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John Temple

Haven of the Heart: The Poetry of John Wieners

This piece is about 80 printed pages long.
It is copyright © John Temple and Jacket magazine 2007.

This article will be included in a book of essays by John Temple
to be published in 2008 by Untitled.

paragraph 1

Here the vast bed of the waters, seamed and scarred into a thousand conflicting channels, burst suddenly into phrensied convulsion — heaving, boiling, hissing — gyrating in gigantic and innumerable vortices.
                                                               — Edgar Allen Poe: ‘A Descent into the Maelström’

Process, Improvisation, Revision.


In his obituary for John Wieners (1934–2002) in the London Independent, Geoff Ward describes Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike (1975) as ‘one of the great books of the twentieth century, a two hundred page whirlwind of paranoid fury, hilarity, outrageous theatricality and ventriloquism’.[1] This amplifies his view that it is ‘a deranged masterpiece, at one and the same time the capstone of Wieners’ career and the book that would sink his reputation’.[2] The latter claim is cited by John Wilkinson in ‘A Tour of the State Capitol’, his recent introductory survey of Wieners’ poetry, which focusses in particular on Behind the State Capitol and Nerves (1970).[3] Together with ‘Chamber Attitudes’ (which seems to some extent to have been its earlier draft), Wilkinson’s article will be my point of entry to Wieners’ work, offering a frame of reference for several of the issues I wish to explore.[4]


Alert to Wieners’ insistence that Behind the State Capitol — in fact a mixture of prose and verse — should be considered as ‘a single work — a single poem’, Wilkinson allows that ‘this monstrous and magnificent book’ is ‘not exactly a collection of poems’. He endorses Ward’s praise for the book to the extent of calling it Wieners’ ‘crowning work’ and would seem to share the view of Wieners’ career expressed in the obituary: ‘His poetic career effectively finished at this point. It was not a case of unfulfilled promise but of a life’s work that developed rapidly and led with its own determined, internal logic to a natural conclusion.’ This conclusion is ‘the spectacular splurge of Behind the State Capitol [with] ‘its vortex of proper names and syllabic strings’, whose relationship with the ‘highly-charged economy of Nerves is ‘a first puzzle to contemplate’ in approaching it. (Tour 114)


‘Determined...logic’ evokes the author even as it personifies the ‘life’s work’ and may well be endebted to Wieners’ 1984 comment about ‘living out the logical conclusion of my books’.[5] The deeper equivocation in ‘determined’ points to a central question concerning Behind the State Capitol  — the degree and nature of control (or its absence) in the writing. The internal logic of Wieners’ oeuvre was indeed determined by the mental illness with which the poet struggled ‘for much of his life’ without, as Ward rightly indicates, ‘[exploiting] his condition’ as Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath had done. (Obit.) Yet a condition presenting or displaying itself in this non-exploitative way might encourage the sympathetic reader, familiar — and at ease — with the tenets of modernism, to overlook pathological content while granting the work aesthetic authenticity.


This is not in any way to suggest simple correlation between pathological content and poetic disfunction. The neo-classical critical platitudes of forty years ago — that ‘great poetry is greatly sane’ etc. — seem as remote in time as the first fine careless rapture of Dadaist ‘insanity’. Though he was discussing a specific example of ‘artistic purposiveness’, I also take Wilkinson’s general point that ‘the language of schizophrenia in poetic use could be consistent with the absence of schizophrenic process’ and its corollary that ‘the absence of the language of schizophrenia...may indicate active psychosis’.[6] The latter point may well apply to certain revisions of earlier poems, published in the U.K. in 1972 in Selected Poems. [7]


Lowell and Plath’s ‘more smoothly-turned declarations of suffering’ contrast, for Ward, with Wieners’ simple ‘reference to this burden’ in ‘Asylum Poems’ (1969). When the burden overwhelms the poetry in 1975, in Wieners’ first clearly ‘deranged’ book, it is an absence of the ‘smoothly-turned’ that seems of crucial value: ‘Wieners’ punishing and punished refusal to control his lyrical flights became a bequest to younger writers’.(Obit.) The ‘silence or alarm of those American writers of Wieners’ own generation who were now winning prizes’ is set against careful reading of the book by ‘British poets such as John Wilkinson’. Prize-winners from within the American avant-garde Wieners belonged to being few and far between at that time, the transatlantic comparison is only a glancing (though resonant enough) evocation of the ‘Cambridge School’, English late modernist divergence from a broader church of Anglo-American free-verse.


This context untangles other ellipses enforced by the space constraints of obituary. The equivocal syntax, expanding a bequest of lyrical abandon to include a ‘punishing and punished refusal’, serves to reminds us that, whereas the beneficiaries’ principled eschewal of easy popularity was grounded in conscious pursuit of modernist ‘difficulty’, that of Wieners himself became enmeshed in difficulty — indeed ‘difficulties’ — much more personal in nature. The spectre haunting Wilkinson’s well-argued distinction between Wieners’ ‘modernism’ and ‘unmodernism’ is the distinct likelihood that ‘refusal to control his lyrical flights’ was — in truth — substantially an inability to do so. The potential price of such haplessness is hinted at in Ward’s, ‘in person he was a shy and gentle man, courteous in an old-fashioned way, though with the same verbal flights and gifts of the poetry’ and is more directly evident in the poet’s own words: ‘A quart of champagne, one pill too many/ and a paper from the state saying I am “a mentally ill person”...// If I tread the straight and narrow/ I should no trouble, do what’s/ expected of me, realize my friends/ are not my enemies, and get rid of// them both...’. (‘Does His Voice Sound Some Echo in Your Heart’, (Behind the State Capitol 155) [8]


To the extent that refused control itself implies a form or measure of control, it finds an echo in Wilkinson’s comments on both the form and content of Behind the State Capitol. In ‘Chamber Attitudes’ Wieners’ earlier ‘poetry of nostalgia and formal grace [persisting] until at least the mid-1970s, at the same time that much of his writing had seemed to take a very different turn’ is distinguished from ‘another kind of writing... [which] rafts the present moment...the only habitation it can conceive is fugitive, the hotel room, another persona, a snatch of music from a jazz improviser.’ This distinction appears to segregate the last two terms of Ward’s description of Wieners’ work: ‘a new candour regarding sexual and drug-induced experience co-existed with both a jazz-related aesthetic of improvisation and a more traditional concern with lyric form’. (Obit.)


The jazz improviser’s split-second controlling choices shadow those of the helmsman who, helped by our variously residual or energetic paddle-work, will see us through the bumpy stretches of white water. That the writing is really writing itself and the raft a sort of freshwater Marie Celeste, is naturally a Blavatskian rapids too far, though not so very distant from Wilkinson’s conclusion that ‘Signs of the President Machine’’s hellish but (self-) liberating brew ‘enunciates [its] own lyric — this is detritus singing its own song, and the poet can be only its occasion’. If this seems to contradict the claim (based on Wieners’ metaphor) that ‘the rationale for such writing is to direct the traffic rather than pipe ineffectually on the road shoulder’, both statements can be viewed more constructively, as the operating parameters of what they invoke; the collage and ‘cut-up’ technique of Wieners’ later poetry.


In tone however, the second relates more problematically to Wilkinson’s detection of ‘a different side — collective and political — to the society poems’ in Behind the State Capitol. (Chamber Attitudes) Although lent support by Wieners activism in communitarian and sexual politics throughout the seventies, this claim is to some extent a reverse image of the view that the earlier verse of ‘nostalgia and formal grace’ is ‘independent of... disproportionate claims for the social and ideology-shaping efficacy of verse.’ Despite the disarming force of ‘disproportionate’, I will try to argue the limits — and possibly the limitations — as I see them, of both assertions.

 —    ¶    —


Integrating a new strand of political concern into Behind the State Capitol in the face of evident textual disintegration involves recourse to a metaphor connoting both radical upheaval and formal containment, the latter designed to validate the book’s status as a ‘unified’ long poem. As noted above, it is a ‘whirlwind’, a ‘vortex of proper names’. Indeed, as modernist work it descends from Gaudier-Brjeska’s ‘vortex of will, of decision’ and sweeps us off as uncontrovertibly as Dorothy was swept off to the Land of Oz.[9] The implied formal claim buttresses Ward and Wilkinson’s shared view of Wieners’ career, with Behind the State Capitol and Nerves its twin peaks, representing the long poem and lyric respectively. Nerves for Ward, ‘shows Wieners at the height of his powers’ (Obit.) while Wilkinson — insisting that focus on the former ‘does not imply a lower estimate of earlier Wieners books’ — sees Nerves as ‘the bedrock of any case for Wieners’ greatness as a lyric poet’. (Tour 115)


Whatever its merits or limitations, the dual-genre approach encourages meditation on what ‘a jazz-related aesthetic of improvisation’ might imply. It is easy to see an analogue for writing which ‘rafts the present moment’ in Charlie Parker and the later style of John Coltrane (not least in the latter’s intense self-communing and expansiveness-flirting-with-longueur) or in the calculated cacophony of other sixties ‘New Music’ jazz. On the other hand, the more controlled lyrical flights of Lester Young and — more especially — Billie Holiday’s melodic invention in rephrasing the familiar, clearly had deeper influence on Wieners’ career-long and apparently obsessive habit of written revision; a compulsion to ‘make new’. The early poem-title, ‘With Mr. J.R. Morton’ also brings to mind jazz improvisation’s origins within ensemble, partly-’scripted’ playing.


Beyond analogy, Behind the State Capitol provides an interplay of revision and performative improvisation:


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 record of performance may have been tidied up for the page. (Chamber Attitudes)


Whatever the rationale of dual modalities in a ‘deranged masterpiece’ (Wilkinson speaks of Behind the State Capitol in instinctively performative terms) similar channel-switching is likely to be more unsettling in an outwardly conventional collection of poems. Amidst more eye-catching revisions in Wieners’ second and last U.K. publication, Selected Poems (1972) are hints of a self-communing notation for reading performance.


That book’s attractive and traditional presentational layout meanwhile (in total contrast to Behind the State Capitol) implies that its revisions of poems from earlier collections be judged simply as such. They are frequently consistent with a modernist desire for verbal economy and the related aim of ‘tautness’ (a point I will return to) announced by Wieners in his 1959 diary, 707 Scott Street.[10] Occasionally too, they seem prompted by an endearing concern to reach across that common language dividing him from his British readership. The book appeared however, two years after a period of incarceration in a mental institution following schizophrenic breakdown.


While it is extremely difficult to disentangle signs of a loss of poetic judgement (influenced or not by editorial intervention) from evidence of pathological illness, the revisions’ consistent and frequently bizarre sacrifice of poetic power raises this very issue. Quite apart from the inherent value of a number of affecting new poems, the 1972 Selected Poems is a valuable touchstone for assessing the lyric achievement of the earlier books and also in the premonitions it offers of Behind the State Capitol. An example of revision will serve as bridge to my main argument and also to draw together a number of the points raised so far. It is the opening stanza of ‘An Anniversary of Death’ from Ace of Pentacles (1964) (revised title ‘Anniversary’):


He too must with me wash his body, though
At far distant time and over endless space
take the cloth unto his loins and on his face
engage in the self same rising as I do now.

Ace of Pentacles


He too must with me wash his body, though
at far distant time, over endless space
take the cloth unto his loins, upon his face
engage in the self same toilet as I do now.

Selected Poems, 1972


A persistent tendency of the revisions in Selected Poems is to impose a degree of syntactic subordination on parataxis — or what at least feels paratactic. The syntactic links between ‘wash’ and ‘time’, ‘space’ and ‘take’, ‘face’ and ‘engage’ are tightened to apparent exclusivity in the revision while free-floating in the relaxed continuum of the original stanza, where the phrases ‘over endless space’ and ‘on his face’ refer both forward and backwards. The strong pause in sense at the end of line two in particular creates space (and time) while giving ‘take’ (as later ‘engage’) an injunctive edge. In the revision, the stress thrown on ‘space and ‘face’ as a result of punctuation, denies the verbs this quality, replacing it with the subliminal urgency of the ellipsis — ‘must’.


The tightened syntax reflects that urgency in a strengthened forward impulse, which disperses the original sense of the half-awake state of ‘rising’ and — arguably too — the entire evocation of ‘space-time’. These depend crucially on the paratactic link of ‘and’. Without it certain echoes weaken or are lost altogether. The second line paraphrases ‘Long Ago and Far Away’, Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern’s wistful 1944 song which, intentionally or not, reverses the title of W.H. Hudson’s 1917 classic memoir of his boyhood in Argentina, ‘Far Away and Long Ago’. If cadence is crucial to this evocation, it is also what lends the original closing line sufficient independent force — as a summary of the first three — to override any readerly qualms at the semantic haziness of ‘on his face/ engage in the self same rising’.


In fact haziness is essential to the poetic force of the original, not least the semantic haziness of ‘with me’ which — since it actually means ‘as I do now’ — adds weight to that concluding performative. Its ambiguity meanwhile is used to transcend space and time, conveying a physically impossible mutuality: — ‘He too must with me wash his body’. The effect is reminiscent of Keats’s line, ‘Already with thee! Tender is the night’, whose elliptical opening enacts desire’s leap to union, abolishing distance. The line unit, meanwhile, already there, both subverts and anticipates ‘intended’ meaning. The reiteration of Keats’s ‘self same’ and the implied return to one’s ‘sole self’ strengthen the echo.[11]


With the resurrectional overtones in ‘rising’ prepared for by biblical language and hints of the Deposition from the Cross, the poem’s defamiliarisation is also helped by a different afflatus in line two, which — given that the ‘death’ in the title is symbolic rather than literal — refers neither to endless space nor far distant time but rather the time zones that are measured distance, separating ex-lovers on opposite coasts of the country.
The fact that, syntactically, the revised stanza in this case merely segments and realigns what is a somewhat archaic sentence, raises the possibility that Wieners intended to simply produce a ‘score’ for reading performance, a syncopated version of the original.[12]


This interpretation however, would have to find a place for such frankly hallucinatory (however Shakespearian) changes as ‘see clouds and beaches/ in the sky’ for ‘see the clouds and breeches/ in the sky’. Short of a mild attack of Tourette’s syndrome, only myopia could explain the disastrous substitution of ‘toilet’ for ‘rising’. One might have expected an English editor to point out the danger of collocating ‘engage’ and ‘toilet’ (all the more excruciating for its italics) let alone that of the phrase between.


The revision’s impulse to fragment and sequence perception may be a faint portent of Behind the State Capitol’s hectic rafting of the present moment, signalled by parodic invocation of Charles Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’ principle: ‘Suite facing Pacific Life — Los Angeles clip cloche/ merely socks White House to certify Lords/ Churchill & Chesterfield patent/ “one perception must directly lead/ to another!’ (‘Ma’s Deck Chairs’ (9)).[13] The original stanza is, by contrast, closer in spirit to (offering in effect a meditation on) a passage in Olson’s 1954 essay, ‘Against Wisdom as Such’:


A poem is ordered not so much in time (Poe’s Poetic Principle) or by time (metric, measure) as of a characteristic of time which is most profound: that time is synchronistic and that a poem is the one example of a man-made continuum ‘‘which contains qualities or basic conditions manifesting themselves simultaneously in various places in a way not to be explained by causal parallelisms.’’ (CP 263)


Four years after ‘Projective Verse’, Olson appears to be qualifying its single-minded emphasis on speed within the ‘process of the thing’: ‘speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts,...keep it moving as fast as you can’. (CP 240) It is clear that in Nerves, Wieners’ formal lyrics achieved a particular virtuosity within the terms of Olson’s later essay. In a fine account of the opening stanza of ‘Desperation’, Wilkinson identifies a ‘verbal seesaw where positions are exchanged and whereby ‘melancholy resignation’ does not supersede ‘mad pursuit’ but coexists with it’. (Tour 106) This command of ‘process’ however, though energised by acquaintance with Olson’s work, is something Wieners demonstrated instinctively from the start.


In the early formal lyrics of the fifties and early sixties it is frequently inseparable from a quality Olson identified with the ‘projective’: — ‘It would do no harm ...if both rime and meter, and, in the quantity words, both sense and sound, were less in the forefront of the mind than the syllable, if the syllable, that fine creature, were more allowed to lead the harmony on.’ He adds the rider that this ‘is to engage speech where it is least careless — and least logical.’ (CP 241) This seems ideal commentary on ‘He too must with me wash his body, though/ at far distant time...’ At the same time many of the later lyrics of Ace of Pentacles suggest that Wieners had paid careful attention to a passage in his teacher and fellow poet’s 1956 essay, ‘Quantity in Verse, and Shakespeare’s Late Plays’: ‘logicality persists in the syntax and image but the thinking and weighing in of the quantity stop twist and intensify the speech, thus increasing the instancy.’ (CP 273)


In ‘Against Wisdom as Such’, Olson refers to the poet’s task of heating and ‘bending... the concrete continuum’ of time. This ability is an integral part of Wieners’ lyric ‘sophistication’. Nevertheless it is almost by definition easier to acknowledge the persistence of a ‘poetry of nostalgia and formal grace... in Behind the State Capitol’ (‘despite [its] being swathed in seemingly extraneous material’) than to give sufficient weight to the less visible but pervasive presence of process and projective values in the early poetry; ‘closed verse’ — so to speak — only on paper.


If such ‘process’ is characteristically secured within the terms of Wilkinson’s comparison of Wieners and Ann Sexton — by ‘rhythmic and semantic accumulation which... plays with and against poetic form rather than laying down each line as a semantic unit’ (Tour 102), the full range of his skill is still revealed by exceptional cases. One such is the absolute authority of phrasal and sentential accumulation in the final stanza of ‘The Waning of the Harvest Moon’, where skilled use of enjambement in the first two stanzas modulates into a crescendo of unenjambed notation and questioning, to convey ‘a jangle of lost connections’:


No lights glimmer in the box.
I want to go out and rob a grocery store.
Hunger. My legs ache. Who will will feed us.
Miles more to go. Secrets yet unread.
Dogs bark in my ears. My man lost.
My soul a jangle of lost connections.
Who will plug in the light at autumn.
When all men are alone.
Down. And further yet to go.
Words gone from my mouth.
Speechless in the tide.

(Pentacles 22; SP’86. 58)


The premonitory final lines are a last reminder of poetry’s dual modalities. They trace the poignant journey from the writerly risk of Ace of Pentacles: — ‘And the hand trembles/ at the next word to put down’ — through Behind the State Capitol’s theatrical ‘difficult triumph of keeping [an] edge’, finally to the stand-up-comedy ‘death’ of the later She’d Turn on a Dime (SP’86. 263) ‘where too often queenish quips perish in inconsequentiality’.[14]

Ace of Pentacles and Selected Poems 1972: (a) Revision, The Sociopolitical.


Although I entirely share his admiration for Nerves’ powerful mix of abstraction, opacity and concentration, I find myself differing most strongly with John Wilkinson in his singling it out from the other ‘earlier books’. This can hardly escape sounding like de facto denigration of Ace of Pentacles (1964) and it also goes some way to explaining how The Hotel Wentley Poems (1958) can be described as a ‘glorious false start’.[15] False starts are of course the stuff of modernist — even late modernist — legend, just as The Waste Land (and variously also, Crane’s The Bridge and Pound’s The Cantos) established an association of the modernist long poem with authorial personal breakdown that may have contributed to Wieners insisting Behind the State Capitol be viewed as ‘a single poem’.


Naturally, given constraints of space, the decision to omit detailed discussion of Ace of Pentacles is quite understandable. Opting instead however, to show ‘the typical [if overstated] stance’ on the grounds that it is difficult to select a typical poem — while it does serve the comparison with Sexton — risks underplaying the power and beauty of the book. Moreover, the poem in question, ‘The Acts of Youth’, is arguably less representative in tone and syntax than a number of possible alternatives. It is certainly (‘A Series’ running it a close second) the most agitated in the collection.


This lends it to the argument advanced more emphatically in ‘Chamber Attitudes’, that The Hotel Wentley Poems were a unique exercise in lyric perfection of surface. It also posits an early entry for that disintegrative impulse inseparable from modernism and modernist theory and celebrated with a humorous touch of lugubrious glee in the case of the later prose poem, ‘Cultural Affairs in Boston’ (Cultural Affairs 183): ‘a heterotrophic lyric, fretfully integrated and gratifyingly obscure’. ‘The Acts of Youth’ begins:


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.



‘The stance is passive yet the verse highly controlled, seeming on the one hand to seek resolution in formal grace and in stanzas of classical impersonality, but on the other hand syntactically threatening always to break the bounds of the verse-form, reducing it to incoherence.’ (Chamber Attitudes)


At the risk of terminal pedantry it seems worth noting the underlying paradox in simultaneously praising the poem’s ‘rhythmic and semantic accumulation...which plays with and against poetic form’. Clearly, it is the flexibility of the verse measure — its inherent ‘play’ — that justifies the phrase ‘plays with and against’, just as the metrical regularity of Millay’s ‘Sonnet XXV’ allows us to speak of a local effect enacted ‘by poetic form against the current of syntax’. If  — as seems reasonable to suppose — ‘playing against’ falls short of ‘threatening to break the bounds’, the status of ‘it’ is clarified. It is the verse content or statement rather than the verse-form. Moreover, it is specifically the verse-form that salvages a coherence out of a drift to incoherence, logical and grammatical, in the self-dramatising statement of the ‘verse’.


For example, the ‘great fear’ of the opening line is at once diffused, assuaged, contradicted and confirmed in the course of the first stanza by the sequencing of clauses. The unstable modality of the first two, hovering between question and exclamation, is — if unresolved — arguably quietened by the declarative force of ‘what little I have left’, itself dependent on ungrammaticality since ‘how little I have left’ is the grammatically correct form. To the extent that it introduces syntactical incoherence as well (alongside countervailing paratactic equivalence with ‘what wrecks...await me’) ‘what little I have left’ sets up a vague transitive expectation. It does so by virtue of the rhetorical power invested in triple structures and through its own ungrammaticality. In the event this transitive expectation is disappointed but would have begun with, ‘are all..’.


The final line of the stanza, by substituting a further question (unambiguously marked to retroact on previous clauses) becomes itself the ‘taking away’ it alludes to. A sudden fear of loss would be in line with fearful afterthoughts elsewhere in the poem: ‘Is my mind being taken away me’...’unless it be some sudden act or calamity’ .... ‘unless he be one of justice, to wreak vengeance’ and its poetic logic is its discursive irrationality. ‘What more can be taken?’ ought to mean ‘what’s left to lose when so little is left?’. Appropriately for a meditation on drug misuse and poetic vocation however, the lines are haunted by the punitive aura of the Parable of the Talents, enhancing the complex of damage, imagination and hallucination signalled by ‘wrecks of the mind’. The parable anticipates Wieners’ identification of divine justice with vengeance, and shares his poem’s thematic collocation of initially unspecified fear and the obstacles to realising personal potential: ‘and I was afraid, and went away and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, thou hast thy own’. (Matthew 25, 25).


