previous chapter
"How Is It Far If You Think It?"
next part

"How Is It Far If You Think It?"

Selected Poems, 1958–1984 , by John Wieners. Edited by Raymond Foye. Foreword by Allen Ginsberg. Illustrated. 317 pp. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1986.

The poetry of John Wieners has an exceptionally human beauty—as if there ever were any other. There is in it such a commonness of phrase and term, such a substantial fact of a daily life transformed by the articulateness of his feelings and the intensity of the inexorable world that is forever out there waiting for any one of us. Charles Olson spoke of it as "a poetry of affect," by which I took him to mean a poetry that is the process of a life being lived, literally, as Keats's was, or Hart Crane's, or Olson's own. In other words, the art becomes the complex act of "making real" all that one is given to live, and whatever in them may be style or fashion, the poems are so otherwise committed, so intensely a gesture of primary need and recognition, that their survival becomes the singular value, and their immense beauty.

Yet Raymond Foye, the editor of Mr. Wieners's "Selected Poems," gives apt warning to those who would try to reduce them to the life all too simply. Two interviews with Mr. Wieners, given as "appendices . . . in lieu of an introduction," are very moving in their detailing of what happened, so to speak—of relations with mother and father and peers, of homosexuality and mental hospitals. Yet the poems are neither explained nor contained by such information:


Five hours later and
I come into a room
where a clock ticks.
I find a pillow to
muffle the sounds I make.
I am engaged in taking away
from God his sound.

Those lines were written by a 24-year-old man from Boston, living in a classic residential hotel, the Hotel Wentley in San Francisco, on June 15, 1958. "The Hotel Wentley Poems," published that year, is a work of consummate power, terrifying in the complex clarity with which it defines the so-called facts of life, or of love:

And I come to this,
knowing the waste, leaving

the rest up to love
and its twisted faces
my hands claw out at
only to draw back from the
blood already running there.

Allen Ginsberg, whose perceptive foreword to the Selected Poems is a very useful qualification of Mr. Wieners's authority, had published Howl in 1956. Jack Kerouac's landmark On the Road came out the next year and in 1958, along with John Wieners's first book, came books by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, and Gregory Corso. By 1960 primary texts by virtually every crucial poet of the period had appeared, including Frank O'Hara, Robert Duncan, Paul Blackburn, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, Philip Whalen and Charles Olson (whose significant call to order, "Projective Verse," was issued as a pamphlet in 1960 by LeRoi Jones's Totem Press). The change effected in the audience for poetry by Donald M. Allen's anthology, The New American Poetry (1960), had already taken place in the writing, and one of its most emblematic heroes (as James Dean might invest such a term, or Bob Dylan) is John Wieners, "pure poet," as Mr. Ginsberg says, "a man reduced to loneness in poetry, without worldly distractions—and a man become one with his poetry." In the brutal outrage of the late 1950s, when one could pick up a government bulletin at the post office on the home manufacture of a bomb shelter, Mr. Wieners's painful survival in words became our own: "At last. I come to the last defense." There was nothing else to shelter or protect him.


Time and again during the sixties one wondered, worried, whether he could make it. How specious such simply charitable impulse looks in retrospect. He was there, he stayed there—as Olson once said, "he's elemental ." His writing of this time is various, often magnificent, in poems such as "Act #2," "A Poem for Trapped Things," "Strange," and in those poems—"Ode on a Common Fountain" and "For Marion" among them—that ring curious changes on Augustan patterns. But whatever one would hope so to qualify becomes unequivocally clear in "The Ages of Youth," a great poem of life's implacable realities and the will committed to suffer them:

       Give me the strength
to bear it, to enter those places where the
great animals are caged.

The parallel to that is "My Mother," "talking to strange men on the subway," with its wry caring, its subtle commonness:

   She says in an artificial
        voice: Oh, for Heaven's sake!

as if heaven cared.

If poetry might be taken as a distance, some space from the action, relief from the crowd, or if its discretions, what it managed to leave out, avoid, get rid of, were its virtue, then all these poems would be in one way or another suspect. They are far closer to a purported Chinese apothegm I read years ago and continue to muse on: "How is it far if you think it?" I don't truly know. It doesn't seem to be far at all. Nor do these poems, any of them, seem ever some place else, or where they move apart from an agent, either of feeling or thinking. They're here, as we are—certainly a hopeful convention in all respects, but where else to meet?

One continues, therefore, with all the complexity evident, into the seventies, the eighties. Mr. Ginsberg summarizes: "Parallel with State Capitol [Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike , a Wieners volume published in 1975] a number of poems of complete loneliness emerge, with various definitions of poetic friendship, rejection of false fame, estimates of the condition of middle and old age occupied by solitary art. . . . Then Wieners fell into eight years of relative silence, curtly telling his friends 'Poetry is not on my calendar' and 'I am living out the logical conclusion of my books.' And these were out of print." Paradoxically he is never gone, not the poet of "With Meaning":


Rise, shining martyrs
over the multitudes
for the season of migration
between earth and heaven.

Rise shining martyrs
cut down in fire
and darkness,
speeding past light
straight through imagination's park.

Nor is the harsh clarity of "Two Years Later" ever forgotten:

The hollow eyes of shock remain
Electric sockets burnt out in the

The beauty of men never disappears
But drives a blue car through the

We read together years ago at the 92nd Street Y in New York, with its great velvet curtain, raised stage. John remembered hearing Auden read there and was moved that now we would. He was thrilled that one might so follow, and so we did. But now, in these times so bitterly without human presence, risk, care, response, he becomes the consummate artist of our common voice, and his battered, singular presence our own.


previous chapter
"How Is It Far If You Think It?"
next part