poet who experimented with poetic forms that we have come more recently to describe as Postmodern. As a student at Black Mountain College, Wieners, like other writing students, was inspired by Charles Olson’s influential Projectivist theories. In Wieners’ own poetry, however, Olson’s influence seems negligible. Rather, Wieners turned for moderns to the literary forbearers of Postmodernist poetic writing: Rimbaud, Stein, Apollinaire, Pound, and, to a lesser degree, Williams. In short, we can observe in both Wieners’ poetry and his few theoretical statements that he discovered a personal mode which grew out of a process of trial and error based on conscious imitation. In fact, Wieners’ early poetic attempts are fascinating, not only because they tell us something of the development of his own theory and art, but because they parallel much of the poetic development in the twentieth century which only in the past few decades have we come to see as a poetics which stands at odds and often in opposition to the theories and work of such men as Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens, all dominant writers of the first half of that century.
To explore those dark eternals of the nightworld: the prostitute, the dope addict, thief and pervert. These were the imagined heroes of my world: and the orders of my life. What they stood for, how they lived, what they did in the daytime were the fancies of my imagination. And I had to become one of them until I knew.
We perceive from the beginning that Wieners’ desire for a life ordered according to what he recognizes as an inverted world, owes much to Rimbaud’s “raissonné de tous les sens.” In this early poetry Wieners consciously sought out a world that would allow him to explore exactly that which Rimbaud asserts that the voyant must: “Toutes les forms d’amour, de souffrance, de foile.” The Wentley poems present a world of tortured homosexual love and drugged insanity that one cannot help but compare with Une Saison. We can hardly be surprised, therefore, that as recently as his 1972 preface to Selected Poems Wieners advocates a poetry “dependent of question, producing revelatory postures for men, animals and stars,” or, that he asserts that “the poet is one pastor of [a] distribution between two visions,” that he defines one of poetry’s forms as a “transformation by fire.”
…the poet is truly the thief of fire. He is responsible for humanity, even for animals; he will have to have his inventions smelt, felt and and heard; if what he brings back from down there has form, he gives form; if it is formless, he gives formlessness.
However, in Wieners’ own poetry this comparison does not appear to be sustained. Whereas Rimbaud’s Saison creates a world so completely disorienting that the reader is forced to drop all previous notions of value, Wieners’ poetry relies for its effect upon the values the reader brings to the poem.
I like Sunday evenings after you’re here.
I use your perfume to pretend you’re near
in the night. My eyes are bright, why
can’t I have a man of my own?
Your wife’s necklace’s around my neck
and even though I do shave I pretend
I’m a woman for you
You make love to me like a man.
Even though I hear you say why man
he doesn’t even have any teeth
I make it up to you in other ways.
I will write this poem.
As critic Marjorie Perloff has noted of this work, “After the opening tum-ti-tum stanza, it comes as something of shock to learn that the person who wants a ‘man of my own’ is himself a man, that his lover is married, that the poet tries to impersonate a woman so as to attract her husband….” In fact, it is this “shock” effect which gives the poem its power. Through his use of hackneyed rhymes (“here,” “near,” “night,” "bright"), the sing-song rhythms of the first two lines and the lament of the fourth line, Wieners encourages us to expect that the rest of the poem will fulfill the requirements of a popular love song. Even when the “shock” occurs, we are not made to question our own values. Indeed, the poet asks us to remain within our own value systems as voyeurs of sorts, for it is only as somewhat disparaging observers that we can see the humor of the situation, and it is upon that humor which the poignancy of the last line and the poem as a whole relies. As Perloff perceives, “…any such impersonation is doomed to failure…” Thus we find the situation somewhat ludicrous, and as we do we are made to see the inevitable loneliness and sadness of the figure at the center of this work; and it is only through this perception that we come to sympathize.
The sense of continuity entirely destroyed by many
new senses, continually destroyed by many new
shapes o continually destroyed, o many new sphere,
many life entirely destroyed, continued by
many spheres, entirely lost, o continually destroyed
many lost by more o continually new generation,
with its shifting repetitions, reads like a parody of Gertrude Stein. In poems such as “Times Square” or “A Dawn Cocktail,” we see obvious imitations of Pound’s Imagism, modeled after “In a Station of the Metro.” In each of these cases we can see Wieners’ experimentation with a poetry moving towards and defining something akin to what we now call Postmodernism.
Wieners’ poetry, accordingly, would seem to be exemplary of the contemporary poetics. In a poem such as “A Poem for Cocksuckers” we can see nearly all the elements by which critics such as Charles Altieri have defined Postmodernism: preference of “the direct, the personal, the local, the anti-formal, and the topical." These are particularly explicit in the poem’s first stanza:
Well we can go
in the queer bars w/
our long hair reaching
down to the ground and
we may sing our songs
of love like the black mamma
on the juke box, after all
what have we got left.
