Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wieners As Outsider - "Cure the Hurts of Wanting"

John Wieners [1934-2002] is a curious and mysterious figure in post-Modern American poetry. An unstable, Gay man, who suffered throughout most of his adult life from severe bouts of delusion, he nevertheless managed to cobble together an impressive, if peculiar, body of work. 
He lived quietly, but his inner life was rich with frequently bizarre illusions. Immersed in a close reading of pre-Modern English poetry, many of his poems document a tormented emotional progress, by turns passionate, bitter, coquettish, nostalgic, and fatalistic. Often preoccupied by tawdry Hollywood fan magazines, the strange world of trashy Forties and Camp porn, his delusions, also peopled by real lovers and friends, were transformed in his imagination into a private theater of emotional morality plays.          

His first, famous brief collection, The Hotel Wentley Poems [1958], is notable for its barren lyricism, documenting a shadow world of Gay bars, addiction, furtive assignations, and youthful passion, with a frankness and tenderness that is genuinely convincing. Though he was only in San Francisco for two years, he belongs unquestionably to the San Francisco Renaissance, and the Beat phenomenon. 
Heavily influenced by Charles Olson, he was initially drawn to Black Mountain College where he studied with Olson and Robert Duncan [1955-56]--and it changed his life. He edited an important literary journal, Measure, and his eventual efforts produced poems of a distinctly late-romantic lyrical bent. Surprisingly, his individual style never seems to have been much affected by these early post-Modernist influences, in the way that Dorn and Jonathan Williams, for instance, (also students at Black Mountain under Olson's massive sway) were. His second book, Ace of Pentacles [1964], is a collection of amorous lyrics and lover's complaints, influenced by Wyatt, Campion, Shelley, Poe, Clare, Swinburne, and Whitman. Like O'Hara, the other great later 20th Century American homoerotic voice, Wieners is a poet of love. But instead of art--the stimulating society of writers and artists and patrons which O'Hara inhabited--Wieners dreamed of the tarnished glamour of movie queens, a private universe ofNational Inquirer archetypes ("Jackie", Lex Barker, "Liz"), and the usual suspects of the Noir world, of misanthropic gestures cloaked in a mocking, masochistic charm.
Wieners's poems are decorative and formal, but as his career progressed a psychological involution occurred in which the imaginary world of fan magazines and tawdry, doomed assignations combine in a kind of hybrid fantasy-life, culminating in Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike [1975], an eccentric hybrid poetic masterpiece. But my emphasis here is upon the quality of his verse as such, not his attempt to get beyond poetry as performance into a descriptive objectification of culture.     
He adopts the classical straight persona of the female object derived from the Renaissance trope, but refigures it as the receptive bottom of Gay cultural paradigm. The narcissistic yearning for a forbidden fulfillment, denied by official society, is fictionalized as a romantic persona of the neglected, abused, recessive self. Readers coming to Wieners's verse for the first time will undoubtedly be surprised, and perhaps dismayed, by the faux antique address, the often archaic phraseology, the single-minded concentration on betrayed affection, the feminine mystique of seductive vulnerability. On one level, it's the typical frustrated Gay prototypical sexual reversal, the clichés of the outré masquerade, employed in the context of classical metaphysical love poetry. Wieners identifies the Gay lifestyle profile with the persecuted sexual frustration of the seduction of capital, expressed through the idealized fantasy life of Hollywood, media gossip, the commerce of sex, the emptiness of the lure of glamour and pixie dust.     
My favorite Wieners collection is Nerves, New York: Cape Goliard/Grossman, 1970. Unpaginated, it contains 68 pages of text. Aside from Ace of Pentacles [New York: Carr & Wilson, 1964], it's probably his best unified book published during his lifetime, a clear presentation of his prosodic styles and persuasions, and a strongly defined self-portrait, the last section of which, Asylum Poems, was written during a period of psychiatric confinement. The two-edged connotation--of asylum as punishment for the sins of delusional thinking--and of asylum as refuge, as safe harbor--is a common triad, so the poems become temporary syntheses, stays against the wanting/having//despair/remorse dilemmas which torment him.           
A Dawn Cocktail
We lie in a pool of blood,
smashed glass all over stone
cut neck, chest, calves
bleeding to death
over moonlit goblets.
The Dark Brew
      for Louise
At least these wounds were opened
by your love that allowed the deeper sickness in,
yea, they budded lush and festival in the dark
Silence of summer agony; when supposed love wreathed on the hill
these dark lilies grew beneath and polluted the stem
So two or three years later, I collapse under the burden,
the dark love grew immense in another's form
And silenced all holocaust in their wake.
Belladonna of morning, autumn grapes for symphony and pansy
Immediately following as birth in place of life of foetid mind
Why go on; the list is endless what these wounds your opened, fed.
First hallucination of transient loveliness; second, voices of
self-importance, guiding and cajoling, canceling all
connection to nature; third false vision of love and
its simples; fourth murderous challenge to the
dawn of thought, and envy, jealousy, rage as
accompaniments to artistry. 
Some women bathe their hands in these blossoms,
and wear them pinned to their brows, as stars; others
anoint their bodies with the petals, calling a cape of
it perfume and pay enormous prices for its
scent, pollen caught off any extreme as death
but the chaos, culmination, conflagration of
what should be love's union but is not is
simply pest of confusion in the face of order.
What odor called forth by these buds, spring rain under murderous taxi tires,
a store window open to new design; the fresh arousing of debutantes on Madison Ave.?
Who knows the stop signals of their gas, their lightning roar from the cliffs on country roads,
the damp spring we allowed to forget; why stop; the abandoned goats walk from Pennsylvania
Ah there the haven lies in some sweet vision of you collapsing purple amethyst eyes?
within a face not mine to surmise, ringed with outshooting apple blossoms
