It’s been heartening to see all the recent attention to the poetry of John Wieners, whose moving, strange, and powerful poems deserve to be better known. Wieners, an important but lesser-known figure within the post-World War II avant-garde scene known as “New American Poetry,” is having his overdue moment because two welcome books have just appeared: Wave Books has just published Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners, which brings a generous selection of Wieners work back into print, while Stars Seen in Person: Selected Journals of John Wieners recently appeared from City Lights Books.
This past June, Poetry magazine included a special section, edited and introduced by Michael Seth Stewart, featuring seven of Wieners’ letters. Reviews and reassessments of Wieners have recently appeared in the Critical Flame, the Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly, and now, this week, in a review by Dan Chiasson in the New Yorker, which surprisingly pairs Wieners with fellow Bostonian John Updike of all people. (Chiasson rightly acknowledges that “no two human beings seem more different than Wieners and John Updike”).
Much of this commentary has focused on Wieners’s status as a pioneering queer poet, as a student of Black Mountain College and disciple of Charles Olson, as a Beat poet relaying tales of sex, drugs, and madness, a chronicler of the San Francisco demimonde, and a poet of Boston. However, as some reviews have mentioned but not stressed, Wieners was also an important affiliate of the New York School of poets.*
Even while Wieners does not fit easily into the New York School or any of these movements and groupings, he enjoyed a significant friendship with Frank O’Hara, who deeply admired his poems and championed them loudly in print. The two poets met in 1956 when O’Hara was briefly living in Cambridge while on a fellowship at the Poets’ Theatre. As Brad Gooch relates in his biography of O’Hara, City Poet, O’Hara was “struck by Wieners’s unusual poetry, its visionary exaggerations jiving with his darkly ‘beat’ personal style. ‘I think Wieners had a special appeal for Frank, especially his madness,’ says Barbara Guest to whom O’Hara had mailed a batch of Wieners’s poets as she was then an editor at Partisan Review.”
O’Hara and Wieners quickly became ardent fans of each others’ work. Wieners published a portion of O’Hara’s landmark experimental poem “Second Avenue” in Measure, the little magazine he edited, and wrote poems for him, like “For F O’H / After meditations [in an emergency]” and, following O’Hara’s death, the elegy “After Reading Second Avenue (for Frank O’Hara),” which begins: “As a jar of Tibetan snow, you melted / at mid-summer.” The elegy ends:
Behind my eye-lids,
I have your books, your mouth to remember me as well.
For his part, O’Hara paid tribute to Wieners in a series of poems, which together suggest that Wieners meant more to him than readers of either poet have often recognized. These include “To John Wieners,” written soon after they met in 1956, and another poem from 1957, titled “A Young Poet” (a note on the manuscript indicated its subject was Wieners). The piece describes the title figure as “full of passion and giggles,” one who “brashly erects his first poems / and they are ecstatic / followed by a clap of praise / from a very few hands / belonging to other poets.” O’Hara writes of Wieners: “he is tired, / hysterical, / he is jeered at by thugs / and taken for a pervert / by police / who follow him / as he should be followed, but not by them.”
There is also another, less well-known appearance of Wieners in one of O’Hara’s poems, “Poem” (1956, later published in Lunch Poems) which begins
Instant coffee with slightly sour cream
in it, and a phone call to the beyond
which doesn’t seem to be coming any nearer
‘Ah daddy, I wanna stay drunk many days’
on the poetry of a new friend
The new friend was, of course, Wieners, who is also the author of the line that O’Hara quotes about staying drunk many days.**
Intoxicated by the poetry of his new friend, O’Hara went around telling everyone who would listen how amazing Wieners’s work was. This tendency is reflected in O’Hara’s most famous reference to Wieners’s work, which appears in the 1959 poem “Les Luths,” where he wryly reflects on his own role as taste-maker among his friends by ostentatiously name-dropping the title of Wieners’s first book:
everybody here is running around after dull pleasantries and
wondering if The Hotel Wentley Poems is as great as I say it is
As Marjorie Perloff observed in her early book on O’Hara, “one can see many similarities between Wieners and O’Hara. Both loved to parody established genres; both wrote bittersweet lyrics, at once formal and colloquial, about homosexual love; both regarded all Movements and Manifestoes with some suspicion.” In his review, Chiasson notes their shared proclivities too, but adds that Wieners is “like O’Hara with the lights dimmed, the music shut off.”
Wieners maintained relationships and correspondence with other poets of the New York School, including James Schuyler — two of his letters to Schuyler can be found in the June 2015 issue of Poetry that I mentioned earlier. And he exerted a sizable influence over later New York poets, such as Ted Berrigan, who riffs on some lines borrowed from Wieners in his own well-known poem “Words for Love.” In “A poem for painters,” Wieners wrote “My poems contain no / wilde beestes, no / lady of the lake music / of the spheres.” In his poem, Berrigan responds:
My poems do contain
wilde beestes. I write for my Lady
of the Lake.
The recent surge of interest in John Wieners will hopefully pave the way to further studies exploring the important links between Wieners and Frank O’Hara and the New York School.*
*One of the few extended critical pieces about Wieners and O’Hara is an excellent essay by Andrea Brady called “The Other Poet: Wieners, O’Hara, Olson,” which was first published in Don’t Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York Writing After the New York School, edited by Daniel Kane, and then republished by Jacket.
** The line “ah daddy I wanna be drunk many days,” which O’Hara slightly misquotes, is taken from Wieners’s poem “With Mr. J. R. Morton.” The poem (which is included in the new Wieners selected, Supplication) first appeared in the small magazine Semi-Colon that was edited by John Bernard Myers. As Wieners recalls in his memoir about O’Hara, “Chop-House Memories,” it was O’Hara who convinced Myers to print the poem, which was Wieners’s first published poem.