In ‘A Poem for Painters’ the phrase ‘his own’ is associated with prospective creative ‘struggle’ — which by ‘taking from god his sound’ exorcises the punitive irrationalism of an entity otherwise capable of throwing one into the outer darkness: ‘Only the score of a man’s/ struggle to stay with/ what is his own, what/ lies within him to do’. (Wentley; SP’86. 29) The phrase echoes Olson’s 1954 essay, ‘Against Wisdom as Such’:


“Contained”. I fall back on a difference I am certain the poet at least has to be fierce about: that he is not free to be a part of, or to be any, sect; that there are no symbols for him, there are only his own composed forms, and each one solely the issue of the time of the moment of its creation...That the poet cannot afford to traffick in any other ‘sign’ than this one, his self, the man or woman he is. Otherwise God does rush in. (CP 261–2)


Wieners’ 1959 journal entry ‘I contain my own kingdom./ “The deific principle in nature and/ the heroic principle in man” (102) ‘ -alongside its riposte to, or paraphrase of, ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you’ — might also be seen to comment on Olson’s words. It may or may not be fanciful to see the plenitude implicitly associated with artistic fulfilment and ‘the scent/ of the finished line’ in ‘A poem for Painters’ (‘Our cheeks puffed with it./ The pockets full.’) as a direct response to the hard-bitten lyric of Billie Holiday’s ‘God Bless the Child’: — ‘Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade’. What is certain however is that the biblical hints in ‘The Acts of Youth’ are filtered through the wry street-wisdom of that song: ‘Them that’s got shall get/ Them that’s not shall lose/ So the bible said and it still is news’.


While such oblique allusiveness might support the view that the earlier poetry makes no ‘disproportionate claims for the social and ideology-changing efficacy of verse’, nevertheless its sociopolitical freight argues against limiting Wieners’ ‘vulnerable knowledge of the material substrate to his transcendentalism’ to alliance with ‘a homosexual trope of tenderness in sordidness...and a self-laceration at the waste of life through use of drugs.’ (Chamber Attitudes) The very degree of self-dramatisation which makes ‘The Acts of Youth’ less than representative of Ace of Pentacles as a whole, allows for a Lear-like interjection, one of several voices in this poem’s anticipation of the ‘ventriloquism’ of Behind the State Capitol: — ‘Woe to those homeless who are out on this night’. This conveys an empathy all the closer to Lear’s ‘I have ta’en too little care of this’ for the thought that the poet contains his ‘own kingdom’.


The equation underwriting the American Dream and carried in Herzog and Holiday’s lyric for ‘God Bless the Child’ — ‘Yes, the strong gets more/ While the weak ones fade’ — is fully reflected in ‘The Acts of Youth’, in the ventriloqual voices and the culminating plea ‘Give me the strength to bear it’. While these voices are a reminder of the poet’s youthful playwrighting ambitions in Boston and New York, they also recall the oscillation between hallucination and hommage in the dedication to Ace of Pentacles- ‘For the Voices’. The ontological fragility of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche Dubois can be heard in the cadence, ‘Oh I have/ always seen my life as drama....’ or ‘If/ I could just get out of the country’.[16]


There is more than a hint of Hamlet’s soliloquies in the sudden, appalled afterthoughts, undiscovered countries and vengefully just God, and the Lear-like evocation of poor naked wretches transmutes through something closer to Greek Tragedy — ‘woe to those crimes...’ — into Eliotic doom-ladenness: ‘Do not think of the future; there is none’. These voices both account for and flourish within an instability of register present in lesser degree throughout Wieners’ work. ‘And with great fear I inhabit’ shifts to ‘I must get away..’ and such transition can happen over a stanza-break: ‘unless it be some sudden act or calamity// to land me in the hospital’. In their plurality, the voices enhance the visionary ending of the poem, while underscoring the poetically disastrous revision made for Selected 1972:


And we rise again in the dawn.
Infinite particles of the divine sun, now
worshipped in the pitches of the night.



And we rise again at dawn.
Infinite particles of the divine sun, now
worshipped in pitches of the night.

[Selected 1972]


It is hardly an exaggeration to describe the scale of loss incurred in the reduced perspective of the revised opening line as cosmic. One might otherwise applaud the effort to avoid repetition of ‘in the’, but substituting ‘through’ or ‘throughout’ in the final line would achieve this aim.


Other revisions appear to reflect self-conscious grammatical hyper-sensitivity. There is an old Bette Davis film in which her ‘factory girl’ angel finds married bliss with a socialite after saving him from the bottle, while being coached and educated by a sympathetic landlady. Her language tutoring includes systematically correcting ‘can’ to ‘may’. In revising ‘The Acts of Youth’ for Selected 1972, the same change is made: ‘what little I have left,/ what more can be taken away’ becomes ‘what little there is left,/ what more may be taken away’; ‘Woe to those crimes committed from which we/ can [may] walk away unharmed’; ...’those places where the/ great animals are caged. And we can [may] live/ at peace by their side.’


Regardless of whether, in the first example, ‘may’ heightens foreboding or a sense of Fate’s arbitrariness, the menace and complexities discussed above are lost. In the second case the introduction of possibility simply distorts — and distracts from — meaning. In the final case revision risks comic bathos: if we’re lucky lambs the lions will be nice to us. It seems highly unlikely that John Wieners’ step back from the vernacular (if that is what it is) to meet the standards of an English cultural hegemony that so infuriated his mentor, William Carlos Williams and provided the backdrop to many Hollywood films of his own childhood, was intended as anything approaching conscious mockery or mimicry.


It is more in line with the dust jacket mention that he has received an LL.D. from the National Register of Prominent Americans and perhaps even with the omission of ‘the scratches I itch/ on my scalp’ from a descriptive list of ‘dull details’ in ‘A Poem for Record Players’ [Wentley]. Although to identify a genteel impulse in the grammatical ‘corrections’ would still fall short of establishing Wieners’ true state of mind, they are clearly antithetical in spirit to his 1984 quip, defining his ‘theory of poetics’ as ‘[trying] to write the most embarrassing thing I can think of’. (Cultural Affairs 15) The truth is that he had already written such a (programmatic) poem in ‘Memories of You’ (1965), though it was not until 1988 that it was published in Cultural Affairs. [17]


If emotional lability is registered in the opening stanzas of ‘The Acts of Youth’ through the interaction of rhetorical structure with verse form, then enjambement plays a significant supporting role. The slowing effect of the line-break after ‘drugs’ for example, enhances the sense of ‘await’ and ‘to dull’ in a manner comparable to Keats’s, ‘my heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains/ my sense’. ‘The fear of travelling’, immediately following ‘what more can be taken away?’, has the momentary force of an answer even as it seems to explicate the opening line’s ‘great fear’. The resolution to ‘get away from this place’ achieves a de facto remission of the fear of travelling and of the paralysis implied by the dread of ‘what more..?’.


It is immediately preceded by ‘fear...of the future without hope/ or buoy’ which, through syntactic ambiguity, contrives a telescoping of present and future despair, ultimately an endless, and endlessly hopeless, perspective (or lack of such). Fear of the future is already a future without hope but fear of a hopeless future redoubles the fear. This dramatised emotional turbulence prepares us for what is given the force of insight by the line-break, which might just as easily have led to sights (‘away from this place and see’... Europe? the world?) but instead offers a proposition. The line-break returns us to ‘this place’, resonant in its nonspecificity, whether a state of mind, of soul, a room, town, country, poem.


Simultaneously, ‘that there is no fear without me’ is obscurely recognisable to all Americans as echoing Roosevelt’s national rallying cry in the depths of the Great Depression: — ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’. In language partly echoed in Wieners’ poem, Roosevelt qualifies this fear as ‘nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror’, castigates a ‘generation of self-seekers’, exhorts the ‘clean satisfaction that comes from the stern performance of duty by old and young alike’. Within a shared quasi-religious tone, his phrase ‘In every dark hour of our national life’ also finds its echo in Wieners’ ‘till the dark hours are done’.


While such implicit linkage of personal crisis to the wider social and political sphere could be viewed as simply adding, in presidential shape, another accusatory spectre of divine justice, it alternatively suggests the possibility of reading the poet’s reference to the young as a break-out from the agoraphobia of incipient paranoia in the direction of communal presence and concern: ‘am I a marked man, my life to be a lesson/ or experience to those young who would trod/ the same path, without God’.[18]


Finally, at the juncture: ‘that it is within/ unless it be some sudden act...’, the phrase ‘some sudden act’ articulates a sudden fear so obviously coming from ‘within’ as to reduce ‘unless’ to logical nonsense while clinching its poetic sense. It offers immediate proof of fear’s ontological dependence on personal agency. Yet a countervailing equivocation of ‘there is no fear without me’ suffuses all objective fears with the poet’s presence.

 —    ¶    —


Writing to Denise Levertov on February 10th, 1963 about this poem and two others, ‘The Mermaid’s Song’ and ‘An Anniversary of Death’, it is in large measure this art concealing art that Robert Duncan is responding to in his use of ‘contained’ to designate lack of display (an effortless quality we might associate with certain kinds of jazz performance): ‘I found a poem of Tomlinson’s by the way of looking thru The Poet’s Choice anthology that rang out for me. But I find more wonderful the art that’s contained, not exhibited, in those lovely works of Wieners’ in Locus Solus V. I’ve read them over and over again since they appeard.’.[19]


One of the most memorable examples of ‘containment’ in Ace of Pentacles is to be found in ‘Cocaine’, a nineteen-line poem of four quatrains and a final three-line stanza. Despair that the face of love, associated with ‘the Rose of the World’, has ‘ceased to stare /at me...but lies furled...’ leads indirectly to the closing lines:


One can only take means to reduce misery,
confuse the sensations so that this Face,
what aches in the heart and makes each new

start less close to the source of desire,
fade from the flesh that fires the night
with dreams and infinite longing.


The sensations in reading or listening alike are confused only to the exact degree necessary to underscore the immense authority (aided by alliteration) of the last two lines.[20] The parenthetic thought beginning ‘what aches’, as well as interjecting a ghostly question, registers a momentary confusion (that of heartache) in displacing the grammatically expected ‘which aches’, before revealing itself as appositional to ‘Face’ and poetically more correct than ‘that which’. The rising intonation in the second line is sufficently strong to spark over the intervening two-line parenthesis and stanza break, to connect ‘Face’ with its subjunctive voice in ‘fade’. The sentence has faded only to reignite all the more powerfully. A persistent feature of this book, the scrupulous syllabic discretion — in ‘makes each new/ start less close’ — enhances the sense. The final sentence furls and unfurls like the Rose of the World.


A great deal more might be said, if space allowed, about the Campion-like quality of syllabic and cadential music thoughout Pentacles (‘Just for one glance of her sweet eyes./ Yet brushed aside like dust past ties..’ [‘For Marion’]) some of which is lost in the later revisions. In ‘The Mermaid’s Song’, ‘Know it comes from the rose that does not die’ becomes ‘...from the rose that magnifies’ and the suggestion of wave motion conveyed by assonance in the closing lines (‘until/ my name and thine are erased from sand/ For that substance contrary to belief/ Is as eternal as an ocean’s grief’) is weakened by the revision’s (misprint?) ‘thine past erased’ and ‘Rocks eternal’. In the magnificent ‘Tuesday 7:00 PM’ the single detail that is unaccountably (at least in poetic terms) dropped from Selected 1972, is a sonically memorable image, ‘a mastiff bitch guards the gate’.


This poem’s portrayal of rich and poor in New York is a fitting point at which to round off what has been in part a counter-argument to possible assumptions about the limited political dimension of the earlier poems. Olson’s rubric ‘polis is eyes’ was never truer than in the case of John Wieners. The political force behind the sharp-eyed social observation is all the greater for the touch of cynicism flavouring the poet’s concluding, half-masochistic participation in ‘the hopes/ of the poor’ and is none the less for that participation:


but I am blue for the touch of your hand
who could lead me to the grand ballroom
and the library bookcases eased in oak.

Oh my dreams are there
and I pledge to fulfill them
as they go by in smoke

Ace of Pentacles and Selected Poems 1972 : (b) Embarrassment and Shock.


It is in the context of speculating about the reasons for Wieners’ critical neglect that Wilkinson quotes the quip alluded to above, made in response to editor Raymond Foye’s enquiring if he has a theory of poetics: ‘I try to write the most embarrassing thing I can think of’. (Cultural Affairs 15) Seeing this as evidence that the ‘lack of attention’ was ‘in some degree courted’, he turns to consider Ace of Pentacles, noting that it ‘includes verse composed before as well as after The Hotel Wentley Poems’ and continues: ‘ However, the potential for embarrassment in this book is great. The first few pages run a bewildering stylistic gamut...Across all styles, drug use and gay sex are prevalent’.


He further notes that, ‘The keynote of the sexual references is regret and yearning, their characteristic mise en scène post-coital; a tone distinct from the gay social Frank O’Hara’s poetry or the promiscuous abandon of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘. (Tour 99–100) In contrast to The Hotel Wentley Poems, described as ‘a sequence of astonishing accomplishment and elegance’, potential embarrassment appears to be located in style (and its ‘gamut’) at least as much as in subject matter. It would not, in itself, be surprising for a young poet’s assembled work of several years to be stylistically various alongside a sequence written over the course of a few days.


Allowing for the constraints of summary, it is worth reflecting about what a focus on ‘style’ might leave out of account. Initial mention of the ‘exaggeratedly formal’ opening poem — ‘Ode on a Common Fountain’ — chimes with a more general reservation about poetic artifice expressed by Eric Mottram in his 1973 essay, ‘John Wieners: guide through the suspended vacuum’.[21] While appreciative of Wieners’ ‘ability to project a personal condition into a stable form without philosophising it into mere example’ (11) he considers that the most successful poems are those (such as ‘You talk about going’..) which ‘describe his world clearly and personally’:


Throughout Ace of Pentacles this openness to erosion and Eros [evinced by ‘A Series’] is unsteadied by a certain conventionality of rhyme, cadence, lyric impulse, and vocabulary... as if the exhaustion of the experience invades poetic ability in the form of ready-made language, breaking into his main power: that of offering his experience without disguise. (12)


Mottram’s regret at the literary form’s ‘numbing of personal action which should flood the poem’, while a little at odds with his praise for ‘the new detachment and purity’ of Nerves, is consistent with his recognition of the later book’s continued ‘telling of the condition of vulnerability’. It might equally be seen as an uncanny premonition of the ‘spectacular splurge’ of Behind the State Capitol, ‘personal action’ having now become a disturbing enigma.


Robert Duncan however, in a 1965 review of Ace of Pentacles and the reprinted Hotel Wentley Poems, looks beyond the formality of ‘Ode on a Common Fountain’ which, he reminds us, is ‘a very early poem’:


Going back to my first notes...four months ago...I note of [this poem]: “We are aware that for this poet intense experiences are realised as song...Later he writes — whatever his recall of traditional forms — in terms of the musical phrase that [conforms] by grace of more subtle references and resonances. But even here in the very regular meters and rhymes of an apprentice is the grace of liberated and liberating feeling that is communicated, not the rigor (the rigor mortis of so much verse of conformity) of an imposed discipline.”[22]


This ‘liberated and liberating feeling’, which he sees as literally informing the poetry from the beginning, suggests a continuity which calls into question, at an early stage of Wieners’ career, the view that The Hotel Wentley Poems is a prosodically exceptional (and uniquely ‘accountable’) ‘false start’. In fact Duncan implicitly rejects any such suggestion: ‘The two books..stand now as interrelated first statements and evocations of a poet’s life, as testimony.’ Duncan also emphasises the book’s internal continuity, in a passage which at once — in Keatsian spirit — questions the wisdom of revision, offers a further gloss on the term ‘contained’ and (by associating prosodic skill with deliberation) raises the spectre of interaction between such skill and pathological deliberation in the poetry to come [‘More fierce cunning of the mind/ That invents its own breaking..’ (‘Love-Life’, Nerves)] :


Yet graceful rigor seems to be Wieners’ natural mode; we feel the force of deliberation in his most free forms — he is never casual. The grace is miraculous, for he aims at intensities, he is moved in intensities, by orders that shape and then restrict feeling to the ardent. In certain poems — ‘Cocaine’, ‘My Mother’, ‘Let the heart’s pain slack off’, ‘An Anniversary of Death’, this force is so strong, emotion so entirely moving toward the form of the poem, that no element of putting into words comes into it; he must indeed... listen to an inner voice... (596)


It would be an exaggeration to suggest that in the seven years between Duncan and Mottram’s responses, the ‘inner’ lyric voice of poetry had succumbed totally to a public voice of rhetorical — even oratorical — performance, but the progress of Ginsberg’s celebrity is not the only indication of movement in this direction. Wieners’ friend and fellow Black Mountain student, Ed Dorn, had privileged scathing monologue over lyric in much of North Atlantic Turbine (1967). Robert von Hallberg, in his ‘A Talk with John Wieners’ (1974), also asks if the ‘pressure of political the last few years...may [not] push the...lyric poet towards a more public and rhetorical poetry’. (SP’86. 289)


By the mid-sixties, Duncan himself had produced powerfully direct political poetry, harnessing a heightened rhetorical tone. His openness to Wieners’ less public ‘intensities’ coexists with tolerance towards poetic artifice and subject matter alike. This contrasts instructively with Mottram’s very English strain of ethical muscularity and love of plain-speaking, reflected not only in his penchant for ‘experience without disguise’ and ‘personal action’, but also in the claim, with regard to drugtaking, that ‘in much of Ace of Pentacles... Wieners found it difficult to care about the limited range of his experience, sufficient to make fully inventive poems from it.’. (my emphases) (13)


More concerning than just where embarrassment is imputed to Ace of Pentacles, is the slippage from Wieners’ phrase ‘embarrassing thing’ to ‘potential for embarrassment’ itself, with Wilkinson’s implied shift (or broadened perspective) from author to reader. A reader who finds Behind the State Capitol enliveningly unembarrassing and Ace of Pentacles potentially embarrassing is inescapably reflecting a societal transition. The comedian, George Carlin’s assertion that ‘shocking is just an uptown word for surprising’ has its temporal counterpart, and the two decades in question, dating from the unsuccessful legal prosecution of Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), witnessed a shift in the grounds for ‘embarrassment’ on both sides of the Atlantic, unequalled outside the 1920s.


Wilkinson speculates that ‘following the embarrassing impact of [Behind the State Capitol], earlier poems which had read acceptably enough in the literary politics of the time as shocking, belatedly were revealed as embarrassing also’ (Tour 98). Despite leaving something of a lacuna around ‘embarrassing’, the principle described sounds thoroughly plausible. I am in doubt however as to whether Wieners’ late-fifties to mid-sixties coterie readership found his work shocking. Middle-class poets like Denise Levertov were street-wise ‘downtown’ poetically, personally protective towards the poet rather than fazed by the work. Certainly, the reaction to Ace of Pentacles from perceptive readers like Duncan (beneath an unshockable exterior quite capable of ‘surprise’) emphasises the absence of any confrontational desire to shock :


John makes one feel the pathos of the individual ‘right’ to his own life, the desperate unhappiness of being unfulfilled in that life, and feeling the disapproval of the world about him...He so beautifully does not attack or sneer at us who do not ‘eat the lotus’, and at the same time he so desparately [sic] needs that freedom... The poems assert the validity of a great unhappiness and have such authenticity I am ashamed to come back with any criticism that he ought to live a different life.

(Letters 473: Sept 7, 1964.)[23]


Integral to the authenticity Duncan cites here, is an exploitation of the potential of embarrassment, an aspect of Wieners’ writing which — viewed alongside thematic parallels I will discuss later — strongly suggests the direct influence of Keats. An outstanding example is the close of the four-stanza ‘An Anniversary of Death’ and again a comparison with the revised version (‘Anniversary’) in Selected Poems 1972 points up the fineness of the original:


Once he was there, now he is not; I search the empty air
the candle feeds upon, and my eyes, my heart’s gone blind

to love and all he was capable of, the sweet patience
when he put his lips to places I cannot name
because they are not now the same
sun shines and larks break forth from winter branches.



Once he was there, now gone searched empty air
this candle feeds on, find eyes, my heart’s blind

to love and all he was capable of, sweet patience
when he put his lips to places I cannot name
because changed, now not the same
sun shines sad larks break forth
from winter branches.

Selected 1972


In his 1959 journal Wieners writes : ‘The poet works to undo the confusion around him. He should not add to it.’ (81) The key follow-up to the question about his ‘theory of poetry’ in the interview twenty-five years later is ‘Have you a preferred working method?’, to which he replies, ‘Confusion, usually’. (Cultural Affairs 15) While ‘confusion’ offers a single-word paraphrase of the Olsonian principle of immediately successive perceptions and might be considered a precondition for creative ‘negative capability’ (syntactic ‘confusion’, incidentally, a hallmark of Keats’ maturity), the versions above illustrate respectively, an instance where Wieners’ two statements are not contradictory and another where they are.[24]


The removal of the definite article from ‘the sweet patience’, arguably motivated by the wish to reduce a perceived plethora, succeeds only in undermining the specificity of memory, enhancing ‘all’ in the original. The substitution of mere attribute inadvertently delimits and reduces. The central image of the lips picks up the opening line of the poem’s second stanza: ‘A cigarette lit upon his lips; would they were mine’ (revised to ‘Cigarette between his lips, would they were mine’). The original line, despite grammatical opacity, accords better with the fourth stanza than the revision does, also recalling two moments from The Hotel Wentley Poems: ‘as I did/ moving my mouth/ over his back bringing/ our hearts to heights..’ and ‘the woman waiting// with no mouth, waiting/ for me to kiss it on.’


In addition to its Hollywood-reflected glamour, it also gracefully avoids the suggestion of heavy, Hays Code symbolism — not to mention deeper incoherence — in the later version. The original penultimate line subsumes a hint of the pedantic in word order to the authentic cadence of childlike, patient explanation. Incipient coyness — ‘I cannot name’ — modulates towards innocence. The revised version, willingly or not, loses this effect to ambiguity of reference.


