The Altered States of John Wieners

The Altered States of John Wieners

In his letters we can glimpse a radiant, jazz-struck testament to the vocation of poetry.


During the last three decades of his life, the poet John Wieners lived in a one-bedroom walkup at 44 Joy Street, on the back side of Boston’s Beacon Hill. By some accounts it was a drab, minimalist apartment, furnished with wicker patio chairs and decorated with Wieners’s own collages of travel brochures and movie magazines. The refrigerator was empty and unplugged. After he won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1986, grocery bags of champagne lined the walls—replaced, gradually, by the empty bottles.

It’s fitting that Wieners lived on the “other side” of Beacon Hill, a world apart from the patrician South Slope of Robert Lowell and his Brahmin circle. The north side was more bohemian, working class, and radical—at least by Boston standards. It’s also fitting that he lived behind the Massachusetts State House. There was something illicit, almost subterranean, about Wieners. (“Oh I have / always seen my life as drama, patterned // after those who met with disaster or doom,” he wrote in his poem “The Acts of Youth.”) He was gay in an era when that was often pathologized and criminalized; he was a recovering drug addict; he had been institutionalized repeatedly. Living in the shadow of the state’s stone temple to bureaucracy was a kind of sardonic irony. Wieners was in on the joke. He titled his 1975 collection of experimental verse and decoupage Behind the State Capitol: Or Cincinnati Pike.

Aside from stints in New York and San Francisco, Wieners was inseparable from Boston, and he remains the laureate of the city’s underclass. His Boston was a shadowland of gay bars, grimy apartments, and corner drug deals. In the 1980s and ’90s, long after urban renewal had whitewashed the city, Wieners saw himself as the custodian of a vanished strain of Boston esoterica. He was also a living link between vital branches of American poetry: the Black Mountain poets, the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the so-called School of Boston. Some in that latter group dabbled in occultism. Wieners, too, had a mystical streak. He was drawn to the interzone between madness and revelation, especially when entered via drugs or sex. Poetry was his way of reembodying those altered states.

These various lineages and impulses are evident in Yours Presently: The Selected Letters of John Wieners, meticulously edited and annotated by Michael Seth Stewart. The volume is the latest in the long-overdue and still-ongoing Wieners revival, which includes a 2015 collection of selected poems, Supplication, and a collection of his journals, Stars Seen in Person. Until recently, Wieners was the “old invisible fag” of American poetry, to borrow a phrase from his friend the writer Michael Rumaker. His work—seven poetry collections, three plays, innumerable pamphlets and journals—was published by small presses, and has gone in and out of print over the years. After the mid-’70s, he drifted further into the margins, living off of disability benefits and becoming the kind of cult writer whom other poets made pilgrimages to meet: Wieners was an oracular presence whose authenticity was unquestionable. His poems, journals, and, now, his letters are evocative dispatches from inside the traumas of addiction, mental illness, midcentury gay culture, and poverty. They’re also radiant, jazz-struck testaments to the reverence with which he upheld poetry as a vocation.

For Wieners, as for many artists, that reverence was double-edged. Even as he saw himself belonging to a lineage of literary iconoclasts such as Henry Miller, he suspected he wasn’t worthy of high esteem. His letters document how grudgingly he accepted his own limitations, and how often his self-flagellation was at odds with the marvels he produced. The narrative of these letters, which emerges chronologically and viscerally, is that Wieners crawled out of the wreckage of his life not because he was blessed but because poetry as a pursuit is so ennobling it transforms devastation into insight.

Failure—real or imagined—was the atmosphere of Wieners’s life, and it permeates his writing. One of the comforts of reading his correspondence, at least for fledgling writers, is his constant thrum of self-doubt, which didn’t preclude wit: “I’m not a good poet. I’m just a bad poet who had good / breaks,” he wrote in 1965. He was even ambivalent about the value of resilience, which he seemed to regard not as a moral imperative but as something to resign himself to, a rehearsal for future disappointments. Lines from his journal read: “Adversity can be a good thing, / but you have to pay for it the rest of your life. you know / everything but deprivation / and want, / which is the greatest gift of them all.”

