back toJacket2

John Wilkinson

Chamber Attitudes

This piece is 6,800 words or about 12 printed pages long.

The name John Wieners appears in the indexes to many guide books for the Beat movement as well as in memoirs of the New York School and the more pedantic archivism devoted to Black Mountain. His biography does not appear in any of the several directories of gay writers — which is decidedly odd; neither have his Asylum Poems or others referring to psychiatric incarceration been reprinted alongside those of Anne Sexton for example. People who follow the available leads, could well be puzzled by the role of a Beat poet lacking all rambunctiousness; a New York poet of exquisite shyness, stranger to the cocktail circuit; and a Black Mountain poet more dedicated to heroin and anonymous gay sex than to diorite and glyph. The place of John Wieners is to be out of place, but admired, even envied for the extremity of his devotion to the poetic art; yet the absence of all reference to its products beyond a side-glance at The Hotel Wentley Poems as the most elegant artefact of beatnik aesthetic, begs a biographical explanation: perhaps he sank into a narcotic stupor and wrote nothing further? or cleaned up and abandoned poetry for a sensible career? or his later writing is simply too embarrassing to mention?

John Wieners was born in 1934 in Milton Massachusetts of Irish working class Catholic parents, educated at Boston College, and returned to Boston as its constant though errant bride until his death. He remained true to his poetic vocation through drug abuse and severe mental illness, not that such tribulation precluded political activism in movements associated with gay liberation, mental health system survivors, and local publishing and educational cooperatives and campaigning. Alongside his more temporary or tangential literary affiliations, Wieners belonged to a Boston literary scene where an important mentor for him and contemporaries such as Gerrit Lansing and Joe Dunn was another poet whose work is only now receiving due attention — the black, gay Poundian Stephen Jonas (1921 — 1970), also a resident of Beacon Hill, to whom Wieners paid tribute in his preface to Jonas’ first collection Transmutations (1966).[1] That Boston scene had an important poetic precursor in John Wheelwright (1897 — 1940), an aristocratic gay Christian socialist revolutionary, avowedly Bostonian rather than American, although his verse has more in common with Hart Crane than with his Boston contemporaries.[2]

One factor influencing the reception of Wieners’s earlier books was their eccentric publication; after The Hotel Wentley Poems none appeared from the house publishers of the US avant-garde. His next major collection, Ace of Pentacles, was published by the book dealers James F. Carr and Robert A. Wilson in New York in 1965 as a one-off enterprise; while Nerves (1970) and Selected Poems (1972) were published in England and consequently little known in the US. (Hence his death at the beginning of March 2002 prompted full newspaper obituaries only in the Boston Globe and the London-published Independent.) Even this does not account fully for the subsequent lack of attention. That this was to a degree courted is evident from the following response by Wieners in a 1984 interview with his editor Raymond Foye:

RF: Do you have a theory of poetics?

WIENERS: I try to write the most embarrassing thing I can think of.[3]

William Burroughs claimed in an interview ‘I say the most horrible things I can think of’, and these two statements of strategy point to affinities between the two writers to be discussed later. Meanwhile Ace of Pentacles affords much potential for embarrassment, although it may often be inadvertent. The first few pages run a bewildering stylistic gamut from the exaggeratedly formal:

Since winter froze your flowing summer sound,
   And dried your copper ducts of spring and fall,
You sheltered four have waited, wrapped and bound
   In ice, for March to loose your muffling shawl. [Etc.]
                                         ‘Ode on a Common Fountain’[4]

— to fin-de-siècle decadent symbolism to apophthegm to surrealism. Other poems include outtakes from The Hotel Wentley Poems, several showing evidence of the occultism prevalent in the circle around the Blavatsky-taught San Francisco poet Robert Duncan, and to which Wieners belonged briefly — although Catholic Mariolatry is a more frequent strain. Across all styles, drug use and gay sex are prevalent. The keynote of the sexual episodes is regret and yearning, their characteristic mise-en-scène post-coital; a tone distinct from the gay social round of Frank O’Hara’s poetry or the promiscuous abandon of Allen Ginsberg’s. Similarly the drug references have little in common with the psychic self-improvement then promoted by Timothy Leary; whilst numerous drugs are name-checked, the romance of heroin, associated with the easing of emotional pain and the courting of death, is all-prevalent. Billie Holliday’s name may not appear in this book, but she is everywhere (‘Tell me that may not rise again/ she sings still in our breath’) and she will remain the most constant presence in Wieners’s work.

