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Seven Letters

There are two geographical facts central to John Wieners’s life and poetics. First is Boston, the city he lived in for most of his sixty-eight years, whose side streets and ghosts he knew by heart and recorded in his poems, and whose cadences he recreated in his prosody. Then there is Black Mountain, nine hundred miles south in the mountains of western North Carolina, a place he only lived for around six months, in two separate seasons over the course of a year. It was there that Wieners, a twenty-one-year-old college graduate, a queer and effervescent child of the working class, learned to make what he called “a living that counted,” a life devoted to the poem, to the hammering out of “experience into form.”

John Wieners, Detroit, 1966

These letters offer snapshots of four pivotal moments in Wieners’s early life, four pauses in a meteoric rise. First is a series of letters to Robert Greene, an old friend from college, in which Wieners breathlessly recounts his momentous first term at Black Mountain College. Until the letters became available four years ago, when Greene donated 
them to Boston College, such an account was very difficult to find, available mostly in the impressionistic memoirs of Michael Rumaker, Fielding Dawson, and Basil and Martha Winston King. What these letters offer is an immediate rendition, the heady flush of a life 
being changed. “Read slow,” he warns Greene at the start, “this is a bombshell.”

Wieners had first heard of Olson through Boston poetry legend Cid Corman, who hosted Olson on his radio show to promote a reading at the Charles Street Meeting House. Wieners was spellbound by the giant, charismatic poet, and studied his manifesto “Projective Verse” assiduously. When he wrote to apply for study at Black Mountain, Olson himself wrote back immediately with offer of a loan for room and board. The school was on its last legs — it would close the following year — and desperate for students. Wieners drove down from Boston with Joe and Carolyn Dunn and his boyfriend Dana, a handsome blonde firefighter who never felt comfortable in the strange school, and fled home after a brief and bristling stay.

Wieners thrived at Black Mountain. In his indispensible memoir of the period, Rumaker remembers the newcomer’s trial by fire: Olson asked him to critique Rumaker’s story “The Pipe,” then upbraided him when he delivered a “snidely academic” report. “Although John was quite caught off guard by the vehemence of the attack,” Rumaker writes, he had a “glint of surrender” in his eyes. “He, too, had found his master.” Wieners returned to Boston after that term, desperate to make it work with Dana, but came back once more, the next summer; he remained Olson’s student and close friend until the latter’s death in 1970, and was a pallbearer at his funeral.

The next two letters, to James Schuyler, were written in the late spring and summer of 1957, Wieners’s last months before moving to San Francisco and breaking through with The Hotel Wentley Poems. He was putting together the second issue of his small poetry magazine Measure, a solo venture that had already established him within several intersecting networks of poets, many of whom he published for the first time. Wieners was twenty-three, confident, and devoted 
to Olson with the zeal of a convert: “Projective Verse” in mind, he expresses disappointment at the regular line breaks in a poem Schuyler submitted for Measure. He urges him to think of his rhythm more physically, to add “the twist of the hip” and imbue the lines’ energy with the force of breath: “even the way we walk will be put in the poem — it gets that basic.”

“Olson is one of our fathers,” he tells Schuyler in the second letter, going on to clarify a tricky point in his poetics, an apparent gulf between Wieners and his teacher that stymies many readers of both: how can the love-sick lyric poet behind Hotel Wentley be an heir to the epic-historical Maximus? On this point Denise Levertov is very helpful; in a 1965 essay on Wieners, she situates his poems’ “grief and disaster” within his Projective poetics:

The things various confessional poets describe have happened to him too ... but in his case they are not autobiographically written about, they are conditions out of which it happens that the songs arise.... I am brought to remember Orpheus, who did not sing about hell: he was in hell, and sang there, leading the way out.

The distinction here is in the outward-facing stance he learned from Olson. “USE, the man said, of yr self, as object,” he tells Schuyler, with “no hurt ego in the way,” confessing that this worry about excessive ego “is more my kick.” The choice of object is up to each subject: “when you see it, set it down, even if this ‘it’ is yrself.” 