Wieners was born in the Boston suburb of Milton, Mass., in 1934. Scattered literary references to his childhood are grim. Waves of “misery, poverty and insanity” run in the family, he wrote in a 1964 letter to the poet Diane di Prima. His poem “Not Complete Enough” recalls how he’d help his drunk mother upstairs on holidays, “and always she’d ask for / the last cigarette and fall asleep / with it and I wd handle / the details.”

He attended Boston College, where he contributed movie reviews to the student literary journal and idolized Edna St. Vincent Millay. In 1954, his life changed when he heard the poet Charles Olson read at the Charles Street Meeting House during a hurricane. Four years earlier, Olson published his landmark essay “Projective Verse,” which advocated an improvisational, “open field” style of poetry in which human breath is the measure of the line. Olson was also the rector of Black Mountain College, the fabled experimental arts school in North Carolina. Wieners was determined to study there. He applied, and was accepted with an offer of free room and board.

Wieners spent two nonconsecutive semesters at Black Mountain between 1955 and 1956. He was “the darling of Olson’s class,” according to Rumaker. He also cut a distinctive figure at the college, which had no shortage of flamboyant characters. A footnote in Yours Presently relates an anecdote from the writer Basil King, who recalls how Wieners arrived at his room one night “all dolled up” in high heels. He demanded to go to Ma Peak’s, a blue-collar country bar a few miles from the college. At the bar, Wieners sat coquettishly in a farmer’s lap and tried to feed someone else bites of steak. The locals were not amused. The pair was tossed out to the road. They avoided being hauled in by the sheriff only because King invented a story about Wieners grieving his recently deceased mother.

Black Mountain offered Wieners “a living that counted.” His letters from the period document his burgeoning anxieties and also his devotion to the craft: “I just know that as long as I live I will be a poet, that my life, way of and function of, will be the writing of poetry, as long as it lasts.” Black Mountain is also perhaps where he gained the confidence to launch his own little magazine, Measure, which first appeared in 1957. He produced three issues over the next five years. A partial list of contributors attests to the breadth of his network: Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Larry Eigner, Philip Lamantia, and other luminaries of what came to be called the New American Poetry, after Donald Allen’s seminal 1960 anthology.

Allen Ginsberg, whom Wieners met on a trip to New York, described his first impression of the poet as being from “a sort of gay hustler’s benzedrine maybe-a-little-bit-of-junk scene.” By the summer of 1957, Wieners confessed to being involved in “a group of on again off again addicts, who have some glamour I am prone to.” In a letter to Rumaker, he painted a more dire picture: “I wd stay up on pills for 40 or 50 hours: NOT doing a bit of work but wandering everywhere in the city, dredging, crawling in the gutters baby.” That August, Wieners was fired from his job at Harvard’s Lamont Library, which he took as encouragement to reinvent himself. He went west, to San Francisco.

The California letters chart Wiener’s turn from marijuana and Benzedrine to the harsher seductions of cocaine and heroin. He writes of being trailed by narcotics squads and undercover cops. He has sinister visions of detectives. San Francisco is “Fun City,” he writes in a letter from December 1957, “but ruled over by a kind of madness of wonder, etc.” In his $100-a-month apartment he pieced together a new issue of Measure, but drugs and rough company proved too distracting. “And what could I say to you, when I had to say, I have no money to get there, no place to leave behind, no ROCK, I am the kind that needs one, or I would be washed out to sea,” he wrote to Dorn.

Yet San Francisco was also the epicenter of a formally adventurous, unmistakably queer, and brashly political poetry. Just a few years earlier, the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University had launched its venerable public reading series. North Beach, home to City Lights Books, Vesuvio Cafe, and various adult entertainments, was the Beats’ stomping ground. Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Bob Kaufman, and other mavericks were fixtures of the city’s literary vanguard.

Avant-garde poetics and the textures of the urban drug underworld merge in Wieners’s first major breakthrough, The Hotel Wentley Poems. Written over eight days in June 1958, when Wieners stayed at a seedy hotel in Polk Gulch, a neighborhood of gay hustlers and dive bars, this slim, startling debut garnered acclaim from Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara. It delivered to Wieners not fame, exactly, but notoriety—the “poet’s poet” mantle he shouldered for the rest of his life. In The Village Voice, the poet Jack Hirschman singled out Wieners’s “doomed rather than dooming voice,” as well as his “terrifyingly lyrical understatement of violence” and “original econom[y] of language.”

