July 6, 2011
essay on John Wieners "Between Visions" by Douglas Messerli
I printed a few paragraphs from the essay below in My Year 2004 in a piece devoted to Marjorie Perloff, in whose course I first encountered the work of John Wieners. The essay was one of my first attempts to discuss contemporary poetry, and it reveals the graduate-student environment in which it was written. The essay was written at a time when postmodernism was just beginning to have an impact on literary texts and my own notions of postmodernism, moreover, were highly influenced by the course for which I wrote the essay, which would ultimately result in Marjorie Perloff’s important study, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage.
Consequently, I had decided not to republish the piece until news came last week that Wieners had collapsed on a Boston Street and died a few days later, on March 1, in Massachusetts General Hospital. Without any identification upon him, he lay in the hospital for several days, hooked up to a machine, until a worker traced a prescription in his pocket to a local pharmacy. Soon after, the hospital connected with John’s friends Jim Dunn and Charles Shively, who sat with him as he died.
I first met Wieners in the mid-1990s when Raymond Foye, who had edited Wieners’ Selected Poems in 1986, introduced me to him at a small press book fair in New York. I had previously communicated with Wieners and had published some of his poems in my 1994 volume, From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990, but I don’t believe John ever knew of the essay below. Nonetheless, he recognized my name, and, although he looked like a street derelict with his three-day beard and torn and ripped clothing, he spoke—as Fanny Howe described him—like a Southern gentleman: “Sir, it is so very nice to meet you,” he slightly bowed. The paradox was memorable, as if one were witnessing a true-life character out of a Damon Runyon novel.
I believe that I met him again a year later at the same affair, which I attended briefly for several years out of a sense of affiliation with these very small presses similar to mine years before. I believe Raymond invited him there each year—where he stood out as a sort of unexpected celebrity—to sell books and signatures that might bring the destitute Wieners a few needed dollars.
In 1996, Lewis Warsh sent me a manuscript which he had rediscovered in his files of Wieners’ 707 Scott Street, a mix of prose and poetry documenting John’s San Francisco life at the time of the legendary Hotel Wentley Poems. For the rights to that book, I paid Wieners $2,000—an exceptional sum for Sun & Moon Press to pay, given that we were always on the edge of bankruptcy; but I was pleased to be able to help John get by for several more months.
A year after its publication, I was invited by Boston poet Aaron Kiley to attend the first Boston Poetry Marathon, where I met Jim Dunn, who had been unofficially caring for Wieners. He, in turn, suggested that John and I meet, and I told him to tell John that I would take him to any restaurant he might choose in the city. Word came back, Wieners wanted to go to—Burger King! And so the three of us dined royally at his usual hangout—my treat!
I took several photographs of Wieners at the Burger King, but my camera’s battery must have been low, and none of them turned out. Soon after, Dunn took another photo of John at the same spot and sent me a copy, reproduced here.
It was hard to tell whether Wieners was extraordinarily coy and witty or simply uncomprehending and unable to verbally express himself. I chose to believe the former. Several times I tried to ask him if he had any other materials that remained unpublished, but each time he vaguely answered, brushing away any real response. Finally, upon the third try, he pointed up a hill, saying “There, there, I’m sure they’ve got some—all of my work. Up there!” Dunn explained that “up there,” was the publishing house, Houghton Mifflin!
As I have written elsewhere in these volumes, Wieners was an extremely important figure for me; it was while working on his poetry that I discovered the dozens of 1960s small presses and magazines in the Library of Congress that not only provided me with a history of small press publishing, but helped me to understand that I too might be involved in small press activity. And soon after, I began Sun & Moon: A Journal of Literature & Art, publishing my essay on Wieners in its second issue. Wieners’ poetry, with its mix of romantic idioms, gay slang, and postmodern techniques, struck a cord with my own poetic concerns.
