John Wieners (Selected Letters)

It’s the anniversary of the birth of the great John Joseph Wieners today and we thought to celebrate it here with announcement of the recently-published  Yours Presently – The Selected Letters of John Wieners, lovingly edited by Wieners scholar, Michael Seth Stewart (and with an introduction by fellow New Englander, Eileen Myles)

from Stewart’s lucid and informative introduction:

“John Wieners was a devotional poet, his dedication to the poem total. He was central to many poetry communities….Across several decades (he) was active as a poet, collaborator, correspondent, and editor: anthologized in the canon-making The New American Poetry of 1960; and revered by peers in each of his communities…..And yet historians of the New American Poetry and its component schools often ignore (his) contributions or confine him to the periphery. How can a poet be renowned but unknown, adored but elided?”

Stewart answers his own question:

“Wieners is largely disenfranchised from the various poetic establishments because he is, to literary historians, practically illegible. In those histories Wieners is often a footnote , remarked upon for his personality or sociological significance, not considered an integral part of the narrative. He’s hard to taxonmize…..Because of…twists and contradictions he has remained on the fringes of not just the canon but also the histories of those various subterranean schools he inhabited. His story teaches us about the permeability and cross-fertilization of those circles, and allows us to read their histories in an entirely new light..”

“I chose to follow Wieners’s itineraries through his letters in order to present his story in his own words in such a way that it may be read as autobiography offered to a dispersed readership. But letters offer more than autobiography, of course; a collection is multi-vocal, offering a cross-section of the selves Wieners presents to the people and worlds he moves through… The letters “I” is an evolving performance that gives readers insight into Wieners’ own self-fashioning, but also brings out surprising aspects of his correspondents personalities”. This is one advantage of the autobiography-in-letters: rather than the conventional memoir which is written self-consciously with history – or some amorphous future reader – in mind,  letters are written under specific exigencies at specific times, using language the correspondents have established with each other. As such the autobiography-in-letters offers many the memoir’s virtues while also preserving an embeddedness in contingency and community that memoir lacks. And so in the letters of John Wieners, assembled chronologically, we get not just the poet’s lifestory but a vast array of life stories, as told to various friends along the way.”

Eileen Myles:  “So in lieu of a bio this is it, the rarer one, a story told by himself and his relationships and I feel tremendous gratitude for how this account gives a fresh portrait of John for those of us who encountered him in our various, more distant ways, or of course those who never knew him at all.  I relish this access to the growing man..”

A significant amount of the correspondence pertains to the launching and publication of John’s ground-breaking magazine, Measure. Allen’s advice and suggestions were solicited, profusely offered, and eagerly attended to

1957,  June 11- re Measure :  “You more than any of US are in a position to lead. This news generation (Robert) Duncan speaks of apart from his own – Duncan, Creeley, Olson – The Fathers. Simply in measure of production you stride both. And this is the generation Measure will establish. And I will do all I can to push you as this leader. I am in concord with what you are.  What all you stand for, not stand for, but live..”
“Most tired out/ 7.10 AM so don’t expect much of a letter from me. I just wanted to return things via this (WSBs photo & letter)  but more important say how much I dug yr letter from Venice (sic), That I wd like to print in Measure in the City issue, number three, for in my mind, it establishes the poet, integral part of the city wldnt you say?. As much as burly queen anyway…”

re that  “letter from Venice” – Allen’s response:

“Print the letter I last sent you, if I wrote it, it’s me, there’s no point my looking at it and trying to censor it now. Besides I thought secretly you would anyway, while I was writing it – that’s one of the problems I find now, vanity and self-consciousness, also the feeling I’ll be suddenly stopped in my tracks by some fiery Judgment – come pitiless eye in an objective alley full of real bones…”

John, again, a few months later:

August 17, 1957 –   ” …I cannot print “Over Kansas”, That is not meant bitchy, “Sakyamuni..”  -yes, but damn I want “….Seattle”. I have my heart set on it, daddy. So what’s so wrong abt that last line – “…I float past, birds cry,/Salvation Army offers soup on rotting block, 6000 beggars groan/ at a meal of hope(ful beans)..” (six thousand is written out). So much is there that it’s foolish to scrap same. I believe in process and the line ain’t that bad like I feel some are in OverK so much I can’t be part of it…”

Allen, again:

“I still say “Seattle” isn’t really good – because I was trying to get real hot rhythmically, but have no real insight behind the collection of facts – they don’t add up to much – I don’t know. Sounds to me I’m trying too hard there. I like parts of it. I thought some day I might revise it. Use it if you want actually..”