When Wieners visited his parents for Christmas at the end of 1959, they were alarmed by his obvious instability. They committed him to Medfield State Hospital, outside of Boston, for what turned into a six-month stay. He was released into the custody of various friends, including Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones). Nine months later, he was institutionalized again, this time at Metropolitan State Hospital, where, by his own count, he received 91 insulin shock therapy treatments. Upon his release in August 1961, he wrote to the novelist and editor Irving Rosenthal, “I wish I had some memory of last year, but I do not…all is a blank.” Wieners later referred to this time as the “forgotten year.”

In 1962, he moved to New York and insinuated himself into the downtown art scene, including Warhol’s Factory, where he sat for one of the artist’s screen tests. But he lived hand-to-mouth. “Can you send some money? I am literally starving ‘to death,’” he begins a July 1962 letter to Dorn. The following May, he was hospitalized at Bellevue with hepatitis, and dashed off an awkward entreaty to the poet Denise Levertov, asking her to pay that month’s rent until he was back on his feet. “If I was outside, of course, I could use my wits and wangle the money out of the wind somehow,” he writes. “But this way, I am helpless to do anything but remain in isolation.”

Despite his shaky health and finances, Wieners continued to write poems—some of them among the most remarkable of his career. His collection Ace of Pentacles appeared in 1964, and featured work that reckoned bluntly with drug addiction and mental illness. “The Acts of Youth” opens with stanzas that exemplify the frankness that Wieners later defined as embarrassment:

And with great fear I inhabit the middle of the night
What wrecks of the mind await me, what drugs
to dull the senses, what little I have left,
what more can be taken away?

The fear of travelling, of the future without hope
or buoy. I must get away from this place and see
that there is no fear without me: that it is within
unless it be some sudden act or calamity

to land me in the hospital, a total wreck, without
memory again; or worse still, behind bars[…]

Once back in Boston, Wieners was hired at the department store Jordan Marsh. He was supposed to sell neckties but, according to friends, also dealt heroin under the counter. Although he was writing prolifically, he clearly felt trapped. He still lived with his parents, mired in a “backwater of emotion” as he played witness to his brother’s drinking and to his mother’s joyless dieting. (In a later letter, he calls the house “the tomb of middle-class America.”)

He maintained an adulatory correspondence with Olson, his old mentor, who had recently moved to Buffalo to teach at the State University of New York. “My God, Charles, I owe so much to you. You have sustained me for ten full years,” Wieners wrote to him in August of 1964. Perhaps nostalgic for the ferment of the Black Mountain days, and eager to escape his parents’ claustrophobic suburb, Wieners applied to the graduate program at Buffalo. He was accepted, and began his studies in January 1965.

The letters from Buffalo encompass several milestones in Wieners’s career, including his participation in 1965 in the Festival of the Two Worlds, in Spoleto, Italy, headlined by a rickety Ezra Pound, and the Berkeley Poetry Conference, a series of readings and lectures by Ginsberg, Olson, Gary Snyder, and others. He also published two collections during this period: Pressed Wafer in 1967, and Asylum Poems in 1969.

The contentment didn’t last. In 1966, Wieners met and fell in love with Panna Grady, a Hungarian countess, heiress, and patron of the arts. (Grady was later notorious for the lavish parties she hosted at her apartment in the Dakota building in New York.) Wieners’s relationship with Grady was a curious interlude, an attempt at a traditional heterosexual life that underscored his desire for stability—a constant theme in his work. “How can a man have pride / without a wife,” he wrote in “The Loneliness.” And in one of his journals, he mused, “Who would believe it? That the most notorious faggot of our times would fall in love with the most beautiful woman.” Grady became pregnant with Wieners’s child, but opted for an abortion. In a cruel twist, she then pursued an affair with Olson, with whom she traveled to Europe that autumn. “Losing you meant everything to me, but I see now again the priceless gain you brought,” Wieners wrote to her in December.