Oh, who knows the look of false surprise; the badgering pity
the dream of death lives still under morning's sunrise,
despite the clatter of broken bumper and shining festoon
of afternoon's patience for drunk twilight to halo drawn's root cart.
there where I was splattered, now taken in its guise
on field and bed, as one wounded must arise
these dark bruises regard as love defended.     
In the second poem, degrees of incoherence alternate between luminous impressions--of words employed almost as stereotypical specimens ("budded lush...dark silence...summer wreathed...dark lilies...polluted stem...dark love...Belladonna of morning...autumn grapes...foetid mind...endless wounds...First hallucination...transient loveliness...murderous challenge" and so on)--which resonate and evoke vague but intensely imagined feelings--and a passionate indignant protest against loneliness, betrayal--enumerated in a descending order of decadent aesthetic illusions, from ideal vanity...lust...dissolving into a catalogue of sins endemic to the case--  
First hallucination of transient loveliness; second, voices of
self-importance, guiding and cajoling, canceling all
connection to nature; third false vision of love and
its simples; fourth murderous challenge to the
dawn of thought, and envy, jealousy, rage as
accompaniments to artistry.          
Wieners's theme is repeatedly the quest for knowledge through love's possession--its empty conquests--and a decadent susceptibility to the richness and fulfillment of indulgence. Self-pity vies with insolent sarcasm in a relentless argument whose outcome is routinely concluded in a wounded resolve. 
The Patio
I created eternity
to bind you within it
A scheme worthy of the pope
to keep my prince
An ivory wall, have you seen it? there
as we travel on the road, together'd
shadows flit at twilight
we will not be one of them vespers
failing in confinement.
I built it. Where are you?    
Severe as this kind of utterance may seem, it's like a shield against the blandishments of attraction, against disillusionment, the temptation to guilt, the inebriation of self-deception, false hopes.  
Wieners, a native of Eastern Massachusetts, spent the last decades of his life in Boston, a city whose history, both personal and imaginary, meant much to his sense of identity. 
After Symond's Venice
            for Allen Ginsberg
Boston, sooty in memory, alive with a
thousand murky dreams of adolescence
still calls to youth; the wide streets, chimney tops over
Charles River's broad sweep to seahood buoy; the harbor
With dreams, too; The Newport News has arrived for a week's stay
Alan on Summer Street sailors yet stride along summer afternoons
and the gossamer twilights on Boston Common, and Arlington Street
adrift in the mind, beside the mighty facade of convent and charnel house,
who go through those doors, up from Beacon Street, past the marooned sunset in the
West, behind Tremont Hill's shabby haunts of artists
and the new Government Center, supplanting Scollay Square.
Who replace the all night films; and the Boston dawn
in the South End, newly washed pavements by night's horses.
What happens here from the windows on Columbus Avenue
to Copley Plaza, and the library, Renaissance model, the Hotel and smart shops down
Newbury Street's lit boutique, lept by Emerson College,
who triumph light over dark, the water side
endures beside the moon and stars of Cambridge's towers
...past Park Square pavements so wide for the browser, drifters
from Northampton Street behind the Statler, by the bus stations and slum tableaux
Finally to return to the Gardens, and the statue of George Washington
appealing to later-day shoppers to go home, in what dusk
what drunken reveling matches this reverie
of souvenirs, abandoned in the horror of public elevators
as this city is contained time, and time again the State House
from Bulfinch's pen, over School Street and Broad down the slope of Federal mirages over blue grass
to the waterfront; Atheneum holding all the books of men, directed
against the foe, hapless Pierre churns through the Parker House coming to the Vendome mentally
over the Brunswick, eternal in the mind's owl of phantoms stretching from boyhead.
When vows first establisht were to see this world and part all within it
You, Boston, were the first, as later San Francisco, and before that
New York, the South and West
penetrated, hard holds the Northwest, Chicago, Detroit
much in the same manner of industrial complexes
covering the rising cigarettes of patriots. 
The Park Street Steeple as painted by Arshile Goky zooms higher.
Slumbering city, what makes men think you sleep,
but breathe, what chants or paeans needed at this end, except 
you stand as first town, first bank of hopes, firsts envisioned paradise
by the tulips in the Public gargoyle's crotch, Haymarket
Square included spartan business enterprise and
next to South Station, the Essex evoking the metropolitan arena hopes entertain. 
It's interesting to try to place Wieners among the competing trends and influences of the post-war period. Though he was clearly influenced by Olson, with whom he studied at Black Mountain College, and under whom he worked at SUNY Buffalo, the accurate function of this relationship is obscure. There is also the indirect influence of Allen Ginsberg or Frank O'Hara, two Gay writers whose approaches were both less restrained (than Wieners's formalist styles), and more "sensible" than Wieners ever would be. Undoubtedly, Wieners would have been a different writer in the absence of any of these figures, but his creative focus really lay in earlier models of the lyric. Aside from the expected figures--Campion, Wyatt, Jonson, Shakespeare--one might add Shelley, Byron and Poe--but the central position behind Wieners would seem to be occupied by Baudelaire, with his interest in vice, sensual sophistication and indulgence, cynical and ironic; his commitment to the principles of embarrassment and shock, violence and dissolution; the dedication to art as a pursuit independent of conventional morality; the corruption of the city; the interest in prurience and vagrant sexuality. 
Whitman's literary side seems absent in Wieners's imaginative space, as does the work of almost any Modernist writer one might think to name. A faint echo of Stevens can be detected but only in a thematic or sense, in much the way that Crane stands symbolically behind every homoerotic writer since the Twenties. Wieners's tortured moral-aesthetic struggles, within the framework of his Catholic upbringing, produce resistant declarations and prayers for an emotional release.