John:   August 19,  1957   –  “Letter was ret’d because of postage due, so I opened it & re-read it /and most times I am unintelligible even to myself: that a letter becomes so much a part of the instant that it is written in, that I get carried off by the speed with which subjects demand. But that I communicate with you is most important, I feel, & that you see how much clarity yr letter (sic)  has, that it should be made available to other men/  and that it stand;  as the voice of the true city-reporter. In fact it stands for more than the city alone: that it is the poet in the whole state: republic.  and it shd be saved until (Measure) Four as shd Sakyamuni; as he too is a state hero, as is the poet. And yr poem honors. Therefore only “Seattle” will go in Number Three, Plus, of course, if you turn up with something before deadline which is always flexible..”

John Wieners and Allen Ginsberg – photo(s) by Raymond Foye – courtesy Stanford University Libraries/Allen Ginsberg Estate

Some years later (confiding to his mentor Charles Olson) he was less than laudatory (indeed, somewhat withering in his distaste for Allen’s ambition)

Feb, 1959. to Charles Olson:

“Yesterday dinner, spontaneous with Ginsberg and Corso on East 2nd (New York City). First time I had caviar. There the 3 of us sat. The Russian Jew, the Italian and the Irish. Spent until 5 a.m. with Ginsberg. What to say? He wants to make it. Not only on the crest but always. Showed me 75 clippings from Chicago. I said “Is this how you treat visiting poets?” Read as far as I could into his long mother poem [sic Kaddish] (60 pages) typewritten, single spaced. Interesting to me because of the paranoia of his mother. Her actions I know and have lived to some small degree. At least her terror, “The dropping of the mind on the page”. This phrase I most remember. But it’s this lack of the original which ultimately bars him. Bores me. I mean all poets inhabit the instantaneous, the immediate but we all we beat suffer from the lack of joy, inability to lift above ourselves. He carries a weight with him, even tho he moves with delicate lightness, walking down the stairs. Spring. That twist which shows…”

Eight years on, into the ‘Sixties, John to Allen, writing from Buffalo (John was attending the State University of New York at Buffalo):

May 20, 1967,  “Received a call last evening from Dr Karl T Dussik, Ass’t Commissioner of Mental Health in Massachusetts, that he is unable to contain B-3 to proscribe for me. Could you supply me with the doctor’s name at Princeton who invented the formula so that Dr. Dussik may use it in my case as I am suffering from inability to concentrate here…. I am taking niacin plus v.c (sic) but still have so much to do and require the basic substances, of order cohesion and presence. Have decided to leave school and go home to Milton without a degree. So again will be a patient of Dr, Dussik’s…
I am unable to concentrate here because of nuclear reactions inflicted irrationally upon the students – injustices imposed by a graduate study that drains vision rather than nurtures it…”

Dec 16, 1967, still in Buffalo, later that year:

“Dearest Allen, My family sent me a cheque for twenty-five dollars this morning, so I feel reassured….(and) Allen, the visit with you so cheered me I still consider it part of the present. Reading your poem this morning, “Holy Ghost on the Nod Over the Body of Bliss” it truly collected the best epigrammatic rejection of contemporary belief to project into the confines of separation… ”     (the letter is signed “your beloved son in poetry, John”)


And three from the asylum. (John’s Asylum Poems were published by Press of the Black Flag Raised, and by Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh‘s Angel Hair Press in 1969)

“The avoidance of evils or ills as one gets older is the main occupation of middle life”

June 16, “in the year of Our Lord 1969”.  (Writing from the mental hospital, Central  Islip):

Dearest Allen,  Your letter of alternatives has sustained me for many moments of each day. I will tell you what I wish a) to return to Buffalo as soon as possible and continue assistance, 2a) to observe the law as strictly as possible and to hold to its principal letters faithfully without trafficking in drugs and/or narcotics, namely to see that my family is well taken care of  b) to see them as shortly as possible, 3) and live as independently of you as I can , you can see in my present situation this is not so possible and 4) to continue my writing efforts at least as possible in view of the state situation. Possibly this is not what you wanted and all I can do and I wish to take my time in dos doing.”

July 12, 1969

Dear Allen, I went to Jewish services for the first time last Friday at 3PM, and wore the cap and sang the hymns, & recognized the voices of the faithful as your own. It was the, since childhood, most powerful religious experience, outside of my own moods.// How I miss my “freedom”. Talked again to Dr Weiss (she is again my doctor) and she could give no date for discharge. How sorry and lonely I am on all of these park benches…”

Aug 21 1969

Dearest Allen. Your letter with all the pertinent suggestions has to be handled someway. I finally found out date of discharge, “the best possible date for discharge?” was the question I forwarded to doctors and she answered after consideration, “the last of September…. I must thank you more seriously for all the help and interest you have given me over this past decade.  The next one (next letter) I promise you will not be so bureaucratic. I am very grateful for your friendship, mainly, and the constant  boost you have given my career which must get more important somehow to save me.

More John Wieners birthday celebration on The Allen Ginsberg Project – here 

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