When asked what school of poetry he belonged to, John Wieners identified as “a Boston poet.” He doesn’t document Boston, but embodies it, giving it syllable and line to echo its speech, its gentility and subterranean pleasures. He is writing from a Boston that no longer exists, that got plowed over for the brutal urban renewal of the nineteen sixties. He’s writing from the Boston of Scollay Square and dive bars one could afford, of burlesque queens and movie houses where one could stare at the stars. Except for a fifteen-year stretch, John Wieners lived all his life in Boston or one of its suburbs. Those fifteen years contained all his lives in centers of poetry—Black Mountain, San Francisco, New York, and Buffalo—and the greatest share of his output. This was the span of time in which he wrote most of his crowning achievements—from The Hotel Wentley Poems in 1958 through 1969’s Asylum Poems—books that show a mind on fire for his work, for the poem, “the song of life, soft syllables from God.”
John Wieners grew up in working-class Milton, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. He was a child of the Depression, a member of the so-called Silent Generation, the one conscripted into service in Korea, too young for World War II and too old for Vietnam. He started Boston College at sixteen, knowing out of the gate that he was going to be a Poet, a vocation he knew, from his devoured poetry books and gossip magazines, would lead to heartache and, possibly, glory. At school, beneath the oppressive Jesuit eyes that still ran the place, he found safe havens with other nascent bohemians, budding poets and artists with whom he could gab in the offices of the student lit-mag and the bars and coffee shops of north Beacon Hill, swooning over Edna St Vincent Millay and Zelda Fitzgerald, like many of their generation obsessed with the legendary flair and freedom of the nineteen twenties. The rest of the decade was marked by this lust for life, a Rimbaudian excessiveness which, by the end of 1959, so alarmed his family that they had him committed, the first of several forced hospitalizations.
The journal swings between private and public like a door, oscillating—often within the same entry—between intensely personal address and an outward-facing stance which is confident in its eventual audience. There are different kinds of journals—the poet’s book filled with scraps of verse and overheard phrases, the artist’s sketchbook, the regular daybook lined with minutiae—and John Wieners’ own journals run the gamut. Some, like 1955’s Untitled Journal of a Would-Be Poet, are intensely self- and reader-conscious, the writing a discipline of preservation and refinement, passages crossed out and rewritten as he hones the best way of telling his story. By contrast, the 1966 journal is painfully naked, working through intense personal dramas by narrativizing and timelining the events of his life.
Somewhere midway on the spectrum are the dazzling journals—poets’ books? —from 1959 and 1965, 707 Scott Street and Blaauwildebeestefontein. Written while living with Joanne Kyger and Wallace Berman, respectively, they are self-contained, thematically and aesthetically. The books are written during times of repose for the young poet, on Kyger’s sofa in San Francisco and Berman’s porch in Beverly Glen, and contain reflections on poetics that distill Wieners’ visions at those moments. 707 Scott Street has long been an essential part of Wieners’ canon, and Blaauwildebeestefontein stands alongside it, the meditations on process and life an expression of the six years of greatness and trauma lived between the two journals.
This is how we tell what kind of journal—or book—each one was meant to be, by studying it for clues. The 1959 and 1965 journals are decorated, self-contained, and very public in feel: for example, the 1965 contains a long section, rewritten in parts, explaining the history of Boston poetry, reprinted here as “Road of Straw.” The title is taken from Edward Marshall’s landmark 1955 poem “Leave the Word Alone,” a strangely rhapsodic, often painful poem about Marshall’s mother Lena, her struggles with intense depression, and relationship to her own mother, Rhoda Straw. From these figures and this poem Wieners lays out a map of 1950s underground Boston poetry. Beyond arguing for Marshall’s place in the midcentury poetic canon, Wieners is also attempting a unified history of this too-often-overlooked poetic community, putting to rest any notions of Wieners as an adjunct to the New York or San Francisco “schools” of poetry, establishing the Bohemian north side of Beacon Hill as an equally vital epicenter of post-war avant garde poetics.
