Yours Presently: The Selected Letters of John Wieners 
edited by Michael Seth Stewart.
New Mexico, 333 pp., £60, December 2020, 978 0 8263 6204 9
Show More
Show More

John Wieners​ once told his nephew he had met the Virgin Mary. ‘Did she say anything to you?’ Walter asked. ‘No,’ John said, ‘she doesn’t know how to speak.’ He paused. ‘But she’s learning.’ Wieners was born to a working-class family outside Boston in 1934, educated by Jesuits, and spent formative periods of his youth in New York, San Francisco and Black Mountain, North Carolina. His reverence for the Virgin folded easily into his adoration of Hollywood’s golden age stars. But he also became something of a star himself. His early poems were inspired by queer desire and systematic derangement achieved through drugs, aleatoric and occult procedures; his late ones bear the marks of state violence, particularly the many electric shock and insulin treatments he received in psychiatric hospitals. Writing from ‘an artificial paradise it is Hell to get into’, he channelled Baudelaire and aimed to ‘be the new Rimbaud, and not die at 37 but set the record straight’. He died in 2002, leaving the record anything but straight.

Wieners is admired by other writers for his nonconformity, his tenderness and outrageous inventions. Hagiographical prefaces to his books by Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley align him with Hart Crane and Keats as a poet vulnerable to the world and prone to self-destruction. Wieners himself remembered taking the ferry to Provincetown with Frank O’Hara: ‘We stood again below deck by the hectic Atlantic cutting at our feet, speaking of Hart Crane and the last words we would have in our mouths at that moment of surrender.’ His idol was Billie Holiday, who gives the name to one of his best short poems. The speaker is looking for his girl, who has been taken away by a figure ‘as a god’. It ends:

If you find anyone
answering their description
please let me know. I need them

to carry the weight of my life
The old gods are gone. What lives on
in my heart

is their flesh
like a wound,
a tomb, a bomb.

Asked by his editor Raymond Foye if he had a theory of poetics, Wieners said: ‘I try to write the most embarrassing thing I can think of.’ This wasn’t conducive to mainstream success. He was published by small presses and in mimeographed magazines. Much work has been done in recent years to restore Wieners’s poetry and journals to readers. Black Sparrow published two selections: Selected Poems 1958-84 (1986) and Cultural Affairs in Boston: Poetry and Prose 1956-85 (1988). Supplication (Enitharmon, 2015) brought him to the attention of British readers; A Book of Prophecies (Bootstrap, 2007) and A New Book from Rome (Bootstrap, 2010) are editions of his manuscript journals; Stars Seen in Person (City Lights, 2015) offers other selections from his working drafts. Yours Presently, the new volume of letters edited by Michael Seth Stewart, shows Wieners cutting across various groups in American avant-garde writing.

‘A homosexual,’ Wieners wrote, ‘since he has been a stigma or outcast freak for so long, does not [usually] have a chance to meditate upon himself, even as a “straight” citizen, with their usual rights or opportunities.’ The person who most encouraged him to ‘meditate upon himself’ was the straight poet Charles Olson. Wieners first encountered Olson at a reading on the night of Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Olson offered him a loan for tuition, room and board at Black Mountain College, and Wieners studied there in 1955 and 1956. After this, he recommended Olson’s essay ‘Projective Verse’ to anyone who would listen. When ‘Big Charles put his hand on me, and ordained me priest,’ Wieners said, his poetic vocation was sanctified.

Drawing energy from the heterodox education of Black Mountain, Wieners founded a little magazine, Measure, in 1957. His letters to contributors show enormous confidence, sometimes shading into condescension. He imitates Olson’s magisterial mode, telling Barbara Guest: ‘There is not enough. I have gone over them three times after receiving them & now again – different … I want more. Maybe this cannot be. That you are not structured such.’ He advises Jimmy Schuyler ‘to develop all you can yr resistancies, even – when you think you have made a real hit: send off to Olson.’ In response to a submission from Philip Whalen: ‘I cant bring myself to say: yes, they go. It’s me you gotta make happy. And I aint.’

Wieners also had the authority of the streets. In Boston, he hung out with ‘the junkies, and bums MINE, me swinging with them, as one, worth what one pays in physical losses’; he was drawn to ‘addicts, who have some glamour I am prone to’. His genuine connections to the underclass put the Beat poets to shame: ‘It’s the thieves and strippers and fairies of this city who have given me the money to print [Measure]. LITERALLY. Bookies, and hopheads, and ginny musicians. And Howl is a lot of polite syntax in their ears.’ He describes staying up for fifty hours on pills, ‘wandering everywhere in the city, dredging, crawling in the gutters’, then stumbling to his job at the Harvard Lamont library. And though Wieners’s dérives in Boston were very different from Olson’s archaeological excavations of nearby Gloucester, his poetry also sings for a vanished city: the dance halls, bars and strip clubs of Scollay Square, demolished to make way for the antiseptic wasteland of Government Centre.