His letters from the remainder of the 1960s make for disturbing reading. Overcome by paranoid delusions, he accused Creeley of various gruesome crimes, including bashing a child’s head against rocks. He notified Creeley’s employer (the University of New Mexico) of these allegations and even accused Creeley directly. The letters heralded another breakdown. Wieners was committed to Central Islip State Hospital, on Long Island, in June 1969. “For the past 20–18 months I have been under the delusion of being about 50 persons,” he wrote to Olson. “I have given them all up and am now ready for the next 50.”

The Central Islip letters offer harrowing testimony—the “nightmare of experience,” in Wieners’s words—of one of the nation’s largest psychiatric hospitals at a time when barbarous treatment and squalid conditions were the norm. Wieners described himself as “asphyxiated by the state.” He woke every morning at 6 am, took medication four times a day, and was back in bed by 7 pm. “I sleep in an old oaken bucket with about 75 drugged, tranquilized slaves and am a nervous wreck,” he wrote. He was discharged into his parents’ care after three torturous months.

Back in Boston, he resumed his literary work, and also immersed himself in political activism. He met the professor, poet, and anarchist Charles Shively, who recruited him into the editorial collective that published the radical gay liberation newspaper Fag Rag. He attended anti-war demonstrations. In 1970, he gave a benefit reading for the Chicago 7, alongside Levertov, Anne Sexton, James Tate, and other literary heavyweights. Still, his life seemed to dramatize the tragic credo he sent to Dorn in 1970: “The world is so futile, we have such little time, and who could stand more. Each instant seems so weighted with some anxiety, some problem, some interruption.” In April 1972, Wieners was institutionalized again, spending nearly two months at Taunton State Hospital. “Forgive my handwriting, but I’m shaking from tranquilizers on an RX,” he wrote in a letter to Donald Allen shortly after his release.

In the final two decades of Wieners’s life, he assembled two collections of selected poems and continued to write new work. His poem about September 11 opens with characteristic bluntness: “I was on the toilet when I first learned / of the incident, holding a tooth brush / in my hand.” He also gave occasional public readings. At his last, at a cafe in Hyannisport, Mass., on February 21, 2002, Shively introduced him as “currently the greatest living poet in the United States.” Eight days later, Wieners left a party early because he felt unwell. He collapsed in a parking garage and was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital, where his identity had to be confirmed through a prescription his nurses found. He died on March 1, 2002, at age 68.

To read an artist’s letters is, in some sense, to domesticate the art. It’s an evidentiary quest, a fact-finding mission; to comb through one’s letters is to demand origin stories, to attempt to make art explicable in purely autobiographical terms. In the case of Wieners, his life is already in the blood and sediment of his poems. Even his work’s formal qualities are congruent with who he was: There are the abrupt line breaks, the dreamlike euphony, the sometimes staggered stanzas, and, later, the jagged acoustics and punch-drunk grammar of Behind the State Capitol. Wieners wasn’t a confessional poet so much as a poet of confidence, one who bared his torments and alienation in defiance of the forced redactions of addiction and mental illness.

His letters comprise a loose narrative arc from near innocence to experience. They’re also a moving account of one man’s commitment to the salvational possibilities of art. As he wrote in a letter from 1956:

It is a most rewarding thing to know, that as the years go by, the thing one has chosen, or been chosen for, in life, has been the right thing. The longer I stay the more reward I get the poem. It is like a re-charge of the energy I got over five years ago, when I said, “Poetry will be my flag.” That is why I can never feel quite as alone again, because I have this mysterious gift, force, which won’t leave me alone, and which like love inside of me, won’t die. Christ, it makes one feel awfully humble.

Stewart, the collection’s editor, and others who have tended Wieners’s legacy—most notably the editors Raymond Foye and Robert Dewhurst—are to be commended for preserving this work for posterity. It’s an outcome that would have surprised Wieners. “I’m really a very simple person, and only trying to build up a myth about myself,” he wrote in 1965. The letters show how that myth was constructed, line by line, and at what awful cost.

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