Wieners, John (Joseph)

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WIENERS, John (Joseph)

Nationality: American. Born: Boston, Massachusetts, 6 January 1934. Education: Boston College, A.B. in English 1954; Black Mountain College, North Carolina, 1955–56; State University of New York, Buffalo (teaching fellow), 1965–67. Career: Library clerk, Lamont Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1955–57; actor and stage manager, Poets Theatre, Cambridge, 1956; assistant bookkeeper, 8th Street Bookshop, New York, 1962–63; subscriptions editor, Jordan Marsh Company, Boston, 1963–65; class leader, Beacon Hill Free School, Boston, 1973. Co-founding editor, Measure, Boston. Awards: Poets Foundation grant, 1961; New Hope Foundation award, 1963; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966, 1968; fellowship, 1986; American Academy award, 1968; Committee on Poetry grant, 1970, 1971, 1972; Guggenheim fellowship, 1986. Address: c/o Raymond Foye Editions, Chelsea Hotel, 222 West 23rd Street, No. 807, New York, New York 10011–2301, U.S.A.



The Hotel Wentley Poems. San Francisco, Auerhahn Press, 1958; revised edition, San Francisco, Dave Haselwood, 1965.

Ace of Pentacles. New York, Carr, 1964.

You Talk of Going But Don't Even Have a Suitcase. Spoleto, Italy, Spoleto Festival, 1965.

Chinoiserie. San Francisco, Dave Haselwood, 1965.

Hart Crane, Harry Crosby, I See You Going over the Edge. Detroit, Artists' Workshop Press, 1966.

Pressed Wafer. Buffalo, Gallery Upstairs Press, 1967.

King Solomon's Magnetic Quiz. Pleasant Valley, New York, Kriya Press, 1967.

Long Distance. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1968.

Selected Poems. London, Cape, 1968.

L'Abysse. New York, Minkoff, 1968.

On Looking in the Mirror. New York, Brownstone Press, 1968.

Unhired. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1968.

A Letter to Charles Olson. New York, Charters, 1968.

Idyll. Santa Barbara, California, Unicorn Press, 1968.

To Do. Stony Brook, New York, Stony Brook Poetics Foundation, 1968.

Asylum Poems. New York, Angel Hair, 1969.

Invitation. Santa Barbara, California, Unicorn Press, 1970.

Youth. New York, Phoenix Book Shop, 1970.

Nerves. London, Cape Goliard Press, and New York, Grossman, 1970.

Larders. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Restau Press, 1970.

Reading in Bed. San Francisco, White Rabbit Press, 1970.

First Poem after Silence since Thanksgiving. San Francisco, Butterfly, 1970.

Selected Poems. London, Cape, and New York, Grossman, 1972.

Playboy. Boston, Good Gay Poets, 1972.

We Were There! New York, Athanor, 1973.

God Is the Organ of Novelty. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Pomegranate Press, 1973.

Yes, Youth Are Marching On Against the World. Philadelphia, Middle Earth Bookstore, 1973.

Behind the State Capitol; or, Cincinnati Pike. Boston, Good Gay Poets, 1975.

Collected Poems 1958–1984. Santa Barbara, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1986.

Cultural Affairs in Boston: Poetry and Prose. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1988.


Still-Life (produced New York, 1961).

Of Asphodel, in Hell's Despite (produced New York, 1963). New York, Judson Poet's Theatre, n.d.

Anklesox and Five Shoelaces (produced New York, 1966).

Television Documentary: The Spirit of Romance, with Robert Duncan, 1965.


A Memory of Black Mountain College. Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1969.

Woman. Canton, New York, Institute of Further Studies, 1972.

The Lanterns along the Wall. Buffalo, Other Publications, 1972.

Hotels. New York, Angel Hair, 1974.

A Superficial Estimation. New York and Madras, India, Hanuman, 1986.

Conjugal Contraries and Quart. New York and Madras, India, Hanuman, 1986.

The Journal of John Wieners Is to Be Called 707 Scott Street for Billie Holiday, 1959. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1996.


Bibliography: "John Wieners: A Checklist" by George F. Butterick, in Athanor 3 (Clarkson, New York), summer-fall 1973.

Manuscript Collections: Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; State University of New York, Buffalo; University of California, San Diego; Frank Melville, Jr., Memorial Library, State University of New York, Stony Brook; New York University; Homer Babidge Library, University of Connecticut, Storrs.

Critical Studies: By Denise Levertov, in Poetry (Chicago), February 1965; by Robert Duncan, in The Nation (New York), 31 May 1965; by Lewis Warsh, in Boston Phoenix, January 1973; interview, in Gay Sunshine (San Francisco), March 1973; John Wieners issue of Mirage (San Francisco), 1985; by Anselm Hollo, in American Book Review, 11(6), January 1990.