It is difficult to select an Ace of Pentacles poem as typical, but ‘The Acts of Youth’ exemplifies (if not overstates) the typical stance, and opens with these stanzas:

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.[5]

The stance is passive yet the verse highly controlled, seeking resolution in formal grace and in stanzas of classical impersonality, but syntactically threatening always to break the bounds of the verse-form, reducing it to incoherence. The fear of mental illness and the references to hospital treatment recall the contemporary poems of the Boston writer Anne Sexton, but Wieners’s poetry differs from hers in important respects: his predicaments are represented as archetypal, rather than ascribed to damage incurred at the hands of malignly-motivated family members and psychiatrists. Comparisons could be drawn where the treatment of the mother is concerned; separation becomes the occasion for tenderness in the exquisitely poignant ‘My Mother’ in Ace of Pentacles,[6] while alienation in Sexton’s contemporary ‘Christmas Eve’,[7] an elegy for her mother, becomes the occasion for self-pitying and self-exculpating identifications. The ‘confessional’ in Sexton’s poems discloses the personal regardless of — or even so as to court — indignity:

I could admit
that I am only a coward
crying me me me
and not mention the little gnats, the moths
forced by circumstance
to suck on the electric bulb.[8]

This passage displays the quality of Sexton’s poetry in much the exaggerated way that the passage from ‘The Acts of Youth’ does that of Wieners. A moment of acute self-knowledge co-exists with a transcendently egotistical lack of self-knowledge, reducing lesser human beings to the status of the ‘little moths, the gnats’. Nothing can quite make up for this, but ‘to suck on the electric bulb’ displays Sexton’s strength, which lies in spots of language of an intensity reducing the surrounding matter with its endlessly announced intensity, to inconsequentiality. Sexton’s poetry is distinguished always by its finish; although she does not use inherited forms, every poem occupies its boundaries perfectly, and these boundaries are set by an all-powerful first person singular to whom language remains subservient as though to atone for the indiscipline of human beings. The Wieners passage is driven more by literary antecedents, particularly a half-buried and Baudelairian voyage trope,[9] and derives its force from rhythmic and semantic accumulation which can ingest the silly pun on ‘buoy’ unruffled, and plays with and against poetic form rather than laying down each line as a self-sufficient semantic unit.

Nevertheless, ‘The Acts of Youth’ would in 1964 have been and remains now a difficult poem to swallow in its paean to ‘pain and suffering’ as the royal road to ‘great art’ and its completely unironised performance of self-dedication, its yielding to the linguistic exactions which it launches and which then govern it ‘until the dark hours are done’. Reaching back to Baudelaire and to The City of Dreadful Night and further back to Beddoes, how anachronistic such writing must have looked to the inheritors of William Carlos Williams, whether Olson or Ginsberg, or to New Yorkers schooled in Dada and after. It says much for the generosity of these poets that so many declared their admiration for Wieners, if more often for his vocation than his achievements. And how unfamiliar such writing appears now; what is its relationship to modernism, to post-modernism, to new formalism, to Language poetry?


The 1970 collection Nerves and numerous poems uncollected before Raymond Foye’s 1988 work of retrieval, Cultural Affairs in Boston, deploy a typology of emotions, fixed and emblematic. This ahistorical and essentialist understanding of human relationships distinguishes Wieners’s poetry even more than its adherence to stanzaic form, from that of his Black Mountain mentors and friends; and in so doing, sets it aside from Anglo-American modernism, a defining characteristic of which has been a density of particulars. In Nerves Wieners’s poetry recapitulates the seventeenth century in the twentieth and with Behind the State Capitol will engross the eighteenth, but it is fundamentally pre-romantic in its view of human nature as fallen and as immutably so.

The core vocabulary of Nerves is highly restricted and chiefly abstract with the exception of vocabulary drawn from nature (including the cityscape), and of place names evoking nostalgia. The contrast with The Cantos or even The Maximus Poems is extreme, for in such a comprehensive work the abstract is deployed either with the force of theory (economic or geological, for instance) in order to bind and organise a dense array of particulars, or to throw an occasional line of common humanity to the reader.

While Charles Olson may have been Wieners’s acknowledged poetic father, the matrix from which Wieners was born as a poet was female and decidedly not modernist; through following this clue, the abstract but emotionally overwrought manner of his poems can then be traced further back to metaphysical poetry, and his warped songs to less strenuous models, especially Herrick.[10] In the Foye interview which prefaces Cultural Affairs in Boston, Wieners does not hesitate:

RF: Who are the early influences on your poetry?

WIENERS: Edna St. Vincent Millay was the first. Later it was Charles Olson.[11]

In an interview a decade earlier with the publisher of The Good Gay Poets and Fag Rag, Charley Shively, Wieners is more expansive:

SHIVELY: I’ve heard you talk before about your sources. Who were the earliest people that you cared for when you were in college just starting?

WIENERS: I cared for Edna St. Vincent Millay until the man I worked for in the catalogue department at Boston College Library told me Emily Dickinson was a far greater poet; that Edna was a bit too popular, too available, and I found that to be true. By the time I got to be thirty Emily Dickinson had transcended her. But she was my first poet. And then I liked all the women poets: Elinor Wylie, Sara Teasdale and H.D. as well, initially though anthologies.

SHIVELY: [...] It’s interesting that you responded first to women poets.