Los Angeles, March 12, 2002
Revised July 2, 2008
John Wieners at the Beacon Hill Burger King, Fall 1997
Photograph by Jim Dunn
by Douglas Messerli
John Wieners Ace of Pentacles (New York: James F. Carr and Robert A. Wilson, 1964)
John Wieners Selected Poems (New York: Grossman, 1972)
From the beginning of his career John Wieners has been a poet who experimented with poetic forms that we have come more recently to describe as Postmodern. As a student at Black Mountain College, Wieners, like other writing students, was inspired by Charles Olson’s influential Projectivist theories. In Wieners’ own poetry, however, Olson’s influence seems negligible. Rather, Wieners turned for moderns to the literary forbearers of Postmodernist poetic writing: Rimbaud, Stein, Apollinaire, Pound, and, to a lesser degree, Williams. In short, we can observe in both Wieners’ poetry and his few theoretical statements that he discovered a personal mode which grew out of a process of trial and error based on conscious imitation. In fact, Wieners’ early poetic attempts are fascinating, not only because they tell us something of the development of his own theory and art, but because they parallel much of the poetic development in the twentieth century which only in the past few decades have we come to see as a poetics which stands at odds and often in opposition to the theories and work of such men as Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens, all dominant writers of the first half of that century.
Wieners’ earliest poetry, for example, especially The Hotel Wentley Poems (1958), was written from a perspective akin to Rimbaud’s. In his 1965 “Address to the Watchman of the Night,” Wieners explains that the creative energy behind this early poetry had its genesis in a need
To explore those dark eternals of the nightworld: the prostitute, the
dope addict, thief and pervert. These were the imagined heroes of my
world: and the orders of my life. What they stood for, how they lived,
what they did in the daytime were the fancies of my imagination. And I
had to become one of them until I knew.
We perceive from the beginning that Wieners’ desire for a life ordered according to what he recognizes as an inverted world, owes much to Rimbaud’s “raissonné de tous les sens.” In this early poetry Wieners consciously sought out a world that would allow him to explore exactly that which Rimbaud asserts that the voyant must: “Toutes les forms d’amour, de souffrance, de foile.” The Wentley poems present a world of tortured homosexual love and drugged insanity that one cannot help but compare with Une Saison. We can hardly be surprised, therefore, that as recently as his 1972 preface to Selected Poems Wieners advocates a poetry “dependent of question, producing revelatory postures for men, animals and stars,” or, that he asserts that “the poet is one pastor of [a] distribution between two visions,” that he defines one of poetry’s forms as a “transformation by fire.”
All of these can be traced back to Rimbaud’s theory as expressed in his well-known letter to Demeny of 1871:
…the poet is truly the thief of fire. He is responsible for humanity,
even for animals; he will have to have his inventions smelt, felt and
and heard; if what he brings back from down there has form, he gives
form; if it is formless, he gives formlessness.
However, in Wieners’ own poetry this comparison does not appear to be sustained. Whereas Rimbaud’s Saison creates a world so completely disorienting that the reader is forced to drop all previous notions of value, Wieners’ poetry relies for its effect upon the values the reader brings to the poem.
A poem such as “To H,” for example, depends upon the reader’s traditional expectations.
I like Sunday evenings after you’re here.
I use your perfume to pretend you’re near
in the night. My eyes are bright, why
can’t I have a man of my own?
Your wife’s necklace’s around my neck
and even though I do shave I pretend
I’m a woman for you
You make love to me like a man.
Even though I hear you say why man
he doesn’t even have any teeth
I make it up to you in other ways.
I will write this poem.
As critic Marjorie Perloff has noted of this work, “After the opening tum-ti-tum stanza, it comes as something of shock to learn that the person who wants a ‘man of my own’ is himself a man, that his lover is married, that the poet tries to impersonate a woman so as to attract her husband….” In fact, it is this “shock” effect which gives the poem its power. Through his use of hackneyed rhymes (“here,” “near,” “night,” "bright"), the sing-song rhythms of the first two lines and the lament of the fourth line, Wieners encourages us to expect that the rest of the poem will fulfill the requirements of a popular love song. Even when the “shock” occurs, we are not made to question our own values. Indeed, the poet asks us to remain within our own value systems as voyeurs of sorts, for it is only as somewhat disparaging observers that we can see the humor of the situation, and it is upon that humor which the poignancy of the last line and the poem as a whole relies. As Perloff perceives, “…any such impersonation is doomed to failure…” Thus we find the situation somewhat ludicrous, and as we do we are made to see the inevitable loneliness and sadness of the figure at the center of this work; and it is only through this perception that we come to sympathize.
