‘Supplication’ by John Wieners (image courtesy Wave Books)

What happens when you cross the perfervid emotionalism of Edna St. Vincent Millay, she of the candle burning at both ends, with Charles Olson’s idea, distilled out of William Carlos Williams, of a projective verse imbued with “the breathing of the man who writes” (and I suppose it is very emphatically a man who writes the poetry that Olson had in mind)? You get John Wieners, one of the youngest exemplars of “The New American Poetry” as canonized by Donald Allen in 1960. Already at twenty-four, he was depicting himself on the verge of burnout, having “come to the last defense” — though in fact he’d keep writing beautifully for decades. Almost from the beginning, Wieners knew this: “The poem / does not lie to us.” Notice how different this statement would have been as “The poem / does not lie”; it might lie, but not “to us.” He writes, “We lie under its / law, alive in the glamour of this hour.” Yes, we lie, “dark people, who carry secrets / glassed in their eyes and hide words / under the roofs of their mouth.” His intense commitment to abjection is what separates Wieners from the poets he otherwise might have seen as his peers:

Now back to New York and The Turkish Baths
which I find no fun, tho Frank O’Hara does,
and Allen Ginsberg sits in his white pajamas
and dreams of men as I do—and thinks of fame

Wieners seems to accept what might have been an establishment view of O’Hara as too amusing and too amused by life to be a really serious poet, while Ginsberg by contrast takes himself altogether too seriously (in Wieners’ eyes) to face the misery of his position as a gay man in pre-Stonewall New York. Thinking about that sent me back to Bruce Boone’s 1979 essay on O’Hara, “Gay Language as Political Praxis,” in which O’Hara’s articulation of a position within a gay community is played off against Ginsburg’s way of distancing himself from the “fairy boys” with “no religion / but the old one of cocksuckers.” Wieners, who never stopped proclaiming himself the cocksucker, neither evades nor transcends the condemnation of the straight world, but demands it: “Damned and cursed before all the world / That is what I want to be.” Strange desire. And yet it kindles the “small fires / I burn in the memory of love.”

Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners, ed. By Joshua Beckman, CAConrad, and Robert Dewhurst (2015) is published by Wave Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...