In 1957 Wieners left for San Francisco, where he found a poetic and sexual counterculture whose magical thinking suited his psychedelic investigations: ‘It is Fun City, and I carry around with me the ghost of Paris’ in the 1920s. Wieners and his partner, Dana, got an apartment in North Beach. He was attuning himself to the universe, he said, noticing that ‘there are magic happenings going on all over the world. I pick up an ashtray and it has the hair of Jean Harlow in it.’ He took Benzedrine and peyote and wrote poems – or ‘not poems. But literal messages from somewhere.’ For Olson the typewriter was an instrument of precision, but for Wieners it was ‘a magic instrument’ and, as he typed, ‘my fingers are determined by the laws of the universe.’ In bursts of inspiration he wrote Journal of John Wieners Is to Be Called 707 Scott Street (not published until 1996) and his first published book, The Hotel Wentley Poems (1958), written in a single week in a flophouse in Polk Gulch, which includes ‘A poem for the insane’ and ‘A poem for cocksuckers’. The latter ends:

       It is all here between
the powdered legs &
painted eyes of the fairy
friends who do not fail us
    in our hour of
        despair. Take not
away from me the small fires
I burn in the memory of love.

The Wentley poems establish what O’Hara called Wieners’s ‘beautiful style,/the meaning of which draws him further down/into passion/and up in the staring regard of his intuitions’. Mixing explicit declarations of queer desire with archaic phrasing (‘take not’) and touches of melodrama (‘hour of despair’), Wieners was forming a tribute to a community that doesn’t fail those in need. The generosity of friends echoes across his letters, particularly in moments of despair.

‘I sometimes wonder how far afield I am,’ Wieners wrote to Michael Rumaker in 1958, ‘and become afraid, of those forces driving me. They sometimes mask as angels. Are undercovermen, and we do not know we are going to be busted, until the gates are locked.’ The gay community really was under surveillance by vice police, but Wieners’s paranoia was amplified by heavy drug use. According to Raymond Foye, heroin transformed the ‘creative energy & communal spirit’ of the North Beach scene into a field of destruction. In the late 1950s, Wieners began ‘taking grass, crystal meth, heroin, belladonna & a few other things’ regularly: ‘Nobody had ever seen anyone throw themselves into the abyss the way John did.’

His later volumes, including Ace of Pentacles (1964), which he dedicated ‘to the voices’, Pressed Wafer (1967), Asylum Poems (1969) and Nerves (1970), reflect his experiences of fragmentation and reintegration. He was forcibly hospitalised in state institutions: at Medfield State for six months in 1960, Metropolitan State in 1961, Central Islip State in 1969 and Taunton State in 1972. During one hospitalisation, he was subjected to 30 shock treatments and 91 insulin treatments. He was fed drugs which ‘take away all spark’; medical interventions included ‘electrical catheter treatment, something I don’t need at all, but which is being fostered here at such a clip that even my own deepest reserves are threatened’. He felt himself

Pierced with a miniature electric track
on which no trains run
our back against the wall
this shock treatment does not cure
as it’s supposed to
Only reduces sustained intellectual effort
and turns poets into dogs

When he was finally released, he wrote that ‘life no longer provides means for poetry, I am caught within my mind. And it is not enough. With the shock treatments and drugs. It never was, even before.’ In the aftermath, he struggled to hold onto ‘what fragments of mind are left, what gain there is from the prize that is the poem’.

During his hospitalisations he wrote to various friends begging for help, asking Philip Whalen in 1960 to ‘please exert force with Wystern forces to free poor Pip imprisoned behind China’s walls’. His friends did help. In between hospitalisations, he spent time in New York with Diane di Prima and Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), and renewed his friendship with O’Hara, whom he had met in 1956 at the Cambridge Poets’ Theatre – O’Hara was acting in John Ashbery’s The Compromise, or Queen of Caribou, and Wieners was stage manager. Wieners remembered a night with O’Hara and Jack Spicer in his ‘dreadful room infested with roaches … while I read my poetry in the humid summer evening of Beacon Hill, the both of them wept through the incipient rain and electric-charged air’.