The reader’s empathy with ‘places I cannot name’ additionally draws on a sense of locational remoteness established in ‘at far distant time and over endless space’ and strengthened by unspecificity within the idiomatic ‘Once he was there’, which conveys an unspoken ‘there for me’. He is ‘there’, remote. Is this an elegy for a man or a relationship? Once he was here. The dignified precision in the poem’s penultimate line is enhanced in the original by the momentary stutter of the phrase, ‘and my eyes’, which moves forward and backwards syntactically. The root embarrassment or fastidiousness, registered even as it is rationalised, is close in feeling to Desdemona’s ‘am I that name? ... I cannot say ‘whore’:/ It does abhor me now I speak the word;’ (Othello: IV.ii.117), just as the pathos of ‘for, by this light of heaven,/ I know not how I lost him’ epitomises Wieners’ poem. It might not be too fanciful to hear some echo of her words, ‘Or that mine eyes, mine ears, or any sense..’ in ‘and my eyes, my heart’s gone blind’.


The substitution of ‘sad’ for ‘and’ while breaking a long last line reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’s ‘light breaks where no sun shines’, exemplifies one feature of the 1972 revisions in its drive (one generally well worth resisting) to make explicit what is (in this case only arguably) implied.[25] In the opening two lines of the revision, the assimilation of parataxis to ‘syntax’ collapses dramatically into incoherence. In retrospect it is now possible to see that incoherence, in the second half of the first line, as proleptic of the stylistic feature of ‘telegraphese’ so prominent in the later poetry from Behind the State Capitol onwards.

‘Tautness’, ‘Confusion’, Telegraphic Language


Telegraphic language can be associated with ‘desocialization’, one of three categories of schizophrenic speech identified by Louis A. Sass and discussed by Wilkinson in his 1996 article ‘Too-close reading’.[26] He concludes that the second poem in Behind the State Capitol- the extremely impacted ‘Understood Disbelief in Paganism, Lies and Heresy’ — proposes that the book’s ortho-typographic and presentational ‘disorderliness will be programmatic rather than pathological’(121), adding that:


[the poem] yields enough evidence to the focussed attention to support such a presumption, both semantically and in its sustained if unfamiliar formal discipline; yet it is as tonally wayward and difficult to pin down as ‘In Public’ and — in an odd contradiction characteristic of Behind the State Capitol — is simultaneously compressed to the point of Empsonian obscurity, and extremely ‘noisy’ in the sense of high levels of apparent redundancy.

(Tour 121)


In an apposite analogy, the combination of compression and ‘noise’ is associated with the forward rhythmic drive of Frank Capra’s ‘screwball comedies’ and suggestion of real ‘disturbance’ seems to focus — if we hear a faint echo of Gray’s village poet, ‘muttering his wayward fancies’ — in tonal waywardness. Yet even the embryonic version of telegraphic language found in this poem makes a comparison with ‘In Public’ problematic, despite the valid general point that the later poem’s compression is ‘consistent developmentally’ with effects of local elision in the poems of Nerves.


Momentary contortions of phrase apart, ‘In Public’’s dramatised speaker addresses a lover with declarative lucidity. The poetic Rubicon crossed in the interim is one in which the concept of tonal waywardness substantially dissolves in the face of — and into the fact of — tonal indeterminacy. In the case of ‘Understood Disbelief’ of course, the subject matter still encourages us to associate the wayward tone with the author’s voice, rarified as that is. ‘Jail Mata Hari’ however is typical of many other poems in this — and the later — book, which combine an absolute authority of movement with a resolute disengagement from definable tone of voice:


night after night as Venus play bed

horsepowerd to outfox tyrannized legions rippd forment
she could suspend cement, as untendd captains breakwater
a mazebed sabotage a whodone-it weaponless garment.

As receipted, intrigue scandal. These her diet, venom
labour crews, mores wittingly deal in call accusation.

‘Jail Mata Hari’


If such a text has laid down the template for a recognisable ‘tone’ in English late modernism, its influence has not been confined to the ‘younger writers’ of Wilkinson’s generation but is present too in a number of ‘telegraphic’ texts from recent years, by J.H. Prynne. Schizophrenic speech’s unsettling compound of detached authority to some extent clearly displaces the modernist poet in Behind the State Capitol but the avoidance it implies does find an analogue in Prynne’s mediation or diversion of direct address to the reader, through the ‘slips and changes of meaning [of] shifting language’.


When Jennifer Cooke writes of his most recent poem that ‘the language that interests To Pollen is legion-voiced’, she invokes — inadvertently or not — more than simple multiplicity or the military pun. She identifies the poem’s ‘geological landscapes’ as a more surprising element in the ‘legion-voices’ emanating from the horrors of current conflict in Iraq: ‘These geological accretions constitute a metaphorics for the way in which language forms, coalesces, remains but also how it is manipulated, fragmented, ripped out of the seam of its context...’[27]


The passion, scale of reference and ethical depth of Prynne’s poem also demands a carrier medium capable of marrying the imperturbability of ‘geological accretions’ to the frenzy evident in human gesticulation and on human faces in the immediate aftermath of each atrocity. Schizophrenia offers an ideal linguistic model.

 —    ¶    —


In certain poems from Behind the State Capitol, such as ‘Signs of the President Machine’, where a residual subjective speaker has not explicitly dispersed himself into ‘the warp of the star map’ of multiple identity, it seems possible to account for a sense of wayward progression in terms of a pronounced associational ‘drift’, suggestive of ‘automization’ in schizophrenic speech: ‘tendencies for language to lose its transparent and subordinate status and to emerge instead as an independent focus of attention or autonomous source of control over speech or understanding’. (Sass: vide TCR) Such ‘drift’ (the paradoxical effect of schizophrenic ‘chain association’) is presumably also embedded within telegraphic language.


To the extent however, that the ‘tonally wayward’ ceases to be a reliable index of pathology, we perhaps need to examine more closely the nature of the semantic evidence ‘focussed attention’ is said to unearth and even the nature of that focussed attention itself. Take for instance the following example of pellucid, unexceptional statement from ‘Intro’: ‘My father was nonmusical. He could not dance, or sing.’. (Behind the State Capitol 70)


The fact that this is likely to be a sophisticated play on his surname, Wieners — meaning ‘from Vienna’ — and relates to William Carlos Williams’s poem ‘Lustspiel’ (‘Vienna the Volk iss very lustig,/ she makes no sorry for anything!/ She likes to dance and sing!’) attests to a playfulness and wit, even gentle pathos.[28] The teutonic rhythm of the last line is given the finest tweak by Wieners’ added comma. Yet a let’s-see-if-they-get-that-one, self-communing chuckle might easily be present too.


I have in mind here Wilkinson’s very useful distinction between schizophrenic ‘self-referential incoherence, an extreme of attention to its own processes which would yield to madness’ and the benign ‘impersonality’ he sees exemplified in ‘Billie’ (Nerves) ‘achieved by way of an almost unreachable innerness, become impersonal in the readers connection with it...such poetry...always stepping back from madness and bringing away the materials it...struggles to accomodate to the uses of the poem’. (TCR 49)


Morbid ‘self-referentiality’ is likely to inhere in the apparently impenetrable (‘dob-individual/ genied istortes’) and the transparent alike. It perhaps most risks being overlooked when the later poetry is viewed purely as collage, essentially comparable with William Burrough’s aims and procedures and in tune with his belief that the paranoiac is simply the one in possession of all the facts.


A general reluctance to dwell on pathological signs can be separated only with difficulty from the long-established curative claims of modernism. One such — with its incidental reminder of tackling confusion via confusion — is Paul van Ostaijen’s comment on his 1921 Dadaist masterpiece Bezette Stad, a work whose thoroughgoing ortho-typographic and presentational ‘derangement’ finds an echo in Wieners’ book:


Bezette Stad (Occupied City) was a poison, used as an antidote. The nihilism of Bezette Stad cured me of a dishonesty, which I mistakenly took for honesty, and of hyper-lyrical strutting about. Afterwards I was a perfectly ordinary writer, someone who writes poems for his own satisfaction [amusement, pleasure] the way a pigeon fancier keeps pigeons. I lay no claim to the medal of bourgeois morality.[29]


The fact that this statement is in most respects inapplicable to John Wieners did not prevent him half-echoing the same simple ambition: ‘A poet only writes poems. That is all he should have to do. Unless he encompasses more and we do. Universes.’ (Journal 48). For complex reasons he did not have the opportunity (luxury hardly seems too strong a word) to disown either Behind the State Capitol or his later work. Granted all the days he wanted to (and did) write poems, he never wanted to find himself writing those poems.

 —    ¶    —


Nonetheless, Behind the State Capitol certainly has credibility as idiosyncratic but perfect expression of the post-Stonewall liberational zeitgeist of the mid-seventies; temperamentally in tune with the ‘gay social whirl’ (old-style and new alike) and tonally, with ‘promiscuous abandon’, quite apart from its appeal to a younger generation of music-loving readers for whom Clash and Cure go hand in hand. It is not difficult to see how an enthusiastic reception of the book could co-exist with, even strengthen, retrospective embarrassment at old-fashioned ‘regret, yearning.. post-coital’ triste, the stock in trade of Wieners’ unmodernism.


With the spirit of liberation advancing at that time on a broad intellectual front, it is more difficult to see what residual embarrassment that readership shared with those who apparently were embarrassed — overwhelmingly, one would guess, by what they saw as derangement. This divided readership is obliquely visible in the description of Behind the State Capitol, ‘at times lurching into gloriously paranoid arraignments of government agencies, at times pausing for heartbreaking laments...’. (Tour 121) The energy may be wayward but the pathos sounds interludial.


Such oscillation also seems closely related to Wilkinson’s formulation of a ‘further site of resistance and embarrassment’: ‘Wieners’ later poetry is evidently mad. Just as evidently it is not-mad, and its madness and not-madness are as closely entwined as its modernism and unmodernism.’(Tour 97) As already implied, these two pairs of categories are themselves to some extent entwined. Rimbaldian derangement and Mallarméan encryptic zeal are only two of several obstacles to the confident detection of madness.


Any implication that mad poetry necessarily entails a mad poet is undercut by the hyphen in ‘not-madness’ (the very measure by which it would fall short of an unequivocal declaration of mental health outside the poetry) which effectively places speech marks around ‘madness’. This in turn deflects the question of pathological input, whether governed by intent or haplessness, by privileging aesthetic product over process.


The ‘not-madness’ of the poetry posits artistic deliberation on the allusive analogy of literary precession in Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge drama. This implicitly sanifies all (the madness of) ‘wild and whirling words’, absorbing them into the category of the poet’s ‘antic disposition’ (‘more fierce cunning of the mind’) or alternatively, viewing them as the — in part fortuitous — effects of politically sophisticated collage. ‘Madness’ becomes, in both contexts, solely the judgement of the less percipient onlooker, the entire issue of pathology being subsumed to the terms of performative success mentioned earlier, whereby a distinction between Behind the State Capitol and the frequent limpness of She’d Turn on a Dime can (certainly) be justified.


If, however, pathological input is acknowledged, paradox takes a different form. The loss of control ascribable to discursive waywardness may at first sight seem checked, but is ultimately reinforced, by hyper-control operating within the telegraphic ‘vortex’. This often takes the form of a ‘split figure’, hidden to varying extent, sometimes merging with collage effects, always suggestive of schizophrenia but context-dependent as to whether a signature of authentic active pathology or a less compulsive, more ‘programmatic’ feature.[30]


Before turning to this element in the later poetry, it is perhaps helpful to consider briefly the possible roots of the ‘split figure’ as well as the broader, complex gestation of that ‘odd contradiction’ — Behind the State Capitol’s simultaneous ‘compression’ and ‘apparent redundancy’.


From a modernist point of view, telegraphic language might be considered simply as an extreme expression of the Imagist impulse to pare language down to a minimum, in the spirit of Bunting’s ‘dichten=condensare’ as cited approvingly in Pound’s ABC of Reading. [31] John Wieners’ 1959 term ‘taut’, now seems to carry premonitions of catastrophic snapping or severance, just as ‘the strainer’ conveys more now than a simple implication of art’s refining process: ‘What to do with the definite article. And/ prepositions. How to/ connect/ without them. I want language to be taut/ as the rope/ that holds a teapot over/ the fire/ for hot water./ We pour it. Into the strainer/ thru sweet leaves.’ (Journal 71)


While this accords with his stated admiration for the ‘abbreviation of expression’ in unmodernist female poets, it would also please H.D. It is an image intimately associated with childhood trauma too, as in ‘Insulted’ (Nerves): ‘in bed that noon/ heard shredded thread/ of parentage divided’. This image merges in that book with other indications of fissured unity or lost paradise: — ‘Two splits of casino libation husband/ retrieve one midnight essex.’ (‘WW’, Nerves: SP’86. 135) ; ‘the strength// of single gesture lost/ twin alloy to true counsel/ man’s fault returns original habit.’ (‘Piazza’, Nerves: SP’86. 145)


With regard to the later emergence of the stylistic ‘split — figure’ however, the most significant image is found in the closing words of ‘Desperation’: — ‘borrowed dichotomy/ unmasks its single purpose’. Wilkinson reminds us that the etymology of ‘dichotomy’ is a cutting in two and his extension of ‘borrowed’ to a deeper ‘sense of lineage, persistence and repetition, primarily of [sexual] loss’ is well justified. There may be an additional allusion to the equipoise of borrowed light and shadow at the lunar dichotomy or half-moon. Such overtones would blend with those of Revenge tragedy lunacy and the borrowed clothes of ‘antic disposition’.


In Selected 1972 it is easier to see this abbreviation in terms of compromised poetic power and sacrificed cadence than their opposite. In ‘A poem for Painters’ (Wentley) for example, the line ‘in the bounds of white and heartless fields’ is revised to ‘in bounds of white and heartless fields’, the loss of the opening anapaest to iambic regularity losing both the mimesis of bounding motion and the sense of ‘within the bounds’. The opening lines of the first poem in the sequence, ‘A Poem for Record Players’ , containing an important artistic credo, similarly lose power in the revision. I give the original version first:


I find a pillow to
muffle the sounds I make.
I am engaged in taking away
from God his sound.
The pigeons somewhere
above me, the cough
a man makes down the hall,
the flap of wings
below me, the squeak
of sparrows in the alley.
The scratches I itch
on my scalp, the landing
of birds under the bay
window out my window.
All dull details
I can only describe to you,...



I find a pillow to
muffle sounds I make,
engaged in taking away
from God his sound,
the pigeons somewhere
above me, the cough
a man makes down the hall,
the flap of wings
below me, squeak
of sparrows in the alley,
                            under the bay
window out my window.
All dull details
I only describe...


The revision’s loss of parataxis to grammatical subordination, which accompanies ‘tautness’, considerably weakens the momentousness — or enormity — of the creative act, echoed a few lines later in ‘oh clack your/ metal wings, god, you are/ mine’; the poet at his typewriter, usurping the divine prerogative. In the original version, the specificity of these sounds, conveyed by the definite article, is both distinguished from and identified with, the sounding ‘dull details’, whereas inappropriately blurred into the list of ‘dull details’ in the revision.


Perhaps the most telling detail in this revision, in the light of the poetry to come, is the abandonment of direct address — ‘to you’. The subtitle of the poem, ‘the scene changes’, is the title of a Bud Powell album and the headlong rhythm, halted by the three ‘chords’ of ‘All dull details’ arguably depends too on the reiteration of ‘the’. The passing, sonic registration of ‘bay/ window’ is replaced by a static visual equivalent.


Another example is found in ‘A Poem for Painters’ (the original version first):


Let us stay with what we know.

That love is my strength, that
I am overpowered by it:
                                                  that too
is on the face: gone stale.



Let us stay with what we know.
Love is my strength,
overpowered by
                         desire, that too
on the face’s gone stale.


More than discursive cohesion is lost when ‘that’ goes. The emotional power of the original depends on an evocation, however gentle or ‘unintended’, of Handel’s ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’.[32] The discretion of love and desire in the naming of desire intensifies each and unites them. Quite apart from the revision’s contorted last line, desire ambiguously appears to overpower Love. The Hotel Wentley Poems certainly had classic status with their U.S. readership. To view these revisions however in the same light as — for example — Bob Dylan’s recent, untiring performative innovations, is to forget that the Cape Selected Poems was aimed at a new readership.


A further instance is the short poem from Ace of Pentacles (63), untitled as it originally appeared but given the title ‘153 Avenue C’ in the 1972 Selected . I give the earlier version first:


The night is cold
I lie abed,

The gas heater is on.
I would it were

And snuff out my life.



The night cold
I lie abed,

The gas heater on.
I would it were

To snuff out my life.


The moving simplicity of statement, evocative of the opening scene of Hamlet (‘ ‘Tis bitter cold,/ And I am sick at heart’) is lost in the tautened revision to a notational phrase hovering between latinate structure (the night being cold) and qualified abstract (the nocturnal chill). Though the first predominates, either reading reduces the three-part, paratactic objectivity of the original — with ‘drugged’ an elliptical ‘I am drugged’ — to purely subjective perception. This is underlined when we reflect that ‘Would it were’ would be a proportionate substitution for the line in question.


In ‘Chamber Attitudes’ John Wilkinson concludes a very fine analysis of Wieners’ ‘Larders’ thus: ‘The night is the shape of the self...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’. It is astounding that the loss of the single word ‘is’ effectively deprives ‘153 Avenue C’ of ‘shaped space’; the room in the night, the bed in the room, the poet on the bed. The word is essential too to the sense of drugged confusion at the juncture ‘were/ Off’.


The despair of the final line, straying in the direction of ‘may my life be ended’ catches up an echo of Macbeth’s ‘out, out, brief candle!’ lost in the strengthened agency and causality of the second version. There is however an even greater poetic loss in the fact that the poem begins with a quotation from popular song, so seamlessly integrated it even seems possible that John Wieners himself had lost sight of it in revising the text.[33]


Song titles and lyrics always hover just off-stage in his work and are interwoven with great brilliance into the fabric of many poems. ‘The night is cold’ is a line from the Romberg/ Hammerstein song, sung by Billie Holiday, ‘Lover come back to me’ and also of her own ‘Lover Man Oh, Where can you be?’ (‘The night is cold and I’m so alone’). Either title might itself be Wieners’ theme song and the first reworks ballad verities — ‘You came at last/ love had its day/ that day is past/ you’ve gone away’.


Interestingly, the journal entry on ‘tautness’ is immediately followed by a quotation from Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul:


‘The living spirit grows and even outgrows its earlier forms of expression; it freely chooses the men in whom it lives and who proclaim it...Measured against it, the names and forms which men have given it...are only the changing leaves and blossoms on the stem of the eternal tree.’

(Journal 72)


The juxtaposition of these two principles might account for the respective presence in Behind the State Capitol of telegraphese and transcriptional ‘indignities’ suffered by earlier poems ‘ranging from brief incursions of star-chat to full transvestism in swathes of gossipy material’. (Tour 118)[34]


A further implication of the second, organic principle relates to Wieners’ rejection of Olson’s breath-based line (CP 239) with its assumption of unrevisitable perception.[35] ‘Tuesday 7:00 PM’ (Pentacles) is radically re-lineated in Selected 1972 in a way that would be inconceivable for Olson or Creeley, with a loss of movement in the opening lines: ‘There is majesty in rose/ light across the sky’ (cf. ‘There is majesty in rose light/ across the sky’) and similar loss of the marvellous original, ‘When November// night comes up from the ground’ in ‘When November night/ comes up from Central Park’.


Recollecting the way he recommended permanent renegotiation of the line to me in 1965 prompts another memory; his mention of being asked to name his best (or most resounding or memorable) lines or image and selecting the closing lines of ‘Shall Idleness Ring Then Your Eyes’: ‘Covered over/ with the hand of man is the dung of/ the human heart.’ It is troubling to see that inimitable eclipse of the heart itself eclipsed a few years later to ‘Covered over by/ hand of man is dung from human hearts.’

Aspects of Desocialization and Automization in Behind the State Capitol


Just as it is necessary, when using a term such as ‘associative drift’, to acknowledge that poetry works ‘associationally’ in any case, so — in considering a ‘split figure’ with schizoid overtones — we should allow its congruence with modernist juxtaposition without copula; fragmentary cut-and-paste in the musical manner of Pound, Eliot, Williams, Olson, Duncan et al. In ‘Vera Lynn’ for example, the politician’s clichéd desire to be ‘helpful in bringing about...’ is cut to ribbons by authentic street humour:


I trust I have assets that may be helpful

You should be paying me
For looking the other way

When you strike up the band
daisy blond

as real as you can
only make it.

in brining about a truly united America.

(Behind the State Capitol 137)


Similarly, it is possible to view the figure as an efflorescence of the common device of soubriquet (‘Jack ‘Underground’ Smith’s Flaming Creatures’ (109); ‘Miriam “Monty” Arkansas’ (42)), or accept that the first traces of the habit in Wieners’ poetry occur early (1958) in the apparent normality of afterthought: — ‘fellow poet. Traveller.’ (‘2nd Communique for the Heads’, Cultural Affairs 26). ‘Slips of the tongue’ of the sort described by Freud in ‘Psychopathology of Everyday Life’ and to which the poet appears to have been prone (cf. ‘the scratches I itch’ Wentley) can also involve a ‘split figure’ while ‘saying two things at once’: ‘the long at last awaited journey’.


It is also useful to distinguish between the true collage effect (the verbal dimension of the ‘Cinema découpages’ mentioned alongside ‘verse’ and ‘abbreviated prose insights’ in the title-page description of contents) and what, in terms of potential pathology, is a more intriguing version of ‘split figure’. This second category often involves the ‘dichotomy’ of splitting a recognisable name or phrase by inserting other words or phrases.


On occasion, this can go to the extraordinary lengths suggestive of schizophrenic word-games and form exceptions to the general impression of an arbitrary use of capitalization: ‘CARLotta Stoppato Venetian non-negre’ Roi LEvine was born, George Bra  ziller’ (‘The Homecoming ll’, Behind the State Capitol 43). The (apparently) split name, Carl Levine, for whatever reason (or none at all) forever transgendered to Carlotta, ravishing star of ‘Room 96’ and ‘Les Girls’. Leroi Jones enters backwards and ‘non-negre’ takes him back to the previous line’s ‘Steve’s ‘I murraid Huey Newton’’.


