John Wieners Essay - Critical Essays

Wieners, John

Wieners, John 1934–

Wieners is an award-winning American poet. He has also written plays. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

John Wieners is a young, highly finished poet whose new book [Ace of Pentacles] fails miserably in many places: he uses obvious, banal rhymes, much in the manner of Frost at his most bathetic, he ruins a naturally excellent ear by gestures toward some sort of "formal" metric, he reaches back into the bag of ancient and moldy poetic tricks to invert lines—worse, he sometimes inverts in order to make his rhyme. In spite of all these faults, this book is a triumph.

Mr. Wieners' first book, The Hotel Wentley Poems, promised readers the emergence of a poet of great skill and strength: this book fulfills that promise. His toyings with rhymes and metrics are surely, most of the time, abysmal failures. But when all things work properly, we are confronted with poems of a subtle beauty and force. Wieners here is moving into those areas of his life hitherto blocked off, closed to him and to his writing. It would seem that these crutches of formalism are used in order to get close to something that until now has been impossible for him to touch. At times, like any literary crutches, they tend to remove him from the absolute experience he wants to get across, to dull, instead of to enhance, the impact of the poem, or line. But at other times, everything works, and we are confronted with the poetic sublimity Wieners has unequivocally shown himself to be so capable of.

Wieners is not a "promising" poet. He is a thoroughly accomplished poet who has allowed us to follow his poetic, its half-starts, its misses, its perfections, in this book. It has at least a half-dozen first-rate poems, which seems miraculous, since Wieners, too, is one of them beatnik fellas. (p. 2)

Gilbert Sorrentino, in Chicago Tribune Book Week (© The Washington Post), January 3, 1965.

John Wieners' poems are abundant in that quality—call it "magic" or "grace" or "the poetry beyond the poem (but inseparable from it)"—which is not in all poems, rarely informs all of any poem, is shared by the other arts and by natural phenomena, but which when we discover it in a poem seems wholly germane to it and to be its very savor.

He is not a "natural poet" in the sense of being one who sang from the start and to whom the poem comes easy: in his earlier book, The Hotel Wentley Poems, moving and individual though it was—a remarkable first book—one heard only occasionally anything of the music that has been granted him in Ace of Pentacles I say granted because I think a certain kind of believing abandon to poetry can bring about what seems a miracle (and perhaps it is): the tapping of a buried fountain in the poet from which the music flows. Mediocrity is perhaps due not so much to lack of imagination as to lack of faith in the imagination, lack of the capacity for this abandon. (p. 227)

The things various confessional poets describe have happened to him too—drug addiction, the pain and loneliness of homosexual love, the mental breakdowns—everything except marriage problems and divorce; but in his case they are not autobiographically written about, they are conditions out of which it happens that the songs arise. There is never any sense that he capitalizes on dramatic events or is dependent upon them for his poetry; he doesn't see them as dramatic. What moves us is not the darkness of the world in which the poems were written, but the pity and terror and joy that is beauty in the poems themselves. When there is no song, no honey on the lips, only the presentation of drama, it can happen that the subject-matter itself is invested with a false glamor. In Wieners the glamor is in the word-music itself. (pp. 227-28)

His working of poems is towards accuracy of notation for that experience, not in support of the superficial clarity that is only a compulsive neatness and takes insufficient care of the complexities of the live material. That is why there are many lines of odd grammatical structure, syntactical loose ends. I am usually irritated by such things, for there is another clarity I am deeply committed to and which structural looseness can obstruct; but the peculiarities of language in these poems are, I have come to see, often the very crises of poignant truth, the pivots of the poem. They are not carelessnesses, just the contrary; change them and you change a note of a chord. It is the same with his occasional inversions of word-order or with his innocent invocation of tradition in a poem like the early Ode on a Common Fountain (antedating, I think, The Hotel Wentley Poems). Whatever happens is there because that is how the song goes, as a wind blowing in certain branches, a wave breaking on certain stones. It may seem "anachronistic", as one bewildered reader complained to me; but it is purely functional in its own context (a present context)—and therefore ultimately in a historical context too. As well accuse John Clare of "literariness". Ace of Pentacles will disturb anyone looking for preconceived benefits, whether "cooked" or "raw"; it attempts to fulfil no such expectations, only to testify to inner voices. There are few books today so utterly clear of some sense that the author is sneaking a glance at the reader to see how he's taking it.