His next letter is to Black Mountain classmate Ed Dorn. It was ten months since Wieners had moved to San Francisco, he was living on various friends’ sofas, and he had just completed The Hotel Wentley Poems. He doesn’t mention them, but does include four new poems that continue that book’s penetrating depiction of his life as a self-styled poète maudit. “We are desperate men,” he says to his old friend, “and the rest bore.”

Finally in this series, he writes to Don Allen in the fall of 1959. Having made a splash with his first book, he’d been asked to contribute a statement on poetics to accompany poems that Allen chose for his canon-making anthology The New American Poetry. Wieners included a new piece, “A Poem for Trapped Things,” which was added to the selection and would be read by friend Jim Dunn forty-three years later at Wieners’s memorial. His statement of poetics reflects a fusion of his lived experience with the Projective Verse of Olson, four thrilling years after the two first met. Anticipating the ars poetica he would present later in “The Acts of Youth,” he writes movingly of the connection between “pain and suffering” and a life lived for poetry: “one cannot avoid the / days. They have to parade by in all their carnage.” This, for Wieners, is the ticket to the dance.

— Michael Seth Stewart
 
 

to robert greene 

Read slow, this is a bombshell.

Thursday, the 20th [spring 1955]
[Black Mountain, NC]

Dear Bob:

This will be short and confused, but have and wanted to tell you about this place, and this shall serve as asking you to write when you have time, to tell me 1) re: Veronica 2) future plans 3) Joe’s marriage 4) summer still at Vermont yes yes yes 5) how does Dana look, and all other news but especially bout plans, and if you say Army, I will, yes, all over you.

The student body numbers at the most 15. Excellent living conditions. No cubicle, etc. but a wing of a little Dutch house, called Mountain Stream, with a mountain stream running beside it for 24 hours. Three rooms, a kitchen, a piano, etc. Joe and Carolyn in one, no one in the other if I can help it, and me in the back, under trees, with a little screen door, and three screened windows, one window with only a screen. I take theatre, lithography, and writing under Olson who is the only Man to have said anything new or fresh about Poetry — since before Pound, and before Pound, Ernest Fenollosa, in his essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium of Poetry” and before Fenollosa, John Keats, not in his own poetry, but in his letters, when he attacked Milton and Wordsworth for their Egotistical Sublime, as he called it. His doctrine was the only new thing said (Negative Capability) for many, I do not know how many, hundreds of years. Look, read, and read, and try to refute this. Poetry for 300 yrs. up to 1910 and Pound, was nothing but imitation of old forms, from Shakespeare, and Elizabethans to Pound to Olson, who has added more. His essay, “Projective Verse” in Poetry: New York, 1950 Issue no. 3. the first thrust. And he has gone on from there. Naturally, this is the only place of its kind in this country, no one has any major interest but in what they create. The pace of life is something I have never known, and which you probably Touched, mind you, only touched, at Middlebury, with their hundreds, at the most here, with wives, and four kids, it comes to 25, and with 600 acres. at least 13 buildings, many unused and in disrepair. Classes are as follows: Writing: Monday and Wednesday nite — 8 on, usually to end at midnight, once at Peek’s, a tavern four miles out, and last Mon, having coffee in one of the rooms until 1.
Theatre—Mon, Tues, Thurs, Frid, mornings—9:30 on usually to noon.
Lithography — Tuesday nite — 8:30 to 10:30.
Naturally my whole interest is in Mon, and Wed, and the wild stimulation that follows.
Advisory Committee to the school reads as follows:
Albert Einstein — head
Norbert Wiener — MIT
Franz Kline — Painter — NYC
William Carlos Williams—one of the three Men who have done anything in this century — poet
Carl Sauer — Head of Geology — Univ of California

Since Einstein dead ( School’s telegram read: Sympathy for your loss,
                                            ours, and theirs)
the school has ritten to Carl Jung, to ask him to take over head of Advisory Committee)

You see Olson believes it is the artists who alone can, with the scientists put Man back on his track. Not Culture, art museums, Shakespearian movies, rare collections, all the shit that goes by as culture, but Art, that can put man on again, as Homer did, and the early ones did. That is what this country has, don’t you agree, culture running everywhere, but no art, nothing new, no language new, but culture running everywhere, and people [hanging] Renoir and Degas in their parlors.