Angela Davis, subject of The Rolling Stones’ 1972 ‘Sweet Black Angel’ (rather than the Oakland Hell’s Angels or date of birth) may link the co-founder of the Black Panthers to a 1942 film ‘I married an angel’, or the 1938 musical of the same name starring Vera Lorina, a leading lady in Wieners’ fascicle, ‘Woman’. ‘Steve’s’ — together with reference to ‘my time in Danvers’ (State Asylum) — attributes the phrase to Stephen Jonas, the gay, black Poundian Boston poet for whose 1966 book Transmutations Wieners wrote a preface.[36] The dedication, to Robert A. Costa, quotes from ‘The Lives of the Alchemystical Philosophers’, speaking of ‘such things as Stephen saw’ and ends ‘and his face shone like the face of an angel at his stoning’.


The self-identification with martyrdom echoes Wieners’ ‘Rise shining martyrs’ and seems apposite to Newton’s 1974 travails. The latter’s subsequent three-year exile in Cuba (exilic destination of Davis too) seems to be connected with ‘Havana CUBa’ five lines later, just as the hinted echo in ‘Stoppato’ of Lana Turner’s slain lover, Johnny Stompanato, may have been ‘triggered’ by Newton’s murder trial (murraid?). The police shoot-out at the Panthers’ headquarters could be the ‘raid’ in ‘murraid’.


The title of Angela Davis’s 1971 book, ‘If they come in the morning: Voices of Resistance’, so deeply hidden in the text, establishes common ground between the poet’s personal paranoia and the societal — not to mention global — ongoing persecutions and paranoid politics. Is ‘George Bra   ziller’ the ‘black George’ whose suicide is noted in ‘Signs of the President Machine’?


Another example of this cut-in-two type occurs in ‘The murder of Cheap Waitresses’: — ‘When the Maid of Mistd Orleans vacationed off the Y in/ Room 517’ (27). Here, Joan of Arc’s soubriquet is interrupted by the name of the Niagara Falls boat ‘Maid of the Mist’. There are many cases of split single words or adjective-noun combinations: ‘high, twelve noon’ (52), ‘homo-sapiens sexual’, ‘ill-non-legal’ (53), ‘homo-thanatropicsexual’ (65), ‘underplayground’ (68), ‘grazia response plena’ (107) often of a lameness suggesting active illness, though the coded musical message of more than one reference to ‘high noon’ is not too difficult to decipher.


As in dreams, individuals may be composite: — ‘THEn / Governor Nelson Aldrich’s Student UNIONROCkefeller’ (83), where Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York State, blurs into film director Robert Aldrich and author Nelson Algren. In ‘Bringing me mass food stuffed and sustaining ev’ry/ dream but those of Edreidan Richardollivieran GLAMour’ (37), the clang rhyming associated with some forms of psychosis (‘ev’ry dream’/ ‘Edreidan’) introduces England cricketers Edrich and D’Olliveira to precipitate ‘Richard’ (the christian name of neither) in a coinage — ‘Richardollivieran’ — suggestive of the literary critic’s ‘Richardsonian’.


The purely collagist procedure can be seen in ‘Faren Ferries’ (21):


Float electrified currency city headline,
A mother’s memory should ax pier slaughter,
Together on 10th Avenue twin Caroline star routine
As good as tomorrow’s edition in gold Jenifer.


The headline-like ‘a mother’s memory’and ‘tomorrow’s edition’ suggest the material is mined from a newspaper and shuffled to conceal/ reveal: ‘float currency’,’electrified (the) city’, ‘slaughter on 10th Avenue’ or ‘ax slaughter’, ‘twin star’, ‘as good as gold’.


Variants of both types appear in ‘Signs of the President Machine’ (3):


I’ve got 25c coin on the bureau
or maple mahoganny 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 Mariln 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 from
the Meirovingian corner besides
the master bedroom,...


Billie Holiday’s name is split up but — somewhat less obviously — the juncture from ‘Mme Brenda’ to ‘Postmen’, while making its own ‘sense’, pulls apart (or off like a mask) to reveal two (almost) coherent halves: ‘Mme. Brenda drinking cyanide’ and ‘torpid Gloucester-dutied United States Postmen’. The proximity of ‘torpid’ to ‘cyanide’ is a shaft of black humour here. John Wilkinson comments that this poem:


[shows] in practice... [the co-existence of a] headfirst, intoxicated response to glamour and a sharp critique of the economic realities of the fashion and film industries and glamour’s cost...[demonstrating] how lyric celebration and nostalgia can hold together a mixture of camp lunacy, paranoia itself guyed as drug-fuelled confusion, fantasies of the glamorous life and reminiscences of Boston queens.

(Tour 122)


I assume that ‘Boston queens’ primarily refers to ‘Pussybile, fresh from black George’s suicide at 86 Charles’, though in ‘Chamber Attitudes’ there is a suggestion that Mme Brenda ‘may perhaps be a drag queen’. This poem’s ‘notation of the present’ begins with an inventory of possessions or ‘assets’, the opening quarter a wry after-echo to the ‘1/4 grain of love/ we had’ (‘Act #2’, Pentacles 17).[37] ‘Poor’ is reiterated in varying senses and forms.


If poor Benedict is less a saint than the quondam pharmacist Benedict Arnold (to reappear in Wieners’ last book in ‘The Charles Manson Death Cult’) he is the epitome of ‘military treason’ for Americans, their less alluring Mata Hari or Tokyo Rose. He blends into the right-wing conspiracy-theorist paranoia so well described in ‘Chamber Attitudes’. An immediate template for all such trans-historical gatherings would be Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’.


The cast’s order of appearance seems to be a much more febrile affair of drifting association however, although in the case of ‘maple’, ‘mahoganny’, ‘magnolia’ it looks suspiciously like a reverse alphabetical list.[38] Magnolia’s Gloucester associations might be sufficient to prompt Olson’s entry ten lines later. (Maximus I.11; II, 83; III, 127, 223) Mention of the burlesque artiste, ‘Rose La Rose’ follows from ‘jack dead’ only by combined association with Rose Kennedy and ‘jack’’s liaison with Blaze Starr, another exotic dancer and prominent Wieners playmate.


‘Rose’ prompts ‘Shakespeare’ but Who Is She in line six has prepared the way, in an associative chain from the identification of ‘that simple song’, ‘Who is Sylvia?’ with his lover, Dana in early versions of ‘The Woman’ (Ace of Pentacles): — ‘Who is my heart, what is he/ that he should mean this much to me?’. ‘The Suicide’ and ‘Address to the Woman’ (Ace of Pentacles), which are a single poem in the Selected Poems 1986, concern Sylvia Plath.


Its sophisticated wordplay (‘and not Sylvia, in the woods’) raises the thought that a different sense of wood(s) — ‘maple mahoganny...magnolia’ — might (together with ‘nutty’) have prompted an unspoken ‘Beech’. This ‘groove of memory’ takes us to literary Paris via Sylvia Beach and Nancy Cunard, an unseen (though sensed in reiterated roses) Gertrude Stein and ‘Shakespeare and Co’, Beach’s joint-venture bookshop. Plath perhaps leads to ‘black George’s suicide’, ‘Cunard’ to Brenda — but I anticipate.


Identifying Olson in the reference to ‘United States Postmen’, Wilkinson points out that the poet’s repeated appearances in the book figure within:


an attribute of repeated and locally unaccountable incursion by figures such as Jackie Onassis, Mata Hari...and Barbara Hutton... [eradicating] any distinction between memories founded in first-hand experience and those derived from saturation in movies and glamour magazines.(123)


Having mentioned Olson’s connection with Gloucester and the fact that his father was a postman, he concludes: — ‘the possible significance of any of this here is indeed a mystery’. Whether critical ‘negative capability’ or resigned acceptance of the qualitative abstraction an ‘attribute of...incursion’ is predominant here, they coexist with a residual curiosity about a formal alternative; a pattern of incursions: ‘Why does ‘parched imbecilic Mata Hari’ appear in ‘Toady’s Singular’ for instance?’. (Tour 123) Such curiosity clearly runs counter to any textual incitement to ‘riposte rather than interpretation’.


In reality Wieners’ insistence on the book’s unity places an arguably unpayable premium on a search for pattern, amongst other places in the ‘gallery of spirits presiding over it’ . Trying to answer the question above in terms of word association alone, leaves the suspicion that she only appears because the previous line — ‘ghoulish Sunday sermon warning’ (my emphasis) — echoes ‘Harry Ghouls’ in ‘Understood Disbelief’ (2) and prompts ‘Hari’ by sound association. Naturally, if Mata Hari’s appearances collocate with other figures instancing one or more of her qualities — beauty, treachery, intrigue, espionage — we do have another point of entry, suggesting deliberation.


Before offering an example of such collocation it is worth noting that the faintness of a chronological footprint in Behind the State Capitol tends to reduce references to personal acquaintances (if the term retains validity) to the categories ‘open’ and ‘secret’, in complex correlation to ‘conscious’ and ‘subconscious’. While this allows for deviousness within ‘openness’, the secret references are by definition harder to characterise.

 —    ¶    —


The complex allusion I have in mind is best approached through ‘Signs of the President Machine’ and suggests an alternative reading to that of a ‘poisonous paternity’ in the case of Olson. It also explains Mme Brenda’s textual proximity to Olson and suggests that she is one instance of a generic Madam(e) who reappears throughout the book.[39] While at first sight appearing to confirm the valid general point about a merging of movie — and ‘real’ — worlds, the deeper (diagnostic) necessity of Brenda and Olson’s linkage here rather reveals a calculated use of the movie world as allegorical stand in for the reality of ‘first-hand experience’.


This term itself needs to envisage saturation in given contemporary literary texts. A ‘self-referential incoherence’, whether or not the self appears in the flesh, is the feeling one takes away from this passage. It concurs with a sense of (barely) suppressed violence.


It seems almost certain that Madame Brenda refers to the English stage and screen actress, Brenda de Banzie (1915–81), who played the role of Madame (or Aggie) in a British film of 1958, Passport to Shame, also known as The Girl in Room 43 and (in the U.S.) Room 43.[40] Although the ‘Screenonline’ plot summary is very brief, she apparently lives in a mansion. The film is described as ‘a typical piece of 1950s (s)exploitation, claiming to expose a pressing social evil while rarely missing an opportunity to show ‘guest star’ Diana Dors parading in basque and suspenders’.


Were one tempted however to see this reference as an oblique expression of the ‘sharp critique of the economic realities of the fashion and film industries’ (Tour 122) already cited, it would be a mistake. The film is set in a Soho prostitution ring from which a girl tries to escape but is drugged and locked up. ‘Red lantern’ and ‘Holiday drugged’ may carry this additional reference. If Mme. Brenda takes poison it will be in the great tradition of literary female immoralists. It is important to note that ‘Postmen’ is plural. Olson himself followed in his father’s footsteps, albeit briefly and possibly ‘torpidly’.[41]


The link between Room 43 and Olson — and hence a Gloucester postman — is to be found in apartment ‘#48’ in ‘The Twist’, an early Maximus poem:


She was staying,
After she left me,
In an apartment house
Was like a cake....

Or was it Schwartz,
the bookie, whose mother-in-law
I’d have gladly gone to bed with

Her room (the house
Was a dobostorte), the door
High up on the wall,
# 48,
like an oven-door


What would otherwise be a very tenuous connection is greatly strengthened by the fact that these two passages triangulate with (or bracket) a third, from ‘Toady’s Singular’ (Behind the State Capitol 8), where Olson’s ‘dobostorte’ (an apartment building shaped like a many-layered Hungarian pastry) is echoed (as ‘dob....istortes’) within a split figure:


For our more future, as parched imbecilic Mata Hari,
beloved up
To barefoot high chieftains of Salerno, not cobblestone

genied istortes, 123.......

Ion Charles stoop


It is clear, from the added (apartment?) number — whatever its occult numerological force — that Wieners is alluding to ‘The Twist’ and is vicariously entering a regressive and overheated Hansel-and-Gretel fantasy, mirrored in Olson’s breathless lines.[42] The tainted love of Rooms 43 and #48 will fulfil every good boy’s worst nightmare and wildest dream. Femme fatale, witch, vampire. ‘Mata Hari was three women un/ questiond. And her name wasn’t faith,/ hope or charity. Nor good neighbour policy towards virtue.’ (‘Jail Mata Hari’, Behind the State Capitol 7)


That it should be a Hungarian cake might be the final twist of a knife glimpsed in Websterian Revenge overtones earlier in ‘Toady’s Singular’: — ‘pregnant Amalfi’… ‘in dagger cloak bearded’. A claim to part-Hungarian ancestry was shared by Olson and the woman involved with both poets in what Olson’s biographer, Tom Clark, describes as a ‘three-way romantic entanglement’, which began in the summer of 1966 and ended with a multiple sense of betrayal for Wieners.[43] As his own relationship unravelled in the following early Spring, Olson complained in a letter to his daughter of being unable ‘to deal with...a human vampire from Transylvania’. At the close of ‘Sunset’, a heartfelt and clearly contemporary elegy-lament for an unborn son, Wieners bitterly addresses a ‘vindictive woman/ Magyar-/ east of the urals/ your father came/ to wreak havoc on Europe.’.[44]


Wieners’ love affair with this rich and sophisticated New York heiress, patron of the arts and socialite, had begun in the Spring of 1966. Pregnant with his child, she decided (apparently supported in this decision by Charles Olson) to have an abortion. The older poet had become a regular visitor to the Gloucester summer house she had rented with Wieners. On October 28, she and Olson sailed from Montreal on the (non-Cunard) Empress of Canada, landing at Liverpool and travelling on to London.


Although the two poets (after the subsequent deep estrangement) were reconciled at a poetry convocation in Cortland, New York the following October, it is almost impossible to overstate the emotional trauma of the whole episode for Wieners. Allen Ginsberg’s introduction to Selected Poems 1958–1984 alludes to it. It appears to have contributed to mental breakdown three years later and no doubt to the blurring of inward and ‘objective’ reality evident in Behind the State Capitol. It is the key to a number of powerful and opaque poems in Nerves and many other poems in the period 1966–69.[45]


The abovementioned knife is not necessarily threatening others. In ‘Sunset’ it suggests both self-harm and association with abortion: ‘and you did die/ as surely as a bud falls from its stem-/ you were scraped from the womb of your mother....and the very woods in voices of aunt Ella/ whispered, Hurt/ yourself,/ hurt yourself in the wind’.


The subtitle of ‘Sunset’ (‘Lieder eines Fahren den [fahrenden] Gesellen’) is the title of Gustav Mahler’s first song cycle and is widely believed to have been inspired by the end of an unhappy love affair. Often mistranslated as ‘Songs of a Wayfarer’, it actually means ‘Songs of a Travelling Journeyman’, the stage between apprentice and master craftsman that might have resonance for Wieners’ antecedent relationship with Olson. The first movement — ‘When my sweetheart is married’ — discusses his grief at losing his love to another.


In the third, despairing movement (‘I have a gleaming knife’) the pain of lost love is compared to a metal blade piercing his heart; he wishes he actually had the knife. The near certainty that this was a shared musical memory for the couple, classical music reference being relatively scarce in Wieners’ work, enhances the poem’s malediction.


I am suggesting that in ‘Signs of the President Machine’, Mme. Brenda is an alter ego for Wieners’ ‘sweetheart’, ‘Christine Kerrigan’ (as Tom Clark calls her); that the text’s surface statement that she drinks ‘postmen’, sublimates a desire for her death to ease the poet’s pain in losing a son; and that the poison spills in Olson’s direction.[46]


An otherwise secondary associative link between ‘Mariln’ and ‘that pauvre Rose la Rose’ — namely oblique connotation of ‘shop-soiled’ originating in the significantly titled 1970 poem ‘Trying to forget’ (72) (‘without a surplus Army/ and Navy Snyder/ secondhd Norma Jean Monroe?’) — obscurely evokes Barbra Streisand’s ‘Funny Girl’ recreation of Fanny Brice’s original Ziegfeld Follies ‘Second-hand Rose’. This suddenly introduces a more vitriolic or ‘cyanidal’ potential to the Brenda-Postmen nexus.


Whether or not Fania Borach’s Hungarian Jewish descent (Brice being a second-hand name) is part of the picture is known only to God and John Wieners but a Streisand/Brice juncture would account for the otherwise puzzling irruption of the anti-semitic, ‘Meirovingian’ scenario of the poem’s third ‘stanza’.


An equally febrile and self-communing anticipation of the Brenda-Olson-(Wieners) reference may lie in ‘I’m A Lot of Man’. Self-reference might be detected in the light of a passage from Eliot’s Choruses from ‘The Rock’, especially the second line’s resonance with that borrowed Ace of Pentacles title, Auden’s ‘shall idleness ring then your eyes like the pest?’: ‘The lot of man is ceaseless labour,/ Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,/ Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant’.


The phrase might also anticipate the ‘mammoth frame’ of Olson who appears a few lines later. In terms of the three-way relationship, Marvin Rainwater’s 1958 pop hit ‘Whole Lotta Woman’ sounds a mischievous possibility: ‘It takes a whole lotta lovin’/ Just to keep my baby happy/ Coz she’s a whole lotta woman/ And she gotta have a whole lotta man’.


Mata Hari, like the ‘real life’ target of ‘The Dietrichs and the Garbos’, is implicated in the pain of this personal betrayal. In the case of ‘Toady’s Singular’ we might ask why Mata Hari is ‘imbecilic’. The answer appears to lie within the split figure: ‘dob — individual/ genied istortes, 123’. It would be in keeping with intense word games throughout the book if the final ‘d’ in genied were being encouraged to migrate to the (deliberately?) mispelled ‘istortes’ — to announce distortion.


Genie is the feral child discovered by California authorities in November, 1970 in a suburb of Los Angeles. She was subjected to severe confinement and ritual ill-treatment when her father took the family doctor’s mention of mild retardation (at 20 months) for severe redardation. A prominent category of feral child is the ‘Wolf Child’ and ‘dob’ is the thrice repeated (123?) ritual answer of the Wolf Cub scouts to Akela, ‘dyb, dyb dyb,..dob,dob,dob’ (‘do your best’ ‘do our best’).[47]


Truffaut’s 1970 film title, ‘L’enfant sauvage’, might also have interlaced Wieners’ earlier association of ferity and passion (‘who has opened the savagery of the sea to me’ (Wentley)) with ferocity of The-Assyrian-came-down-like-a-wolf-on-the-fold variety; the Magyar barbarian beneath the skin: — ‘Ah, Panna/ take up the cudgel now And beat my brain in since// I can go any further’ (‘Drinkin Lonely Wine’). Although David Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’ (as genies will) may be invisibly present too, ‘Génie’ is also the final poem of Rimbaud’s ‘Illuminations’.


Allen Ginsberg’s 1959 remark, in a letter to Paul Carroll, that Wieners was a maudit, ‘doomed sensibility’ was echoed in Robert Duncan’s invocation of Rimbaud in his 1965 review. Olson too had encouraged Wieners in the ambition to be the new Rimbaud. In association with the ‘dob...istortes’ reference, the terms of ‘Génie’ ‘s closing words in particular — foreshadowed in ‘mesure parfaite et réinventée’ — might well figure a simultaneous hommage and dismissal of Olson:


He knew us all and loved us, may we, this winter night, from cape to cape, from the noisy pole to the castle, from the crowd to the beach....hail him and see him and send him away, and under tides and on the summit of snow deserts follow his eyes, — his breathing — his body, — his day.[48]


A possible gloss on ‘parched...Mata Hari’ occurs in a 1968 text of Olson’s, ‘ “Clear, Shining Water,” De Vries says,’ (Additional Prose 71). In writing Woman, a fascicle in the Curriculum of the Soul series initiated by Olson’s own Pleistocene Man , Wieners would have been aware of this short review, published by the Institute of Further Studies, Buffalo while he still lived in the city.[49] If Mata Hari is ‘three women’, she is one (or all?) of the Fates or Destiny, referred to by Olson as ‘this whole old hat business of three something sisters, or tri-parts of whomanhood ((I meant of course to typewrite womanhood or, simply, Woman — or....Muse’.


In tracing the etymology of the Fates or ‘Moerae’ he speaks of ‘MORTA in the Latin (also PARCA.. ‘ The review, which begins with reference to Henri Corbin’s Avicenna, or, his Visionary Recitals, moves through classical Greece and Rome to concentrate on Northern (Norse) mythology. It concludes: ‘or it is simply, look, look at what these this tripartite the White Muse or Goddess called all Parcae etc. ‘names’ is in fact, like, doing.’ Earlier there is mention of ‘NORN....which suddenly runs Three, Urth, Vertandi, and Skuld, or Past, Present and Future, two giving blessings, the third ills, of life.’ The lines preceding mention of Mata Hari take on meaning within this context:


...crossing custom gate inspection.

On Moroccan citadel plural spires Northerm minarets
roost for aviary nest
printing deliveranced keep futuristic ominous words of
ghoulish Sunday sermon warning

For our more future, as parched imbecilic Mata Hari


The opening line powerfully evokes the final scene of Casablanca, an egregious instance of noble self-sacrifice within the eternal triangle. Avicenna may be fleetingly visible in ‘aviary’ but Morocco is far more strongly associated with the Arabic mystic Ibn al Arabi, author of an account of his circumambulatio of the Ka’ba at Mecca. This work is mentioned in ‘Continuing attempt...’, the text immediately preceding ‘Clear Shining Water’ in Additional Prose. This 1974 publication helps date ‘Toady’s Singular’ to the year separating the two poets’ books.


‘Ghoulish’ recalls the ‘Hari Ghouls’ of ‘Understood Disbelief’ (and perhaps Hungarian goulash) just as Olson’s ‘Skuld’ recalls that poem’s ‘maxim skulls’. Ghoul’s arabic etymology and identity in Muslim legend as evil demon preying on human bodies combines with Christian warnings of Death and Hell. ‘Parched’ is Parca. The future looks bleak.


In a book replete with misprints (accidental or not), ‘parcaed’ (as model for ‘genied’) would only be a letter away from ‘parched’ in any case.[50] The final line of the poem — ‘Ion Charles stoop.’ — seems to intensify the Olson reference in ‘dob-istortes’ if read as ‘I on’.. Speaking of Mao-tse-Tung, Olson had said, at the 1965 Berkeley reading, that entering the city, ‘he gave soap out to scrub....or like Baltimore, those goddamn stoops, of Peking’ (53). The subtext of putting one’s own house in order first (‘we’ve taught cleanliness to the world. Well then let us be clean ‘) may explain the hints of Olson’s address at Fort Square, in ‘citadel’ and ‘keep’. A bird of prey also ‘stoops’, to kill. Did Olson literally ‘stoop to conquer’?

 —    ¶    —


I am unqualified to know which of the two main types of paranoid schizophrenia afflicted John Wieners, although the dramatisations within Behind the State Capitol certainly invoke the splintered rather than relatively intact personality. It seems possible that hitherto unaccountable incursions might become locally accountable at the cost of isolation within that location, revealed as merely pathological.