WIENERS: Yes, and to their observations of nature, to their love feeling and to an abbreviation of expression.[12]

It is not difficult to imagine the attraction Millay’s name held for the young Wieners; she had been the most glamorous, sexually-dangerous and famous poet since Byron. The heyday of her reading tours lay back in the 1920s when she epitomised female sexual emancipation for the press and her fans, but her decline towards her death in 1950 had a certain Sunset Boulevard glamour too. Faded, half-forgotten female stars were to become a Wieners penchant. Millay anticipates Wieners’s antinomianism (as well as, unexpectedly, his use of heroin — in which she exceeded him and almost anyone else but Charlie Parker), and her poems share with his the characteristic of investing abstractions and received images with great emotional force. Millay gained poetic celebrity for her sonnets above all, and her sonnet XXV begins as follows:

That Love at length should find me out and bring
This fierce and trivial brow unto the dust,
Is, after all, I must confess, but just;
There is a subtle beauty in this thing,
A wry perfection; wherefore now let sing
All voices how into my throat is thrust,
Unwelcome as Death’s own, Love’s bitter crust....[13]

Millay’s poetry is closer to court poetry than Wieners’s; it is smartly turned out, deals with eternal themes of human desire, and often conveys an attractive note of drollery. At times though, as in the last couplet above, it gathers itself to memorable effect: after the droll ‘fierce and trivial’ and the self-reflexive ‘wry perfection’, the enactment by poetic form against the current of syntax to produce a violent penetration of the throat by ‘all voices’ against the current of song, a penetration associated with both death and love, and unavoidably a love-making which violates — this exploitation of the hand-me-down to deliver a complex emotional shock is remarkable. The poem’s combination of distance marked by knowingness, of faith in the resources of poetic tradition, re-animating the hackneyed and reverberating the flat, of emotional conviction, sexual frankness and post-Freudian frisson, marks it as precisely unmodernist; that it to say, it could have been written only out of a critical relationship with poetic modernism, a secession as principled as that of Wieners in favour of charged and historically resonant abstraction.

This is so not only where high emotion is concerned. From a late modernist perspective, the poems of Nerves appear most baffling when most disingenuous. Wieners’s ‘Melancholy’ begins:

Across the deep and brine
we’ll go, Tristan and his lass, a ho,

and sustains this manner to a final couplet of a complex simplicity reminiscent of Blake:

sturdy lass I’ll be for there,
and faint-hearted song you’ll whisper.[14]

The earlier poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, especially those collected in A Few Figs from Thistles (first complete edition, 1922), are doubtless the source of this manner rather than say, Yeats, and the comparison offered by the following passage could be multiplied:

Lass, if to sleep you would repair
   As peaceful as you woke,
Best not besiege your lover there
   For just the words he spoke
To me, that’s grown so free from care
   Since my heart broke![15]

Throughout A Few Figs from Thistles Millay twists tropes inherited immediately from W.H. Davies and Walter de la Mare and further back from Herrick and from folk tradition, in the interests of a sexual bouleversement where the female leads in dalliance. Wieners’s variant goes further in turning gender-dissolute, and in playing with the figures of tragedy where Millay prefers classical and folk stock figures. Millay’s tone is consciously modern if her style is unmodernist, both being bright and clear: ‘Melancholy’ on the other hand becomes bizarrely scrambled, deploying poetic phrases with little regard to literal meaning (‘up the brine, down the glen’ suggests Wieners neither knows nor cares what ‘brine’ or ‘glen’ might mean), and more interested in the emotional charge of the obscurely simple which in nursery rhyme presents to all children the peculiarity of poetic language.

Such a familiar and strange quality, at once artificially poetic and emotionally pressured, distinguishes unmodernist writing at its most powerful, and corresponds to Wieners’s approval of an ‘abbreviation of expression’ in the female poets who influenced him when he started to write — an influence which continued to mark his verse distinctively from Black Mountain and New York contemporaries. In Nerves it leads to the extreme elision shown in ‘Desperation’ and elsewhere, for instance:

More fierce cunning of the mind
That invents its own breaking
To seek then resort to blind — [16]

or to quiet resonance of ‘Determination’ which describes poetry as:

Activity of one’s own,
much as Mother’s bedroom
or twilight, Sunday evening
when one’s parents feel old.

Wieners’s adherence to the unmodernism of Millay despite his debts to Olson and O’Hara, made possible a sophisticated verse independent of irony, and of disproportionate claims for the social and ideology-shaping efficacy of verse.


Wieners wrote in this manner until at least the mid-1970s, at the same time that much of his writing had seemed to take a very different turn. To recapitulate, the factors most salient for Wieners’s lyricism are his Catholicism, his early infatuation with the poetry of Edna St Vincent Millais, and his fraught gay sexual identity. These influences translate into a poetry of deeply felt abstractions and symbols, yearned-for and feared, of nostalgia both for their realisation in transcendental moments and for the fullness of subsequent guilt; then increasingly a poetry of betrayal — betrayal by whatever ameliorates the poet’s isolation, whether sex or poetry or the glimpses of glamour in the gossip magazines which became his daily reading material. But even in his most outré volume, Behind the State Capitol, the poetry of nostalgia and formal grace remains, despite being swathed in seemingly extraneous material.

