JUNE 23, 2021
IN 2011, Michael Seth Stewart broke his leg. A slip on the ice followed by a long convalescence were, it turned out, the necessary preconditions for pursuing the research project which became Yours Presently: The Selected Letters of John Wieners. “It gave me time,” Stewart said in a phone conversation. The result is a treasure for which everyone who cares about American poetry in the 20th century can be thankful.
Stewart originally encountered the work of Wieners in classes with Ammiel Alcalay at the City University of New York (CUNY). A conversation about the poet Charles Olson and his circle wove around to include Wieners, who studied under Olson at the legendary Black Mountain College outside of Asheville, North Carolina. Like many others, Stewart was grabbed first by the poet’s first collection, The Hotel Wentley Poems (1958), which unapologetically announces its author’s homosexuality in “A poem for cocksuckers”:
Well we can go
in the queer bars w/
our long hair reaching
down to the ground and
we can sing our songs
of love like the black mama
on the juke box, after all
what have we got left.
The bond between reader and poet was formed, and Stewart’s archival trawling began, first with a focus on the correspondence between Wieners and Olson collected in “the sea under the house” and published by CUNY’s Lost & Found series, and now in this volume.
I begin with this anecdote because it illustrates something essential about Wieners. In his introduction, Stewart writes that “John Wieners was a devotional poet,” and this affect has inspired a great deal of reciprocity down through the years. More than many other writers, he abides in the world because people adore him. Despite the presence of his work in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945–1960 (how a generation of American poets found one another) and his peripatetic progress through poetry scenes in Asheville, San Francisco, New York, and his home base of Boston, Wieners has always remained a poet’s poet, uninterested in the channels of self-promotion and professionalization that would have created a career and cultivated the critical reception of his work. His stance combines a “Keatsian eloquence” (as Allen Ginsberg remarks in his foreword to the Selected Poems: 1958–1984) with a desperation and queer abjection that are perhaps only now becoming fully legible. But he has never wanted for devotees and has inspired several generations of queer writers including Kevin Killian, Cedar Sigo, and Eileen Myles (who provides a preface to this volume). Even the history of his books is a record of affection — the best available edition of his poems, published by Black Sparrow in 1986, only came about because of the editorial dedication of Wieners’s friend Raymond Foye, and the advocacy of Allen Ginsberg. (This edition is, unfortunately, out of print and expensive — if you’d like to read Wieners’s poetry, the most accessible collection is Supplication, edited by Robert Dewhurst, CAConrad, and Joshua Beckman.)
In conversation, Stewart opined that Wieners’s correspondence represents the most important collection of a poet’s letters since Keats. (There seems to be a permanent association between the two poets, evident in Micah Ballard’s book Negative Capability in the Verse of John Wieners.) If Stewart’s claim is true, it is certainly Keats by way of Antonin Artaud. Wieners had a hard life, and he suffered from a dysfunctional family, unchecked drug use, mental instability, poverty, and compulsory institutionalization in mental hospitals as documented in 1969’s Asylum Poems. The poems are a record of both turmoil and insight, as are his terrific journals (707 Scott Street, published years ago by Sun & Moon and now sadly out of print, and Stars Seen In Person, published by City Lights and edited by Stewart). The correspondence adds to this portrait, and Yours Presently accomplishes its intention of providing an autobiography in letters, which is now the fullest depiction of Wieners’s life available in print. (Fans have been awaiting Robert Dewhurst’s biography, as well as a new collected poems, for several years.) The editorial apparatus courteously provides headnotes, footnotes, and endnotes that unobtrusively fill in the gaps of Wieners’s often chaotic life, and that introduce the many characters, including some of the greatest American poets of the 20th century, who make an appearance.
Charles Olson’s inescapable presence is one of the biggest takeaways from the volume. From their first encounter at a poetry reading during a hurricane in 1954, until Olson’s death in 1970, the two remained in regular contact. Olson’s theoretical writings, as well as his personal commitment to poetry, made a permanent impression on the younger writer. The earliest letters here document Wieners’s pilgrimage to Black Mountain and the excitement (as well as the privation) of the unique ferment of the school’s final period. The striking contrast between the physically enormous, poetically brash Olson and the tentative and gay Wieners makes even more plangent the younger poet’s recollection in his poem “Youth” of the change that came when “Big Charles put his hand on me, and ordained me a priest.”
