May 1997

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He's still "young"

John Wieners returns to the local literary world

by Catherine A. Salmons

"Is it love, or grass stains on your shirt?"

The poet on stage half-whispers, his voice a broad-voweled smoker's rasp.

"Is it night, or the sight of flesh/Lying on its side in the pine grove?"

Although his ravaged features betray the illness and penury that have plagued him for many of his 63 years, the spark of genius (the haunted, terrifying kind of genius Plato called "poetic madness") still radiates from his blue eyes.

The volume of poems in his hands is bulging with pasted-in souvenirs and yellowed magazine clippings -- everything from Sealy mattress ads to pin-up photos of '50s movie stars, letters, and bits of recipes. They're tokens of a mania for collecting that mimics his poems' internal complexity, their labyrinths of carefully layered detail. As he reads, he riffles the pages incessantly, darting from one poem to another ,as if he were improvising, resplicing the written stanzas to suit his mood.

"Groove of memory, overgrown with weed and speedballs. Is it barren trees, or summer in the garden? Is it hate or blood or the flood of seed from an ardent partner . . . that brings him home, despite dim stars?"

This mesmerizing apparition is Beacon Hill's own John Wieners, the oracle of Joy Street -- one of Boston's best-kept poetic secrets, whose remarkable first book, The Hotel Wentley Poems, published in 1959, made him a star of the Beat literary underground. A Milton native, he spent his youth in a creative whirlwind: at North Carolina's Black Mountain College of the Arts with literary giants Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson; in San Francisco, 1957-'59, as a darling of the famed North Beach poetry renaissance; and as part of an emerging network of openly homosexual writers that included his good friend the late Allen Ginsberg.

But Wieners faded from the limelight in the '70s, after a series of traumatic breakdowns. A semi-recluse for the past two decades, he is making a rare public appearance on this cold spring night, as the featured performer at a "Kerouac's birthday" reading sponsored by Stone Soup Poets and held in venerable Old West Church. The pews are crowded with local literati eager to pay him their respects; in fact, there are rumors that his performance -- coupled with the recent release of his new collection of poetry and prose, 707 Scott Street (Sun & Moon, 106 pages, $12.95) -- augurs a Wieners comeback after all these years.

Wieners reads his poems in a seamless rush, weaving together bits and pieces not only from Hotel Wentley but from his later books as well: Ace of Pentacles, Asylum Poems, and his Selected Poems, the latter published by Black Sparrow Press in 1986. He reads love poems devoted to a male muse named Dana, the great passion of his youth. He invokes the seaminess of urban life and every kind of debauchery, including the years of compulsive drug use that kept him living, as he puts it, "in a visionary state." All this is expressed in delicately gorgeous language and quasi-formal, Yeatsian meter. He is both a retiring Yankee stoic à la Emily Dickinson, and -- like William Blake -- a holy mad man, "able to enter into the sacred places" (as he wrote in his 1958 "Poem for Vipers") and, for this brief moment, to take us with him.

"My writing dates so far back that it's kind of a psychosis, an actual delusion of grandeur," Wieners jokes later, when we meet in the artfully cluttered kitchen of his Joy Street neighbor Jack Powers, who heads Boston's Stone Soup Poets.

He seems to be joking, but one can never tell with John Wieners, since everything he says spills forth in a glossolalic outburst: he is a walking, talking expression of his own brand of surrealism -- a trait that, in his written poems, gives rise to a relentless, verbal melody that is nothing short of brilliant.

In conversation, he is charming and erudite, cloaked in an air of professorial assurance but given to lapse into fanciful digression. He seems glad, at first, for the chance to reminisce, telling me about his student years at a Catholic high school in the South End and later at Boston College. But when I ask about his two seasons at Black Mountain, he shrugs his shoulders and changes the subject, describing instead his jaunts to New York with fellow Black Mountain students Basil King and Jerry Vanderwile.

"They were painters, abstract expressionists. We would come down to the East Village and visit various artists and different lofts -- or the other way around, different artists and various lofts." The mid 1950s were, he says, "a very fertile time for art, that kept up the sense of a vivid underground. The young have always had so much need to express themselves that way, through the underground."

San Francisco was equally exhilarating when he arrived in 1957. "I lived in the Divisadero area, with Wally Berman. It was tremendously exciting. There were so many writers in the area: Bob Kaufman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ruth Whit Diamant ran the Poetry Center there on Greenwich Street. She was a lovely, charming person who helped many of us underdogs gain a foothold to self-expression."

Returning East, he found another ally in the legendary Charles Olson, then director of the prestigious poetics program at SUNY Buffalo, where Wieners began his graduate work in 1965. "I spent five years in a rooming house, opposite St. Joseph's Church. Olson was resident down on Main Street, so we would meet for supper whenever we had a chance to. We once went out to Rome together, for a theater festival in Spoleto, featuring Ezra Pound. I don't know many Americans who have gone to Europe and come back!"

I'm not quite sure what he means by this last remark. I do know that he physically "came back" from Europe and eventually from SUNY Buffalo, only to succumb to his already persistent emotional distress upon his permanent return to Boston. He endured repeated hospitalizations, and it is common knowledge that Wieners's health problems stemmed in part from his early aesthetic choices: in his youth, he was infamous for embracing the drug-taking literary tradition of Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and countless others. (Remember that at the Temple of Delphi, in ancient Greece, the Sybil -- high priestess of Apollo, the god of poetry -- would allegedly swoon upon inhaling narcotic vapors and spew forth torrents of prophecy.) Wieners was the classic enfant terrible exploring the "flowers of evil," the sacred within the profane. His poems teem with references to opium, marijuana, and peyote, all of which he considered a form of daily sacrament. "I do drugs," he explained years ago, because "I feel my writing/My being flows out and in from the universe with more give and take, that there is a parabola in us, hollow places where we float into the abyss . . . For the poet, what else is there but poems? We become what we create."

There's no denying that Wieners is his own creation -- the product of a euphoric vocation that has taken its toll on his mind and body. (As he once wrote, "I'm living out the logical conclusion of my poems.") Inevitably, his detachment from the mundane details of time and space has given rise to some notorious anecdotes. Jack Powers recounts one episode wherein Wieners was to read at a memorial service in New York for Beat patriarch Herbert Huncke. Having promised to remind him of his train's impending departure, Powers phoned and got no response, then rang Wieners's doorbell, again to no avail. Finally, in desperation, he climbed the fire escape to Wieners's apartment, to discover the bard sitting calmly in his kitchen, smoking a cigarette. "Oh, hi Jack! Come on in," he said without missing a beat, unperturbed at the sight of his friend outside his fourth-floor window.

My favorite John Wieners story comes from another of his long-time cronies, poet and UMass-Boston professor Charles Shively. Shively was with Wieners and Allen Ginsberg, leaving the 1972 Republican Convention in Miami, where the three had participated in a massive protest march. Piling into Shively's VW Bug (a stretch, especially for the towering Ginsberg, who was costumed as Uncle Sam -- top hat and all), they decided, on a whim, to drive to Disney World, which had opened just months before. Arriving, however, they had a bit of trouble getting past the guards at the gate, Wieners being clad in nothing but a Speedo swimsuit with a "Yippie" button pinned to its brief surface. They also found themselves too broke to enter the Magic Kingdom; they had just enough money to hop on the monorail, which they rode in a continuous loop for the next several hours.

My own impression of John Wieners is that there is something almost shamanistic in his way of engaging with the world. As we're talking shop (Wieners is incredibly learned about poetry), he makes this mysterious observation regarding Elinor Wylie and the modernist poet H.D.: "They must have been very young, when they were alive."

Perplexed, I mumble something about the "playfulness" of poetry.

"Exactly," he smiles, obviously pleased that I've gotten his point, "like the writings of children." There was a lesson embedded in his words, a zen-koan-like riff on the notion of poetry as a game. (Although I confess I'm still puzzled by his assertion that Jean Cocteau was a "great contemporary theologian" -- or, a propos of the "day jobs" held by famous poets: "We wouldn't have had insurance, without Wallace Stevens being cast into a business position, or medicine without William Carlos Williams.")

We go on in this vein, though he frets a little about how our chat will translate into print. "You know," he confesses at one point, "I don't want to appear too whimsical."

But there's no whimsy in Wieners's rapturous loosening of the constraints of discourse, his reassembling of speech from his own set of blueprints. Everything he says is a metaphor, a gesture. The gestures themselves are poetry, and it's up to us to find the key. To appreciate his eccentric, zen-masterly reinvention of the intellect, we must abandon all preconceptions of how an "important" artist should act and think.

"John Wieners's glory is solitary," Allen Ginsberg wrote in his foreword to Wieners's Selected Poems, "a life in contrast to the fluff and ambition" of careerist academic poets, who "drink flatter fuck and get interviewed . . . till such books as this emerge from the obscurity of decades, to reveal the true light of genius in the poem."

Ginsberg would be proud of his "solitary genius" pal: Wieners is giving readings again, and 707 Scott Street ("my book of jottings," he calls it) has been enthusiastically received by his fans.

We are fortunate that one of our city's unheralded literary treasures has returned to public attention, for this gentle, affectionate man still has much to teach us about poetry, and about ourselves. His work stands as a testament to the obsessive power of the imagination, a challenge to conventional, narrow definitions of intelligence and reason. What he has given us is a gift beyond measure -- poems that are, as he says, "the score of one man's struggle to stay with what is his own, what lies within him to do." It's the least we can do, now, to listen, as he calls out again to us, echoing these lines from his "Poem for Painters":

Oh come back, whatever heart
you have left. It is my life
you save. The poem is done.

A memorial reading of Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish" will be held at Old West Church, 131 Cambridge Street in Boston, on June 4, with readers Elizabeth McKim, Charles Coe, Charles Shively, Jack Powers, and Catherine A. Salmons. The program will also feature a screening of the Beat classic Pull My Daisy and a poetry reading at which John Wieners will read. Call 227-0845.