Do I have to accept his
repetition of rival thrust   
use of assholes and bitches
to gain entry of a youth's kiss?

run by alcoholics and fakes
to penetrate each night
with the tenderness and pride
from ambition's sneer.

O poetry, visit this house often,
imbue my life with success,
leave me not alone,
give me a wife and home.
Take this curse off
of early death and drugs,
make me a friend among peers,
lend me love, and timeliness.
Return me to the men who teach
and above all, cure the
hurts of wanting the impossible
through this suspended vacuum.
This is only a snapshot of a poet whose work and significance are difficult to describe in brief. The attention paid to the Hotel Wentley book has tended to obscure Wieners's career, as if the only value in his poetry was his participation in a very short-lived, and poorly delineated "movement" which occurred in San Francisco in the late 1950's. The neglect and generally cool reception accorded Wieners's later work suggests a misapprehension of the meaning of his aesthetic, and a dismissal based on prejudicial regard. Wieners's work is on one level like an exploration of trans-sexual archetypes, which comprises the ostensible subject-matter of his compositions. His effort to build a castle made of fetishized autotropes--in which a private language, fractured by delusion, instability and aesthetic license is given free reign--is an important contribution to post-Modern poetics. 

For those interested in a probing and informative look into Wieners's life and work, Andrea Brady's brilliant essay, "The Other Poet: John Wieners, Frank O'Hara, Charles Olson," can be accessed in Jacket online magazine #32, April 2007.  Her analysis of the relationship between certain thematic elements and the primary biographical facts and specimens is among the best I have ever read, a model of care and insight:                           

1 comment:

J said...

Shelley? Poe? Baudelaire? No se pienso. Poetic expert Im not but the romantic maestros still retained something like formal beauty, did they not? Not to say meter, etc . Shelley's best verse...soars. This kittie....slinks, or crawls....

tho' you may be correct he was sort of a beat--at least his vers libre nauseates like most beatnik-speak (that one weird queer poetical...Hart Crane was never quite so ugly as beatniks). You have a different definition of noir--sort of North Beach noir!--than most of us, too, Sir F. Dash Hammett woulda reached for his derringer