I am sorta run out of fire, but do hope you will do something with what you have this fall, and fuck the Army, but you can’t, and will probably have to go into two years of waste, the best time shot, but hold off if you can, and write everywhere for openings. Even write here for teaching position, they would love a bona-fide Romance languager. I don’t think you’d get much pay, but a good food allowance, 12,000 books on an open shelf, no locked doors, and some of the most exciting hours of your life.

Write soon to me, Bob, as I would like to hear your doings, and all the doings of all the ones I love. There is a Black Mountain Review which would make interesting reading, plus so many benefits for the writer. Jonathan Williams, publisher, of Olson, Creeley, taught here last summer, editor of Merlin, literary quarterly in Paris, THE Divers Press, Caresse Crosby left here 2 days before I came, leaving on exhibition first editions she and her husband Harry printed on the Black Sun Press of Hemingway, Pound, D.H. Lawrence’s “Sun,” Hart CraneThe Bridge,” Letters of Proust, Letters of Henry James, etc. etc. Plus Archibald MacLeish, letters from all the above and other people like Kay Boyle, Eugene Jolas, other impeti from the 1920s which line of electricity has fallen directly into Black Mountain College and its surrounding men. If there is any force in the world of letters today, besides the one which Olson is in the center of, please tell me, and ask the adversaries of this statement that also. Which and who are they? Not eliot or Spender, etc etc, as they are old, and never really brought in anything new. Olson and the people above, with one man in Canada, in the mag, called Civ//n (Irving Layton) who shall teach here, it is hoped this summer, are the only ones. And the Boston Arts Festival gives its award to men like Robert Frost and Sandburg. what good does that do for poetry, or for sandbirg or Frost either. Farce, farce, and more.

Please write soon, I would like so much to see you again, but write.

                                                                                  Love,
                                                                                  J

Shall wait a week, and then send some subversive magazines to your house, if you have not answered, addressed to;
                                                             Robert Greene, Atheist.

I will, too.

Black Mountain College
Black Mountain, North Carolina

[ ... ]

      Show this to people, as I can’t keep repeating myself in letters.
                 Thanks.

to robert greene 

Thursday [spring 1955]
[Black Mountain, NC]

Dear Bob:

Well, Bob, it’s begun for me, or rather a part of it, only a line of it is done. I brought seven new poems into class Monday, and after I finished reading them, I heard someone clapping, and I looked up and it was Olson. There was no real criticism of them until last night, when the class asked me to re-read them, and after they were, to begin a critique. Nothing really important was said, but then it was Olson’s turn. He admonished the class for being too modern to enjoy these poems. He said that one had to applaud after hearing them, as they were bursting from their seams language-wise. He also suggested that I submit one of them, the longest one, for publication, as the poem says everything about the subject that can be said, that I had held nothing back, and on these grounds alone, it should be published. After class he told me how lovely parts of them were, and all of this from a man who really is first-rate in poetry today.... I will leave this for a while, but I first want to tell you some of what I have been doing. In Lithography, I have completed a drawing on stone, from which I shall print 12 copies. Would you want one? It’s real shat, but you could use it in the bathroom, and it is an original litho, this is the process of Toulouse-Lautrec. Mine is quite quite abstract, but if you want one, just ask. O.K.? In theatre, I appeared two Sunday nights ago in a scene from street scene by Elmer Rice with a girl called Mona Stea. I was Sam Kaplan to her Rose Maurrant. She was excellent, and I could have been better, but it was a wonderful production, and much enjoyment. I am now doing faust with me as Mephistopheles, and we are also rehearsing Ezra Pound’s translation of Sophocles’ the women of trachis. There will be dance, drama masks, music, etc. in the production.