The poem ‘Larders’, published as a broadsheet in 1970, is a fine instance of Wieners’s combination of formal elegance and control with an urgency threatening to break its banks, handled with more restraint than in ‘The Acts of Youth’. An elongating line is characteristic, as though poetic form struggles to encompass the affective build-up. Characteristic too are the smudges on the surface, moments of clumsiness here prominent in the middle two lines of the final stanza, much as in ‘The Acts of Youth’ the fourth stanza evinces the awkwardness of ‘those young who would trod’. Only in The Hotel Wentley Poems did Wieners permit himself to strive for the immaculate, achieving in their revised form a chamber-music of perfect, almost stilted prosody. Elsewhere the smudge on the lyric at once celebrates and deprecates poetic artifice, drawing attention to it while witnessing an authenticity of lived experience exceeding poetic compass — until the category of lived experience itself started to come apart.


Oh, the night beckons so
as young children sleeping
in another room; the night beckons
so as a dinner party on the floor

up near Columbia in a large apartment
house; the night beckons as a teacher
holding forth on Greek in a house on Long Island
for the weekend; cocktails at lunch.

My favorite feelings; a weekend in the country,
perhaps a long walk by the river, or
adolescent memories of a metropolis, the standard
usage prepared; perhaps Third Avenue in the 50’s

where admen go to drink afternoons away and sometimes the
evening; yes the night beckons so as Walt Whitman’s
line, what he predicted in San Francisco or New York;
Boston seldom, too many Irish strays to ever cause

a revolution; the night beckons nonetheless and I am
lost within its wilderness with only the brains of friends to
relay, for a way home into the kitchen, where the food is,
but where my parents sit before, guarding the hoard.

‘Larders’ opens with two beautifully-composed stanzas whose movement is reproduced at greater amplitude in the following three stanzas; the sonic punctuation of ‘cocktails at lunch’ at the end of the second stanza, tacking down the rhythm just after it threatens to fly away in the elongated and enjambed lines ‘as a teacher | holding forth on Greek in a house on Long Island | for the weekend’, is paralleled in the way the final phrase of the poem, ‘guarding the hoard’, reins back the runaway lines immediately preceding it. This prosody proclaims an ambiguity performed by the poem at several levels and consonant with the surface smudging. A first reading of the poem might succumb to the relay (to use Wieners’s word) performed by desire for the night and an insistent forward impetus, although the ambiguity of the little word ‘as’ tends to snag — does ‘as’ at the start of the second line and thereafter mean ‘like’ or ‘while’, a decision which significantly revises the agency of the night? Reading ‘like’ for ‘as’ would associate the night with the world of normal sociability and family — a yearning often expressed in Wieners’s poetry and unaffected by anti-bourgeois posturing: the night would stand for the irrecoverable of the past and the irreproducible in the future, from all of which his poetic vocation has alienated Wieners. In this reading the hinge phrase is one which at first looks like a bizarre interpolation, ‘the standard | usage prepared’. The night forms in the gap of the simile — its beckoning is present while the comparative term is temporally distant. Once this phrase is understood as governing the memories of childhood and early student days, the phrase ‘My favorite feelings’ conjures up a counterfactual autobiography, a John Wieners who developed as his background, education and his country’s values of the time would have dictated. The ‘hoard’ then might be understood as the inheritance and nurture which parents guard in both senses — that is, they protect it but they refuse access to it, owing to the familial dynamics of love and alienation.

Reading ‘while’ for ‘as’ invests the night with more glamour than a status of exclusion necessarily attains — ‘beckons’ now becomes sexualised and regret for normality weakens. The ‘standard | usage prepared’ had been shadowed from early childhood by the alluring night, permitting no promise to be realised, neither personal nor social, as the references to Walt Whitman and to revolution betoken; but this destiny now attracts an affirmative cadence, striking its full note across the phrase ‘and I am | lost within its wilderness’. These alternate readings are braided in the poem and govern the position of the first person singular, as the regret and value ascribed to the spilt and the wasted govern Wieners’s poems up to the mid-seventies. The night is the shape of the self, the point between the regretted past and the yearned-for future which cannot be realised as the present. That gap is the ‘I’ at work in these shapely poems, housed in them. ‘Larders’ yearns for home, for houses, for shaped space to contain the I in its longings.