As truly as single words in the telegraphic rush of later poems, they would then be no more than the shards of that ‘shattering of the world’ (‘Concentration’) quoted by Ginsberg in the introduction to Selected Poems 1958–1984, although they would always retain some force, on another reading, as components of a self-sufficient analogue for the splintered personality. I am reminded too of the productive ambiguities (including a suggestion of mad idiolect) at work in John Wilkinson’s comment on the ‘schizophrenic’ poem, ‘February’, to which I will now turn: — ‘ is possible that Wieners [at one level] is deploying the language of his madness under conscious control, and for calculated literary purpose.’ (TCR 46)


Paradoxically, it is in this later poem, from She’d Turn on a Dime (1984) — a book generally considered to evince more profoundly (or unrelievedly) schizophrenic writing — that a contrary instinct, yearning to communicate feelings that the rush of words frustrate, can be found in an instance of the ‘split figure’. Typically for Wieners, it involves a snatch of song lyric and recognising it at all calls upon the reading strategies we have grown accustomed, in the last two decades, to apply to the most rebarbative of late modernist texts. It therefore raises poetical issues even as it struggles to be seen.



             Cornhill Life
             Art News

Textual exercises are examples to
reward proof that theatre pieces pertain to
human growth. Like for instance jewelry
in German jewry contain erotic imagery, see

Causeways provoke plantagenet gripes
as Richard the Lion-hearted’s New York Times
in Londonderry Commonwealth bureau Town
from the Fire-escape to opera stars Boers


In an introductory note to 707 Scott Street, Fanny Howe recollects meeting John Wieners with her daughter in the summer of 1992:


Always courteous, his way of paying attention to us was to whirl our remarks into spirals of poetic speech. Struck, for instance, by my saying that my daughter was on her way to London, he ‘remembered’ a girl standing on the Salt and Pepper Bridge over the Charles River; she was, he said, ‘stuck with her back to the Hyatt Regency and couldn’t go to London until The Highway was built.’

(Journal 9–10)


London, as mentioned already, was the first destination for the other two members of that 1966 ‘three-way romantic attachment’ and a trip Wieners never made. Speculation as to who the girl might be is partly answered by: ‘Unimperishable beauty/ Allen may have his Himalayas// and I may have my London, someday/ through the woods, the ancient unimperishable trees’ (‘Playboy’, Cultural Affairs 114). Howe’s account also echoes the desolation — associated with failed means of transport — in his reference to undergoing electro-convulsive therapy, in ‘Untitled’ (SP’86 226): ‘Pierced with a miniature electric track/ on which no trains run/ our backs against the wall/ this shock treatment does not cure...’


In ‘February’ there is a strong impulse to establish a link of some sort, epitomised in the ‘’ of the closing line but also announced in the thematic linkage of ‘theatre pieces’ to ‘human growth’. Causeways (though maybe here the title of a magazine or article section) are — like ‘The Highway’ over the Atlantic — a means of getting somewhere (or back somewhere). Wieners would always associate them with Olson’s description of Highway 128, linking Gloucester with the mainland — ‘128 a mole/ to get at Tyre’ — a comparison with Alexander the Great’s siege causeway.


A link might suggest itself to Richard’s (third) crusade and the siege of Acre (intriguingly present, with Damascus, on the same page of Selected Poems86 in the publication details of a children’s book — ‘Long Acre 1001 Arabian nights’). The terms of a genetic and familial link may be ‘contained’ in ‘German’ and ‘Londonderry’ if we remember ‘Bequest’ (SP’86. 227), a poem about his parents’ relationship, in which — speaking of his father and possibly proceeding to both sides of his immediate family — he sees ‘a man, sodden in drink/ for centuries, a teutonic link// with Northern Ireland’.


The most famous Plantagenet gripes are of course referred to in a speech whose setting is ‘London. A Street’; Richard, Duke of York’s revelation of New (York) Times, a winter of discontent made glorious summer, ‘And all the clouds that loured upon our house/ In the deep bosom of the ocean buried’. London is the scene of the Gershwins’ song, ‘A Foggy Day’, recorded by Billie Holiday in the year that John Wieners lived in the famously foggy city of San Francisco. It begins: ‘A foggy day in London Town’ and ends with sudden elation — ‘then all at once I saw you standing there/ and in foggy London town/ the sun was shining everywhere’.


Wieners finds the seamless point of concealment for this fleeting evocation, ‘in London Town’, in the place name — Londonderry — that will always be synonymous with split or double identity. The concealment itself can be heard, quite simply, as a wish for love and for the clarity of statement so cruelly taken away from him. Whether or not it ‘redeems’ the poem is perhaps of secondary importance. It demands recognition.


I recollect reading that the last operation in England to cure a hernia by sympathetic magic took place somewhere in East Anglia in the 1920s. A willow sapling was split and the patient placed between the halves, which were bound together again strongly with fibres. It sounds painful, but perhaps preferable to chronic, untreated hernia. To view the split figure as analogous therapy is to lend it considerable poignancy; the self within self-therapy still yearning for home, with ‘shaped space to contain the I’ now truly down to nutshell proportions. ‘Infinite’, as in ‘Cocaine’, become ‘unutterable’. Revision of the Hotel Wentley street version: ‘I do not/ split/ but hang on the Demon/ Tree’.

Nerves: ‘Desperation’’s ‘Incessant Order’; Process and Form


The powerful combination of compression, abstraction and opacity in the 1970 collection Nerves, clearly presents a unique challenge to interpretation within Wieners’ oeuvre. The attendant dangers are well described in J.H. Prynne’s lecture: Stars, Tigers and The Shape of Words :


The ideological pre-commitment to a totally free play of linguistic accident within the text’s arena of potential signification leads without real hesitation directly to a totalising suspension of readerly disbelief in regard to the outcomes...programmatic refusal to countenance interpretive rank-ordering of relative probabilities, within social, historical and authorial frames as well as within the performance horizon of the text, amounts to assigning an ungraded force de frappe to both signal and noise equally, in what are in any case only selected segments within the carrier medium...[51]


The final part of this essay will focus on a reading of ‘Desperation’, one of the finest poems in ‘Nerves’. Within the poem’s fog of linguistic abstraction, signal is a self-evident first casualty. An authorial narrative comprising ‘competition’, ‘melancholy resignation’, ‘crushed languor’ and ‘rejected entreaties’, recognisable enough from the above pages, would fight to be lip-read.


Stephen Thomson’s comment in a recent article on Olson is a simultaneous reminder of commonsense hermeneutic parameters and of the gulf between ‘indications’ of the explicitly thetic type found in Maximus and those provided by the isolate qualified abstractions of ‘Desperation’: ‘No text, let us say, knows what it will be or how it will be read. But every text, to some extent or other, offers certain limits, possibilities and indications.’[52]


The dedicated hermeneutist, however emboldened by it, will gain little instruction from John Wieners’ statement on poetics for the 1960 anthology The New American Poetry : ‘I am allowed to ask many things because it has been given me the means to plunge into the depths and come up with answers? No. Poems, which are my salvation alone. The reader can do with them what he likes’. (NAP 425) The last sentence is more likely to be simple indifference to reception than prescient absorption of theory-to-come. Another possibility might be to see it as an oblique challenge to Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’ emphasis on the poem as ‘energy transferred from where the poet got it... by way of the poem itself, all the way over to, the reader.’ (NAP 386; CP 239)


In his ‘talk with John Wieners (1974)’ , Robert von Halberg cites Wieners’ statement and asks, ‘I wonder if you still conceive of poetry as your salvation and yours alone. What do you think is now the role of the poet?’ Wieners answers: ‘The poet’s role establishes distance from his address and distance from his audience. The audience is a sport of the author, and he must remember that.’ (SP’86 289) Difficult as it is to prove, I’m not at all certain — in the light of idiolectic syntax — that Wieners means what Von Halberg assumes he means, rather than ‘poems which alone are my salvation’.[53]


Such a reading accords better with the near-mystical power invested in ‘measure’ in W.C.Williams’ later writings: — ‘Only the counted poem, to an exact measure;’ — (‘The Desert Music’).[54] This concept underlies Wieners’ early venture as magazine editor. Admittedly, apparent indifference to reception looks like a stepping back from Williams’ concern for the poem’s transmission: ‘It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.’ (‘Asphodel, that greeny flower’, Breughel 161–2)


If the reader’s salvation is not Wieners’ primary focus however (and inter-sentence cohesion here is less than certain) then ‘The reader can do with them what he likes’ may not challenge ‘Projective Verse’. On the contrary, it might implicitly acknowledge Olson’s assertion of distinct energies, to include that ‘peculiar to verse alone... which will be, obviously, also different from the energy which the reader, because he is a third term, will take away’. In the unspecific terms offered by Olson, such energy is in itself pre-ethical and pre-political. The associated issue of aesthetic autonomy’s interface with politics is as alive now as it was for Von Halberg in his interview (Milne 85). Equally, the rhetoric of form and of aesthetic order feeds significantly into ‘Desperation’.


This is one of two interrelated elements which might usefully supplement (while to some extent also challenging) Wilkinson’s account of ‘Desperation’. It seems reasonable to see that account in the context of the general argument (notwithstanding full acknowledgement of ‘the true ‘terms’ by which Wieners is governed: beauty, love’) that his poetry is ‘fundamentally pre-romantic in its view of human nature as fallen and immutably so, with salvation obtainable only through grace’. (Tour 108)


That salvation’s source might be a complex issue, even for someone who ‘regarded himself as a Catholic poet’, is inherent to my argument. Remembering the baffled impatience, in some transatlantic quarters, with Olson’s sporadic reversion to his childhood Catholicism during later, grief-haunted years, one is reluctant to gainsay anyone’s professions of faith. However, I prefer — if such it is — the timewarp of 1972, when Mottram spoke of Wieners’ ‘residual Catholicism’ and I would gently point out that John also regarded himself as Greta Garbo.


The Jesuit claim to have the child for life (though possibly Wieners escaped the most formative years) would seem a particularly hollow victory in his case. Any account of his Catholicism must also take on board his clear-eyed assessment of ‘a religion that fosters guilt and repression’ (‘After Dinner on Pinckney Street’, Behind the State Capitol 125) as well as the persistence of the ‘19th century gnostic idealism’ Ginsberg recognised in ‘The Acts of Youth’.


The latter is perhaps symbolised in Wieners’ reversion to ‘A bride to the burden// that no god imposes but knows..’ in the later Selected Poems, after the aberration of the 1972 Selected Poems’ — ‘A bride to no burden// god imposes but knows...’. Finally we might ask to what extent his oft-cited mariolatry may not in fact stem directly from the words of fellow poets, such as Williams in The Desert Music (1954): ‘The female principle of the world/ is my appeal/ in the extremity/ to which I have come./ O clemens! O pia! O dolcis!/ Maria!’ (CP, Vol.2. 255: Breughel 86)


Wilkinson’s closing ‘tour d’horizon’ eloquently honours a political depth to Behind the State Capitol in its mention of ‘Children of the Working Class’, a text culminating, incidentally, in reference to God’s ‘scorn’ rather than ‘goodness’. If we are asked to see this political dimension diffused within the more deranged texts of the book, we should equally grant the value of a different kind of political incoherence in the poet’s earlier work. ‘Rise Shining Martyrs’ for example, though its party programme may be radically short on detail, challenges the view that the components of post-romantic’ ‘posturing’ as ‘filtered through the Beats’ in Wieners work ‘figure either a repudiation or an abasement from the pretension to world-shaper and transformer of consciousness’. (Tour 108)


The components of the ‘posturing’ — Wieners’ ‘extravagant vision of poetic destiny and the often-adopted stance of suffering poet’ — are certainly present, but they co-exist with a non-messianic, Poundian — even Confucian — pragmatic emphasis; the poem as guide to action. ‘Yes rise shining martyrs/ out of your graves, tell us/ what to do, read your poems.../Rise and salvage our century’. At least one account attests to the rhetorical impact of his public performance of the poem. Revolutionary generality is tethered to poetic precision in the meanings enfolded into ‘salvage’, not least of which the salving of consciousness — rather than conscience — and the containment of savagery.

 —    ¶    —


In discussing ‘Desperation’, an emphasis on the post-romantic ‘unmodernism’ of Edna St.Vincent Millay (sanctioned, it must be said, by John Wieners himself) alongside justified comparison with seventeenth century models, might still elide the influence of Keats, a pervasive presence in Wieners’ work.[55] Reference to that poet is occasionally no more than glancing, as in the phrase, ‘The holiness of technicality’, applied to the ballet dancer, Melissa Hayden, in Woman. This might mirror Olson’s dual approach in ‘Projective Verse’, to the head as well as the heart and its ‘affections’.


In ‘Shall Idleness Ring Then Your Eyes Like The Pest?’ (SP’86: 79), ‘Beware that breed of men...’ echoes ‘with brede of marble men and maidens overwrought’ (‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’) in apposite registration of stony cold-heartedness. In ‘Just an Ordinary Joe’ (SP’86 117) there may be a more complexly bitter reference to ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ in the final line — ‘Of ancient rich girl aiding tarnished knight en armour.’ — at arms and in love; weighed down in either case. In the 1959 journal (82): ‘That is the nature of joy/ that one thinks it will go on forever’ is followed some pages later by: ‘the real dope fiend...noting whatever lies around him, what comes into his ken, Darien, on a peak over the Pacific.’. (98)


Another echo is conveyed by what Bob Dylan, in his evocation of a world close to The Hotel Wentley, called ‘vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme’: ‘With Mike Mc Clure on the mesa/ outside of Tucson Ghost city/ Amid the cut crops/ brimming corn/ to bid adieu/ mad grass land.’ (Behind the State Capitol 47) Echoes of Ruth ‘in tears amid the alien corn’ (‘Ode to a Nightingale’) blend with Joy ‘bidding adieu’ (‘Ode to Melancholy’) and the more insistent ‘adieu’ s of Keats’s final stanza, within their context of ‘forlorn’, the bell ‘To toll me back to my sole self’.


Echoing ‘Joy’s grape’, ‘Joy’ begins: — ‘burst in on us: a rare blossom./ Joie; a french word for happiness’. (Selected 1972. 87) A 1969 poem, ‘Permanent’, begins — ‘All beauty dies, past/ especially the love/ in love with loveliness/ and youth, how vain// how bittersweet, this might/ be the last night we need/ meet’. (Cultural Affairs 86) The opening words and ‘bittersweet’ powerfully recall the final stanza of ‘Ode to Melancholy’: ‘She dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die;/ And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/ Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,/ Turning to Poison while the bee-mouth sips:’. An allusive track leads off towards Rodgers and Hart’s ‘Falling in Love with love’, particularly by the light of a shared moon image, and another to the sentimental melodrama and Vienna of MGM’s 1940 adaptation of Noel Coward’s ‘Bitter Sweet’.


They merge with contemporary song; more insistently than The Rolling Stones’ ‘this could be the last time’, the haunting wistfulness of Van Morrison’s ‘Madame George’, from the 1968 album ‘Astral Weeks’.[56] In mood as well as in its rumoured original version — ‘Madame Joy’ — this song is strongly evocative of Keats’s lines. The persistently repeated ‘say goodbye to Madame George’ blends towards the end into ‘dry your eyes for Madame George’ and a tumbling ‘the love’s to love to love the love’ modulates into the mesmeric ‘the love’s to love the love’s to love the love’s to love’.


Whether or not Morrison writes about an individual drag queen or, as he claimed, a composite figure, the pathos of leavetaking and happiness’s evanescence is focussed on an androgyny arguably implicit in Keats’s symbolic figure of Joy. Wieners’ poem ends: ‘as/ the tune persists in the/ ever constant moon,/ its reason clear by contrast.’, raising the thought that the viewless wings of poesy or song might bring us to where ‘the Queen-Moon is on her throne/ Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays’. Such echoes more than justify the attention Wilkinson gives to ‘Necromancy’ in a fine account of the poem. It would be nice to think that the entanglement of elegiac sentiment with place in Morrison’s song contributed to that nostalgic Boston masterpiece of 1969, ‘After Symond’s Venice’. (Asylum Poems)


Before discussing ‘Desperation’, it will be helpful to situate Keats in relation to Nerves. This can be done in terms of the claim that both Ginsberg and Creeley, by invoking Keats in their respective prefaces to Selected Poems 1958–1984 and Cultural Affairs in Boston:


perhaps unconsciously...betrayed a complicity with the view which their prefaces explicitly reject, that Wieners’ finest achievements came with The Hotel Wentley Poems when he was 24, subsequent writing being a sad testimony to the effects of poly drug misuse and mental frailty.(Tour 114–5)


It is certainly true that Ginsberg appears to relate ‘Keatsian eloquence’ to The Hotel Wentley Poems but he does so in a typically high-spirited, light-hearted vein that discourages earnest response, while somehow managing to remind us — irrelevantly and irreverently — that in forties London there were angels dining at the ritz and a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square: ‘John Wieners speaks with Keatsian eloquence, pathos, substantiality, the sound of Immortality in auto exhaust same as nightingale. He presents emotion on the spot’. (SP’86 15) Ginsberg however, after a traumatic childhood, had every reason for ambivalent feelings towards the language of hallucination and mental illness.


Whilst a Keatsian manner or style would be more than almost stilted in a modern poem, there is a certain tension between Ginsberg’s word ‘eloquence’ and the claim in ‘Chamber Attitudes’ that The Hotel Wentley Poems ‘[achieve] in their revised form a chamber-music of perfect, almost stilted prosody.’ There is every reason to think that Ginsberg would have found eloquence (indeed ‘Keatsian eloquence’) up to and including the pain and broken intensity of Nerves (1970).


Creeley too, in citing Olson on ‘a poetry of affect’, is emphasising a defining quality of Nerves. His linking the phrase implicitly to the Keatsian notion that ‘a man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory’, inevitably recalls Keats’s certainty of ‘nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination — What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth — whether it existed before or not’.[57] The likely component sense in ‘affections’ of ‘disposition or inclination’, enhancing the tie with ‘seizes’, suggests a direct transmission to the Wieners of Nerves.


By the time of these prefaces in the mid to late eighties, Creeley too, as I understand it, had sufficient personal reasons to feel some nostalgia for Wieners’ earlier mode. This would not have clouded his judgement about the achievement of Nerves. If there was an undeclared cut-off date for either of these friends and champions, it would probably be 1975. While Ginsberg clearly introduced the maudit mythology of doomed artistic precocity with regard to Wieners, it is worth noting that the 24-year-old Wieners was no more a teenage prodigy à la Chatterton or Rimbaud than the Keats of the Odes.



In what mad pursuit, or competition
the marvelous denies object
to what subject melancholy resignation?

drowned exile flight
down what exit, fall’s fused endeavor
discharges incessant order

for what crushed languor,
what hapless ascension
rejected entreaties pace

cruel chase, within vain decline?
Annoyed, over-drawn, exempt
to what rest, borrowed dichotomy

unmasks its single purpose.


In order to approximate my experience on first reading this poem, I must distance myself somewhat from Wilkinson’s assertion that — despite multiple puns in the phrase ‘fall’s fused endeavor’ — ‘it is the religious senses of ‘fall’ which elucidate the paradox of line six..., for the ‘incessant order’ of God’s disposition has relied on sexual discharge; human and Satanic misdeed can only serve the purposes of God’s order.’ (Tour 106) Instead I can focus on his opening remark about ‘the lyric’s rhythmic tightness’ and his noting ‘something tumbling, precipitate through its abbreviated lines’. I can puzzle over ‘this poem derives from a withheld emblem’, meditate — nodding in agreement — ‘This allows the poem its equivocation; its extreme emotional expression is both contrived and genuine; ... [it] conveys not love so much as being in love’. (Tour 105)


Accounting for this agreement, I note that alongside the ‘relentless procession of qualified abstracts in counterpoise’ (twelve in a thirteen line poem), and as if in imitation of the first stanza’s ‘verbal seesaw where positions are exchanged and whereby ‘melancholy resignation’ does not supersede ‘mad pursuit’ but coexists with it’, the entire poem seems possessed of one great syntactical equivocation, with words occupying more than one syntactical unit. The effect (to mix a metaphor) is that of chinese boxes collapsing in succession. This becomes clearer when we privilege sound over punctuational detail, helped by the poem’s own inconsistency in the latter case.


The phrase, ‘flight/ down what exit’ for example, is masked by the (quite possibly opportunistic) absence of a comma after ‘exile’ (the ‘true’ abstract here) and a spectral ‘exile flight’ takes off with sufficient impetus to risk attracting readerly over-projection.


Hearing the poem, beyond the page, line five takes on the ring of epi-Shakespearean interrogative inversion (‘down what exit falls fused endeavor?’) lending the following line a quality of reiteration (‘does incessant order discharge?’).


The penultimate line of the poem, affected by these syntactical ‘mishearings’, itself acquires a hint of existential enquiry directed to ‘borrowed dichotomy’. This is appropriate in the sense that the dichotomic cutting is being conveyed in and by our unresting and restless involvement in the equivocal.


‘What hapless ascension’ oscillates between question and exclamation. The unstable modality feeds into the next line — ‘rejected entreaties pace’ — where a potential ambiguity, ‘rejected entreaty’s pace’ (anticipated by ‘fall’s fused endeavor’ in its dual written and aural presence) becomes active. This ambivalence is resolved and stilled in the following ‘seesaw’ line: — ‘cruel chase, within vain decline’ — where entreaties’ pacing can be heard in the final syllable of the last three words.


There is however one last twist or reminder of equivocation, disturbing what would otherwise be a moment of complete ‘rest’. It operates at the macro-level of the poem’s rhetorical structure and lends support to Wilkinson’s emphasis on seventeenth century models for ‘Desperation. I refer to the dialogic element he discusses in the case of Crashaw and Cowley’s twin poems for and against Hope. Within individual poems of the period, typical antagonists are Soul and Body, Soul and Pleasure and — in Milton’s sonnet ‘When I consider how my light is spent’ — Desperate Subject and Patience.


Lines four to ten might comprise either a response to the enquiry imperfectly posed in the first stanza or its expansion and intensification. Response remains a possibility, despite its progressive undermining by the weakened but persistent questions, until the question mark after ‘decline’ defeats it. The very thought of a reply dissolving into further questions pushes desperation towards the dénouement of ‘unmasks’.