About French, a Robert Hellman is coming here for the summer from the U. of Iowa, and last summer, he gave a course in Proust and Rimbaud, and intends to offer another course in French Lit. this season, so I will definitely be able to enjoy a little of francais.

It was very good to hear that you had enjoyed some or achieved some satisfaction from working on Bellay’s poetry. And the question you put forth is a good one. Don’t you think that one Learns because he has, not that he wants to. We know many things, but to keep knowledge we must learn it and keep on learning, thus it is not so much a perfection of self, but a damn necessity of self. We have to learn, not to be educated or articulate or successful, but simply because there is something there that makes us learn, and thus we should only learn that which we are forced to. This is not progressive education. I mean when you have the essentials, whether you want them or not. This is simply something above the essentials, then again, the things we are learning now are really essential to ourselves.

About movie fare, it was funny to hear you speak well of Heart of the Matter when sister Marion had wrote that it was corn corn etc. but her main complaint was the lack of spiritual struggle. As for me, I would love it, I think. Also The End of the Affair is out in Ny, with Debbie Kerr and Vannie Johnson. What ridiculous ads if you’ve noticed. I think Time gave it a shoddy write-up. The movies I have seen are two: the bill of fare here is impossible. The Revenge of the Creature: sequel to the original Creature of the Black Lagoon, which I had seen up in Boston, and whose sequel I couldn’t miss. It was riot. Lori Nelson gets seduced by a half-fish-man. But naturally is saved. The other film was On the Waterfront (now my 3rd time) but I was stinking, so it didn’t matter. The afternoon of that day, I was walking to the Studies Bldg. and met Ed Dorn, poet published in Origin, and he and his lovely lovely wife invited me to Peek’s for a beer. They brought their baby, who was brought up in a bureau drawer in a chicago tenement. And at midnight we returned, bare-footed, hysterical, the baby had been taken home earlier, after having devoured a package of pretzels and two packages of peanut butter and cheese crackers. But they are fine people, she being a divorcee who left her husband taking two other children with her, Fred and Chansonette, to live with Ed and sleep on dirty sheets on a mattress in their living room, the same house that Joe and Carolyn share. As she said, I left convention and a PHD for him, but he’s so beautiful, I love him, etc. He really isn’t but she loves him, etc.

I close now for a day or so in the rain here, it’s like Monsoon country.

                                                                                                       Monday.

[ ... ]

                                      your friend always, and all eras.
                                                      John

to robert greene 

Tuesday, May 24th. 1955
[Black Mountain, NC]

Dear Bob:

Of course, I have to answer your letter right away, even now when I should be writing, and the main reason is because I feel so elated by it, and also by another writing class last night. I brought in two poems, a love poem, which begins, “I have wanted to write a love poem like the river merchant’s”, and another, an address to Hart Crane, and Harry Crosby, two suicides. I did not work hard on them, especially the suicide one, as it was written while I was stinking on Friday, and written while I was in tears up to my knees. I brought them to class last night, read them in my turn, there were so many manuscripts we all read them one after another, and then waited, me sure that they were a failure and a dis-appointment to the ones of the week before. They talked for an hour on two poems of Mike Rumaker’s, and then a boy asked to read mine again, and then he commented that he liked them, and I asked a question: I would like to know how I can stop writing poems like this: Olson laughed and laughed, he said you never can, and you better not. He asked me what I meant, and I answered with: preoccupation with myself. The class then launched into them. In a second, failure is turned into success, at least for other people. Olson then began answering my question. I don’t remember what he said in quotes, but he talks about the intensity of me, me John Wieners, the desire, the trouble in the poems, that the use of language is my image, on and on, talking as if I am a poet, possessing the talent to convert experience into form. We went to Peek’s afterward, and I could hear him talking up the other end of the table about the emotion in the poems. When we went up to pay the bill, he came over and thanked me for the night. I was writing to Dana this morning, at about 10:30 and he came in, and talked with me for two hours, talked not in the way that if you work hard you will be a poet someday, but that if you work hard you will be a better poet than you are now. He asked me to write 5 different poems on the same subject: “the river merchant” it’s an allusion to Pound’s translation that we loved so much in Boston.