Another kind of writing by John Wieners rafts the present moment, and the only habitation it can conceive is fugitive, the hotel room, another persona, a snatch of music from a jazz improviser. When in present currency I breaks into transsexual figments, into fantasy hordes, chiefly female figures of glamour and wealth — Barbara Hutton, Jackie Kennedy, numerous movie stars: yet this is not écriture feminine, its tendency is at once towards abstraction and hectic in its compulsive adducing of evidence from printed scraps or private associations. The individual unconscious is afforded no play; these poems are animated by a flighty intelligence at work across a social unconscious which sustains it, or in linguistic terms, an individual voice which skitters across textual decoupages and is reshaped incessantly by the surfaces it crosses. The treatment of earlier, shapely verse as material for collage amongst fan-mags, newspaper stories and other stuff, is noteworthy; these agonised, tremulous poems are recycled as material for performance, lent to mockery and distortion, their introspection allowed no privilege. What Wieners lays down is a shifting pavement; lyric shape and body have been flattened into strips or layers, and the proxies for interior space are fantastic tableaux, peopled with part-selves flouncing in the pier-glasses, room service always available. This will-o’-the-wisp self, this stage improviser, escapes despair to revel in transience. The tacky, the ephemeral, the trivial, the self-indulgent release the self from its prison of nostalgia and yearning. Strikingly the poems invent a society-with-a-capital-S, concocting an exclusive society code where Jackie Kennedy’s circle intersects with Charles Olson’s and it is assumed everyone knows everyone else without introduction.

But there is a different side — collective and political — to the society poems. Essential to a reading of Wieners and to an estimate of his poetry’s worth is his vulnerable knowledge of the material substrate to his transcendentalism. In the earlier lyric poems this is allied to a homosexual trope of tenderness in sordidness, exemplified in the novels of Jean Genet and later of John Rechy, and to a self-laceration at the waste of life through use of drugs, a theme pervading the journal published in 1996 as The Journal of John Wieners is to be called 707 Scott Street for Billie Holiday 1959. In the later collage poetry this materialism interpolates political and economic facts with society verbiage, relating to Boston’s high society and the heiresses tracked by gossip columnists. High society, community, and collective forces in more abstract, conspiratorial depiction, these three pluralities supply the constitutive material for the later writing. This poetry is composed of chains and clang-associations, and holds to templates; it does not encourage reveries in the reader — rather, it shuts down and cools association, bites back the circumstances, and produces its own speaker, a macaronic first person composed of multiple voices and discourses but simultaneously their virtuoso. Something strange happens to these poems when read aloud, or perhaps when written down, for the compositional priority is impossible to determine: the ghosts of old formal poems may be visible behind accretions, or records of performance may have been tidied up for the page. At whatever point in this to-and-fro, when read by Wieners the poems sound improvised, alive in the voice and almost unimaginable without the voice, consistent with the persona of the interviews, quick, smart, wicked and poised. As with William Burroughs’ more orderly routines, the texts require an extrinsic presence to mobilise and infuse them, to add tone, to direct the phrase; but this is achieved not through vocal presence as guarantor of authenticity, but through a construction, a caricature personality — Burroughs the crackerbarrel philosopher from St Louis, the plain dealer, and Wieners the drag queen eschewing the illusion of authentic femininity, his drag always a collage of thrift-store oddities tacked onto an evidently male canvas.

Switching directly from this performance to a text from Behind The State Capitol — ‘Signs of the President Machine’ chosen with the voting machines of Florida in mind — and applying Wieners’s vocal style to an imaginary performance, tightens the score so that it seems to produce its speaker out of the ‘terms of language, love and fashion’.

Signs of the President Machine

I’ve got 25¢ coin on the bureau
or maple mahogany table, built out of
magnolia limbs, and a Persian carpet airing in lawn

yard a baby flood, TELVA magazines with my photograph on
the cover as Marilyn Monroe, jack dead mother’s nutty sister
saying, Who Is She, I’m A Lot of Man, by the late Nancy
                 Cunard of course

that pauvre Rose la Rose, Billie Shakespeare, or was it Sanctity’s
                                                 Holiday drugged as Moynihan across
behind a red lantern, ask Mme Brenda drinking torpid Gloucester
ide dutied United States Postmen, plastic transparent basket.

Poor Benedict posing as a Polish sister
I can feel his dope over the Hedges, wintergardening carol form
the Meirovingian corner besides
the master bedroom, the military treason in their acquisition
from accumulation in the United Feds prison of
not only food at Agriculture, but terms of language, love and

Pussybile, fresh from black George’s suicide at 86 Charles.

Oh. yes, a week of, a month of, two years moving shirts with
Treasury numbers
poor secretaries becoming international thieves, from failure
to absorb
newly hung curtains, encroaching plants and poisoned burners
on the stove coiled charcoal sexual yens in the dish dryer.

