Clive Matson on “Remembering John Wieners” (1934-2002)
In the early 1960s I was captivated by John Wieners’ THE HOTEL WENTLEY POEMS (Auerhahn Press, San Francisco, 1958). I memorized those poems. Their appeal was so strong I felt compelled to search book stalls in New York City on Fourth Avenue, in the West Village, on the Upper West Side for other poems he wrote in the same period. A surprising number of them appeared in ephemeral magazines of the 1950s.
I would bring them to Irving Rosenthal, who had opened his apartment to young writers and who, as editor of BIG TABLE, had become familiar with Wieners. He presided over, and encouraged, my initial love of those poems. He would not let me skim past the simple-seeming lyrics and miss the power of John’s work. He would repeat the words slowly, enunciating each syllable, and fix my attention with an entranced expression which grew more and more intent as he followed John’s layers of meaning and his precise honesty.
Those poems had a physical effect. As I came to understand a poem, a sweet, vibrant warmth would invade my bones, lightweight and buzzing, like honey bees in opening clover. I’d wonder if the next reading of the same poem would elicit the same sensation. Invariably it did. And coming upon an early poem I’d wonder if it, too, could contribute some version of the magic. It usually would.
I couldn’t have told you what the magic was. Looking back, it was partly Wiener’s unabashed love of flower-strewn images; partly it was his utterly clear-sighted descriptions, free from preconceptions; partly his openness to language, as the whole field of the spoken word became his arena. His hip attitudes and sense of a doomed gay world didn’t engage me, but beyond that surface was a willingness to acknowledge how vulnerable he felt and an urge to enter and articulate that vulnerability. He accepted an entire range of fragile, powerful emotions. He made no effort to fix them or down-play them. And more, his acuity about those emotions worked in combination with his rare skill to put them into emblems. He gave his perceptions exact, concrete images.
In those years I simply followed the feeling John’s poems gave me, without knowing its cause. But one day I glimpsed how focused John was on his art. He often visited Herbert Huncke the writer who portrayed so many of New York’s youth and artists on the fringe and I was close to Huncke. One Friday evening John had written a poem while on the train traveling down from Boston. During the weekend he and Huncke passed the poem back and forth and John revised it many times. On Monday Huncke was over at my apartment eating a sandwich, and he looked me in the eye and asked if I knew why John was such a good poet. Even though I had memorized dozens of his poems, I hadn’t stumbled onto what made them work. “No,” I said. Huncke replied, “Because he revises so much.” John had rewritten that poem 37 times, and his final version was close to the draft he’d completed on the train, with only a few words changed. His revisions had taken him nearly full circle.
Revising, of course, is only a small part of Wiener’s genius. But it is true he was focused on his art intently, down to the arrangement of syllables. Consider how he composed this line from HOTEL WENTLEY, “I will walk with / my eyes up on you for / ever.”
John gave my work a similar scrutiny. Diane di Prima had shown him my first manuscript, aware of the esteem I held for John. He read the poems and came to my kitchen table to talk. I had ended one poem with my most daring line, “Creep away from the slinking hand,” which was more theatrical by far than any I had done before. It had cost every bit of my 23-year-old courage to write. John rubbed his chin and wondered out loud if there weren’t some way to make the image more dramatic.
He had poked at my most tender, most fragile feeling, and asked more than I could give. I quietly slid the manuscript away from him. I’ve always remembered that interaction; it never interfered with my love for John’s work, but I became quite leery of his mind.
I remember meeting in a small apartment one summer, when John showed me a delicate gold necklace and locket. He wanted me to put it around his neck. I was too wary though, too intimidated to enter the romantic aura he created. But there was no hiding what I felt, and John even called me one of his “little darlings” at a reading on the Lower East Side. Afterwards he said he had been watching me at the back of the cafe, because “your eyes were so big.” I couldn’t disguise my admiration, however cool I might try to be.
He eventually wrote the introduction to my book, MAINLINE TO THE HEART (Poets Press, Kerhonkson, New York, 1966), and showed how strongly the poems had moved him. This pleased me beyond belief. Yet at the same time he quarreled with my approach. “I still carry the fleece of the ram around my neck,” he wrote of himself, in contrast to what he read in the poems. He spoke as if I hadn’t honored the poetic tradition, and I didn’t have an answer to that. I don’t now.