Reflection as to why one would ever have taken ‘rejected’ as an active simple past verb rather than the (grammatically) normative single modifier it now appears to be, takes one back through the text to both the keystone of ‘discharges’ and the rhetorical indeterminacy of ‘for what’. This phrase begins a new stanza with a misleading sense of the new start, an escape from mere interrogative reiteration and subordination to ‘order’. To a considerable extent both effects (though the comma after ‘languor’ undercuts the second) persist throughout the stanza until line — and stanza — break at ‘pace’ allows its force as (sole) verb to register.


The plausibility of rejected entreaties amounting to a personal calvary, pacing a hapless ascension, takes time to understand but if that is what one means by ‘crucifixion’ I certainly agree. A vestigial sense that entreaties might just — archaically — pace a cruel chase maintains equivocation up to that moment of exhausted apparent rest, after ‘decline’, giving fine point to the understated component of the next word — ‘Annoyed’.


Finally — in a further refinement of the seesaw principle, aided by the comma’s slowing effect — ‘cruel chase, within vain decline’ registers ‘cruel chase within’ and — more faintly — ‘in vain’ as it walks the line. The only certainty in this hall of mirrors is that it is not ‘borrowed dichotomy’ which is ‘annoyed, over-drawn, exempt’ but rather a subject too hounded to identify itself articulately; in this sense literally denied its object.


If a number of these events are to be considered as separable for the eye and ear and to that extent as ‘secondary’ in their operation, they can also be ‘fused’, as well as triggered, by grammatical obtuseness. The opening sentence’s claim to interrogative status is undercut by its (strategic?) failure to form a syntactically appropriate structure: ‘does the marvelous deny’. This has the effect of concentrating exclamation in the ‘what’ of line one, while draining it from a locally strengthened inquiry — ‘to what subject...?’ — in line three. The modal instability established by this extension of ‘verbal seesaw’ resonates in the isolated ‘what’ of line eight and as counter-effect to the illusion of direct address mentioned above, in ‘to what rest’.


The ultimate effect of such tortured syntax, whose structure resembles a system of overlapping but identical elements, is paratactic. Within the rhetoric of chant, objects (the more object-like for their abstraction) are piled up and en-listed in a single purpose, through, beyond, ‘dichotomy’. The change-ringing of ‘in what’, ‘to what’ ‘down what’ ‘for what’ intensifies this.


Yet it is the ongoing ‘fused endeavor’ of syntax that delivers incessantly shifting recognitions of sense and justifies viewing the poem as clearly projective in Olson’s sense. Perceptions in immediate succession (and often with retroactive force) transform the objects of rhetoric. The paradox of a projective poem conveying a state (that of love’s desperation) is mirrored in the fact of that poem’s non — open-field, formal containment.


The perfect analogue for this of course would be the ‘cold pastoral’ of an archaic art object ‘overwrought’ with scenes of arrested ardour and gazed on by a suffering would-be lover-poet. Indeed, thinking of where one has heard that mingled tone of question and exclamation before, leads to the source of ‘mad pursuit’ in Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’,


What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
‘What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?’


‘Desperation’, while it certainly reflects the coexistence of hope and despair in the state of unrequited love, which underwrites Wilkinson’s comparison with Richard Crashaw’s ‘M. Crashaw’s Answer for Hope’, is also the common condition of pursuer-suitor and pursued. This applies not only to Keats’s poem (‘Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, / Though winning near the goal’ is another epitome of Wieners’ oeuvre) but to Marvell’s ‘The Garden’, thematically related in its meditation on hectic activity or movement and stasis or rest.


The opening lines present variants of several key words in ‘Desperation’, in sidelong glance at the pursuit of poetry — begun so oft in gladness — and other (even) more competitive careers:


How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crowned from some single herb or tree


The component of ‘craze’ (according with ‘furor’, ‘madness’) in ‘amaze’, might link Wieners’ ‘mad pursuit, or [mad] competition’ with ‘the marvellous’. Such echoes, in and by themselves, do not necessarily amount to a significant presence, even in accumulation with ‘cruel [lovers]’, a fortunate fall ‘on grass’ and a gloss on ‘dichotomy’ and ‘single’ in ‘Two paradises ‘twere in one/ to live in paradise alone’.


However, the shadowing of Keats’s theme of aesthetic process and stasis by that of metamorphosis in ‘The Garden’ does relate significantly to Wieners’ line — ‘discharges incessant order’.[58] It raises the suspicion of a pun — of a type that will increasingly come to characterise his poetry — on ‘Marvell’ in ‘marvelous’.[59] It also points in the direction of the struggle, an increasingly desperate one for the poet in his mid-thirties, to continue ‘taking away from God his sound’ by discharging his duty to make order out of the ‘incessant’.


The collocation of ‘uncessant’ with ‘labours’ is a reminder, pointing away from a fixed divine dispensation, in the direction of this more humble plane of the ongoing.[60] Hence my resistance to a reading of the second stanza as a Divine Comedy of ‘God’s incessant order’, discharged (that is, triggered or even motivated) by Man’s Fall and Satan’s pride; not that it is an implausible reading but rather that (in Stephen Thomson’s phrase) ‘there are other things as well’.


While it would be foolish to deny the sexual pun of ‘discharges’, I am slightly sceptical about the confident detection, in the third stanza, of ‘images of compulsive masturbation where ‘hapless ascension’ is both erection and crucifixion, and its glorious aftermath [is] the redemption and spilt seed of the poem’. If, liberated from Olson’s advice, John Wieners is ‘trafficking’ in ‘symbols’, then ascension can hardly be synonymous with crucifixion (or even resurrection).[61] Redemption, surely too, would be sought in escape from ‘floods of onanism’.


Taken in context, ‘hapless ascension’ is both identified with and consequent on, ‘rejected entreaties’: ‘what hapless ascension/ rejected entreaties pace’. This paced ascension is more an ascending; no stairway to heaven but the steps to an empty ‘walk-up’. In a poem which plays on ‘ascension’ and ‘decline’ as well as ‘decline’ and ‘fall’, it is also, of course, the crescendo of desperate, mounting entreaty.


There are several explanations for ‘crushed’, from an evocation of the crushed ice in summer evening cocktails in languid company to the crushed metal and/or bodies at the end of an iconic American ‘mad pursuit’; escape — but ‘down what exit’ achieve it? Four years earlier, Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn had revealed its own desperate world . The very last exit of course is revealed by dichotomy. ‘Crushed languor’ might also be the logical extension of ‘melancholy resignation’.


We are close in time to Asylum Poems (another reminder of what ‘discharge’ can figure) and the line in ‘The Dark Brew’ referring obliquely to the traumatic events of 1966: — ‘So two or three years later, I collapse under the burden/... but the chaos, culmination, conflagration of/ what should be love’s union but is not is/ simply pest of confusion in the face of order’. (SP’86 105) The implication of literal defacement in ‘pest’, recalling the Auden quotation contained in an early poem’s title — ‘Shall idleness ring then thine eyes like the pest’ — contributes to a syntactical equivocation suggesting an almost sacriligious dimension to ‘confusion’. The emphasis however is essentially moral, Poundian.

 —    ¶    —


Wieners associates ‘discharge’ not only with sexual discharge but with the process of mephitic life from which art’s order can be established by the artist:


‘That is why poetry/ even tho it does deal with language is no more holy act/ than, say shitting./                                              Dis-/ charge. Manifesting the/ process of/ is it life? Or the action between this and/                                               non-action?’. (NAP 426)


In 707 Scott Street he writes of:


The result of the action we are engaging ourselves in, so that if we write, we have the powers of all who have written before...A legacy we pass on, transmit to others after us. Order in oneself...Knowing that that instant, this, is twofold... From then to now. But
back again from now to infinity where the first mind shone.(87)


I imagine that this is a passage one would have in mind in glossing ‘borrowed’ as going deeper [than the tropes borrowed from seventeenth century poets] ‘to a sense of lineage, persistence and repetition...which pervades Nerves’. (Tour 107) Wieners’ use of ‘discharge’ is indebted to the passage from Olson’s Projective Verse already touched on: ‘Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge’. (CP 239) Another Olson text — alluding to Keats — which bears indirectly on ‘Desperation and directly on Wieners’ poetic, is referred to in 707 Scott Street:


[My flesh]/ is my key into all wisdom, is wisdom as the/ man who wrote ‘Against Wisdom as Such’ says/ My master. Who reveals so much to me, and/ who acknowledges me,...// Let me know the chambers of my soul. Even tho/ he would never acknowledge my using/ those words. (49–50)


Another entry the same day has:


One can practice the pure poem in Life: viz. Monks and nuns, saints John Kelly and virgins, whores, all who are led by forces that are not their own. Giving them over to the white, contemplation, making art a religion and the pursuit of their soul their guide. Dante through Hell, hungering after Beatrice. But in the poem there has to be the black,
the whole process gone thru, trans/ mutation... (51)


This passage too relates closely to Keats’s famous letter to Richard Woodhouse, October 27th., 1818: ‘What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation.’ (Letters 157) The phrase ‘making art a religion’ is easily misunderstood, the more so if we fail to register the typical Wieners insistence on one’s ‘own forces’. In ‘Against Wisdom as Such’ (CP 260) Olson applauds the fact that:


we [say we] write...this is something. And worth more than all the religion they all do seem to court (as so many gifted men do these days — as Jung, say; or as other more immediate writers have courted other forms of authority.) — As though art were not enough for any of us to behave to! (261)


‘Truths’, he continues, are only, ‘at the gravest loss, verbally separated [from us]. They stay the man. As his skin is. As his life. And to be parted with only as that is.’ ‘Stay’ seems to include a passing sense of ‘support’, while ‘skin’ correlates with Wieners’ phrase ‘my flesh’. Olson continues, in the passage quoted at outset, implicitly associating the order of art with the concept of (non-political) ‘containment’. He concludes: ‘the poet cannot afford to traffick in any other ‘sign’ than this one, his self, the man or woman he is. Otherwise God does rush in. And art is washed away, turned into that second force, religion.’. (261–2) Wieners’ patently disapproving phrase, ‘making art a religion’, is another instance of near slip of the tongue and, rather than attacking aestheticism, he means what Olson means: reducing art to religion.

 —    ¶    —


Within ‘Desperation’’s relentless process of desperate flight, halted — as unbearable dreams often are — only by an unmasking, there are natural intractabilities: Shelley’s death, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, The Tempest are three only of the hazards to navigation figured by ‘drowned exile’. On the other hand, ‘mad pursuit’ can ‘explain’ ‘fall’ (Autumn) and ‘melancholy’.


Completing this writing I find oblique confirmation of a revenge motif in ‘Desperation’, in an archive letter from 1965, quoted in Andrea Brady’s excellent recent article.[62] Writing to the publisher George Minkoff, Wieners fulminates against ‘the drug-addicted students of the State University’ and ‘ex-convicts and thieves particularly from Long Island and the Bronx’: ‘I have been persecuted by them for 25 years, so desperately turned to poetry as means of revenge’.


Wilkinson’s reference to Crashaw with regard to ‘Desperation’ is very apposite. Clearly a word like ‘annoyed’ implies — as well as a connotation of ‘harassed by repeated attacks’-an early seventeenth century nominal sense of ‘annoy’, while ‘exempt’ has something of the obsolete meaning of ‘set apart, remote’ in its proximity to ‘over-drawn’ (a hinted component of ‘withdrawn’). A suggestion of direct access, derivable from the ecclesiastical special meaning of ‘exemption’ (‘release from the jurisdiction of the ordinary and subjection only to that of the Holy See’), might explain the apparent ungrammaticality of ‘exempt/ to...’.


George Herbert seems another possible presence. ‘The Discharge’ ends by dismissing distrust in a context that has included the imagery of accountancy ‘hast thou not made thy counts, and summ’d up all?’... ‘Only the present is thy part and fee’.. language none too distant from ‘over-drawn’, ‘exempt’, ‘borrowed’ and (perhaps) ‘order’. The elaboration of the puns on ‘rest’ in ‘The Pulley’, perhaps endebted to Shakespeare’s mature tragedies, drives ‘Desperation’’s autopoeisis more powerfully: ‘Yet let him keep the rest,/ But keep them with repining restlessness’ reminding us obliquely that ‘the rest is silence’.


However ungrammatical ‘exempt/ to what rest’ may be, it is certainly poetically superior to ‘exempt/ from’ in this context. Its disjunctive oddness secures for ‘exempt’ its solid place in the trinity of line eleven, while lending ‘to what rest’ an independent force, even a hint of ‘to what end?’. Just as Herbert’s ‘glass of blessings’ is a faint echo of Pandora’s box, so the ‘Rest’ singularly withheld in his poem and (enactually) in Wieners’, is the faint mirror-image of a singularly retained Hope.


The powerful collocation of ‘rest’, ‘borrowed’ and ‘unmasks’ recollects, beyond revenge, that language is indeed the ‘legacy’ we clothe our nakedness with, and that these theatre clothes are borrowed: ‘off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here.’ As John Wieners wrote in 1959, ‘Let us not take ourselves too seriously. We return to the grave soon enough.’


This feels, suddenly, like a good point at which to end. Turning in conclusion to the place of Behind the State Capitol in Wieners’ oeuvre, it is useful to bear in mind Geoff Ward’s comment on Poe’s ‘testing of phenomenological limits by running to verbal extremes’: ‘Poe wanted to transgress, not simply from the desire to shock or to excite himself, but in order to find out where limits, if they exist, truly lie’. (Writing 192) Michael Rumaker’s Black Mountain anecdote about Wieners’ reaction to ‘Exit 3’ (note 23) strongly suggests a serious engagement from the start with the limits of what is ‘sayable’. While Ward’s comment can be usefully applied to a number of progressively ‘shocking’ or ‘embarrassing’ sixties poems, I cannot see Behind the State Capitol (or indeed the subsequent work) as capable of sharing in this project.


The criterion of ‘coherence’ may seem incorrigibly ‘out of time’ but I have found it a useful measure of value in Wieners’ case nonetheless. From the present vantage, after a further three decades of the linguistic degradation accompanying steady realignment of human aspiration to procrustean market demands, it is hard not to be sympathetic to the wish to see this book as stylistically-tormented sociopolitical critique. The initial heroic gesture of ‘taking from God his sound’ appears to fit Wieners perfectly — in current gladiatorial terms — to ‘step up to the plate’ and, in Pound’s phrase, meet the age’s renewed demand for ‘an image/ Of its accelerated grimace..../ A prose kinema’. Who better than a self-declared Rimbaldian, conclusively reversing that exemplary trader’s retreat into the pale of the meanly rational?


An alternative to increased claims for Behind the State Capitol might be to take its breadth of reference as a token of depths still open to sounding in what preceded it. The pyrotechnics of great intelligence in free-fall can then point us back to the star-glow that will outlast them. It may be as simple a matter as the way — in the absence of overt political intent — a mention of ‘dawn’ is made to throw light on a universal gesture of fidelity or good faith, arrogated to patriotism in a dichotomised country of broken promise, promises and dreams; reserved land and asylumed home for free and brave, respectively and alike: — ‘Covered over/ with the hand of man is the dung of/ the human heart.’


My feeling is, that with the exception of a very small number of ‘heartbroken laments’, all that is distinct and unique about John Wieners’ poetry had been written by 1972, when the English Selected appeared. That said, the countervailing impulse that persists most movingly throughout the progressive ‘splintering of a world’ — with all of that process’s inherent interest as model and stimulus for modernist writing — is the transmutation of popular song lyric; low culture if you will, but middle ground in any case between ‘elevated thoughts’ and celebrity gossip.[63] This is not of course to suggest any essential incompatibility between late modernism and ‘low culture’, but simply to celebrate an emotional wisdom feeding off — and back into — common sentiment, tolerant of cliché, that ‘come rain or come shine’, hell or high water, is not about to go away.


Since John’s legacy has also taken the form of a freedom to go beyond what would once have been considered ‘too personal a tale’, I’ll assume his permission to end anecdotally. I was very fortunate to know him at a time in his life that was relatively desperation-free. Free too (or so I thought) of the ‘annoy’ of illness shortly to return. I feel I learnt a great deal from him and remember many things he said at that time, over four decades ago. Speaking of his African-American fellow citizens (though two or three ‘terms of language’ prior) he said: ‘they are this country’s only salvation’. (It might have been ‘they are all that redeems this country’). It confronts me again with the loss held in the searing opening words of ‘Contemplation’: ‘Why do they turn away from us/ on the streets when we love/ them’. (Behind the State Capitol 20) Only Edward Dorn, in ‘The Sundering UP tracks’, has so much as approached that poignant registration.


We were talking about Robert Creeley on another occasion. I can’t remember what I said but John reacted to something in it with: ‘Oh, I don’t think he allows himself too much peace of mind’. The tone was of quiet approval and admiration. Exemption to or from ‘rest’ seemed something to value. A mark of distinction. The last time I saw him, visiting the U.S. in the summer of 1972 with my wife-to-be, he was courteous but abstracted, remote.


The occasion before that is a much more vivid memory; at a restaurant close to the Cornell Medical Center where Charles Olson was dying, in the first days of 1970. Those present included Robin Blaser, Ed Dorn, Gerard Malanga, Harvey Brown and Jack Clarke and John addressed the table with his bubbling, high-spirited laugh: ‘Wouldn’t Charles just love this! He’ll be furious to have missed it!’ A few days later he wrote ‘Reading in bed’: ‘to pore over one’s past/ recall ultimate orders one has since doubted/ in despair. Inner reality returns// of moonlight over water at Gloucester, as/ fine a harbour as the Adriatic, Charles said, before the big storm/ blew up to land ancient moorings,...’ (SP’86. 162)


The words relate effortlessly to a physical world and to its more real correspondence. The harbour, the ancient moorings and the ultimate orders undermined by the equivocal ‘recall’ are aspects of his sense of personal ordination and of what Olson himself, at Berkeley, had called the ‘close’; the conventual discipline. The ‘big storm’, beyond its own event, is a ‘resemblance’ of a personal breach and an after-echo of the hurricane that caused them first to meet.


In fact I think of him each time I’m in a restaurant. He knew poverty, even hunger, as I’ve known neither and don’t anticipate I ever shall. He said, ‘I always try to tip. I remember what it feels like to wait on tables.’

 —    ¶    —


The sky was clear, the winds had gone down, and the full moon was setting radiantly in the west, when I found myself on the surface of the ocean, in full view of the shores of Lofoden, and above the spot where the pool of the Moskoe-ström had been.

A Note on the Text

The writing was completed in April 2007, with subsequent minor additions and excisions. It does not take account of Wieners’ recently published A Book of Prophecies (Edited by Michael Carr with an Introduction by Jim Dunn, Bootstrap Press, 2007).

Abbreviated Titles

Allen, Donald (ed.):
NAP: — The New American Poetry, 1945–1960

Duncan, Robert:
Letters: — The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov

Keats, John:
Letters: — Letters of John Keats

Olson, Charles:
CP: — Collected Prose

Ward, Geoff:
Writing: — The Writing of America; Literature and Cultural Identity from the Puritans to the Present.

Wieners, John:
Behind the State Capitol: — Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike.
Cultural Affairs: — Cultural Affairs in Boston; Poetry and Prose 1956–1985.
Journal (after quotation); The 1959 journal (in the text); 707 Scott Street (in the text): — The Journal of John Wieners is to be called 707 Scott Street for Billie Holiday 1959.
Pentacles: — Ace of Pentacles
Selected 1972: — Selected Poems, (1972).
SP’86: — Selected Poems 1958–1984.
Wentley: — The Hotel Wentley Poems.

Wilkinson, John:
Tour: — A Tour of the State Capitol: Introducing the poems of John Wieners’.
TCR: — ‘Too-Close Reading: Poetry and Schizophrenia’.

Williams, William Carlos:
Breughel: — Pictures from Breughel and other Poems.
CP: — Collected Poems.


[1] John Wieners, Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike, Boston: The Good Gay Poets, 1975.

[2] Geoff Ward, The Writing of America; Literature and Cultural Identity from the Puritans to the Present, Polity Press, 2002. 192.

[3] John Wilkinson, ‘A Tour of the State Capitol: Introducing the poems of John Wieners’, in “the darkness surrounds us”: American Poetry, Sam Ladkin and Robin Purves (eds.), Edinburgh Review 114, 2006. 96–125. John Wieners, Nerves, London: Cape Goliard Press, 1970.

[4] ‘Chamber Attitudes’, Jacket 21, Feb.2003,[] I am grateful for John Wilkinson’s generous-spirited encouragement of a dialogue long overdue in Wieners’ case and hope that disputation here has not entirely lost sight of conversation, its original condition. I am more than aware that disagreement in this case obscures much greater areas of unspoken strong agreement.

[5] Cultural Affairs in Boston; Poetry and Prose 1956–1985, Raymond Foye (ed.), Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1988. 17

[6] John Wilkinson, ‘Too-Close Reading: Poetry and Schizophrenia’, The Gig #1, Nov. 1998, Nate Dorward (ed.). 43–53.

[7] John Wieners, Selected Poems, London: Jonathan Cape, 1972.

[8] See also: John Wieners, Selected Poems 1958–1984, Raymond Foye (ed.), Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1986. 195

[9] This is not intended as facetiously as it may sound. In the decade preceding publication of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, the cyclone had become a metaphor in the U.S. for political revolution in much the way that the Vortex was to become for poetic revolution, permanent or not. It would transform the drab country into a land of colour and unlimited prosperity and was frequently used by editorial cartoonists. See for example: ‘In the cyclone cellar — waiting for fair weather’. (cover illustration for Puck 1894)]
      Charles Olson’s description of Wieners as ‘ the weather’, quoted by Robert Creeley in his introduction to Cultural Affairs in Boston, may have something to answer for in this context. The torque metaphor is a persistent presence in twentieth century poetry: Yeats’s gyres, Eliot’s ‘whirled in a vortex’. The overall structure of Roy Fisher’s A Furnace is ‘the ancient figure of the double spiral, whose line turns back on itself at the centre and leads out again, against its own incoming curve.’ The last phrase brings to mind Jeremy Prynne’s reference to curved space, in a 1971 lecture at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver on the structure of Olson’s The Maximus Poems [Serious Iron (Iron 12), reprinted in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society 28: 3–13]. The torque is invoked in Olson’s untitled short poem: ‘turn now and rise/ Wrest the matter into your own/ hands — and Nature’s laws’ (Niagara Frontier Review, Fall 1965; Archaeologist of Morning.)

[10] John Wieners, The Journal of John Wieners is to be called 707 Scott Street for Billie Holiday 1959, Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1996.