The poem’s first line initiates a notation of the present, to which words offer only an approximate fit — are we talking a bureau or a table, and is it of maple, mahogany or, ridiculously, ‘magnolia limbs’? The quarter proffered at the beginning might display any option in the presidential and linguistic fruit machine, or operate a callbox or a washing machine or drier. Telva magazines — a Spanish fashion and gossip title — introduce a melange of Wieners’s obsessions, ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Jack Kennedy (‘jack dead’) to Billie Holiday to, rather more buried in the text, Charles Olson — Olson’s father was a postman in Gloucester, Mass. and Olson wrote a memoir of him under the title ‘The Post Office’. Rose la Rose was a stripper, the owner of a well-known burlesque theatre in Toledo. Mme Brenda may perhaps be a drag queen. But enough: this assembles out of prior texts and the writer’s immediate surroundings — ‘plastic transparent basket’ sounds straight from a pocket ad in the Sunday Papers of yesteryear — a text which uncannily parallels ‘Larders’ in its movement, with ‘plastic transparent basket’ echoing the pause supplied by ‘cocktails at lunch’ in the earlier poem. The hero-worship of earlier poems’ references to Olson is replaced by an oblique accusation of poisonous patriarchy, preparing for the poem’s second half.

This draws on the literature of right-wing US conspiracy theorists; surfing after ‘Merovingian’ gives entry to a universe of anti-federalist material dedicated to frustrating the schemes of world government concocted by illuminati, masons, Knights Templar, the worldwide Jewish conspiracy, the Bilderberg Group or whatever. The misspelling of ‘Merovingian’ as ‘Meirovingian’ may reflect the anti-semitic genotype of this thought, evoking the name of Golda Meir, Israeli prime minister until 1974. Institutionalised treason and theft dominate the world view of the conspiracy theorists — taxation being their particular bogey — and Wieners cross-cuts this material with misogyny, with drug abuse and with ‘black George’s suicide’, a constellation reminiscent of William Burroughs in its integration of sexuality and narcotics into systems of capitalist control. As with Burroughs’ cutup technique, Wieners’s collage mobilises fortuitous effects as proxies for character and subjectivity: Burroughs deploys lay figures and mouthpieces to drive narrative, where Wieners recombines trash to produce faux lyrics complete with subjectivity-effect, their movement invested with a weirdly endogenous compulsion — the ‘terms of language, love and fashion’ being set into a sprightly motion as far removed as imaginable from the turgid screeds of conspiracy theories or the inert ephemera of Hello magazine and its international equivalents.

Such paranoid constructions in Burroughs and Wieners invite comparison with Ezra Pound. Pound sought clarification, whether in his stipulations for poetics or in his quest through historical records for the telling detail which would bring to light the structure of a sensibility, or the fundamental error responsible for the ills of the present day. Transcendence typically was expressed in flashes of intense and clear vision of isolated phenomena of the material world, spots of energy discharging entire historical-cultural formations. Such transcendence was achievable only through the poet’s will; through scholarship and through craft. The investment of labour was redeemed by moments of evident truth. Refusal in others to acknowledge what was made clear, had to be motivated by ignominious interests which worked through blurring and opacity. Granted, this attitude entailed a continuing struggle with a never-extirpated legacy of fin-de-siècle symbolist haze, and the sharp contours of modernism may be exaggerated in the service of academic territory-marking: nonetheless the proclamations are unambiguous.

For both Burroughs and the later Wieners, however, all terms of language, love and fashion embody controlling interests, and moments of transcendence and authenticity are to be mistrusted above all. Since the media of communication, language included, can neither be trusted nor bypassed, and that goes for the syntax whereby we apprehend our own agency, the best recourse for the writer is to relinquish illusions of originality and exceptionalism, splitting and ripping any vaunted integrity to reveal its partiality. But Wieners doubles back, employing trash materials including those of paranoid politics, to recreate lyric performance independent of individual self-contemplation. In ‘Signs of the President Machine’ the final stanza re-inscribes ‘the standard | usage prepared’ with no interest in inhabiting the gallery of normal snapshots paraded in ‘Larders’; looking back at the earlier poem from this vantage, its opening stanzas now present a sequence of publicity stills for a pastiche of life, the poem reverting only in its final stages to something recognisably vehement and painful. The pain pervading ‘Signs of the President Machine’ radiates through damage to immediate acquaintances, to tragic figures in popular culture, and to wage-slaves, and is inflicted mainly through betrayal. Betrayal might be personal as with Charles Olson, but the personal has been subsumed amidst media exploitation, food hoarding, corruption of workers, ‘sexual yens’, opiate dependency and grand conspiracy. Such a brew may be hellish, but also demonstrates that ‘terms of language, love and fashion’ can be liberated from their prison to enunciate their own lyric — this is detritus singing its own song, and the poet can be only its occasion.

The relationship between the early ‘As Preface to Transmutations’ and the late ‘Cultural Affairs in Boston’ is analogous to that between ‘Larders’ and ‘Signs of the President Machine’.[17] The verse portion of ‘As Preface to Transmutations’ was written soon after the first version of The Hotel Wentley Poems was published and shares its tone, but this has become mannered — the deftness is a little too arch, the marks of exclusion and election just too hip:

        Those old elms bend over
the street and form an arch
        that we walk under.
Sad priests in the 20th century.