[ ... ]

You know how I feel. How does it happen, what has it happened I’m not even trying to find out. I just know now that as long as I live I will be a poet, that my life, way of and function of, will be the writing of poetry, as long as it lasts. Yesterday over the cliff, today on top of it. When I finish this letter, I will write a few words to Dana and then spend as long as I can stand it, writing it, because as they say here when you’re in heat with the poem, write write and hurry. It doesn’t last, and it’s too good to waste while it’s lasting.

I have only read your letter once, so whatever I say has to come from that, and I don’t want to stop writing to you to even re-read it.

[ ... ]

             Love, Vienna John

to james schuyler

April 22, 1957
Easter Monday
[Boston]

Dearest Jimmy:

[ ... ]

I have written 2 poems I sort of like & if I ever get the typewriter (one is borrowed) fixed, the first thing I intend to do is type them up & send you & Frank a copy. They are the type where I speak as sort of the grand madam of this city giving advice & warnings to two of the Lady’s Handmaids who are on their way here.

                                      “Flair says wear big rings when you ask for
                                                                                                     matches
and my flair’s
                                                            hair
                                                            under the hat
                                                            for daylight.

I leave addresses in the hoof of the horse across the State House
on Tuesdays and never
never forget where we come from, what can’t be sold, or
sucked off.

                               There’s something green in the marquee lights
                               they use on Washington Street so wear same
                               but only the lowers.
                                                                              I'll tell the musicians

you’re coming if

you tell me.”

                                                                Love,
                                                                The Local One

Do send them/and I thank you for the kind words
and poets don’t pay.

The other poem I liked for its swiftness:
                                                               Father or Son.
only I cursed in it that you had not broken the line where the breath (yours) demanded rather than let it measure out to a certain space. Please read if you haven’t Olson’s essay 1950: Projective Verse—in fact I’ll send it if you can get it back. It has large rough spots etc but a tremendous help to all of us, WCWms. reprints 1/2 of it in his Autobiography. You do it in Joint & I somehow think that’s a newer poem.

Just a ps) I can’t find the pen —

What Olson does demand of us is that we go back blind/have no rules but as he says those the poem under hand demand.

A very basic thing and the subject/ content of those poems becomes more immediate to us. Thus a poem on boredom — wd. have contained in it perceptions that we are running over—we vitalize thru the process of running to catch up with what is going on at the act of writing. It cd take us over the precipice — vide Le Fou — it cd take us to Babyland. Cd fuck up the sentence as we know it, as W.S. Merwin will never know it.

Bring an excitement form wise—not just word-wise excitement but the twist of the hip—even the way we walk will be put in the poem — it gets that basic. Should if we let it. Thus those damn readers get their money’s worth. They meet us. Watch us dance.

____________

I am very happy right now.

to james schuyler

June 11 [1957]
[Boston]

Dear Jimmy:

Let me just say this off the top of my head, that you are going to have a tough time making it alone / verse-wise, there. Now, I dont mean you wont have ears, and people liking what you do, but you will not find many truly digging what you are trying to do. Frank & who else? They might like the feeling: quote, but why you write this way (knowing there is no other) they’ll plague you, cause you self-doubt, being weaned on Poetry: Chicago. So this initially is to urge you to develop all you can yr resistancies, even—when you think you have made a real hit: send off to Olson, for he is most open to any effort. Robin Blaser did just that, and rec’d back reams of stimuli. This is, only in case, you want to go back, to Tiamat, the easy couches.

                         USE, the man said, of yr self, as object, of the others as objects/ no hurt ego in the way, well, you dont have to worry here. That is more my kick.

I am most excited over what I call: yr market poems. That Christ, yes, this can be our gallery, will have to be.

                         That you are committed, involved & I suppose that is why the advice, because the involvement is such, you wd. go anywhere, where you think the green field is, & I dont want you in the wrong pastures.

                                     PV set off a decade (1950 and measure if my energies hold out, will end it. We must see ourselves as the new generation, initially our youth in these ten years, &
                                                                                          if we survive,
after 1960, then we will be at the point of departure. As Pd, Wms, Marianne have all departed bringing up their own wonderful gifts.