One must listen to the sounds. It is essentially a melopoeic language. The components include many irregular and interior rhymes, an instinctive right placing of vowels, and—most characteristically—a pace, or rather a gait, that is almost ceremonial, the serious saunter of dreamwalking, in dreams that take one a stage on a pilgrimage. (pp. 229-30)

Denise Levertov, "To Write Is to Listen" (originally published in Poetry, February, 1965), in her The Poet in the World (© 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1973 by Denise Levertov Goodman; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1973, pp. 227-30.

John Wieners may be related to Baudelaire, whose artificial paradise was raised in despair and yearning for, but also in accusation of, the Father, and more immediately to Rimbaud, whose illuminations also (fire stolen from Zeus or sound from God) were flashes, grains of light, from grains of hallucinatory drugs…. [Wieners] derives from whatever songs of unrequited and unhappy love, transient rapture, enduring tenderness—from Rimbaud or Baudelaire, but also from blues or the high speech of Elizabethan theatrical passion—all that might provide a tradition for what is most real in his own life. It is a great tradition of what is most real; not only poets but seers and prophets have reiterated the ultimate value of an ecstasy that is identified with sexual orgasm, with sight beyond sight, with divine or demonic inspiration….

We are aware that for this poet intense experiences are realized as song…. [A] graceful rigor seems to be Wieners' natural mode; we feel the force of deliberation in his most free forms—he is never casual. The grace is miraculous, for he aims at intensities, he is moved in intensities, by orders that shape and then restrict feeling to the ardent. In certain poems,… this force is so strong, emotion so entirely moving toward the form of the poem, that no element of putting into words comes into it; he must indeed, as he testifies in 'Let the heart's pain slack off,' listen to an inner voice…. His mind seems so all heart, his heart all mind. (p. 596)

Robert Duncan, in The Nation (copyright 1965 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), May 31, 1965.

Nerves will provoke agreeable reveries in those who get a psychedelic jolt from phrases like 'afternoon's patience for drank twilight to halo drawn's root cart'. Life has let Mr. Wieners down; love has brought him desolation. 'All the men I wanted were married to others', he writes. As he keeps harping on thwarted perversities against a backdrop of decaying cities, one begins to think of urban sprawl as a sexual pun.

But the appeal of these poems on the level of language remains valid. Mr. Wieners has several shrewd ways of tormenting syntax: referring pronouns far back to forgotten antecedents, failing to repeat key words in parallel expressions, playing on the dirty or drug-culture meaning of common words, modulating from flat and easy speech near the opening of a poem to gaudy, tantalizing incoherence towards the end. Poets better endowed than Mr. Wieners might enjoy playing with some of his devices.

The most enviable feature of his work is its assurance. Mr. Wieners clearly knows whom he is writing for; he is used to the kind of appreciation that one friend gives him on the wrapper of this book and other friends have published elsewhere. With their backing he can indulge in his fantasies of martyrdom and sound convinced if not convincing. His book has drive, character, life (or life-in-death); and no poetry can reach far without these attributes. Unfortunately, it is also a pool of banal emotions. (p. 580)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 21, 1971.

[Selected Poems] is a reasonably good book for those readers who don't at all know Wieners, but it has the curious deficiency of making the work of these dozen years appear as a graph of subtle yet progressive stasis. The opposite is the fact, yet from this selection one would never know that Ace of Pentacles and Nerves are in every way more accomplished and mature than the Wentley collection. (p. 121)

Wieners has taken his world of drugs, despair, seamy and loveless sex and myriad defeats and made from it a powerful and singular poetry, a part of which is constituted of lyrics as beautiful as any written by an American poet in this century. He draws on everything for his poetic vocabulary—slang, popular song, bar- and party-talk, fragments of other verse, etc. At the core of the poems is a fine-drawn and fixed hopelessness in which beauty, love, nature and art itself are in no way expected to right wrongs or ameliorate anything. In an odd way, Wieners is a religious poet, not, certainly as Herbert is, but with similarities to Baudelaire. None of your "free and loving" acceptance of the earth's good here: guilt is real, and God is neither inside one nor a pal.

