Saturday, January 6, 2024

I must forget how to write

I must forget how to write. I must unlearn what has been taught me.’ This is John Wieners, an American beat poet born 90 years ago today, writing in his diary aged but 24. He would go on to become part of the poetic renaissance of the late 1950s and 60s. His poetry, some said, brought with it a new candour regarding sexual and drug-induced experiences.

Wieners was born on 6 January 1934, in Milton, Massachusetts. He studied at Boston College between 1950 and 1954, and then at Black Mountain College under the poets Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. He worked for a while as a stage manager/actor for the Poet’s Theater in Cambridge, and also began to edit the literary magazine Measure.

From 1958 to 1960 Wieners lived in San Francisco. He actively participated in the city’s so-called poetry renaissance, and published The Hotel Wentley Poems. He returned to Boston in 1960, where he was committed to a psychiatric hospital for a time. In 1962-1963, he lived in New York with Herbert Huncke, another poet, but again returned to Boston where he published his second book of poems, Ace of Pentacles.

Wieners enrolled in the graduate programme at the University of Buffalo, where he became a teaching fellow. After another period of institutionalisation, he moved to live in Joy Street, Boston, where he would remain; and he became more active politically, particularly against war and in support of the gay movement. In 1975, he published Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike, subtitled Cinema decoupages; verses, abbreviated prose insights, but produced little else after.

Wieners gave one of his last readings in 1999, at the Guggenheim Museum, celebrating an exhibit by the painter Francesco Clemente - the two of them having published Broken Women together. Wieners died in 2002. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, and The Poetry Foundation has this assessment: ‘Wieners’ poetry combines candid accounts of sexual and drug-related experimentation with jazz-influenced improvisation, placing both in a lyrical structure. In [one interview], Wieners stated, “I try to write the most embarrassing thing I can think of.” As Robert Creeley observed, “His poems had nothing else in mind but their own fact.” ’

In an obituary published by The Independent, John Ward summarised Wieners’ influence: ‘[He] was a key figure in the poetic renaissance of the late 1950s and 60s. In his work a new candour regarding sexual and drug-induced experience co-existed with both a jazz-related aesthetic of improvisation and a more traditional concern with lyric form.’

A few extracts from Wieners’ diaries were published while he was still alive, in 1996, by Sun & Moon Press, Los Angeles, under the title The Journal of John Wieners is to be called 707 Scott Street for Billie Holiday 1959. It starts with ‘Two Short Histories’ on ‘How This Book Came To Be’.  Lewis Warsh writes: ‘ln 1972, William Corbett and I visited John in his apartment at 44 Joy Street in Boston with the hope of getting poems from him for our new magazine (edited with Lee Harwood), The Boston Eagle. I remember John opening a trunk filled with ledger-sized journals with old-fashioned marble covers. “I’d love to read them someday,” I said, thinking out loud, but Wieners caught the genuine interest in my tone and presented one to me. [. . .]

When I was finished [transcribing] I had 77 manuscript pages, a book. On the inside cover of the ledger there was the title: 707 Scott Street, for Billie Holliday. I published a few pages of the journal in an issue of The World, the literary magazine of the Poetry Project (an issue devoted to autobiographical writing which I was guest-editing); then, for almost twenty years, the transcript of the journal disappeared. It was the interest of the poet Peter Gizzi who had heard that such a journal existed, that made me go searching for it. I never presented John with a finished copy of the transcript, though I do remember visiting him again and returning the original, not that it would have mattered (or so he led me to believe) whether I’d kept it or not.’

And in the other Short History, Fanny Howe writes: ‘In 707 Scott Street [Wieners] writes, “and if I cannot speak in poetry it is because poetry is reality to me, and not the poetry we read, but find revealed in the estates of being around us.” John’s poetry has always been the closest thing possible to a new form of speech, one that narrows the gap between longing and calling. These pages from the fifties live in that “estate” as much as his spoken words to others do now.

Estates of being exist as streets, seasons, people, songs and while the placement of his poetics could be cordoned off by a period in “the limbo of contemporary America that has passed - a poetics that predates post-modern rhetoric and the strange fixation with an Otherness that he would not recognise - his unembittered position as an “unknown” witness of the dispossessed is absolutely present across time.’

The Wikipedia entry on Wieners makes reference to three books, all published posthumously, which also contain extracts from his diaries. Kidnap Notes Next is a 2002 collection of poems and journal entries edited by Jim Dunn in 2002. A Book of Prophecies (2007, Bootstrap Press) contains a manuscript discovered in the Kent State University archive’s collection by poet Michael Carr. It was a journal written by Wieners in 1971, and opens with a poem titled 2007. Thirdly, in 2005, City Lights Books published Stars Seen in Person: selected journals. This can be digitally borrowed from Internet Archive.