“To H,” accordingly, has little of Rimbaud’s transformative power. In Wieners we are not made to participate in a deranged world; we are merely asked to listen to the self-disparaging cries and open our hearts to the figure caught in such a world. Wieners himself has since rejected the “là-bas” of which Rimbaud would have the poet write: “I know now that ‘the dark eternals of the nightworld’ are only deprivations of the self, not further extensions of its being: manifestations of want, denial and betrayal” (in Donald M. Allen and Warren Tallman, eds., The Poetics of the New American Poetry). Such a statement shows us that, as Gilbert Sorrentino recently suggested, Wieners is at heart much closer to Baudelaire than to Rimbaud. Nevertheless, Rimbaud’s influence should not be underestimated, particularly since Wieners’ mature work owes much to Rimbaud’s ability to transform objects and landscapes into an almost surrealistic world infused by process.
The most fascinating aspect of Wieners’ poetry, I would suggest, is not the question of whether or not he has been directly influenced by Rimbaud, but the fact that in this early period he was drawn to such poets and was in his personal life and theory influenced by their work while simultaneously embracing modernist values when it came to his own writing.
This is particularly apparent in Wieners’ “imitations” of other poets. In “The Windows,” the poet has taken Apollinaire’s “Les Fenêtres” and seemingly translated the French, concretizing the images and a few of the lines (for example, “Abatis de pihis” appears in Wieners as “A bat is pinned to a tree.”), changing some colors, adding an occasional negative (“Nous l’enverrons en message téléphonique” becomes in Wieners “We cannot take calls by telephone), and altering some personal pronouns, adjectives, etc. On the surface, it is exactly the kind of poem that literary historians love to point to as an “apprentice piece,” a work written in the formative years in imitation of a previous “master.” This can be said as well of Wieners’ “The Magic of This Summer June 23, 1963,” wherein a stanza such as
The sense of continuity entirely destroyed by many
new senses, continually destroyed by many new
shapes o continually destroyed, o many new sphere,
many life entirely destroyed, continued by
many spheres, entirely lost, o continually destroyed
many lost by more o continually new generation,
with its shifting repetitions, reads like a parody of Gertrude Stein. In poems such as “Times Square” or “A Dawn Cocktail,” we see obvious imitations of Pound’s Imagism, modeled after “In a Station of the Metro.” In each of these cases we can see Wieners’ experimentation with a poetry moving towards and defining something akin to what we now call Postmodernism.
Wieners’ poetry, accordingly, would seem to be exemplary of the contemporary poetics. In a poem such as “A Poem for Cocksuckers” we can see nearly all the elements by which critics such as Charles Altieri have defined Postmodernism: preference of “the direct, the personal, the local, the anti-formal, and the topical." These are particularly explicit in the poem’s first stanza:
Well we can go
in the queer bars w/
our long hair reaching
down to the ground and
we may sing our songs
of love like the black mamma
on the juke box, after all
what have we got left.
The narrative “we” directly presents us with a specific scene, a gay bar, and that specificity is established by a language which is at once colloquial and topical. Words such as “queer bars,” “black mamma,” “juke box,” and, in the next stanza, “fairies” and “nigger’s world,” and the informality of tone call up this scene. However, the specificity is of a type, not a particular.
Indeed, we are given few visual images. Just as in “To H,” “A Poem for Cocksuckers” is a poem that calls for reader participation. We have been warned by the title itself that this poem is a poem “for cocksuckers.” Wieners presumes, obviously, that any reader is thereby included in the type. Indeed, the gay scene which we are now part of is established by stereotypes, by words charged with negative societal values, values which some of the readers, in fact, might bring to the poem. The few visual images with which we are presented only reinforce these stereotypes. “Our long hair reaching to the ground” is, quite obviously, a topical reference to the late 1950s and '60s when societal reaction to long hair was most vocal. Images such as “On our right the fairies / giggle in their lacquered voices & blow / smoke in your eyes….” Phrases such “It is all here between / powdered legs & / painted eyes of the fairy / friends….” are also emotionally charged in a way that necessarily brings up negative connotations. As part of this world, therefore, we are also stereotyped: we are “cocksuckers.” While we have been brought into this place, moreover, we are simultaneously alienated from it. We are made to see it truly as a “nigger’s world,” a world which is brought to detest itself.
