John Wieners and Magic

John W and flower

John Wieners – photo by Allen Ginsberg

It’s John Wieners’ birthday today. A guest-posting from his editor and our dear friend, Michael Seth Stewart:

John Wieners was born eighty-eight years ago today, and March 1st will be twenty years since he died. He was born on the Feast of the Epiphany, which (in the West) is the celebration of the day that Jesus Christ was revealed (a theophany) to the three magi. Traditionally this has been celebrated as the day God was revealed to the gentiles, with the magi standing in for all gentiles. Personally I think this synecdochal maneuver is overly generous to the gentiles – it wasn’t all gentiles to whom Jesus was revealed in that moment, it was specifically to the magicians who’d sought him out. “Magick is for the ones who ball,” Wieners wrote, “i.e. throw across.” What does it mean to “throw across”? I do not think theophanies happen to just anyone.

In a 1972 talk for Robert Creeley’s class at Harvard, later published as “Lanterns Along the Wall,” Wieners explained the magic of the poem:

Poetry is the most magical of all the arts. Creating a life-style for its practitioners, that safeguards and supports them.
Along the way to becoming an artist are many pitfalls. For those who do not write do not know what true magic is.
Many today become artists by adopting their looks, and gear, or else adhering around or to those who do practice this satisfaction. I cannot imagine a single day, when I have not spent dreaming or conjuring certain habits of the poet. Fortunate the few who are forced into making things surrounding the poets come true. Even though at one time, I believed there would be no reward, for poetic industry and still do, there is immediate response. Things change in proximate location to poetry. There seems to be an aura, or softness as of a romantic glow, or of an enchantment, definitely, as if going back to a children’s story, when an adult, or contemplating children. Women possess this nature, when surrounded by their own things, feelings, as a man does, who is within the spell of understanding what is happening to him; they grow wider, broader, and even are able to support a profession and others along with it. Trees are stripped, the sky deepens.

But these benefits – this “divine and supernatural light,” to use Jonathan Edwards’ words in ways he would not approve of – are not for everyone. Again “magick is [only] for the ones who ball,” as he’d written in the front cover of his magazine, Measure, the second issue, devoted to MAGIC.

Magic(k),  epiphany, theophany – these things are available to the ones who “throw across,” who live under higher orders, the initiates to the mysteries. Someone like Wieners, who Ginsberg said in a letter to Kerouac was “a real poet, sad and damned and tender.” But the works of these initiated practitioners is available to the rest of us, as gifts. “Thus those damn readers get their money’s worth,” he wrote to James Schuyler in 1957. “They meet us. Watch us dance.” He added: “I am very happy right now.”

In San Francisco in the late fifties, David Meltzer and his wife used young John Wieners as a babysitter. He told me once about a cherished memory image, coming home after a late night out, and seeing Wieners in the kitchen by himself, sitting by the radio with  head lowered, lost in reverie listening to one of his favorite singers croon. Today we read his poems in just such a reverie, overhearing his revelations, seeing his visions from over his shoulder. “Poetry is the most magical of all the arts.”

This year, in connection with the release of Wieners’ Selected Letters, we were given a bounty of essays about his work and life – Jeremy Lybarger’s beautiful piece for The Nation, David Brazil at the Los Angeles Review of Books, David Grundy at the Boston Review  and Andrea Brady at the London Review of Books. Forthcoming in late 2022 is a collection of essays about John Wieners, Utter Vulnerability, edited by Michael Kindellan and published by Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée.

And while you wait for that, of course, you can read Allen’s own teachings on John Wieners, beginning here (and continuing here)

Michael Seth Stewart   
January 6th, 2022

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