The poem, for such writers as Wieners, is not a way of improving one's life or fortunes, but is a kind of supplication to God, an offering given since there is nothing else to give. Taking Wieners this way, it is hard to conceive of a poet more out of the current swim. We live, it is no secret, in an age in which the contemporary poem is thought of, with increasing frequency, as a sort of slate on which any doodle may be scratched: the poem as placebo, as key to wisdom, as testament, confession, holy mystery, as tool to open any can of metaphysical soup. Or, the poem as intermediary between "life" and "art." In this thinking, the poem is rarely thought of as a finished product, a result, but as a conductor of ideas more important (of course) than the poor thing that conducts them. "Life is more important than art" is the banal motto on the banners of the true believers who exhaust you with their verbal electricity. These poems, replete with love of nature and mystical baloney, ooze and spread odorous slabs of Liederkranz. Nowhere can they be grasped, fixed, made to hold still so that one may determine of them their failure or success. Of course, they are not meant to fail or succeed, "uptight" conceptions indeed, if I know my kitsch. Things melt into each other, words slop and slide together, those cute and "vivid" images that Lovers of Poesie delight in extracting from the general morass glimmer at you from the pages and pages of slogging lines in which nothing is real but the "integrity of one's statement," etc., etc. Mystical baloney, to be sure, and sliced thick. Or sex as truth. The poet is delighted, in his effete and precious way, with the wonders of everyday life: a charming vase, a daisy (a real daisy!), a fantastic orgasm, his woman's full breasts, and on and on, good, good! yum-yum! As if the world were put here to amuse the intelligent and aware.

Wieners, on the other hand, is that most disconcerting of sports. His poems succeed or fail, written as they are out of an artistic sensibility. If his poem has saved his life, he doesn't tell you so in line after line. Nor are the poems flashed around like tailor's shears, cutting dandy suits in which to clothe his sensitive nature. At the risk of boring you to tears, let me say that Wieners grasps the materials of his life and refines them into art, which latter is long famed for being aloof from the artist's intent. If the idea does not carry itself over into the construction, too bad. As they say, just another long foul. Strike two! The poem explains nothing but its words: your new wife, your garden in the rain, your gallant doom—none of it matters in the least if the ear be tin or the poem a classroom blackboard. (pp. 121-22)

Each poem holds itself, a closed system. One may say that Wieners' poems yearn toward perfection, they are not shards of a continuing process, but are lyrics. I mean, they are unashamed lyrics, ingeniously made scarecrows in the fields of corn. The reader can pick out specific flaws in every Wieners failure, they are functions of language. When he is working well, he can give us "With Meaning," a poem that builds with the careful intensity of a sonata, and ends with a snap like a door being locked…. There are no tricks in "With Meaning," none at all. The poem, like all of Wieners' poems, unravels before the eye, and as it moves to the poet's imagination, his sense of time, his manipulation of images, so it completes itself as an entity. One has the sense, almost always, of the poet feeling his way through his poem: as his intuition is right, so will his poem be right. When his intuition fails, his poem fails with it. (pp. 123-24)

Wieners, at the top of his form, is among the finest American poets of this century. (p. 125)

Gilbert Sorrentino, "Emerald on the Beach," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1973, pp. 121-25.

In Wieners' world there are no panaceas: no Reichian therapy that promises to make sex "good" in the future, no consciousness-raising groups that will teach women to accept and love themselves for what they are, no fashionable cant about the power of poetry to "redeem" our messy lives. If this world is one of hopelessness and despair—as Wieners' world of drugs, defeat, and seamy sex surely is—the poet never makes it the occasion for coy posturing, self-flagellation, or casting stones at The Enemy. [He writes lyrics] not to impress us with their creator's cleverness or originality, but out of a profound urgency to put down on paper the larger insights the poet can extract from the sordid and petty facts of his own private life. In the Preface to Selected Poems, Wieners says: "Verse making is more than a continuum of principle resting on … phenomenological apprehension…. To stay with one's self requires position and perhaps provision, realizing quality out of strangeness." Poetry, then, is never merely a record of observation and experience; it demands a special angle. (pp. 117-18)

Selected Poems covers Wieners' work from the Hotel Wentley Poems (1958) to Nerves (1970), although many of the later great poems like "Looking for Women" and "Long Nook" are, disappointingly, not included. Considering that the poems in the collection antedate the various liberation movements that are so visible in most of the poetry of the past two years, they are all the more remarkable. Wieners' poetic vocabulary, unlike that of so many of his contemporaries, is extremely varied, drawing upon slang, ballads, pop tunes, ragtime, jazz rhythms, TV commercials, junkie and bar talk, and occasional forays into "high style." His syntax is highly condensed (articles and conjunctions are usually omitted), his rhythms clipped and nervous, his short three and four-stress lines are usually organized into short little stanzas, containing surprising sound repetitions. The preponderance of monosyllables is striking, as is the low incidence of metaphor and symbol. Wieners' is a hard-edge poetry…. (p. 118)

Marjorie G. Perloff, in Contemporary Literature (© 1975 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter, 1975.