On the Poetry of John Wieners

Dominic Hale

Edited by Avani Udgaonkar

Art by Figgy Guyver http://www.instagram.com/themineralfact/

In 2015, a new edition of John Wieners’ (1934-2002) selected poems was published by Seattle’s Wave Books in the US, and by Enitharmon Press in Europe. Supplication collects work from as far back as 1958 by one of the more inimitable, underrated, and devastating American poets of the last century, a writer who allies an almost anachronistic queer lyric abject to the hopeful projectivist experimentation of Charles Olson. Having studied at Black Mountain College and lived in Boston, New York, and San Francisco, Wieners is variously grouped with the Black Mountain, Beat and New York poets, and the San Francisco Renaissance, his writing often apparently overshadowed by better known figures such as Olson, Frank O’Hara, and Allen Ginsberg. This is a great shame. When set alongside a radical politics and praxis anathema to the neoliberal academy, and an experimentalism that repels classification, it’s evident why Wieners isn’t a widely taught writer. He ought to be, in my opinion, one of the most popular poets of the post-war period, and I’m profoundly grateful for his work’s courage, delicacy, and strength.

By the time of the publication of Behind the State Capitol: Or Cincinatti Pike (1975) through the Good Gay Poets collective, Wieners’ was a poetry and a poetics which had become vitally informed by his activist work, having organised in Boston with the Mental Patients’ Liberation Front and the Gay Liberation Front. Throughout his life, Wieners struggled with addiction, living sometimes in poverty, and was incarcerated on several occasions in monstrous psychiatric institutions. Consequently, writing in his afterword to the British edition of Supplication, the poet and critic John Wilkinson observes how, as a “working-class Catholic from a Boston suburb”, Wieners could not “share in a patrimony apt to stage psychic distress as a symptom of cultural refinement assailed by vulgarity, as Robert Lowell could” (189). Therefore, Wilkinson holds, Wieners’s poetry “definitively eschews irony — its camp is an idiom of transformative identification” (188).

In 1972’s “C H I L DREN OF THE WORKING CLASS”, Wieners is unable to assert a materialist prospectus for being numerous and various under late capitalism beyond the apparent facility of Whitman’s transcendental self, and must terminate in witnessing lament, an angel of history:


[…] 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.(54-58)


Writing from confinement in Taunton State Hospital, Wieners can’t accede that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”, that the poet may “contain multitudes”, when our desires and experiences are so separate and separately beset in white supremacist, heterocentric America (Whitman, “Song of Myself”, 3, 1326). But he has to believe that we can and must find a way to live together on the earth. Poetry might indicate how, for, as “A Poem for Tea Heads” insists, “The poem | does not lie to us” (14-15). So, he supplicates to it, imploring poetry “to cure | the hurts of wanting the impossible”, to strip away utopian delusion but not withhold inner salvation or consolation from the oppressed (“Supplication”, 10-11).

And here are the last lines of Wieners’s “The Acts of Youth”, a lyric collected originally in 1964’s Ace of Pentacles, and a staggering benediction to the fortitude of the human spirit, both in isolation and mutuality:


Pain and suffering. Give me the strength

to bear it, to enter those places where the

great animals are caged. And we can live

at peace by their side. A bride to the burden


that no god imposes but knows we have the means

to sustain its force unto the end of our days.

For that it is what we are made for; for that

we are created. Until the dark hours are done.


And we rise again in the dawn.

Infinite particles of the divine sun, now

worshipped in the pitches of the night. (33-43)


Welling in these stanzas is the luminous will to go on against the “burden” of “Pain and suffering”, and a dogged belief in the collective existential possibility of humankind (36, 33). It resolves to “live | at peace”, because “we can” (35-36). So, to read that we are or could be “Infinite particles of the divine sun” from a poet who celebrated, in The Hotel Wentley Poems (1958), the damaged life of state-persecuted LGBTQ+ communities, sex workers, addicts, and the mentally ill, is a suffered miracle, not a howl or a whimper (42). And there remain dear fragments to exult in despite the world, for the poet and his friends “can go | in the queer bars w/ | our long hair reaching | down to the ground and | we can sing our songs”, as “A Poem for Cock Suckers” affirms (1-5). In “II Alone”, Wieners writes of being


Sustained by poetry, fed anew

by its fires to return from madness,

the void does not beckon as it used to. (1-3)


For Wieners, poetry is deliverance and recovery, a way of paddling back to yourself in the supplicant’s act of reading and composing, even if that self is actively under systematic and structural threat from a hostile and violent society. To teach this to students who’ve come from all stretches of life, struggle, experience, and history is more vital now than it possibly has been for years, and will remain so “[u]ntil the dark hours are done” (“The Acts of Youth”, 40). In absolute defiance of capitalist and fascist alike, of abhorrent Tory and Trumpist, of those who will and do deport, immiserate, crush, exclude, and cut. And to interrupt academic infrastructure which too often does nothing but comply with and reproduce the inequities of the state. These are verses to tack under the feet of the nonconformist, the victimised and the lonely. Ginsberg, it seems, got it wrong. In Wieners’s poetry, the best mind of a generation survives. And we should learn from him.


Works Cited

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself”. Leaves of Grass. Edited by Jerome Loving. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Wieners, John. Supplication: Selected Poems. Edited by Joshua Beckman, CAConrad, and Robert Dewhurst. Enitharmon Press, 2015.

Wilkinson, John. Afterword. Supplication: Selected Poems, by John Wieners. Edited by Joshua Beckman, CAConrad, and Robert Dewhurst. Enitharmon Press, 2015, pp. 188-191.

About the author:

Dominic Hale grew up in Blackpool but now lives in Edinburgh. He recently started a PhD researching Wordsworth and late modernism.


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