Yet that is not at all the feeling we get from the rest of the poem. The second stanza tells us of the “gifts” that “do not desert us, / fountains do not dry / up there are rivers running / mountains / swelling for spring to cascade.” The poem has suddenly shifted to a more lyrical tone which draws us away from the specific scene and makes us think in a symbolic context that is very unlike the beginning. Here “gifts” represent both “our” mental abilities to transform this negative experience into something creative and suggests “our” sexual organs which await release. Even when we are brought back into the specific gay bay world with the lines, "friends who do not fail us / in our hour of despair,” the symbolic associations remain. Although , we are specifically pointed out the phalluses of “our” "fairy friends,” it remains purposely unclear whether it is the sex itself that saves us from despair or whether it is the experience imaginatively recalled that gives us value—or both. But almost before we can ask this question, we are left alone as suddenly the poet enters the poem in the first person, and lyrically calls upon us to “…Take not / away from me the small fires / I burn in memory of love.”
The effect of this sudden emotional command is that the “I” which we have felt has been guiding us all along removes himself from the specific scene and leaves us there, almost as a jilted date. Wieners turns on us and calls upon us both as outsiders who would deny him his love through our stereotyped vision of him, and, now, as insiders who would take his “lover” away, imploring us like the “black mamma” of the juke box to let him live his life with the small pleasure he has left intact. This is a brilliant maneuver, but as a tactic it is far more Modernist than Postmodernist. This last outburst leaves the reader behind, while the poet, again in metaphorical language, states his meaning. The reader has been somewhat “manipulated” into participating; he has been “used” to say something rather than asked to share in the poem-making process. The direct presentation, we must feel, has only been a sort of decoy to involve the reader in what is actually a tightly controlled construct.
Altieri has asserted that the philosophical foundation of Postmodernism is the belief that value and meaning are immanent in nature, “that God…manifests himself as energy, as the intense expression of immanent power.” For the Postmodern “…value is not mediated but stems from a direct engagement with the universal forces of being manifest in the particular….” This idea is close to what Pound expressed in his Imagist and Vorticist theories, and what Williams was later to summarize in Patterson as “no ideas but in things.” Having been brought up with these theories, Wieners, as we have seen, seemingly supports them. Ostensibly, it is the process of poem-making, not the finished product, with which Wieners is most concerned. “A poem does not have to be a major thing,” Wieners wrote in Donald M. Allen’s 1960 New American Poetry anthology. “Poetry even tho it does deal with language is not a more holy act / than, say, shitting.” Two lines later, however, comes a question which, I suggest, is at the heart of the contradictions we have thus far observed in Wieners’ work. He begins with the Postmodern assumption that poetry is a “Manifesting of process…,” but he is not sure of what process it is a manifestation: “Is it life? Or action between this and non-action?” He continues, “For to take up arms against the void is attack, and the price of / was / is high.” For a poet and theorist like Pound there would be little question here. Poetry was for Pound a manifesting of the process of life because it was life itself which was in process. But Wieners suspects a void. Wherein then does the immanence lie? From where does the process issue? The Postmodernist necessarily believes in the material reality of the world around him, for it is primarily that reality which gives meaning and/or value. Ideally, the Postmodern poet demonstrates, restates, or clarifies the process that is already active in the world of objects. Wieners seems to be inferring that it is in the poet alone that meaning is imminent, that the process issues not from the world but from the poet. We are getting closer here to a Modernist orientation akin to Wallace Stevens’ in which the poet imposes meaning upon an otherwise dead or meaningless universe.