The poem is addressed to the black Boston poet Stephen Jonas, and for the student of Boston poetry, has charm as an association piece. Dana was Wieners’s lover at the time, and Marshall probably refers to the Boston poet Edward Marshall, author of the impressive collection Helan, Helan. Jonas, by some years older than Wieners, seems to have marked out a path of damage and excess which Wieners determined to emulate — ‘6 months in Danvers’ refers to the Danvers State Insane Asylum, Wieners himself later being detained in Taunton State Asylum, part of the same Massachusetts system. But the poem’s professions of loss are unconvincing because damage here figures as initiation, much as in ‘The Acts of Youth’, and such anointing has become anachronistic; so the final lines on the indifference of the traffic intimate and the subsequent prose section records, with Scollay Square, the centre of the vice trade and the lawless romance of a great but decaying port, shortly to be redeveloped, and with the poetic nucleus dispersed.

But what if the question mark is reinstated at the end of the poem? ‘What traffic | drowns out | all our notes’?

‘Cultural Affairs in Boston’ responds to a magazine editor’s request for ‘work’ and opens with a riff on the meaning of literary work which articulates directly the rationale for such writing as ‘Signs of the President Machine’ — that is, to direct the traffic rather than pipe ineffectually on the road shoulder. In his high society guise, noblesse oblige, Wieners remarks ‘I like to hazard a guaranty a behavior-involvement would reduce the withholding circumstances, attributable to man’s position in society. For my servants, after all, the working man is not a dual-motivated hypothesis.’ Wieners seeks an ‘unearthing of one’s position’ in place of the imposition of that precious literary work which denies its community and spuriously asserts its independence from social determinants. The specification is to start from outside rather than within, eventually to unearth yourself as ‘another human person’ by working ‘outre-contradictionedly to employ yourself towards in words’. ‘Yourself’ then is a tool, an occasion, mobilised to provoke the contra-dictionary, while ‘in words’ implies that yourself exists out there linguistically, ‘repetitiously as a document’, needing and available to be brought home to the collective.

The second part of the text instantly contradicts this thesis: ‘Believe me, you can be nobody else, but who you are.’ But such contradiction serves the true work: who this writer might be, becomes confused in a whirl of ‘upperworld restoration’, a fantasy of luxury hotel life throwing into relief the conditions of labour and reproduction.

Hotels stage their guests historically and culturally, and as figures of power and influence; for Wieners, hotels also encourage a performative staging of gender. The performances are private, soliciting no applause from others, mobilising outré selves unable to survive off-stage — and for the very rich as well as for actors and actresses, even the way from the limousine to the lobby is canopied. Barbara Hutton required the support of immense invisible labour. In the hotel, scattered magazines compose the social world and demand continual study — ‘society’ as a paranoid system may be abstract and formal but demands an incessant study of detail, as readers of Proust understand. But for Wieners no detail can be numinous. The particular would allow nostalgia to rush back, as it does at the start of Du Côté de Chez Swann; in Wieners’s writing details crowd to the point of indecipherability, here and now. Here and now the questions may be: is this fashionable? chic? truly of the moment? But then the world of Barbara Hutton, and here and now the world of, let us say, Jemima Khan née Goldsmith, depend on robbery; fashion, corruption and violence are intimate in Boston and Hollywood, tarnishing the golden dome of the State Capitol, decaying the mask of make-up, turning tawdry the interior décor. But of course not. The commemoration of celebrities precedes them.

These secular churches, chapels of the stars, obliterate all sign of the distasteful workings of life. Their lure for Wieners lies in translation of the bohemianism of poverty into glamour. Hotels are crash-pads for the affluent, anti-domestic, places of assignation and anonymity or a choice of names and identity, ‘chamber attitudes’. The dedication to ‘unearthing’ in the text’s first section is guyed in the pronouncement ‘man can stand just so much exhumation’, and writing now becomes a therapeutic delight, ‘preparing against anxiety’. What fascinates Wieners is exactly what must be exposed, what is treacherous but remains desirable, whether poetry, drugs, sex, Hollywood starlets or hotels. All are criminally-implicated, and part two of ‘Cultural Affairs’ concludes like a crime report filed from the Albion hotel in Miami via A.P. (Associated Press).

The third section of ‘Cultural Affairs in Boston’ hits the road in a sort of anticipation of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, with a faggot band fleeing the Albion, presumably on a first leg en route to Boston. The notations are bewildering, snatches of high camp dialogue. No matter. Treat this as a road movie; the transitions between set pieces are often hard to follow. Section IV starts as though it will reproduce ‘As Preface to Transmutations’ but it parodies the original — abbreviated fake reminiscences centre on the glamorous Nico, Warhol superstar, model and musician. Although the capitalised word ‘CORANDEL’ is positioned as a final stop following a European tour in a progress through hotels, ‘Commodore, Commander, Cambridge’, it may allude to Mary Butts’s short story ‘Brightness Falls’ with its character Dr Corandel. John Ashbery’s description of Mary Butts’s prose sounds like ‘Cultural Affairs in Boston’ — he writes of ‘her startling ellipses, especially in conversations; her drastic cutting in the cinematic sense; and her technique of collaging bits of poetry and popular song lyrics ... into the narratives’.

