A guest posting today from poet, Jim Dunn, our friend and John’s long-time friend and companion:
It is fitting today, on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the Epiphany, the Visitation of the Three Kings, we commemorate John Wieners’ 80th birthday. It is fitting considering his Irish Catholic Jesuit upbringing and his belief in the spiritual quality of poetry. Although he published only a handful of books and three issues of his magazine, Measure, in his lifetime, his influence upon his contemporary poets and subsequent generations of writers is immeasurable. Poets who admire his work, take him immediately to heart, and regard him with absolute devotion. A poet’s poet, his various friendships and connections place him in multiple influential poetic movements and schools – Black Mountain, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Beats, Fag Rag Collective and the Boston poets. His shy, eccentric nature coupled with his staggering lyrical technical facility distinguished him and his work from the many schools of poetry with which he was involved.
Wieners was once asked directly what it was specifically that differentiated him from the other Beat writers. He took a long puff of his cigarettte, and responded, “They got famous. I did not.” – a response so obvious, simple and direct, it elicited uneasy laughter from those present. Allen Ginsberg saw immediately the purity of Wieners’ unique talent calling him a “naked flower, a tragic clown, doomed sensibility, absolutely real, no more self-pity”. Wieners was true in nature and pure in spirit. His unique voice had the sonorous quality of Old Towne Boston. Through the depths of drug abuse, bouts of mental illness, and emotional turmoil, he dedicated his life to the practice of poetry, and the solitary pursuit of heavenly vision amidst the ruins of daily life. There was a certain light from within him which was truly connected to his divine inspiration. He had the rare gift of genius in his ability to perceive the magic in the mundane and capture it in the immediate language of his work.
In many ways Wieners’ quiet shy New England sensibilities were the antithesis of Ginsberg’s nature and persona. Wieners recounts an early meeting with Ginsberg after attending a Frank O’Hara reading in the elegiac prose-poem written for O”Hara, “Chop House Memories” – “Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky met us after at a small German restaurant on Lexington Avenue and we cabbed downtown together for the first time to the old Five Spot in Cooper Square. Allen was unknown then and sat on my lap and Frank accused me of liking him too much”. Around that time (1957) Ginsberg and Wieners began a correspondence that lasted several decades. One of the most interesting letters from Wieners to Ginsberg was written in crayon, date unknown:
Here is LSD mss.
Please return it as
Soon as you finish
I have nothing to
say. But a loud
saxophone. And loads of
shit. Please hold this
up to the mirror and read
backwards. I am sorry
for this note. Fuck you
The great bulk of Wieners’ writing exists in unpublished correspondence to countless friends and colleagues throughout the decades. These fascinating letters collected and transcribed by Seth Stewart, underscore Wieners’ rightful place in literary history. An essential sampling of Wieners and (Charles) Olson correspondence has been published recently as part of Ammiel Alcalay’s “Lost and Found” series at CUNY. These correspondences, along with Robert Dewhurst‘s daunting, ambitious, project to assemble and publish a complete edition of Wieners’ work signify the growing interest in, and appreciation of, Wieners.
Wieners and Ginsberg last read together (with Robert Creeley) at the Smith Baker Center in Lowell, MA, as part of the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival. The hall resembled an old cathedral and was packed. The air was charged. Heavy rain and thunderstorms persisted into the night. Wieners took to the stage wearing a full yellow raincoat with a shopping-basket draped around his arm. He ambled back and forth upon the stage reading fragments from his copy of his own Selected Poems, ragged, and stuffed with advertisements, newspaper clippings and random ephemera. It was difficult to hear him as he whispered to himself, almost in prayer, repeating certain phrases that even he seemed surprised he had written.Ginsberg was beside himself, up and down, trying to get Wieners to focus, approaching the stage, pacing back and forth from his seat, waving his arms beseeching someone to get Wieners off the stage. Wieners remained unconcerned. He continued to read poems in his own time, he then roamed the stage like he was casually shopping in the supermarket in his mind. After the reading, as Ginsberg signed books and greeted the crowd, Wieners and his good friend, Charley Shively walked out alone into the rain, sharing an old umbrella.
From 1976-1983, it was rumored that Wieners wrote a total of one poem per year, each year on his birthday. Happy 80th Birthday Jack Wieners!
Here’s are some great links to see, hear, and read about John Wieners. Some of these have been posted before but reappear as a gift from the Magi on this holy feast of the Visitation
Robert Creeley’s New York Times review of Wieners’ Collected Poems is an interesting source for Creeley’s introduction to Cultural Affairs in Boston – see here
A pdf of the hard-to-find Measure 2 can be found here
Pam Petro’s BC [Boston College] magazine article – here
Cathy Salmon’s article in The Boston Phoenix – here