Over the years I saw John a few times: on a visit to New York in the 70s, in the late 1980s while I attended Columbia University, and again in 1996 at Herbert Huncke’s Memorial. We exchanged very little. But every time I saw him, John would clear his thoughts and say how he remembered our first meeting in the dusk along 10th Street near St. Mark’s Church, when there was something poignant about the light and the trees. That’s not how we met, but for thirty-plus years John held in his mind, and revisited, exactly the same picture.
Recently I read Wieners’ work at a poetry salon here on the West Coast, almost fifty years after the poems were written. They weren’t received as well as I had hoped, certainly not with the awe I’d felt as a youth. When I prepared for the next meeting, I realized the poetry I remembered most vividly were couplets and short stanzas. I went through HOTEL WENTLEY and SELECTED POEMS (Black Sparrow, Santa Barbara, 1986) highlighting the sections I loved the most. When I read them, the salon was wowed.
–“My middle name is Joseph and I / walk beside an ass on the way to what Bethlehem.”
–“I am engaged in taking away / from God his sound.”
–“The poem / does not lie to us. We lie under its / law,…”
–“Moon / be new to night.”
–“Who took the candle / from beside the cradle?”
–“That is why / so few dare face it.”
–“Let us honor the oxygen / we burn in our small fires.”
My early love of Wieners has returned as a tangible force, rising through my body.
When I finally got around to sending out complimentary copies of my latest book, SQUISH BOOTS (Broken Shadow, Oakland, 2002), I inscribed one for him “with such deep admiration all these years.” But I couldn’t put my hand on his address, so I sent it to Charley Shively, who was a sidekick for much of John’s later life.
The book arrived the week John died. Charley knew, as well as anyone, that John wanted to go to the next world with a book in his hands. He also had at least an intuitive knowledge of the connection between John and me, and he placed SQUISH BOOTS in John’s casket, “in case John woke up and wanted something to read.” The student’s work was buried with the distant master. This fact, with its inference that I might somehow be worthy of Wieners’ attention in eternity, filled me with eerie astonishment ? a feeling that lingers weeks later.
I wish John had read that book and, naturally, the protégé in me still wants his approval. I wanted him to say how fine the poems are and that yes, he thinks now I am following in the same exalted tradition, carrying “the fleece of the ram.” But given the paucity of verbal exchange between us, I should accept that we communicate on some other plane, on whatever plane HOTEL WENTLEY first gripped me.
Those poems took over on a psychic level, perhaps on a cellular level. The takeover is so complete, so multi-leveled, and so enduring, it can be likened to a sort of subliminal apostolic succession. Wieners passed something on, not with an established ritual, but through his work and my love for it, poet to poet. His poems seem melded into (if they did not actually mold) the foundation of everything I create and the foundation of all I see.
Those poems, along with the supernal event of having my book buried with Wieners, engender the recognition of how precious and how entwined all of our lives are. We are in a dance that is larger than we know, orchestrated by something beyond our awareness. John wrote lines that seem to apply, about a portrait artist and subject in HOTEL WENTLEY: “Held as they are in the hands / of forces / they cannot understand.”
A few days ago John visited late at night. He was a tall man with pale blue eyes, distant and gentle eyes, but eyes that could focus relentlessly. That’s what he was doing, from on high. He was looking down with those eyes focused and his mind—that analytical mind which could juggle syllables and see the world in precise emblems—fully engaged. He gazed at me dispassionately for a few seconds, and then he left.
CLIVE MATSON (MFA Columbia University) has published poetry since 1964, and says the most interesting thing he’s done lately is help edit the anthology of 9/11 poems AN EYE FOR AN EYE MAKES THE WHOLE WORLD BLIND (Regent Press, Oakland, 2002). Mostly he writes from the itch in his body. He has taught more than 2,000 workshops nationwide, and his how-to-write-text LET THE CRAZY CHILD WRITE! (New World Library, 1998), honoring the creative unconscious, is being used by a number of groups around the world. His seventh book, SQUISH BOOTS (Broken Shadow, Oakland, 2002), was placed, amazingly, in the coffin of his mentor, John Wieners. “Delightful and penetrating at the same time, these poems are a revelation,” comments Susan Griffin. Matson lives in Oakland, California.