[11] There is considerable intertextual resonance in ‘self same rising’. Together with ‘this present moon’ in the following stanza, it recalls the haunting last line of ‘Wrapped Up in an Indian Blanket’ — ‘Waiting for his face to rise on cliffs of the moon.’ Echoing Wieners’ blend of nostalgia and elegy, the overtones in Keats are of homesickness in ‘the sad heart of Ruth’. At the end of Wieners’ poem, the projective ghost of an elision opens the self-contained penultimate line to forward movement: ‘because they are not now the same/ sun shines and larks break forth...’
      While the later revision substitutes ‘sad’ for ‘and’, the phrase ‘the same sun shines’ recalls not only ‘rising’ but what may well have been Keats’s own unconscious source for ‘self same song’: — Perdita’s ‘The selfsame sun that shines upon his court/ Hides not his visage from our cottage, but/ Looks on alike’ (The Winter’s Tale: IV.iv.448–50). This (if the pun be forgiven) is the oblique consolation buried at the heart of Wieners’ poem. Shakespeare’s here and there are Wieners then and now too.

[12] See: ‘Projective Verse’, Poetry New York 3 (1950) in:
The New American Poetry, 1945–1960, Donald M Allen (ed.) New York: Grove Press, 1960.
Charles Olson, Collected Prose, Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (eds.) Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. 239–249.
      Envisaging ‘an open verse as formal as the closed, with all its traditional advantages’, Olson had held up the pioneering example of Cummings, Pound and Williams in using ‘the machine as a scoring to [their] composing, as a script to its vocalization’. (CP 245) As opposed to Olson himself, there was no precedent in Wieners’ work for composition as ‘scoring’. Such a reading would, however, involve a weakening of enjambement and might offer partial excuse for ‘toilet’ by extending its reference within the stanza. Otherwise — exclusively linked to ‘face’ — it traduces a fuller sense of dressing and preparing oneself, arguably latent in ‘take the cloth unto his loins’.

[13] An over-literal take-up of Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’ exhortation ‘fast, there’s the dogma’ may contribute to Wieners’ corner-cutting strategy, which essentially prioritises speed, ‘clop’ transmuted instantly to ‘cloche’, the Chicago White Sox baseball club become White House in the time it takes to say ‘socks’; hinted registration, through enjambement, of a transatlantic version of baseball in the single word ‘Lords’ and complex play on leather furniture, hotel rooms and cigarettes triggered by the opening word ‘suite’ and the unspoken word ‘Marlboro’; possible (ironic?) implication of Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son.
      In terms of Ward’s ‘jazz-related’ improvisatory aesthetic, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker spring to mind. The phrase ‘master bedroom’ in ‘Signs of the President Machine’ (Behind the State Capitol) may be a further example of such lightning-speed substitution. In a ‘Meirovingian’ context Wilkinson persuasively identifies as anti-semitic, the term flashes by as the acceptable face of ‘master-race’: ‘wintergardening carol from/ the Meirovingian corner besides/ the master bedroom,’. Though there is poetic precedent in Hopkins and Dylan Thomas, in performative terms this is a device reminiscent of the English comedian Max Miller’s speedy elision of the taboo word: — ‘ ‘ere! ‘ere! ‘ere!’. Omnipresent potential censure and countervailing opportunity to exploit audience complicity is common to personal and societal paranoia.
      The roots of this particular ‘projective’ device, a stylistic hallmark of the later poetry, are traceable to an idiolectic ‘tic’ in the earlier poetry, the ‘unexplained’ substitution of secondary meaning for primary: ‘that/ long at last awaited journey/ to the stars, who stay// at the Chatham, Gotham and Pierre.’ (‘Tuesday 7:00 PM’); ‘should I/ welcome spring; turn summer down, and fall// from my hands..’ (‘Confession’). Given the poem’s tonal range, ‘and see/ that there is no fear without me: that it is within...’ (‘The Acts of Youth’) is a more problematic example perhaps, but involves the same sudden acceleration.

[14] ‘As a whole [Behind the State Capitol] sustains and exploits this shifting, dynamic relationship [a dialectic with his prior texts] brilliantly and ‘coquettishly’, at times launching into gloriously paranoid arraignments of government agencies, at times pausing for heartbreaking laments, at times lipping a quip a line. The difficult triumph of keeping this edge becomes evident in looking at the later poems collected in She’d Turn On a Dime where too often queenish quips perish in inconsequentiality. Behind the State Capitol remains endlessly surprising, moving, funny, engaged and flip...’ (Tour 121–2)

[15] John Wieners, The Hotel Wentley Poems, San Francisco: The Auerhahn Press, 1958; revised edition, Dave Haslewood, San Francisco, 1965. [Unpaginated] (See Tour 96)

[16] See Michael Rumaker, Black Mountain Days, Asheville, NC: Black Mountain Press, 2003. 437.
He describes a late-night drunken, impromptu ‘rehearsal’ for Edna St.Vincent Millay’s play Aria da Capo: ‘our voices, instigated by John and me, taking on the camp Southern drawl of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire..

[17] The editorial history of the revisions in Selected 1972, as well as the even more problematic issues surrounding publication of Behind the State Capitol, may be discoverable — amongst other places — in the University of Connecticut archives at Storrs which I have not been able to consult. They might reveal that the source of rumoured resistance to publication by the poet’s Boston friends was not the most obvious one — its clearly flaunted derangement — but rather that it was a total editorial muddle. Whether they reveal emotional disorder or not, any threat of ‘incoherence’ in Pentacles pales into insignificance beside that found in Selected 1972.
      Wilkinson’s earlier reminder that ‘schizophrenia names a pathological process rather than a state of being’ (TCR 46) cautions against assuming that the pathological sets in irreversibly at any easily recognisable point of Wieners’ career. Nonetheless, ‘The Acts of Youth’’s evident ability to absorb ‘disintegration’ hints at a counter-principle stalking lessened powers, including — in the case of revision — lessened powers of judgement.

[18] It seems highly unlikely that a Jesuit education could have left Wieners unaware of G.M. Hopkins’ ‘God’s Grandeur’: ‘Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;’, but a more immediate source might be Mahalia Jackson’s ‘Hands of God’ [Apollo LP 486, (10/’59)]: ‘Put your hand into the hands of God/ let him lead you when the way is hard to trod’, which incidentally rectifies a natural English tendency to see ‘would trod’ as ungrammatical, like other slips of the tongue such as ‘For that it is what we are made for’ (‘corrected’ only in Selected Poems ‘86).
      The protective hands of God are also the containing hands in Jackson’s breakthrough ‘Billboard top 100’ success, ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’, released two months before The Hotel Wentley Poems were written. They offer a Protestant analogue to Hopkins’ Holy Ghost brooding ‘over the bent/ World’, as well as a counter-rhythm to — or sidelight on — the image’s sense of controlling force in Wieners’ sequence: ‘Held as they are in the hands/ of forces they/ cannot understand’. A later Apollo LP (503) from the early sixties includes Hezekiah Walker’s ‘Do you know him’ (quoted in Wieners’ 1963 poem ‘Joy’) the opening line of which is ‘I know a man’, the title of Creeley’s celebrated poem.
      In relation to ‘those young’, see ‘After Dinner on Pinckney Street’ (Behind the State Capitol 125): ‘How can he in later years signify the artifice & vices he used as a young adult to attain even the writing paper & pen necessary to communicate to others, bent upon literature and its relation to our nation’s aspiring young, for solidifying the random and heedless acts...’ There is every reason to read ‘aspiring young’ as completely unironic in intent. Wieners lacked Ed Dorn’s acerbic scepticism: — ‘If I weren’t an intelligent man/ I’d share the attitude/ of my president/ ‘Education is a wonderful thing.’ (‘Oxford, Part V’, The North Atlantic Turbine 39). Ironically enough, however, Dorn was — perhaps unconsciously — echoing lines from ‘A Series’: (Pentacles 41; Selected 1986. 73): ‘If the terrifying weakness of the drug-addict/ were not a specious argument of my elders/ I would be tempted to agree with it.’

[19] The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi (eds.), Stanford University Press, 2004. 382–3

[20] Compare syntactic confusion in The Waste Land (II.96–99): ‘In vials of ivory and coloured glass/ Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,/ Unguent, powdered, or liquid — troubled, confused/ And drowned the sense in odours;’.

[21] ‘John Wieners: guide through the suspended vacuum’, Poetry Information 12/13 double issue, Spring 1975. 5–18. (a reprint of its original American publication in Contact 7, 1973, Philadelphia)

[22] Robert Duncan, ‘Taking from God his Sound’, The Nation, 200: May 31, 1965. 595–598. (596)

[23] In a passage incidentally offering a further gloss on ‘down what exit’ (‘Desperation’), Michael Rumaker writes:

John had a gentleness and humor, a concern and openness, and though he was still shy about it in his poems, was beginning, if just barely, to speak of his gayness there, a less messy and troubled acceptance of who he was than my own...One...evening...after he’d heard me read ‘Exit 3’ aloud to the community, he was surprised that I was so bold as to have the drunken marine...kiss the hitchhiker...directly on the mouth’. Rumaker describes Wieners’ ‘shocked whisper’ and speculates as to whether it was ‘at that moment, among many other moments, [that] the seed of an even more expanded possibility was sprung forth in John.
                               — (Black Mountain Days 438)

[24] I would also be inclined to associate with Keats’s insight, the ‘confused doubt’ and the ‘erroneous untedious mysteries’ in ‘Understood Disbelief’ (Behind the State Capitol) which Wilkinson convincingly presents as opposed implicitly to ‘the scholarly mysteries expounded by Olsonians..’ The irony of course is that Olson himself promoted that very insight in ‘Equal, That Is, to the Real Itself’, an essay alluded to in Wieners’ 1959 journal.

[25] Amongst several apparent echoes, see: ‘A Poem for the Insane’: — ‘who is the young man// who sneaks out thru/ the black curtain, away/ from the bad bed.’ Compare Thomas’s: — ‘..Made his bad bed in her good/ Night, and enjoyed as he would.’ (‘Into her lying down head’) Also: ‘A Poem for Early Risers’: — ‘all the uneatable foods/ that the morning man/ perishes, if he remembered.’ Compare ‘A Winter’s Tale’: — ‘and the morning men// Stumble out with their spades’.

[26] Louis A. Sass, Madness and Modernism, Harvard University Press 1994. Cited in TCR. The other two categories are ‘automization’ and ‘impoverishment’. Of ‘desocialization’, Sass writes (Wilkinson relating this to the second stanza of Wieners’ poem ‘February’): ‘language may sound telegraphic, as if a great deal of meaning were being condensed into words or phrases that remain obscure because the speaker does not provide the background information and sense of context the listener needs to understand.’ (TCR 45).

[27] Jennifer Cooke, ‘Warring Inscriptions: J.H.Prynne’s To Pollen’, ‘‘Intercapillary Space’’,

[28] William Carlos Williams, Collected Poems, C. MacGowan (ed.), vol. 2, 1939–1962, London: Paladin Poetry 1991. 111.

[29]Bezette Stad was een vergif, als tegengif gebruikt. Het nihilisme van Bezette Stad kureerde mij van een oneerlijkheid, die ik eerlijkheid waande, en van buitenlyriese hoge-borst-zetterij. Daarna werd ik een doodgewoon dichter, dit is iemand die gedichtjes maakt voor zijn plezier, zoals een duivenmelker duiven houdt. Ik maak geen aanspraak op de medalje van burgerdeugd.’ (translation: present author).

[30] To the extent that it is hidden, this figure is potentially and additionally an aesthetic sign in either case.

[31] Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, London: Faber & Faber, 1961. 92.

[32] This is also the case with the melody and cadence of the hymn: ‘O love that wilt not let me go’ in ‘O frozen loneliness that will not thaw/ nor let me sleep.’ (‘The Serpent’s Hiss’, Pentacles), an evocation sacrificed in the revision: ‘O frozen loneliness that does not thaw...’. (Selected 1972)

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee:
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to Thee:
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

[Tune: A.L. Peace, (1844–1912) words: George Matheson, (1842–1906)]

    Compare: ‘There is nothing I can do/ but go on led by the flickering of a flame/ I cannot name.’ Matheson’s blindness and the echo of Milton’s Samson’s ‘blaze of noon’ underscore a complexity in the torch image implicating moonlight in ‘borrowed ray’. (Compare too: ‘My heart’s gone blind’ above). The implied puritan view of individual life as a borrowed talent may indeed lend resonance to ‘borrowed dichotomy’ and ‘single purpose’ in ‘Desperation’.

[33] It may however be the case that, rather than forgetting, he thought the reference could survive loss of its cadence or preserve that cadence in the mind. This might argue for temporary loss of poetic judgement. Persistence of memory is suggested by the following passage from ‘Letters’ (Behind the State Capitol 83):

Viz Song Titles created at that time, and popular worldwide in multi situate Points of Interest...The poems, although unseemingly refuted had a mythological ring to them. I have not saved too many of them, but catch me, quoting PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, if you can, a last remaining hope.

     This would appear to support the idea that ‘all over town’, the final line of the opening Hotel Wentley poem, ‘A poem for record players’, is a conscious quotation: — ‘a thousand cars gunning/ their motors turning over/ all over town’.
      Equally important is the fact that this allusion connects with ‘I hear and shall never/ give up again, shall carry/ with me over the streets...’ which partly derives from and simultaneously redeems the ‘look-on-the-bright-side’ Tin Pan Alley optimism, ‘Don’t you know each cloud contains/ Pennies from heaven./ You’ll find your fortune falling/ all over town.’ The phrase is repeated in ‘With Meaning’ (SP’86: 126) ‘or Steve Jonas’ apts./ all over town’.
      A moving and uncollected late poem from 1999, referred to by Jack Kimball (‘John and the four Dunn(e)s’, Jacket 21, perhaps faintly recalls this song too, alongside louder Shakespearian and Norse mythological references, the latter via John’s friend and Gloucester poet, Gerrit Lansing’s 1966 book The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward. ‘Egg Nog’ (written on the back of a shopping list) begins: ‘The quality of mercy/ is not strained/ It lieth along the center road/ It falleth from the nude sky..’ and ends six lines later, ‘The quality of mercy is not strained/ It falleth from the gentle earth like heaven’.
      Song lyric can often help explain a choice of imagery as in the case of ‘1952’, the early poem which opens Behind the State Capitol. Wilkinson describes the line ‘I am fenced in by mountains and rivers’ as ‘conventionality [teetering] towards the preposterous’. The answer to his question ‘how can rivers and mountains be described as fencing someone in?’ may however lie in the Bing Crosby/ Andrews Sisters 1944 hit — still very much around in the early fifties — ‘Don’t Fence Me In’; an expression of the ‘Manifest Destiny’-influenced dream of freedom ‘underneath the western skies’: ‘let me ride through the wide open country that I love/ don’t fence me in’. The wish to ride ‘to the ridge where the west commences’ situates it happily on the High Plains.
      Quite incidentally, the comic bathos of ‘let me straddle my old saddle’, allied to the Great Dividing Range or continental divide, may contribute to the line from ‘In Public’: — ‘we rode the great divide/ of falsehood’, suggesting an affirmative to the question: ‘Is ‘we rode the great divide’ supposed to be ludicrously sexually suggestive?’ The image returns in a description of his rooming house quarters in Buffalo in ‘Of the Slade...’ : ‘in the small room where he lived fenced in by the backwall of one squat, white building..’. (Behind the State Capitol 188) Internal evidence dates the piece to Thanksgiving, 1964 and it is intriguing to recollect that a few weeks earlier Bob Dylan had performed ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ (recorded commercially only the following year) in concert at New York’s Philharmonic Hall: ‘and but for the sky there are no fences facing’.

[34] The duality is anticipated to some extent in Nerves where, as Eric Mottram points out, ‘The Dark Brew’ and ‘After Symonds’ Venice’ (Asylum Poems) are an exception to the predominant compression and ‘suggest a next development: towards a long line and expansive measures, towards the torrential accumulations of ‘Let the clocks do it’.. with its headlong exhiliration (sic) of complex materials.’(op. cit.) The distinctive feature of ‘The Dark Brew’, with its barely repressed emblem of ‘fleurs du mal’, is the disposition of syntax to the longer line, conveying the sense of uncontrolled and unseen growth, the roots of a problem soon to incorporate a problem of communication: ‘yea, they budded lush and festival in the dark/ Silence of summer agony; when supposed love wreathed on the hill/ these dark lilies grew beneath and polluted the stem..’

[35] See: SP’86. 290: Robert von Hallberg: ‘A Talk with John Wieners (1974): — ‘JW: ‘The gauge is intellectual.... the breath is so relative.’

[36] Stephen Jonas, Transmutations, London: Ferry Press, 1966. The preface is reprinted in Cultural Affairs 31–33.

[37] Readers of a certain age — not wishing to be reminded of Sonny and Cher — may hear, in ‘I’ve got’, an echo of Annie Oakley’s song in the musical, ‘Annie Get Your Gun’: ‘I got the Sun in the morning and the moon at night’: — ‘Got no mansion, got no yacht/ still I’m happy with what I got’. The song begins, ‘Taking stock..’, the intro ending: — ‘A healthy balance on the credit side’ — perhaps a wry sidelight on 25 cents. Compare ‘Shall Idleness Ring Then..’: — ‘In the night [at night], they take away the moon./ And the [with] dawn the sun.’ (SP’86. 79; Selected 1972. 65)

[38] A sense of vertigo, similar to that induced by associative drift in Wieners, haunts certain late modernist texts sharing Behind the State Capitol ‘s simultaneous encouragement of hermeneutic overdrive and countervailing simple ‘riposte’. However, rather than drawing us — beyond the normative complicity demanded — into a conspiracy, they offer a perspective (vide Olson’s ‘Against Wisdom as Such’, CP 60). In the case of J.H. Prynne’s poetry from 1994 onwards, this perspective tends to the Elizabethan type ‘which, rightly gaz’d upon,/ Show nothing but confusion — ey’d awry,/ Distinguish form’. Within the work we can distinguish between texts whose degree of telegraphic compression enforces an unceasing flow of perceptions in local time and others where a less relentless onward drive allows both time and space for oblique reference to establish pattern across the crazy paving of the poem’s surface.
      Even the second category exploits syntactic mystery in a manner strikingly similar to Wieners’ more telegraphic texts, as witnessed by the last two words in each of the following quotations, the first from For the Monogram (1997), the second from Wieners’ ‘February’: ‘Your merchant heartening/ progresses to fulminant offertory and lags fur’; ‘as Richard the Lion-hearted’s New York Times/ in Londonderry Commonwealth bureau Town/ from the Fire-escape to opera stars Boers’.
      For the Monogram may be indebted to Wieners in a more fundamental sense. It was published in the year following publication of Wieners’ diary 707 Scott Street and a passage there can hardly have failed to strike Prynne, whether or not (considering his longstanding admiration for Wieners’ work) he was reading it for the first time. The passage in question is taken from a Sufi text, ‘the Maxims of Illuminations’:

Take the letters of the human talisman (al-tilsam al-insana) and extract from them the spiritual name (al-ism al-ruhami, then affix to it your signature and carry it as an amulet while you go on your path. John Wieners al-ism al-ruthami’...I found my mark [ ] My sign. My sig/nature. It is on my arm./ Mainline. It is the four/ pointed star...points/ to the four corners of the universe. Not square/// Lastly, you may say that annihilation is complete consecration to the light of manifestation. (29–30)

     Prynne’s extended poem (14 pages of 16 lines) imbricates a wealth of geopolitical, philosophical and historical reference (vide Drew Milne’s convincing account of Kantian monograms in ‘Speculative assertions: reading J.H. Prynne’s Poems’, Parataxis: modernism and modern writing, 10, Cambridge: 2001.67–86). ‘Signature’ too is a complex word in the poem. Nevertheless, JHP — a personal monogram for a strenuously impersonal poet — might (to speculate semi-assertively) be a structural motif.
      The opening sentence contrives to evoke both aerial bombardment — or defoliation — and (incongruously or not) tantrum flinging from the high-chair vantage of infancy: ‘At a point tunes beating and striking the plate for/ sylvatic break and drop...’ It continues: ‘Will you jag up the tippet/ over a new bow thrown down if for implored at five/ apace, floating across bars in black?’ The complicit reader, dissatisfied with a literal reading of ‘tippet’ and perhaps unaware of Keith Tippett, thinks of Michael Tippett’s 1941 oratorio A Child of our Time, which deals with events subsequent to ‘Kristalnacht’, the night of broken (jagged) glass. This glints on the page (as cumulatively throughout the poem) with other hints of 1941, such as Pearl Harbour, a rising-sun raid or ‘radial plot’, whose radiant nemesis came four years later when ‘the planet boy too little, in three days / notice of man too fat’ (‘Little Boy’, ‘Fat Man’) ‘even up the score’ (with twenty megaton bombs three days apart): ‘he’ll position his/ best eye at the planet boy too little, in three days/ notice of man too fat. Floating star, even up the/ score of a radial plot and maze over or spoken by/ the sad sea ways.’
      A puzzling glimpse of Tourneur’s Vindice and his four ‘apaces’ in ‘At five/ apace’ (the poet’s age in 1941) leaves a hint of ‘five across’ — the crossword technique we will apply in order to ‘understand’ the Hiroshima and Nagasaki reference. The phrase ‘the sad sea ways’, transmuting Keats’s ‘salt sand-wave’ and Joyce’s ‘sad sea waves’ might (be made to) signify a pathetic fallacy of a political sort. As the poem progresses, words and phrases: Jewish Palestinian Homeland, JaPan-Hiroshima begin to haunt the three letters of the monogram, drawing with them fragments of Tippett’s libretto: ‘And a time came/ when in the continual persecution/ one race stood for all’. The next in series after Wieners’ ‘four-pointed star’ has evolved to the pentagram of Ace of Pentacles, would be the six-pointed star of David. The principle is ongoing.