This first journal begins in the early winter months of 1955, just before Wieners’ twenty-first birthday and just after his graduation from Boston College. The journal opens with a breezy recounting of this period, from across the gulf of graduation and, though it goes unmentioned in the journal till the end, his fateful encounter with Charles Olson at the Charles Street Meeting House. That performance would draw him to Olson’s inspirations—notably Williams and Pound—and then down to North Carolina to study with the man himself, a relationship that endured the fifteen years till Olson’s death. But for now, in January 1955, Olson is still in the background, as the young “would-be poet” studies Pound and works on his self-discipline, knowing the great work it will take to become what he considers a real poet, a vocation he would pursue with singular focus for the rest of his life.
But of course the young poet keeps getting distracted, keeps getting pulled into the world of the “golden people” with their “loud laughing” (“I love loud laughing,” he writes), and uses his journal to define himself against this cast of characters: Rita, a flirty friend he met at the art museum; the brainy Pat from Providence who “pants for life”; Robert Greene, his best friend from his Boston College literary magazine days; Greene’s girlfriend Veronique, and a shadowy presence at first called “god” and finally identified as his first lover, a handsome blonde firefighter named Dana. At the same time, Wieners is reading everyone Olson read, and the poets they cite as influences, excitedly noting his favorite lines and observations about the line and the breath, so influenced by Olson’s 1950 essay “Projective Verse.” The work culminates with his first semester at Black Mountain College, the summer of 1955, and there is a year’s gap in the journal as he labored at his poetry and perpetually fraught relationship with Dana. Finally he revisits the book in September 1956 after his second term at the school, during a pause in his life as he decided whether to return to Black Mountain or stay in Boston and work out a life with Dana and the poets of Boston. He chose the latter, and in turn formed lifelong relationships with the influx of poets in 1956–57, writing and drinking with visitors Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer, and Frank O’Hara; and familiar faces Edward Marshall, Steve Jonas, and Joe and Carolyn Dunn, the libertines on Beacon Hill’s working-class north slope, a pack that their friend Gerrit Lansing would aptly call “the occult school of Boston poetry,” the group both occulted and driven by occult fascinations.
Appropriately, the journal ends with Wieners’ desire to remain with Dana and “the most exciting part of love, the plan one makes to be loved, the traps one sets for love.” By the fall of 1957, he and Dana would join many of their friends in migration to San Francisco, where he would continue in many unexpected ways the plan of study begun after the Charles Street Meeting House reading, as well as the social networking that went into his small magazine Measure. By the time he reached San Francisco he was well established in the loose network of New American Poets, and would produce during his stay there the two great monuments of his youth, The Hotel Wentley Poems and 707 Scott Street.
His first hospitalization was in 1960, after a manic visit home frightened his parents into committing him for six months. His friends rallied to his side, petitioning doctors and lawyers, taking care of him upon release. He shuttled back and forth between his parents’ home and the East Village of Manhattan, where he worked sometimes at the 8th Street Bookshop, wrote plays for the New York Poets’ Theatre, and worked on his first full-length collection, 1964’s Ace of Pentacles.
The second of these journals was written just after this strange time in late summer of 1965, a spectacular season for Wieners and for poetry. First he was able, through some maneuvering by Frank O’Hara, to accompany Olson to Spoleto, Italy, for the Festival of the Two Worlds. He met many literary lions, but the pinnacle for him was meeting Ezra Pound, the gnarled poet celebrated (and protested) as a centerpiece of the festival. Like the other poets—a wide range, from Pound to Ashbery to Pier Paolo Pasolini—Wieners read in the ornate Cato Melisso. “What a ball,” he described the trip in a letter to Wallace Berman. “I hope I can keep my cool.”1
From Spoleto he went west for the Berkeley Poetry Conference, a twelve-day convocation, the kind of event that seemed legendary even as it happened. Wieners had his own night for reading, July 14. Olson’s two events were epic performances, one a seminar on “Causal Mythology” and the other a rollicking, drunk poetry performance-slash-extemporaneous monologue on poetics and history, among other things. Wieners stayed with Joanne Kyger in San Francisco, making the trip together over to Berkeley every day for the seminars and readings. By August he was exhausted, and went to relax with old friend Wallace Berman, who lived with wife and son in Los Angeles, working on his magnificent small art magazine Semina. Staying there in the hills of Southern California, Wieners wrote a journal he called Blaauwildebeestefontein, in a bound black sketchbook featuring a pasted-on photo of a naked man (with face scratched out, presumably out of discretion).
Four years and three books later, in 1969, Wieners was institutionalized again, this time for six months at a public hospital on Long Island. He started an enduring and generative friendship with Boston gay liberation activist and teacher Charles Shively, and kept another journal, released five years ago as A New Book From Rome. After his release he moved back to the Boston suburbs and survived the deaths of Charles Olson, Steve Jonas, and his mother Anna. He continued to develop new poetry, and worked on another journal, released in 2007 as Book of Prophecies (like A New Book From Rome, published handsomely by Bootstrap Press), building towards a tremendous, challenging book of new poems called Behind the State Capitol, or the Cincinnati Pike, published by Shively’s Good Gay Poets Press in 1975. By this time he had settled into a comfortable but hand-to-mouth life at 44 Joy Street, just a few blocks from the apartment on Grove where he lived while writing The Untitled Journal of a Would-Be Poet. The neighborhood had changed mightily, and so had he. He lived there for almost three decades, and by all accounts never stopped writing.
Following are four selections from the journals—two each from the two most substantial journals, from 1955 and 1965, Boston and Los Angeles. Between them yawns a gap of ten years of great transformation, suffering, and poetic study and evolution. I have selected these four excerpts for The Volta because they represent key moments in his imaginative life, four days in which he is thinking about the life he’s chosen, its potential glories and vicissitudes.
The first selection is, to my knowledge, the closest Wieners came to writing a short story. In fact, it’s a sketch for a story, an elliptical narrative about a man obsessed with the swan boats Wieners loved in Boston’s Public Gardens, a tale haunted by addiction and strange desire. The tale is prompted, or at least preceded, by a question: “What can explain the tragedy of this world?”
The second excerpt is also from 1955, his heady winter of post-collegiate self-education, as he devours Pound and Williams, discovers Olson, and weaves all this together with the Rimbauldian excess of his friends Joe and Carolyn Dunn: with them, he writes, “there is the youth and headlessness, and fire, that the great ones before us had, and which shall be found again in us, I truly believe.” This fire would be the propulsive force of his vocation and poetics.
The second pair of excerpts come from his 1965 journal, “Blaauwildebeestefontein.” First is the aforementioned “Road of Straw,” a personal history that is a powerful corrective to our established narratives of mid-century poetry. Following “Road of Straw” is a more lyric meditation on the vocation of the Poet, and the Poet’s absolute dedication to the Poem—capitalized because this vocation, this lifelong project, is sacred to Wieners, an Orphic poet. He wants to create the world with his poems, and sacrifice himself for the vision:
The word is the only world; the world is only
a word; but it is more than it. It is a never
quenching flame, that can burn you out
Finally, I have chosen to end this selection of writings on poetics with a brief letter to his first publisher, Auerhahn Press legend Dave Haselwood. In it he expressed regret over a famous line on poetics from his entry in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry, in which he’d quoted Olson (the quote’s attribution disappeared by the time the book was published) saying that “Poetry is no more holy an act than, say, shitting.” On the contrary, Wieners tells Haselwood, “I now come to find writing a poem is the most sacred act of my existence.” As Wieners’ work—not just his poems, but his journals, letters, and plays—makes clear, this sacredness was the central fact of his poetic vocation.