Now is the time for the dredge, the pooling of energies, where we can learn to be sure.

                         Olson is one of our fathers, and those others are our grandpeople. It is a continuity. And that bastard strain of Wilbur, Booth, Hall, on and on and on, They are everywhere, a reversal, a falling away from the “new” going thing. They must be ignored, as one wd imposters at a clan gathering.

                         This does not mean any sacrifice of individual quality, kicks, diseases, etc, simply that we are in agreement, these are here simply to be used, allowed in to lead us on. They the determinants. The individual perceptions, how yr eyes are like no one elses, and never should you look for someone else’s eyeshade to wear.

                 Of course, it means continual work/ it sleeps, stays down, away from us, if we sleep. And so much has been done already, even the grandpeople still at times set the pace. It means exhausting all that they have, and still having enough to go on. That is why Olson cursed once, he only had his sixty or so yrs. Of course, he wrote first poem in mid-thirties, (his) so that is why he feels behind. Also of course, why he has/does take such giant-steps. To catch up.

[ ... ]

PS:

               How hudson ferry on re-reading now 3rd or 4th time has all the qualities. That you need not worry about anything/ but sufficient work. That you strip until you think you’ll have nothing left, but three lines, that you be tight, and when you see it, set it down, even if this “it” is yrself, it does not need be “objective” as Big Daddy tells us.

                            But in the act of it, pin down, and watching so all the loose material be cut down away, as Ginsberg aint learned yet, in his compulsions, that too much is there that dont matter to anyone but him. And that’s wrong, becuz, stating them is not enough sometimes, as he does, that those myriad things dont even matter to him, because he has not taken the care to ‘order the ‘experience’ to its own rules, its own syntax, jumps,

allow me to faint dead now. go home.

                                                              When
                                               can I expect more?
                                    As you do them, maybe?

                                    I cd. handle better than batches —

                                    oh — you make the rules —

to ed dorn

July 12 [1958]
[San Francisco]

Dearest Ed:

                       We are desperate men, and the rest bore. That is why we are friends. And I can write to you. And to Harvey in the nuthouse. (Only for a few months. It was that or jail for vagrancy. He moved into Joanne’s soon after you left). I live now with the McClure’s, an- other desperate man. In trying to preserve himself. I have a double brass bed. And not much else. Enough for the present time, when all have too much. It is necessary for me I imagine to have the movement of family around me now. I cherish them all. Am too tender to make it comfortable living tho. Still being such strangers. With them. There are drugs to break the barriers. And I am breaking down whatever stands before me. Not in a big prick way, but with the hands of love. Whatever that is. A regard as one touches leaves, that are still on the tree. Leaving oily grease on same. “The hand of man.”

                                                                   I wish there was a person to lay my hands on. In love. Instead of my own miserable prick. The hair of Joanne Mc bent before me as she fixed this machine. And it has been so long. That when she comes again, Lady Love, into my life, I will be swept away. The brushing of her hair. Against my flesh. How beautiful to have it. On our bones. I write to say I am alive and well. And that you are close. That your $2.00 will always be remembered. I am glad Helene liked the silk. It is lovely.

                      No word on Measure. I live from day to day. I send you 4 poems I wrote a week ago exactly almost to the hour. They are not poems. But literal messages from somewhere. I send them only to have something to send you, as I am wordless. Now.

Write often, Ed, whenever you can. There can never be boredom for us. By no means, did you leave me, fed up with you. I was filled only with the terror of the place I was living in. the rats, man. They nearly came in and took over. Scuttled the walls, etc.

After supper, with Fred Astaire’s Bandwagon. OK. Enough for now. I send the communiqués.

                                                                Love always
                                                                      John

                                                                                      You asked me what
                                                                                      I think & I will tell
                                                                                      you, I am not
                                                                                      one of those tight-lipped

   Oh listen to my words for I am wise
                                                                 I am like a lily fruit
                                                                               blooming in the wilderness.

I write the same words again, sitting here with Charlie Parker and
his rhumba band. I am one with the music, my cigarette stays on
the top of the table. I have decided I write prose. No one
understands me when I speak in poetry. It is not madness.

This sound, this syndrome
                                                              12/22
I pace the same ground as my forefathers,

let this be jagged, let this be a new continent. It is.
My fingers are determined by the laws of the universe. They are
writing this.      I have no power over what I say. I am ruled
by La Cucuracha.     Go

yells the Bubus from under her bedroom door. No she also says.

And if this is madness it is divine.

There are magic happenings going on all over the world.
I pick up an ashtray and it has the hair of Jean Harlow in it.

We have come to the place where we can worship.
That is enough.      There is no need to address America.
We dont even stay cool anymore.   We have the language
on our side.    Brought in to us by musicians, by heads from outer space
the junkies, the far travellers who always walk with a knife in their
back pockets, as I have walked today.

It is not the time for poetry. We go under as Rimbaud went,
if we let it catch up to us, but we are moving that fast,
that we stay one head up on the game.

I know not what I do. I am ruled by wonder magicians.
The green grass.

Blades of it, switch in your back hip pocket.      Swing

your ass sister on Market Street, there is enough for all.      Your
baskets will be full in this day after the 4th of July, our forefathers
brought forth on this continent a new

                               2nd Communique for the Heads

I love my fellow poets.

But I do not write for them.     I write for heads.
They who stick your necks up into outerspace, they who
will not allow my fingers to make a mistake on this machine, no matter
how I falter,    or err.    It is all here.    The periods are struck in the
furnace the same as the chains we all wear,    around our heads

hair.

I can do nothing but write.      I starve, and have no roof over my head
but the homes of strangers

friends who take me in.    I travel everywhere.    I am as air.
I am puffed up with myself as a crow.      I learned this trick
from a friend.

Who is a fellow poet.         Traveller.

                              4th Communique for Joanne and all the women

I am wearing down. The ashtray lies littered with
butts and matches, ashes even that the Lady Bubus
will carry safely and empty in some other room.
Her mother has given me corn to eat. And hash,
and egg yokes, no not yoke, but egg

whites.

We who sit in such color, feast and drink to the
whites of your eyes.

You maiden.    You girls whose eyes turn blue
with the sky.    And who walk through the high house in
white shoes.    The typewriter is a magic instrument and
I perform white magic upon it.     I call down the gods and
ladies of long ago

to wait on me.    Patience with me, who sound
horns into the mystic places of my heart.

I will come to you Lady bearing gifts, these white sheets
of paper, the sheets I lie between each night, they are yours
and blue,

from your linen closet.

                                5th and Finale Communique

There is a brass bed.

There is a rhumba band, there is a junky saxplayer
on it. It fills the air with sweet space sounds.

It tells me of the long ago Mecico
down under land.    If I went there, I would go down.
You will never get me there.   You can beat your brass
bands, I will not go.    Bands around my head

of yeast that feeds my hair, that makes bread
that fills ovens.   As I am filling this space, with puffed up words

The drum

Pour water on me so I will stretch in the sun.
As in the morning rising from
the sea the sun does.
I do from a brass bed.

And the sun, where do you come from?
With a spectre over my shoulder, with night on yours,

Morning star.
It shone for me.    Glitters on the headboard. It is what
we place in the firmament to take place beside nature.

The poem.

And always not enough. Not enough light.    Water on the drum.
Air for the lungs.   Earth for us to walk upon.          We war.

Unless we rise, can stick our heads
                                                                      (oh lustrous hair
up for the Morning Star. Up like the Morning.     Not an imitation
but basking in reflected glory.
                                                        The sun shines for us.
We shine because of the sun.   My brass bed shone

My hand pulses under the peyote plant placed there.
     I am in pain, and it soothes me.    Oh

to don allen

Sept 20 [1959]
[San Francisco]

Dear Don:

Well. I cant do anything new. But I will send you a poem I wrote this morning. And an excerpt from a journal I keep, which is abt. poetics, as I have been able to come to it.