The narrative “we” directly presents us with a specific scene, a gay bar, and that specificity is established by a language which is at once colloquial and topical. Words such as “queer bars,” “black mamma,” “juke box,” and, in the next stanza, “fairies” and “nigger’s world,” and the informality of tone call up this scene. However, the specificity is of a type, not a particular. Indeed, we are given few visual images. Just as in “To H,” “A Poem for Cocksuckers” is a poem that calls for reader participation. We have been warned by the title itself that this poem is a poem “for cocksuckers.” Wieners presumes, obviously, that any reader is thereby included in the type. Indeed, the gay scene which we are now part of is established by stereotypes, by words charged with negative societal values, values which some of the readers, in fact, might bring to the poem. The few visual images with which we are presented only reinforce these stereotypes. “Our long hair reaching to the ground” is, quite obviously, a topical reference to the late 1950s and '60s when societal reaction to long hair was most vocal. Images such as “On our right the fairies / giggle in their lacquered voices & blow / smoke in your eyes….” Phrases such “It is all here between / powdered legs & / painted eyes of the fairy / friends….” are also emotionally charged in a way that necessarily brings up negative connotations. As part of this world, therefore, we are also stereotyped: we are “cocksuckers.” While we have been brought into this place, moreover, we are simultaneously alienated from it. We are made to see it truly as a “nigger’s world,” a world which is brought to detest itself.
Beauté pâleur insondables violets
Nous tenterons en vain de prendre du repos
reads in Wieners,
Beauté paler than manila violets
We transplant in vain what cannot blossom.
We logically associate these two lines in the Wieners version because of the image of flowers in the first line and the words “transplant” and “blossom” in the second. Similarly, the French original
Et l’oie oua-oua trompette au nord
Où les chasseurs de ratons
Raclent les pelleteries
appears in Wieners as,
While reeds whine through trumpets up north
Where strippers offstage
Sell their skin cheap as ice
Tinkling like diamonds.
Again, the desire to make connections in the Wieners version is natural. The idea of strippers up north selling their skin as cheaply as ice tinkling like diamond is quite plausible, and is a rather arresting image. However, in the original, except between “Où les chasseurs de rations” and “Raclent les pelleteries,” we would have no reason to make such connections. This is a type of process, but once more these are connections that have already been established in logical discourse. They do not force us in any way to arrive at a new set of associations as a Cubist work might. Even if the original “Les Fenêtres” were not an experiment in dissociation, and instead a Cubist-like collage, Wieners’ version is, accordingly, a completely different kind of work. It is a poem that has as its philosophical foundation the idea that the world is a void upon which man imposes meaning, to which man gives form, an idea antithetical to the Postmodern perspective that underlies much of Wieners’ work.
…You seem to have a firm sense of the poem’s commitment to
a moment in history. Do you feel that at a particular moment in
history, specifically in the last few years, the pressure of political
tensions may push the poet, even a lyric poet, toward a more public
and rhetorical poetry?
Wieners’ answer follows from his poetry:
Yes, I do…. Yes. Lyricism is still a quality of a political career.
…Until the right moment, I created from past-inhabited experiences,
or vice-versa. These topics arise only upon consideration.
What Wieners is suggesting here, it seems to me, is that the subject for the contemporary poet does arise at least as much if not more from his past values and the values he has come to in that past as it does from the present. We can surmise that for a poet like Wieners it was from the beginning impossible, caught as he was in the nightworld, to reject past values. Indeed, his desire to know the nightworld was grounded in his awareness of his own past and the societal values which he had know from childhood. Once he had become part of that nightworld, moreover, he must have discovered himself more than ever comparing it with those values. Survival came to depend more and more upon his imaginative powers to convert his suffering into statements of faith. Wieners came to depend upon what he has described as “…other realities / besides those existing before / your eyes.” Despite his playing down of the importance of poetry, it is totally consistent with his work that Wieners should see the poet as “a pastor,” or as a priest of sorts.
This same tension was potential in Rimbaud’s poems as well. His dérèglement was utterly dependent upon his knowledge of traditional systems of cognition, for only with that knowledge could he give his reader anything “deranged,” could he make nature through language alive in a new way. Eventually, once he had perfected it, Rimbaud would have been forced also to tear down his own system and start all over again. But, of course, he stopped writing before his poetry had become artifact.
There she took her lover to sea
and laid herself in the sand.
He is fast, was down the dune
with silk around his waist.
Her scarf was small.
She opened her clothes to the moon.
Her underarms were shaved.
The wind was a wall between them.
Waves break over the tide,
hands tied to her side with silk,
their mind was lost in the night.
The green light at Provincetown
became an emerald on the beach
and like stars fell on Alabama.
The poem begins with a direct narrative statement in the past tense, with the vague “There” hinting at a world beyond time, like the “faraway country” of children’s tales. We are immediately made, however, to question these expectations. The construction of “to sea,” because there is no article, makes us think of the infinitive “to see,” which changes the whole tone of the line and urges us to move to the second line to find out what it is that she wants him to see. But we are not told; we are simply described the process of her lying down in the sand. The word “laid” is wrong here, however, and the object of the verb, “herself,” makes no sense. Even as a sexual pun it is, at first thought, ludicrous. Yet, when we think back to the first line, we recall that it was she who “took” to her “to sea,” and thus, we see the connotations of the pun. As the seducer, she encourages her lover to have sexual intercourse by seductively lying down in the sand, a seduction which is reflected by Wieners’ use here of l and s sounds (lover, laid; she, sea, herself, sand). But in that seduction she is also taking on the male role (as we shall see there are reasons for the stereotyping of roles) and, thus, in the sexual slang sense, is “laying herself.”
*The original version of “Long Nook” (published in Floating Bear, no. 10 ) makes this even more clear by setting off the line and putting it in quotations: “The wind was a wall between them.”
College Park, Maryland, December 1975
Reprinted from Sun & Moon: A Quarterly of Literature & Art (No. 2, Spring 1976).