In 1961, Wieners received a Poetry Foundation grant which allowed him to print a final issue of Measure. He moved to New York, where he worked at the Eighth Street Bookshop and posed for one of Andy Warhol’s screen tests (Warhol was a fan of the Wentley poems). The city was overwhelming, and by autumn 1963 he had to return to the family home outside Boston: ‘the tomb of middle-class America’, as he called it. ‘Tonight, I sit in the same bed I did as a child. The white sheets are on the bed. The old mother lies in the same room. The old blondes wait on the same corner … The old scars heal. Bones have lengthened and elongated from benzedrine. But the structure stays the same.’ He felt ‘like a jaded movie star/who missed the big-time/and ended up mopping floors’. A grant for $300 went ‘on perfume and shoes’. His letters show he kept up with his reading – Carl Jung, Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions – and went to hear T.S. Eliot read at Boston College, claiming afterwards that ‘the only poem he [Eliot] showed any enthusiasm for was a dog poem called Morgan.’ He tried to retain – or regain – the sanctification poetry offered:

John’s a slattern from the middle-classes,
in his old wrapper,
half-man, half-woman.
His feet bare, caked with dirt
but still some elegance remains, from another century.

In 1965 Wieners wrote to Olson that ‘my mind is coming back slowly, I can tell. The inner voices make sense now. They no longer tell me to do irrelevant things or contradict each other.’ With care, the mind’s grammar can be reconstructed, and ‘one can take a chance and leap out, not compulsively as before, but with more surety, when there is rhyme in the mind’s question, not confusion or chaos, the handwriting holds.’ Poetry meant psychic coherence and was the grounds on which it could be constructed. He was well enough to join Olson as a performer at the Festival of the Two Worlds in Spoleto in 1965, where they promenaded with an enfeebled Ezra Pound, and at the legendary Berkeley Poetry Conference the same year. His letters from this period are full of excitement – ‘some fag in heaven must be working for me’ – as he contemplates the Keats-Shelley memorial and vistas of international fame.

The return to the US, and to a teaching job at the State University of New York at Buffalo, brought him back to earth with a crash. Olson, in mourning after the sudden death of his wife, Betty, left town two weeks into the new term, and Wieners was unsuited to life as an adjunct. He made plans to fall down the stairs at a dog track to claim some insurance money; soon, he found himself back in Central Islip hospital, where ‘I sleep in an old oaken bucket with about 75 drugged, tranquilised slaves and am a nervous wreck.’

The letters document the routines of the state hospital, his boredom, loneliness and frustration, which culminated in one of his best works, ‘Children of the Working Class’ (1972). The poem attends to those ‘whom you may never see’, who are ‘locked in Taunton State Hospital and other peon work farms/drudge from morning until night, abandoned within destitute crevices/ odd clothes’, and ends:

Yes life was hard for them, much more hard than for any blo
ated millionaire, who still lives on
their hard-earned monies. I feel I shall
have to be punished for writing this,
that the omniscient god is the rich one,
cared little for looks, less for Art,
still kept weekly films close for the
free dishes and scandal hot. Some how
though got cheated in health and upon
hearth. I am one of them. I am witness
not to Whitman’s vision, but instead the
poorhouses, the mad city asylums and re-
lief worklines. Yes, I am witness not to
God’s goodness, but his better or less scorn.

His lyrical self-regard here expands to encompass not just ‘Whitman’s vision’ but the scorn of God for the ‘persons who felt they were never given a chance, had n-/o luck and were flayed at suffering’. He wrote to Olson in 1966: ‘We Americans are so savage, better that I only can be hurt by them’.

As Stewart points out, Wieners’s letters portray an era of ‘great confusion, suffering, and creative breakdowns and breakthroughs … many of their circle – especially the homosexuals – had been hospitalised, and everyone knew the fear and desperation Wieners was feeling.’ As Amiri Baraka put it: Wieners was ‘Very disturbed (??) And that’s a terrible way to try to say it. Disturbed??? Like who isn’t?’ His incarceration in state asylums coincided with the anti-psychiatry movement; after his release he became more involved in queer and political activism. In the early 1970s, he taught at the Beacon Hill Free School, a kind of anti-university with a more horizontal structure of pedagogy than Black Mountain. He took a road trip to the Democratic National Convention and attended meetings of Boston homophile groups. But he continued to feel under siege – ‘because it is September … and school has commenced at Harvard,’ he wrote to Ginsberg in 1973, ‘men going around uncovering my brains in men’s bodies.’