Home leads to the Pantry, the larder where this adventure in reading Wieners began; the larder however is guarded no longer by the poet’s parents but releases a mid-century American Pandora’s box of middlebrow culture, from Rogers & Hammerstein to the Family Theatre, a long-time TV institution inaugurated and presided over by Father Peyton, a Holy Cross priest from South Bend, Indiana, unctuous interviewer of Rose Kennedy after the death of her two sons. Catholicism lies deep in this mix, compressed into the last word of the poem, ‘Spencerboy’, which conflates Spencer Tracy’s name with that of the movie ‘Boys Town’ where he starred as Father Flanagan alongside the delinquent Mickey Rooney. Another faux lyric, composed of ‘early Thanksgiving alloy | and silk sitting room for our Virgin Mary’, this final passage too rips up personal reminiscences (‘Norton Union’ is a student residence at SUNY Buffalo where Wieners enrolled in the graduate programme in the mid-60s) and sticks their fragments alongside style magazine cuttings. High society Catholicism is jostled in its gilt and alloy, its ‘sweet parlor’, through the incursion of ‘vanitate’, summoning the object of ascetic renunciation ‘De Vanitate Mundi’ — and false-rhyming with ‘imitate’. The entire verse passage is propelled by rhyme and false-rhyme which holds together its disparate elements so as to achieve another heterotrophic lyric, fretfully integrated and gratifyingly obscure.

The poetry of John Wieners through its different stages holds promise for a different kind of postmodernist poetry, drawing on the affective power of the post-Romantic lyric but fully implicated in the traffic, linguistic and otherwise, of the human collectivity.


[1] Jonas, Transmutations, Ferry Press, London 1966. The preface is reprinted in (ed. Foye) Wieners, Cultural Affairs in Boston: Poetry & Prose 1956-1985, Black Sparrow, Santa Rosa 1988: ‘As Preface to Transmutations’. pp31-33. The milieu is evoked in Raffael De Gruttola’s brief reminiscence published in Stephen Jonas, Three Poems, Rose Books, Berkeley 1989.

[2] See ed. Rosenfield, The Collected Poems of John Wheelwright, New Directions, New York 1983.

[3] John Wieners, Cultural Affairs in Boston: Poetry & Prose 1956-1985, ed. Raymond Foye, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa 1988, p15.

[4] John Wieners, Ace of Pentacles, James F. Carr and Robert A. Wilson, New York 1964, p11. Reprinted John Wieners, Selected Poems 1958-1984, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara 1986, p47.

[5] Ace of Pentacles p28, reprinted in Wieners, Selected Poems 1958-1984, p62.

[6] Ace of Pentacles p33, reprinted in Wieners, Selected Poems 1958-1984, p66.

[7] Anne Sexton, The Complete Poems, Mariner Books, Boston & New York 1999, pp139-140.

[8] from ‘Suicide Note’, The Complete Poems, p158.

[9] for instance, ‘Moesta et Errabunda’, ‘Lesbos’, Un Voyage à Cythèthe’, and ‘Le Voyage’.

[10] The relationship of Wieners to Charles Olson and Frank O’Hara, and of the latter two poets to each other, is the subject of an important essay by Andrea Brady based on new archival research. This will appear in a collection of essays on New Poetry of the 1960s and 1970s, publication details of which have yet to be announced.

[11] He goes on to say that in this lineage Charles Olson has been succeeded by the Virgin Mary. Wieners, Cultural Affairs in Boston, pp14-15.

[12] Wieners, Selected Poems 1958-1984, p296.

[13] Edna St. Vincent Millay, Collected Poems, Buccaneer Books, Cutchogue, NY nd, p585.

[14] Nerves, reprinted in Wieners, Selected Poems 1958-1984, p119.

[15] Final stanza of ‘The Merry Maid’, Millay, Collected Poems p145.

[16] Second stanza of ‘Love-Life’, Nerves, reprinted in Wieners, Selected Poems 1958-1984, p160.

[17] ‘Cultural Affairs in Boston’, in (ed. Foye) Wieners, Cultural Affairs in Boston: Poetry & Prose 1956-1985, Black Sparrow, Santa Rosa 1988, pp183-185

John Wilkinson, New York, 2004

John Wilkinson, New York, 2004

After a career in mental health services in the UK, John Wilkinson was appointed writer in residence at the Keough Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2005. His most recent publications are the book Contrivances (Salt, 2003) and the pamphlet Iphigenia (Barque, 2004). Salt will reissue his 1986 book Proud Flesh in late 2005.

February 2003  |  Jacket 21  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |
about Jacket | style guide | bookstores | literary links | 400+ book reviews |