[39] A striking parallel with the Mme. Brenda reference, demonstrating the same combination of highly controlled allusiveness and compulsively obscure self-reference, occurs in ‘A Puhls Pencil Box’ (23). ‘The Benjamin Siegel slaying coincided was it to an hostility that ended in the summer of 1965, when the Madam Hill from a supposed overdose of sleeping pills perished outside of Vienna’. Madam Hill is Virginia Hill — the longtime girlfriend of the Hollywood gangster Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel — who died near Salzburg, on March 24, 1966.
      Though ‘loss of year’ might additionally be taken in the sense of a wasted year, Wieners implicitly acknowledges his ‘mistake’ about the date, in ‘interweaving’ this suspicious death with events in his own life a year later. ‘Wasn’t she that evening interwoven to a fabric of novels undertaken through a great serialization of corn, namely approximate loss of year, melodrama and continuity from the 1950’s pinups?’ While his self-identification with Virginia Hill in this passage raises the possibility that Mme. Brenda too might be an androgynous composite figure, she is only one of three (as Mata Hari is three-in-one):

There are three men I love most in the world; Johnny Stompanato, Benjamin «Bugsy» Siegel and Serge Rubinstein. Not that I need public approval; simply God removed them from when I as Lana Turner, Virginia Hill and Joan Woodward needed them most. I was no one then. Not even an NE to my name;

     The wit of the final clause derives from the fact that Joanne Woodward’s movie-loving mother had wanted to name her ‘Joan’, after Joan Crawford, but the parents decided that Joanne was more Southern. Almost certainly Wieners’ multiple-identity-for-the-occasion is conditioned by her award-winning performance as a woman suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (or ‘Multiple Personality Disorder’) in the 1957 film ‘The Three Faces of Eve’. The widely-assumed link between this disorder and schizophrenia is ‘apparently a misconception’, although since the same source (Wikipedia) indicates that the condition is shared by Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’, this is not as reassuring as it might sound.
      There are strong connections with Vienna and Switzerland common to several of the principals, suggesting the knowingness, noted above, about Vienna as stand-in for ‘Wieners’. Hill’s Salzburg-area death is transferred to ‘outside Vienna’. Siegel’s employers, the East Coast mafia, suspected him of using Hill as courier to transfer money from his Las Vegas project The Flamingo to a Swiss bank account. Rubenstein, ‘the last speculator’, criminal U.S. financial market operator, moved to Vienna from Russia as a young man and became involved with questionable banking schemes. Subsequently his research project at Cambridge — apparently endorsed by Keynes — involved tracking down owners of dormant Swiss bank accounts.
      A candidate for the title’s ‘Puhl’, Dr. Emil Puhl, was a Nazi economist, convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg. As wartime director of the Reichsbank and Bank of International Settlements, he was instrumental in moving Nazi gold (presumably to Swizerland) during the war. Woodward and Rubenstein are bizarrely linked through George Sanders, the male lead in ‘The Three Faces of Eve’ and the 1956 ‘Death of a Scoundrel’, a film prompted by Rubenstein’s murder the year before. This film also featured Yvonne di Carlo, whose photograph appears on page 166 of Wieners’ book and the famously Hungarian Zsa Zsa Gabor.
      Intriguing echoes sound in ‘Hillside’ (Selected 1972): ‘Light songs play from the phonograph/ of a Viennese actress’, where the setting suggests the Dennison Avenue, Gloucester summer house and Keats’s ‘now more than ever seems it rich to die’ finds an echo in ‘Now seems enough to surrender// the tragic loss of each other’. Sexual innuendo combines with sharp wit in ‘A Puhl’s Pencil Box’. The compulsive philanderers, Siegel and Rubenstein’s ‘testaments to my efforts as the said Virginia and Joan ally a beneficent tolerance to my fallible, daily grind, errant pursuedly prostrate ajar popularity portals.’
      There is comic disparity between efforts as Virginia and Joan respectively. The latter would recently have meant honourable inclusion in Nixon’s ‘enemies’ list, for outspoken support of Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign, while the former would include blackmailing the Hollywood celebrities you entertained at your Beverly Hills mansion, dating mafia bosses and exercising legendary erotic skills. Siegel’s nickname for Hill — ‘the Flamingo’ — was based on her prowess in fellatio, commemorated in the name of the nightclub business that led to his death.
      For all the control of complex inter-referencing however, the implicit fixation on violent end-of-story and its insinuation into the arena of an unspecified personal ‘hostility’ makes for unsettling reading. The undercurrent of ‘paranoid fury’ surfaces in the following paragraph in what is a notable anticipation (though without the mordant wit) of a later poem apparently linking his sister, a nun, with anthropological gangsterism: — ‘Marion A. Malinowki/ Numbers runner’ (SP’86. 282):

‘John C---- — happens to remain with testimony I shall never see, no matter how I am. The gooks, crocks, and dwarfs of Borneo hold no message for mankind, no questions asked out of Penny Cateschism, no needling from abatement indicated forecasts fancily supply their easy consciences, ignorance’s expense burns them as pidgeons in the rotogravure tabloids...’

     The wordplay on ‘schism’ and (more likely than ‘Ciardi’) the concealed name of John Clarke, director of the Institute of Further Studies at Buffalo, relate this passage to the ‘literay dichotomy’ of ‘Understood Disbelief’, but the disclosure of edginess about one academic area of Olson’s ‘post-mortem’ curriculum is made through language as uncontrolled as the blank letters are calculated. The disdain evident within that edginess dates back several years and is partly grounded in personal possessiveness towards Olson. This underlies the self-knowledge (or wish-fulfilment) in ‘Hanging on For Dear Life’ (14) — ‘I fear I drove him out of all sorts of men he knew’ — but also the apparently serene acceptance (in an echo of Sherwood Anderson and W.C.Williams) of Olson’s ‘many marriages [kept] going simultaneously’.
      Disdain becomes waspish in the martyred syntax of Woman:

Working without guidelines here, I abjectly suspicion retrograde aspersions as to why I do not accept this Assignment as an insult; and capitulating I initiate my circumspection without either summation or interlocution, acquiring definition of women from professional certainty, and not bigamous facts.

     The recollection of ‘the rising sun...reflected canary-yellow in [Olson’s], were they blue, or azure, or hazel eyes?’ (Behind the State Capitol 14) is a reminder of the fervour expressed in an uncollected poem of 1965, ‘To Charles’: — ‘No children now do I bear you. Only my own heart/ with signatures on it of flame.... /I hit upon your face, your eyes, grey-specked with Time/ and find my own countenance,// there.’ This almost conscious borrowing from Donne’s ‘The Good Morrow’ — ‘My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears’ — together with the unintended freight of ‘hit upon’, conveys the emotional exclusivity of this relationship for Wieners. Precipitation, within a year of this poem’s appearance, into the ‘melodrama’ of sexual rivalry, must have lent intense irony to Donne’s next line: ‘And true plaine hearts doe in the faces rest’.
      The poem’s appearance in Niagara Frontier Review: Spring-Summer 1965 offers an arcane explanation of the blank name (unique, I think, in Behind the State Capitol). While it hardly lifts the taint of paranoid fury from reference to ‘the gooks.. of Borneo’, it reveals an accompanying sharp sense of literary history. For a possible model of the former, however, see Geoff Ward’s balanced and perceptive discussion of Stephen Jonas’s racism, (Writing 172–5).
      John Clarke was one of the three contributing editors to the magazine, edited by Harvey Brown, the other two being Charles Olson and Fred Wah. He withdrew in protest when the second issue — ‘Spring 1966’ — was already in print, his name being concealed by black ink. If memory serves, his resignation related to the inclusion of two new cantos by Ezra Pound (CX and 116), which the editor was ultimately obliged (under legal threat) to print with the stamped words ‘copyright 1966 by Ezra Pound’ attached. In a further twist, Wieners would be aware of the blank letters enforced on Pound himself in the Inferno Cantos XIV-XV — ‘the betrayers of language’ etc. — and, indeed, on Olson in Maximus V: ‘patriotism/ is the preserved park/ of  —  —  —  — / Magnolia pirate’....

[40] This film was probably on general release when John Wieners lived in San Francisco. When he saw it might depend on whether — and if so when — it (ever) achieved ‘art house’ status. He certainly attended art house films: ‘I have always loved Clare Trevor, especially this rainy Tuesday,/ during the two-day art house revival...’ (‘Do you know what corpses say’). Claire Trevor — ‘our Army nurse// And Saloon Madam Song Bird Tahoe’ — also specialised early in her career in bad-girl roles.

[41] In Maximus, Vol. II 97, Olson writes: ‘people want delivery/ When I used to stop to talk to the Parenti Sisters/ or Susumu Hirota, the McLeod sisters// who ran the Harbor View/ would call up the post office/ and ask what my truck was doing/ at the corner of Rocky Neck Avenue’. See also the letter to Robert Creeley, quoted in A Guide to the Maximus Poems, George F. Butterick (ed.), University of California Press, 1978. 380. ‘Maximus, letter 5’ (22): ‘I was a letter carrier, read postcards, lamped checks, talked/ at the back doors’.
      If this doesn’t add up to torpidity aka energetic poetic research then there is the possibility that Wieners (who was present) is remembering the juncture in Olson’s 1965 Berkeley reading when the poet announced that he was (stylistically) ‘turgid’ (see: Charles Olson Reading at Berkeley, transcribed Zoe Brown; Coyote, 1966. 18). He also described himself that evening as having felt like an ‘old schlump from Gloucester.. two years ago in Vancouver’ (28) , alongside Ginsberg — ‘an activist’ — and other fellow poets.

[42] The lyric of the December, 1965 Len Barry hit, ‘One, two, three’...(‘falling in love with you/ was easy for me/.... like taking candy from a baby’) is anticipated by the pre-war Gladys Shelley/ Fred Astaire number with Benny Goodman: ‘it was just like takin’ candy from a baby/ the way you stole my heart away from me’. Its ‘ABC’ (though there are poetic ones too) might have merged with the rhyming title ‘153 Avenue C’ to precipitate ‘123’. By the time Wieners wrote ‘Signs....’ he may already have been living at 44 Joy Street, which would make the film’s fille de joie in Room 43 literally ‘the girl next door’, the phrase he heard Olson apply to Siennese art at the Berkeley Reading in 1965. The portentous numerology of a local address, ‘1800 Blake’, was held up as an example of synchronicity on the same occasion.

[43] See, for ‘Hungarian’: Charles Olson Reading at Berkeley, 30. Also ‘The Present is Prologue’, Charles Olson, Additional Prose, Bolinas: Four Seasons Foundation, 1974. 39.

[44] Vienna’s historical — even symbolic — significance as citadel against successive Magyar, Mongol and Turkic invaders may help explicate the Madam Hill/ Vienna reference (vide note 39) and ‘imbecilic Mata Hari’.

[45] See, for example: ‘my daughter’s feet/ never reached hard ground,/ my son’s balls are kept/ between another man’s legs’ (‘Home Surgery at the Merchant Marine’, Behind the State Capitol 99) and the more resigned grief of: ‘A butterfly inside you died/ in my dream. It had orange wings.’ (‘Our Unborn Child’ Selected 1972. 99)

[46] Olson and ‘Mme. Brenda’ may not only be linked through Room 43 but also by sly allusion to the film (-noir) The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), starring Lana Turner and John Garfield: — ‘Their love was a flame that destroyed’. Based on a book by James M. Cain, ‘known for novels with forbidden lust, love triangles, brutal raw sexiness and adultery-motivated murder’. The title is mentioned in ‘To Ross’ (Behind the State Capitol 54). Lana Turner later starred as Madame X (1966), name-checked both in that book and in a later poem, ‘Mr. Bailey’: ‘to Madame X with her stable of body models/ under sexual abandon’.

[47] In the central diagram of Olson’s ‘A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn’ (Additional Prose 10) ‘the individual’ is — intriguingly enough — found in the same upper right-hand corner of a four-part figure as occupied by ‘individual’ in Wieners’ split figure. Olson’s diagram shows the extension of ‘person’ within the ‘crossed-sticks’ of person-process/ millenia-quantity. A ‘dob-individual’ does his best for the pack and Akela?

[48] Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters, a Bilingual Edition, Translated by Wallace Fowlie and revised by Seth Whidden, University of Chicago Press, 1967.
      There is an obsessive ‘from/ to’ figure throughout She’d Turn on a Dime, reflecting an arguably compulsive American topos, ‘from log cabin to White House, sea to shining sea, jack to a king, California to the New York island’ etc. ‘Génie’ however offers a powerful example. Compare also the tone of ‘o lost and surrendered, my/ castle in the sand, on the beach, o the castles surrendered,/ in my air.’ (‘The Magic of This Summer, June 23, 1963.’, Selected 1972).

[49] John Wieners, Woman, Canton, NY: The Institute of Further Studies, 1972.

[50] Such ‘misprints’ as ‘bio me to live’ — an evident reference to the poet, H.D.’s autobiographical Bid me to Live — and ‘Toady’ — for the contents page’s ‘Today’ — hint at deliberation, not to mention a wicked wit. The account given by Lewis Warsh, editor of Wieners’ 1959 journal, strongly suggests however, that from the moment he handed over the manuscript in 1972 as a casual and spontaneous gift, the poet was completely uninvolved in, or indifferent to, any transcriptional process. He certainly seems to have played little part in its preparation for publication in 1996.
      This might explain a number of startling divergences from published texts — such as ‘play in’ for ‘plug in’ (‘The waning of the August Moon’) — which raise textual issues even as they stimulate interpretation. Other likely mistranscriptions such as ‘Beachandland’ (surely Bechuanaland) (64) and ‘Lex Baxter’ (Lex Barker?) (58) support the supposition that ‘play in’ is a similar case. The archives are likely to reveal closer collaboration between author and editors in publishing Behind the State Capitol but I am mystified at this point as to what motives underlie the apparent disorder. Safely assuming that the poet showed no interest in the traditional proof-reading role raises the question as to whether he was not in some sense intent on mistranscription.
      Celebrating the revelatory condition of ‘mistakes’ was a feature of Olson’s late prose (see below) and active encouragement of such mistakes, in line with the anarchic spirit of Wieners’ book, would carry the principle that much further. The phrase ‘non-said mistakes’ in ‘Understood Belief’ (‘Morphe erroneous untedious mystery,// non-said mistakes’) is apparently a plank in the poetic programme being announced. It finds an echo in ‘the un-said name’, a phrase Olson uses in justifying a mistake his magazine editor, Andrew Crozier, had noticed.
      George Butterick’s editorial notes in Olson’s Additional Prose (1974) refer to ‘Derwent-on-Trent’ (‘The Vinland Map Review’ AP 98): ‘In returning for approval a typescript made from Olson’s holograph manuscript, Crozier asked, ‘‘Where’s this. Derwent’s on the Derwent.’’ Olson responded, ‘‘I’m glad to know! My point was only to use any (one of those English) place names. That one was made up — & to lead (by irritation?) to the un-said name of the (still unremembered) name.’’
      See further the note on ‘Thencefroth’ from ‘The Vinland Map Review’ (AP 97) noting Olson’s instructions on the original manuscript to retain this typing error, as also ‘Mrak’ (Marx) in ‘Review of Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato’. A reponse to Charles Boer, an editor of the Niagara Frontier Review, regarding another change or proposed correction was ‘no damn it the error is valuable’.

[51] J.H. Prynne, Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words, London: Birkbeck, 1993. 50

[52] Stephen Thomson, ‘Craft: Boats and Making in Olson’s Maximus Poems’, Edinburgh Review 114; 7–23.
      A sense of such textual ‘limits, possibilities and indications’ in the case of Wieners’ 1966 poem ‘Billie’, prompted a reading in terms of an ‘authorial frame’ in ‘One Thing Leads to Another’ (2000), my unpublished response to Wilkinson’s 1998 article, ‘Too Close Reading’ (supra). I considered including this analysis of the poem as an appendix to the present article but in the end decided that it was too tangential to the argument. Other material from this earlier essay however has been included and developed here, notably in the discussion of ‘February’ and the related general principle of telegraphic language and the ‘split figure’.

[53] Vide ‘A Series’, Pentacles: ‘Without image/ we are bereft// The soft syllable is denied us// and we reach, grasp for the word/ as a life-preserver/ that sinks and bobs in the churning waves’

[54] William Carlos Williams, Pictures from Breughel and other Poems, New York: New Directions, 1962. 109

[55] A sense of the special significance of Keats for the Black Mountain poets — a view certainly shared by Olson — is to be found in the Duncan-Levertov correspondence. In response to a letter from Denise Levertov contrasting Brother Antoninus’s attempt to ‘force a show of response from the audience’ with ‘John Wieners modest & deeply moving which the poems spoke, were let to stand & speak & did speak’, Duncan (Feb.10 1963) opposed the ‘personal appeal’ of [Jack] Gilbert to their ‘sense of what the art demands’..’a sense of what feeling and emotion demand’: ‘He may be a John Keats type, as his critics sense him in his work: but the thing I sense in John Keats’ poems is not John Keats but a world; not an attitude or romantic personality but a revelation’. (Letters 382–3)

[56] Wieners’ fascination with the jazz and popular music of his parents’ generation (see ‘1930 Jazz’ Cultural Affairs 76) and saturation in torch songs, tend to obscure his lively awareness of contemporary music. One of the items in the Slought Foundation archive recording of his September 1965, Buffalo reading is an apparently still unpublished journal prose poem, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, bitterly reproaching immediate family. He echoes Dylan’s lyric: ‘they have allowed other people to get their kicks for them’. I recall his delighted reaction at that time to James Brown’s song title ‘Poppa’s Got a Brand New Bag’.

[57] Letters of John Keats, A selection edited by Robert Gittings, Oxford U.P. 1970. 36–7

[58] A modern version of Marvell’s Daphne and Syrinx is the West Virginia-born burlesque artiste and ‘exotic’ dancer, Blaze Starr: ‘A silver tassel hangs/ from the edge of her tit./ Green leaves grow out of her hands,/ she is Daphne in a/ diaphanous gown. Earl Long’s/ old lady.’ (Journal 41)
A comparable teasing humour is present in ‘are you Catholic La Gioconda’ (‘The Book and the Lamp’). The source of the question, Nat Cole’s ‘Mona Lisa’, addressing a real woman (as perhaps Wieners’ line does too) concludes ‘Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa? Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art.’ In the prospect of Keats’s ‘cold pastoral’ — urn and Ode alike — ‘Desperation’’s ‘rejected entreaties’ evoke the chillier alternative.

[59] If such a pun were present it wouldn’t necessarily be confined to Andrew Marvell. A self-communing dimension would include the maiden name (Marvel) of the mother of John Wieners’ fellow-student, Michael Rumaker and — possibly — the comic hero, Captain Marvel.

[60] See Robert von Hallberg: ‘A Talk with John Wieners (1974)’ (SP’86. 292). ‘Do you have a faith in an order that transcends the disarray of urban experience?... I think my faith is in the humanity, the humanity which receives my specious attempts at edification...but you are saying now that your faith is not so much in a transcendent order as in the people of this world...Yes, and in the meditations of the masters, of genius’.

[61] Although this might well be obtuseness on my part. As suggested above, ‘ascension’ of a personal Calvary may be intended.

[62] Andrea Brady, ‘The Other Poet: John Wieners, Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson’, Jacket 32: April 2007 (, reprinted from Don’t Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York Writing after the New York School, Daniel Kane (ed.), Dalkey Archive Press, Dec. 2006. It is good to find indirect supporting evidence for my own reading of ‘Billie’ (see note 52) in her article, which is based on archive research at Boston College and the Universities of Connecticut and Delaware: — ‘Wieners journal from this period is filled with rambling, violent improvisations on his unhappiness.. The last poem in the journal is ‘Billie’. The man who ‘as a god/ stepped out of eternal dream’ to steal his girl was none other than Olson himself.’

[63] Within this presence of song there is of course great variety. On occasion it is no more than a cadence, as in the plangent line, ‘Though the gift has gone’ (‘Love-life: Nerves: SP’86: 160), evocative of Carmichael’s Stardust: ‘Though I dream in vain.. (In my heart it will remain/ My stardust melody/ The memory of love’s refrain’). The appositeness is powerful; the memory of love’s refrain shadowed by the unspoken memory of ‘the gift’; ‘The handwriting changed’ — a shadow as the melody is a shadow of love’s song. In ‘Stationary’ (SP’86: 222–3) he interweaves the lyric of ‘As Time Goes By’ from Casablanca (possibly heard ‘on the radio next door’) and the untitled poem that follows appears to date from the break-up with ‘Christine Kerrigan’.
      He is playing records, half hoping to ‘bring her back’. ‘It’s all over’ is a line from ‘The Party’s Over’, a chart success in 1957 for Doris Day but introduced in Judy Holliday’s last film Bells are Ringing and also recorded by Nat ‘King’ Cole. In the repeated phrase there is the slightest hint too of the crescendo scream of Roy Orbison’s It’s over’ and the bittersweet of Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, both mocking echoes of the hopeful ‘Pennies from Heaven... all over town’ at the start of his career. ‘The party’s over/ the candles flicker and dim’.
      The song’s lyric is picked up in ‘see the candlelight through the window, hear/ the trumpet, drink Alsace wine// it will not bring you back’. This draws into the poem a mingled reference to what one hopes is The Duprees version of Anne Shelton’s ‘You Belong To Me’ and ‘Taking a Chance on Love. The first begins ‘See the pyramids around the Nile/ watch the sun rise from the tropic isle/ just remember darling all the while/ you belong to me’. His closing ‘so farewell’ occupies the hinterland between Othello’s histrionics, the ‘fare thee well’ of Dylan’s ‘Don’t think twice’ and ‘so goodbye dear..’ of ‘Just One of Those Things’.
      The title of another thematically related contemporary poem, ‘Drinkin Lonely Wine’, derives from Sonny Til’s song ‘Lonely Wine’ (also recorded by Roy Orbison: lyrics by Kitty Wells). ‘How can I go back to dreamin/ when reality’s become heaven’ appears to comment on the song’s second line ‘my heart must have its way and dream of you’. The poem is built around the contrast between poverty and high society (‘And hair/ with coronets of diamonds’). Women (reminiscent of those in Eliot’s Prufrock who ‘come and go/ talking of Michaelangelo’) ‘with long legs walk through the room like swans’.
      Within this context of ‘rich phonograph records’ it is tempting to associate ‘golden girl of the/ twenties’ (despite the decade lapse) as much with Puccini’s ‘fanciulla’ as any post-Mary Pickford. However, ‘Lonely Wine’ ‘s closing lines — ‘wherever you may be, I’ll still be true/ and when the clouds roll by I’ll come to you/ but until then I’ll drink my lonely wine’ — reassert (with their ironical hint of an earlier era’s confidence that ‘the clouds will soon roll by’) a populist riposte to the ‘paradise’ of wealth. At the same time they complement the poem’s closing line ‘LOOKing for you.’
      The childlike sense of wonder in ‘I walk under the distant stars’ (Pentacles) moves towards ‘the question that dwells/ in our minds about the plan/ behind man’ and the second stanza is evocative of Irving Berlin’s ‘How Deep is the Ocean?’ (‘How far would I travel/ to be where you are?/ How far is the journey/ from here to a star?’): ‘I look up and see the spaces/ between stars,/ and think of the mists and miles across them,/ what we would traverse to be together’. ‘The long at last awaited journey/ to the stars’ (‘Acts of Youth’) seems to echo the same source.

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