Book Reviews

John Wieners - Stories of the Night

Alan Murrin

The poems of John Wieners are written in lodgings that will be fled before they are paid for, beneath threadbare blankets, amid a haze of cigarette smoke; the wall-paper is peeling and the scene is seeped in the colour of a Chinese paper lampshade. With a deep concern for traditional lyric form John Wieners worked to recount the lived reality of outsiders in America during the latter half of the twentieth century. Born in Milton, Massachusetts in 1934, he graduated from Boston College in 1954 and began his education as a writer the following year when he enrolled at Black Mountain College, North Carolina where he studied under Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. Under the tutelage of Olson he became a proponent of Projective Verse, a style that advocated a focus on the forces at work at the exact moment of writing a poem.  

In 1958 Wieners published The Hotel Wentley Poems. Taking its name from a two-cent dive in San Francisco, the collection is candid in its depiction of an underworld of jazz clubs and seedy boarding houses peopled by hustlers, prostitutes, fairies and queens. It is a setting that becomes familiar in Wiener’s poetry. His poems recall the desperate hours spent craving a fix, then the inevitable panicked withdrawal. They speak of a thousand loves lost, or loves that never were, or a craving for a kind of love that has no human form.  

Wieners was in agreement with Ezra Pound in the emphasis on the writing of poetry by ‘the musical phrase.’ Jazz is not so much a subject in his poetry but the very medium through which his poems find their form. Wieners writes of poetry in his preface to his Selected Poems (1972) that it is the ‘producing of revelatory postures for men, animals and stars’, by which he means the stars of the firmament and the stars of Hollywood’s golden age like Greta Garbo, and jazz singers such as Billie Holiday who he remained fascinated with throughout his life.  

Wiener’s poem ‘Billie’ from Nerves (1970) closely adheres to the tenets of Projective Verse. In the poem grammatical elements that add nothing to the over-all effect are dropped in favour of pace. Sense is conveyed in the poem by the immediate movement from one perception to the next. Ideas follow each other so closely that they almost overlap:  

   I need them 

   To carry the weight of my life

   The old Gods are gone. What lives on

   In my heart 

   Is their flesh  

Wieners saw the syllable as the most important part of the poem. As Charles Olson described it in his essay ‘Projective Verse’ it is ‘the King and pin of versification’ because it holds the poem together and creates the sounds. The careful use of syllables for their sound and in particular the use of assonance in the final line coupled with the sudden use of commas, allows each word to detonate slowly in the mind of the reader: “a wound, / a tomb, a bomb.” 

Wieners’ poems voice his growing anger at his alienation and social isolation. He struggled with mental illness throughout his life and was institutionalised several times, but unlike his contemporaries Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell he never makes his depression a subject in his work. His poems are not so much ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ but emotion recollected at the exact velocity and pitch with which it was felt. Allen Ginsberg describes this process in his forward to Wieners’ Selected Poems: 1958-1984 published by Black Sparrow Press: ‘…the urgency to remember what is being thought, capture the flash of enchantment in the mind pictures that pass, leaving words behind, arranged on the page the way they came...”  

While his friends such as Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg grew in terms of recognition, Wieners’ poetic output had largely ceased by the late 1970s. He died on 1 March 2002, several days after collapsing from an apparent stroke while walking home from a party in his beloved Boston. His obdurate refusal to control his lyrical flights has become his legacy to younger writers. In June 2007 Bootstrap Productions published A Book of Prophecies, a notebook written by Wieners in 1971 that begins, appropriately, with a poem entitled ‘2007’.  

–  Alan Murrin, originally from Killybegs, Co. Donegal, studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His plays Talking in Bed and Edenstown have both been produced in the Player's Theater, Trinity College Dublin. He is a former intern with Poetry Ireland.

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