                                           I just fell over on my back with the typewriter on my chest, and I looked up at the ceiling, and said, I’m gonna die this way. Like the goddamn cat I stepped on, with my left Mexican shoe, the drops of blood spread throughout the house. Gasping for breath. Always. Anyway.

A poem for trapped things.

Oh God what have you
given me that a black
butterfly lives in this room.
This morning with a blue flame burning
this thing wings its way in.
Wind shakes the edges of its yellow being.
Gasping for breath.
Living for the next instant
Climbing up the black border of the window.
Why do you want out.
I sit in pain
A red robe amid debris,
You bend and climb, extending antennae.

I know the butterfly is my soul
and it is weak from battle.

A giant fan on the back of
                                 a beetle.
A caterpillar, crysalis that seeks
a new home apart from this room.
And will disappear from sight
at the pulling of invisible strings.
Yet so tenuous, so fine
this thing is, I am
sitting on the hard bed, we could
                vanish from sight like the puff
                   off an invisible cigarette.
Furred chest, ragged silk under
                   wings beating against the glass

                        no one will open.

The blue diamonds on your back
are too beautiful to do
                away with.
I watch you
               all morning
                                     long
with my hand over my mouth.

                                                               (1959)

Dont show TOO MUCH. I’m afraid they’ll steal my style.

July 17

             From a journal

A poem does not have to be a major thing. Or a statement?
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.
I feel right now even the reading of poems to an unknown
large? public is a shallow act, unless the reading be given for the
                           fact of clarity.        The different techne
a man uses to make his salvation. 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?   Lethargy vs
                                                                                                      Violence.
For to take up arms against the void is attack, and the price of war
                                                               is high. Millions of syllables
    shed over the falls of our saliva, millions of teardrops
roll out of our eyes. Giant screams echo through the halls of our house
at night. We do not wish it. It is so. By the action we are en-
gaged in. Hundreds of days, months have to go by before the
spirits descend and the right word rolls out sharp and full of
                               fire air earth and water
                                   [         off the tips of our
                                                              tongue.     And one cannot avoid the
days. They have to parade by in all their carnage. The events of
them like images on a shield, we carry thru the streets of
                 the town
                                  later on our way to the poetry reading.” Drunk or
                                                      doped before that wild horde who press in
to get a peek at the bloody hero.    And is he?
                                                                         You bet.

As a postscript abt any of us writing on poetics: this.
                                                                                                            (I changed
                                                                                                               my mind.

              Love to you always
                               J

*quote from Olson

 


Acknowledgments

Letters appear courtesy of the Estate of John Wieners, with special thanks to his literary executor Raymond Foye. Letter to Donald Allen courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries. Letter to Ed Dorn, Box 25, Ed Dorn Papers, Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries. Letters to Robert Greene from the John Wieners Papers, MS.1994.032, John J. Burns Library, Boston College. Letters to James Schuyler, James Schuyler Papers, Special Collections and Archives, MS 0078, University of California, San Diego. The photograph was taken by Leni Sinclair and is reproduced with her permission. 

  • Born in Boston, poet John Wieners was a Beat poet and member of the San Francisco Renaissance, Wieners was also an antiwar and gay rights activist. His poetry combines candid accounts of sexual and drug-related experimentation with jazz-influenced improvisation, placing both in a lyrical structure. In an interview with his editor,...

  • Michael Seth Stewart edited the letters and journals of John Wieners. Stars Seen in Person: The Selected Journals of John Wieners is being published this fall by City Lights Books.

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Seven Letters

  • Born in Boston, poet John Wieners was a Beat poet and member of the San Francisco Renaissance, Wieners was also an antiwar and gay rights activist. His poetry combines candid accounts of sexual and drug-related experimentation with jazz-influenced improvisation, placing both in a lyrical structure. In an interview with his editor,...

  • Michael Seth Stewart edited the letters and journals of John Wieners. Stars Seen in Person: The Selected Journals of John Wieners is being published this fall by City Lights Books.

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