During his worst periods, Wieners lashed out at his friends; Robert Creeley and his wife were a particular target. He wrote letters to Creeley and Creeley’s head of department at the University of New Mexico, alleging torture, murder, sexual assault, transplantation of organs and dismemberment, signing himself ‘the Hereditary Grand Duke Prince Jean of Luxembourg and “His” Royal Highness, crown prince Felix, of the Imperial and Royal House of Austria and Hungary’. Wieners later apologised: ‘I have been under the delusion of being about fifty persons. I have given them all up and am now ready for the next fifty.’

The inner voices continued to tell a compelling story, and as he got older, Wieners opened himself to the possibilities of becoming those beautiful Hollywood actresses whose glamorous lives could replace his own. ‘I have a woman’s/mind in a man’s body,’ he said, and played with gender identity even when it might have put him in danger (on one occasion in 1955, ‘all gadded out in high heels’, he sat on a farmer’s lap in a rural bar in North Carolina). His poems explore forms of celebrity femininity: he writes about the heartaches of Joan Crawford, Jane Fonda and Bette Davis; imagines Barbara Hutton taken in a white silk crib to the White House followed by five hundred devotees; pictures Marlene Dietrich moving ‘majestically down the avenue to guard over/the war-torn refugees, waifs who lined the house’. Barbara Stanwyck is ‘a watchful, ever abundant woman, with the greatest sympathy for the sensitive, easily oppressed individuals in our society’. Not once ‘in the thousand times we have met’ has Elizabeth Taylor refused him anything. Rita Hayworth entertains his ‘attempts to conduct myself as an adult’ as they go around town together. He was arrested in 1969 for forgery, telling a friend ‘I thought I was Loretta Young,’ and later for impersonating Ethel Kennedy at an airport.

These female figures, like the Virgin Mary, are immaculate protectors. But Wieners was also aware of their repressive function. ‘The false glamour they create is often a lure to the overworked and underpaid. The excess I speak of occurs in the fields of medicine and hospitalisation, where traitors to the United States possess power to defraud and bungle the orthodox recognition of errors and illegality within the processes of maturation and self expression.’ A description of Ava Gardner’s living room in Madrid, with its ‘proper paintings, the correct books’, leads him to wonder: ‘Unsterile, who would this photograph have been taken for,/if not to titillate our collages in the frames, our poverty-starved suites?’

In later years, Wieners was the legend of Joy Street, a genteel figure whom Eileen Myles remembers seeing under the awning of the Harvard Co-op, or in the Grolier Poetry bookshop. I heard him read twice: once, having turned up several hours late, in a church on Beacon Hill, at a reading organised by Ed Sanders, the editor of Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. His voice was reduced to a reedy whisper, but we leaned in. In a recording made at Creeley’s Harvard poetry class in 1972 he reads ‘The Acts of Youth’. Before he begins, he says: ‘Olson didn’t like line seven.’ The poem is a torch song, but it is also a work of social critique and an expression of desire for some sort of transcendence. Here is the first half (and it’s best if you can hear it in his Boston accent):

And with great fear I inhabit the middle of the night
What wrecks of the mind await me, what drugs
to dull the senses, what little I have left,
what more can be taken away?

The fear of travelling, of the future without hope
or buoy. I must get away from this place and see
that there is no fear without me: that it is within
unless it be some sudden act or calamity

to land me in the hospital, a total wreck, without
memory again; or worse still, behind bars. If
I could just get out of the country. Some place
where one can eat the lotus in peace.

For in this country it is terror, poverty awaits; or
am I a marked man, my life to be a lesson
or experience to those young who would trod
the same path, without God

unless he be one of justice, to wreak vengeance
on the acts committed while young under un-
due influence or circumstance. Oh I have
always seen my life as drama, patterned

after those who met with disaster or doom.
Is my mind being taken away me.
I have been over the abyss before.

The audience laughs during the lines about a vengeful god, and he is grateful, saying afterwards: ‘You do that to make money!’ In recovery and reconciled with Creeley, he wrote a statement for the class, describing poetry as ‘the most magical of all the arts’, which, like the Virgin Mary or the Hollywood stars, creates ‘a lifestyle for its practitioners that safeguards and supports them’. As time went on he wrote less poetry and did fewer readings. Not many letters remain from this later period. The last one in the volume, from 1997, is a Christmas card for Robin Blaser, wishing him ‘a remunerative year/ahead’ and commending him on his two-volume edition of the works of Tatum O’Neal.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences