Sunday, April 29, 2018

In Memory of Poet John Wieners


***This is an old article I wrote for Spare Change News upon Wieners death. I met Wieners through Jack Powers, the late founder of Stone Soup Poets--birthed in Boston in the early 70s on Beacon Hill or " Beatnick Hill" its nickname at the time..

John Wieners was many things. He was a civil and gay rights activist, an anti-war proponent, a mental patient, a teacher, a writer, a homosexual, but most importantly a poet. Born in 1934 in the Boston area, he was identified as a BEAT poet, who was known (according to biographer Raymonde Foye) for his, "quiet elegance and understatement." Wieners was the founder of Boston's MEASURE magazine in the 50's, a graduate of the innovative Black Mountain School of poet Charles Olsen, and the author of any number of poetry collections, the first being THE HOTEL WENTLEY POEMS.

Wieners had said that a significant event occurred to him while he was walking by the Charles St. Meeting House on Beacon Hill in Boston, during the 1950's. Famed
Gloucester poet, Charles Olsen was reading and folks were handing out his literary and art journal the BLACK MOUNTAIN REVIEW. Wieners was inspired by this magazine, which was founded by such men as Olsen, Robert Creeley, Robert Motherwell and John Cage. The BLACK MOUNTAIN SCHOOL ,( connected with the magazine) in rural North Carolina was described as an "experiment in open education." In the spring of 1955 Wieners enrolled in this unique institution, and later came back to Boston,to publish MEASURE MAGAZINE, that featured many BLACK MOUNTAIN poets.

Shortly after being fired from his job at Harvard's Lamont Library, he went to California, (San Francisco), and was introduced to the BEAT cabal of poets and writers,such as: Jack Kerouac, Bob Kaufman, Jack Spicer and others.He worked and hung out in the bohemian milieu of North Beach in San Francisco. He was an active participant in the poetry reading scene, and held court for a number of gatherings at his apartment on Russian Hill. During this time he wrote THE HOTEL WENTLEY POEMS ( considered a classic of the Beat genre), that explored the underbelly of the hardscrabble lives of the BEAT poets. Allen Ginsberg opined : " The whole book is the work of a naked flower..."

Shortly after his stint on the coast, and his excessive drug use, Wieners moved back to Boston and was hospitalized in an asylum. In his poem ACTS OF YOUTH Wieners describes his mordant sensibility, and his intuition of his fate:
"Oh I have/always seen my life as drama,patterned after those/who met with disaster or doom."

In 1965 Wiener's went to the University of Buffalo, to attend graduate school. On the faculty were such poets as Gregory Corso and Robert Creeley. From his experience in Buffalo (which was a hotbed of small press poetry), Wieners finished his collection, PRESSED WAFER. In this collection Wieners struggled with his identity as a writer. On one hand he felt like a priest, with a religious devotion to his craft. Yet he still sought redemption with the pleasures of the flesh.

It has been noted that there was a very strong feminine component to Wieners' poetry. He was always fascinated with the power of beauty. The fem-me-fatale prototype was of particular interest. In his poem, " The Garbos and Dietrichs," he writes:
" I speak of lovers/they murdered because/they are so kind.../Anything to stay/beautiful and remain blind/.../ To these men they turned to swine./

In the 60's and beyond Wieners was plagued by mental illness. In 1971 he moved to small walk-up apartment on Beacon Hill, Boston. He remained here for the rest of his life. He became friends with a number of local poets, including: Jack Powers, Charles Shively, Gerrit Lansing, and Steve Jonas. He taught at the BEACON HILL FREE SCHOOL, and was an activist until his death in March 2002.

I knew Wieners very casually through my friend and mentor,poet Jack Powers. A number of times I saw him read for STONE SOUP POETS at the Old West Church on Cambridge St. on Beacon Hill. He seemed like an absent-minded professor, with old newspapers sprouting from the pockets of his tattered blazer, and his hair decidedly askew. He read from a manuscript, brown from age, and mumbled throughout most of the performance.
Every once and awhile a breath-taking line would break through like the sun from a gray bank of clouds. It was then that I wished that I witnessed this great ruin of a poet during his salad days.

Doug Holder

* much of the information here was culled from the Dictionary of Literary Biography, and an essay on Weiners by Raymonde Foye.

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