John Wieners comments:

(1970) My themes are heartfelt ones of youth and manly desire. Their subjects are despair, frustration, ideal satisfaction, with biblical and classical referential echoes. Their forms are declarative, orderly, and true, without invention. General sources are Edna St. Vincent Millay, United States prose writers of the twentieth century, lyricists in the Greek anthology, Homer, Sappho, Horace, Virgilius, the songs of Geoffrey Chaucer, and subsequent strains of the English tradition. Characteristic stylistic devices are the direct address of German lieder, Near Eastern intimacy, and Chinese abbreviation.

(1974) Poetry since sixteen has been an obsession, every day, every minute, hearkening to the form of poetry. Its practitioners and personables continue to remain fixed as divinities equal to those of the French novelists since 1945 or the Pleiades of court presentation. I have kept the sun and myself upon a balcony bent under its power to lead my attainment toward magnitudinous worldly success and ultimately the presentation toward one person of its worth. For what would it matter if I could not be of use or of importance to this possible derelict in the world's eyes, but to my heart, husband-god, king-emperor? And yet not that. Simply a poor person in need of myself.

Along its possession blossom many rewards, leisure, conversation, books, friends, entertainment for the ultimate collected editions to merit his devotion.

*  *  *

Perhaps the most appealing thing about John Wieners's poems is the vulnerability they express. He has produced some of the most poignant lyrics of their kind. His dominant theme is dolor, loss of love, and rapture. His is a poetry of feeling rather than will, small chapels for devotion. He is preoccupied with glamour and unattainable desire, yet he is saved from self-pity by service to a poetry larger than even his despair: "It is eternal audience / and my feet hardened, my heart / blackened, nodding and / bowing before it." He avoids triteness by the almost perfect timing, the exquisite phrasing. His best poems are relieved from sentimentality by precarious rhyme, perilous syntax, and dramatic poise. He is capable of the most precise syncopations: "Yet so tenuous, so fine / this thing is, I am / sitting on the hard bed …" The casual lines only heighten the authenticity of his voice. The despair is so matter-of-fact that not only do we ache for the pity of it but we believe that to be overcome by such despair is inevitable for the poet. That is the awe which is awful. It is a single tone played repeatedly, as in Housman. Wieners is easily the torch singer he once said he wished he could be. No one has sung so convincingly of the haunted underside of life save Billie Holiday, his heroine, or perhaps Edith Piaf, whose fragility his resembles. How out of the sordid and decadent he is able to raise the purest strains is his specialization, his accomplishment. We remain before his poems as the poet does before his image of himself—"all morning / long. / With my hand over my mouth."

Along with The Hotel Wentley Poems, Wieners's finest collection remains Ace of Pentacles. There are some excellent poems in Nerves, a few otherwise uncollected ones in Selected Poems, and fewer still in Behind the State Capitol, a collection of "cinema decoupages; verses, abbreviated prose insights" that takes its title from the poet's residence below Beacon Hill in Boston, behind the state capitol building. Wieners has not been his own best representative, as Selected Poems too often attests. Not only did he leave out some of his finest poems—"Long Nook," "A Poem for Trapped Things," "Moon Poems," "Not Complete Enough," "My Mother," "The Meadow Where All Things Grow," "Hart Crane, Harry Crosby," "Billie"—but many of those included have been revised, and not always with success.

Whether through loss of confidence or false notions of improvement, in almost every case the alterations are for the poorer. The changes usually result from a misguided effort to attain a more "poetic" effect, most often through the elimination of articles and copulas or from the compression of openly whispered lines into more regular stanzas, but the effect is to eliminate the spoken directness and accuracy of the original. For example, the poet adds the title "153 Avenue C" (on New York's Lower East Side, where the poem was written) to previously untitled lines but takes away their perfectly understated horror by removing the copulas of natural speech. Other changes are simply strange if not inept, and they are endemic throughout the volume. In Behind the State Capitol, produced from copy apparently prepared by the poet himself, typing eccentricities have been allowed to stand, contributing nothing but confusion. The poet has forsaken his own genius and the stark simplicity of the original statements, so forthright they cannot be doubted or denied. He has lost the touch that enabled him to revise so successfully "A Poem for Painters" (if one compares the original version with that in the 1958 Hotel Wentley Poems), which contains his most famous lines and the summarization of his consistent theme:

My poems contain no
wilde beestes, no
lady of the lake, music
of the spheres, or organ chants.
Only the score of a man's
struggle to stay with
what is his own, what
lies within him to do.

Wieners has continued to be loyal to his "voices," those to whom Ace of Pentacles was dedicated, only now, with youth gone, there are more of them crowding about, incessant, obscuring the flame. The clear, elegant voice and the lyric perfection of the early poems have been lost to the multiple personalities, and the consequence is warring diction, abuse of rhyme, and linguistic excess. The dérèglement Rimbaud prepared us for has occurred.

—George F. Butterick