The teachings of Olson’s essay “Projective Verse,” which declared that poetry must “catch up and put into itself certain laws and possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes as well as of his listenings,” plainly influenced both the name and the editorial style of Wieners’s own little magazine Measure. Yours Presently well documents the correspondence that was necessary to secure work for this publication. Especially in the pre-internet era, the curation of a publication of one’s own was a way for a younger writer to connect with elders and writers of one’s own generation, to establish and propound an artistic vision and to develop a network of artistic peers. Measure took its place among similar publications like Diane di Prima and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s Floating Bear as a fugitive but vital document knitting together many schools and geographies.
Olson’s hectoring style and bluster also come through in some of this correspondence, which begins to shade into a period of heavier drug use in the late ’50s. Many of the letters themselves take on the quality of “open field” compositions championed by Olson and Robert Duncan, following the pathbreaking example of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Of course, many of the letters also contain poems (by Keats as well as Emily Dickinson), and frequently trouble the boundary between a letter and a poem. This was the period of Wieners’s travel to San Francisco, where he made contact with poets like Joanne Kyger and composed The Hotel Wentley Poems (named for the crummy hotel where Wieners wrote the book), which famously ended up in a poem by Frank O’Hara:
everybody here is running around after dull pleasantries and
wondering if The Hotel Wentley Poems is as great as I say it is
The connection of the frequently antagonistic literary coasts evident here demonstrates Wieners’s singular virtuosity as a boundary-crosser, as well as the recognition by many of his contemporaries of the value of his work.
Wieners’s life took a decisive turn in 1959, when he was forcibly committed to Medfield State Hospital by his family. He was subjected to shock treatments and insulin treatments, and the long-lasting side effects of these now-discredited methods lingered for years. As the poet wrote to Irving Rosenthal, “I wish I had some memory of last year, but I do not, of living with you, of your kindness, but all is a blank.” It was the first of several institutionalizations he would endure in his life, and the reality of acute mental distress casts its shadow over all the rest of his work, including the letters in this collection. In their preface, Eileen Myles alludes to the “famous and obscenely mean ones to Robert Creeley from the late 1960s,” which really must be read to be believed:
I have instructed my attorney, Donald Paul Wieners, to sue you for damages, and to sue Albert M. Cook, of 256 Woodbridge Avenue in the City of Buffalo, the state of New York and to have you both imprisoned, as you in the eyes of the courts of the States of New York, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are guilty of beheading me, castrating me, removing vital bones and organs for your own sexual gratification.
These texts remind me of nothing so much as Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, about which Freud wrote a celebrated case study, and again illustrate a connection to the work of Artaud, who also wrote from inside of severe psychic trial and left us documents of his experience. The later writings of Wieners, including his sprawling collage-poem Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike (1975) and Charles Shively’s 1973 interview (collected in the Black Sparrow Selected Poems) confront us with the unstable border between experimental art and mental discord — an area also traversed by writers like Hannah Weiner and Unica Zürn. I refrain from pathologizing Wieners and others with the label of mental illness, but a reckoning with this work requires attention to this challenging question. As Wieners writes in a letter to Olson: “I am too wise to learn of everything: for I will be with you, but life is of such terrible sort, (that I cannot do everything I want to) It takes such terrible turns and unexpected conditions. But yet I can do neither: for I accept it. What other choice? do we have?”
1970 began a season of deaths in Wieners’s immediate circle: first Olson, then the poet’s mother Anna, and his father Albert the next year. After another institutionalization in 1972, he began a period of renewed queer activism with new friend Charles Shively and others. This was the beginning of a local network of support that would help Wieners for the rest of his life. These were the years of Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike:
A quart of champagne, one pill too many
and a paper from the state saying I am “a mentally ill person.”
Was it the pills or champagne no
After the publication of this book in 1975, Wieners’s correspondence and poetry begin to slow down. As Stewart observes, the “mid-80s saw a John Wieners renaissance,” but his work was over.
There is a place for minor poets in the history of literature, but John Wieners is not a minor poet. He is one of the major American poets of the 20th century, sidelined by queerness, illness, addiction, poverty, and a refusal to professionalize. Yours Presently depicts the harrowing life of an artist in a country that has always been indifferent to its artists, teases out the networks of affinity that form the ecologies in which such artists survive, and furnishes essential insights into the conditions from which poetry arises. As Robert Dewhurst has written, it’s a watershed, and a gift to all those who “burn in the memory of love.”