Here are several entries from 707 Scott Street thanks to Green Integer (which evolved out of Sun & Moon Press and, for a while, made the book freely available online as a pdf).

8 March 1958
‘The sun shines. Miss Kids is across asleep on the couch. She wakes and says “I dreamt I just put on...” I cant hear the rest. She goes back to sleep. Dana is asleep in the bedroom beside this one where the sun fills three windows. Miss Kids’ dark glasses sound/crack on the floor.

I must forget how to write. I must unlearn what has been taught me.

Last night I dreamed Alan appeared in a hallway where I leaned against a lintel; there were open doors on all sides and he presented me with a doll, his doll, the country one whose dress he ironed 3000 miles away. He was smiling, a great smile and I still see his white teeth and the black beard on his face. She was dressed in black, the doll, and her long thick hair was tied back the way I had left it. He had put it on top of one of those innumerable chests he had around his house. And I take it as a sign that all is well, I am and he is, today with the doll handed between us, he wanted me to have what he named was his. It is only Miss Kids and Dana who have hangovers. I must not let them hang me up.

She awakes again and asks “Is it cloudy outside yet?” I say “No” and an automobile horn busts our ears and the Chinese kids overhead beat and stomp on the floor.

These days shall be my poems, these words what I leave behind as mine, my record up against time. It is all very sad that we have to fight it. Possibly I may come to love time and its taking of my days.

“It well may be, I do not think I would.”

Right now, it is very fine. The cable car track shuttles in right inside the street and they empty the mail-box. A motor-scooter or motorcycle guns its motor and what bright flesh runs on Leavenworth Street. The 80 bus stops. Miss Kids has the Mohawk blanket that we (Dana and I) bought in the Morgan Memorial up to her eyes and her hair, her yellow hair is all over the pillow and her shut eye-lids. The cable car conductor rings the bell twice. It also stops. Only man and time move. And the space we are given to inhabit, so fast it is thru our fingers.

I must learn how not to write. I must watch with my 5 senses.

“the 5 perfections that are the 5 hindrances” and I must nail down those who would, all that would hang me up.

The 80 bus going the other way, to Market Street, sounds its squashed beep, peculiar to San Francisco, where they are afraid any loud noise would start another earthquake. And yet we all go around screaming.

There is not enough sound in the air. Miss Kids and Dana have headaches from last night.

I must stop being wise. Miss Kids wakes and says “Is it late?”

“Almost two.”

“Another day ruined.” She stretches her long wax arms (paraffin) on the mohair couch. “I feel fine now, Kids.” The sun puts gold on her nose. “Kids, they’re after me.” I tell her “Kids, you look like a fucked Alice-in-Wonderland. And your hands are swollen,”

She looks at them. “Dana did it.” ’

18 June 1958
‘Miss Lollipop is full of pain this morning. Her wing bone in the back. Her legs are black and blue. She ran her hands over me showing me where the pain is. We sat up all night listening to jazz and then at dawn, rock and roll. Her history as far as I know it consists of 8 arrests, 4 husbands. Her father was chief of the narcotics bureau in Sacramento. She lives in the Broadway Hotel with an Armenian piano player. She bends her neck as one of her boys rubs his hands into her. She wears a black bra. She does not complain.

Miss Lollipop has one of the most rare diseases known to medical history. A form of low grade bacteria that causes her shape to change every day. One day pregnant and full of gas, the next shapely. As she puts it, “I’ve had a lot of trouble with my insides.” ’

26 July 1958
‘On the road again. America does not change. Nor do we, Olson says. We only reveal more of ourselves. Riding in the car with all the windows open. How can I rise to the events of our lives. I am a shrew and nagging bitch as my mother was. I am filled with doubt and too passive. I go where I am told. Anywhere. Take pleasure in doing what I am told. There is no comfort in Nature or God except for the weak. It is my fellow men that deliver me my life. Otherwise I wrap up in myself like an evening primrose in the sun. Nature is good for analogy. We think we learn lessons from her but she deserts us at the moment of action. That is why we remain savages. Underneath. And our civilization remains a jungle. Live it at night and see.

But traveling on the road to Sausalito, San Francisco then Big Sur, I see how much the earth still surrounds us. Willow Road juts out in my memory. Mission San Rafael Archangel. Redwood Highway. Where man is going now, who knows. The earth no longer need be his home. Maybe this means the end of the old world. And man, on the minutest of planets may and can range thru all of space. To the very frontiers, limits, barriers of outer worlds. Lucky Drive. End construction project. With what frightening speed we move ahead. This must be necessary: Paradise Drive. The children are quieting down now. The witch drives her old Chevrolet, her long black hair blowing out the window.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 6 January 2014.

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