Poetry News

Keston Sutherland on the Destitute Lyric of John Wieners

By Harriet Staff

UK Poet and professor Keston Sutherland offers a rich consideration of John Wieners for the newest issue of World Picture: "No poet in English was ever so destitute of a world as John Wieners." Sutherland continues:

His destitution announces itself in the almost unthinking, because almost unthinkable, reiteration across his poetry of a simplistic utterance, the simple wish for a world played out in innumerable simplifications. A poem called “Physical Wanting” begins: “I write poems for little children / and imagine a world, fulfilled in reality.” The utterance is catastrophically simplistic, because it could not be further simplified. There is no way for Wieners to make it any simpler; but that very fact, again and again masqueradingly acknowledged, is so difficult as almost to be impossible for him to bear. The simplicity of his poetry shudders with that specific pain. “I write poems for little children.” That line, simplified into a virtual sentence by being broken at the end, must mean that Wieners imagines as his ideal readership a society of little children, the most sexually vulnerable individuals whom it is criminal to desire, and fixes on their image in his mind, when he writes; but it must also mean that he actually does write poems to give to real little children as gifts, and either gives them to those children or does not. The line that follows, “and imagine a world, fulfilled in reality”, irresistibly both is and is not the continuation of the previous line. It is, when what I do as I write poems for little children is to imagine a world; but then a comma appears, as if to ensure at least a minimum of prosody by fixing into the line that familiar device called a medial hiatus, and the comma obliges the reader to notice that what the sentence ought to mean is “I write poems for little children and imagine a world, and I am (therefore) fulfilled in reality.” But the sentence is intent on meaning something different; it wants to mean what it sounds like it means.

Punctuation and grammar both are treated here beautifully by Sutherland. "The grammar must never be—is never by Wieners—raged at for being unreliable, or punitively coerced into an open confession of its dereliction, because it is too fragile to withstand the force of the reprimand." Among others, Sutherland looks closely at the Weiners's poems "Cocaine," "Deprivation," and "Supplication," connecting their "metrical identities" to the "destitute lyric." More on that:

Wieners asserted it as a principle of his compositional practice that he must try to say the most embarrassing thing he can think of, presumably so that the poem can be made into a protectively virtual exposure to, or deliberate memory of, the trauma of shame. But in the light of the poems themselves, even that very candid description of a principle, or of a practice that irresistibly repeats itself, say the most embarrassing thing you can, seems like the post hoc justification of a destitute lyric, a way of rationalising destitution, after the fact of its recurrence, as a voluntary test of the strength of the poetic subject to shatter itself. The world of John Wieners is too hostile to be inhabited by a poet in command of the grammatical resources of narcissism; it is a world whose destitution, whose actual, never just speculative or transcendental, failure to come back, whatever might be the hurts of wanting it to, can be sustained at least in the form of the promise of a fantasy of love, the promise of a fantasy of togetherness, agreement, parity and coherence, only by the mutual aid and bearing, the mutual carrying, ich muss dich tragen, of a weak, impaired, fragile grammar and an irremediably internal rhyme.

It is a pitiable lyric that sustains this world in its destitution, pitiable even to such a weak subject as the poet, John Wieners, who makes it; but the lyric is pitiable only in an intrinsic bid for erotic beauty and dignity. Part of its dignity is that it is not anxious about the famous distinction of John Stuart Mill between rhetoric and lyric, that rhetoric should be heard and lyric should be overheard. The grammar in John Wieners is fundamentally in no danger of being heard at all, just as the world it might bring back through the vacuum of its own suspense is in no danger of really coming; the grammar covers up for its inaudibility by improvising the means to endure the sensation of inaudible meaning. The world covers up for its impossibility by being sustained as destitution.

Please read the full essay here, and enjoy the rest of the issue as well.

Originally Published: September 17th, 2012