This same pattern can be observed in Wieners’ imitations previously described. “The Magic of This Summer,” for example, has all the superficial characteristics of a Stein work. It is, as in most of Stein’s writing, a direct statement wherein what is stated is given a sense of process by the use of present tense, active verbs, and by shifting repetitions. This latter, especially, gives us the sense of a cubistic perspective, for each time an idea is repeated it is slightly altered—either the construction is changed or a word has been added or subtracted—so that it is given a slightly different emphasis. All of this is at work in Wieners’ poem, but, once more, he uses this Postmodern-like technique to present a dialectic between Modernist and Postmodernist issues, to discuss issues of form which eventually contradict the form itself.
Wieners’ question in this poem is, once again, “Where does meaning or value reside?” The poet begins with a seemingly Postmodern position: “Form to be given / declared at any moment by what lies outside of us, and within us”; “the form declares / shape, given, of any, this moment, everything / declares itself in the moment, hidden in the declaration / of life, this moment, remains entirely given.” Suddenly, however, he remembers an event from the past, and he realizes that “this means, you are to be given, at any moment, / the fragments of past life.” “It seems,” therefore, “there is nothing, entirely given over the any moment,” because the moment can return. This is indeed a troubling concept, for if “The hand of the maker carves everything to be,” then, “For its own being, will come our shape. Form declares / itself. / In the given moment / In every living being.” This means that there is nothing more to be declared “at any given moment.” In being, everything “is given over to the moment.” “…Life is not over,” but “There is not more to be given.” If this is true, Wieners perceives, he must surrender his constructs of value to being; he must give up his “castle in the sand, on the beach, o the castles surrendered, / in my air.” But how can it be that everything is given when “still my life, by back life given many more days?”
The rest of the poem, accordingly, is a struggle to find continuity between the past and being, between value immanent in nature-in-process and values that we impose on nature or are given to us from the past. By the end of the poem, Wieners has been able to unite them in the “continual reality; expressed in the afternoon window,” and the heat, trees, and sun. Although he has returned to nature here, to the idea of immanence in the object, we rrealize that in remembering he has brought a “new consciousness” to bear upon the object that certainly contradicts Stein’s admonition against remembering, and brings into question the whole Postmodernist stance. If value is given us from the past, then how can we be free to see without preconceived notions that value is imminent in the object? It is clear that, at least for Wieners, this issue is unresolved. Here, as we saw previously in his experiments with Rimbaud, Wieners is unprepared to deny all previous values. As we have noted of all these poems discussed so far, Wieners brings to the writing his own values based upon previous encounters with nature. The poem itself is a construct of the previous process; it is not a document of his engagement with that process itself.
In Wieners’ Apollinaire imitation we can see further traces of Modernist or Symbolist tendencies. Apollinaire and his friends, who reportedly sat at the Paris café calling out lines to each other which would become “Les Fenêtres,” were certainly not attempting to create a poem in which one was encouraged to make connections. In fact, if anything, the connections were totally cut, which is what makes this experiment in poetics so fascinating. As Wieners notes in the short introductory paragraph to his imitation, “each line of his poem” is a poem “entire to itself, a sound and end in itself, without periods.” But then, Wieners adds two sentences that lead the reader to attempt to do just what the original was discouraging him from doing. Wieners writes: “There are no connections. Yet, look how each of us is hooked.” What is implicit in this statement is that Wieners is “hooked,” that it is the poet who has a tendency to make connection, bringing meaning out of discovery and imposing form upon formlessness. In fact, Wieners changes the text to encourage tenuous connections. For example, what in the original appear as completely unrelated phrases,
Beauté pâleur insondables violets
Nous tenterons en vain de prendre du repos
reads in Wieners,
Beauté paler than manila violets
We transplant in vain what cannot blossom.
We logically associate these two lines in the Wieners version because of the image of flowers in the first line and the words “transplant” and “blossom” in the second. Similarly, the French original
Et l’oie oua-oua trompette au nord
Où les chasseurs de ratons
Raclent les pelleteries
appears in Wieners as,
While reeds whine through trumpets up north
Where strippers offstage
Sell their skin cheap as ice
Tinkling like diamonds.
Again, the desire to make connections in the Wieners version is natural. The idea of strippers up north selling their skin as cheaply as ice tinkling like diamond is quite plausible, and is a rather arresting image. However, in the original, except between “Où les chasseurs de rations” and “Raclent les pelleteries,” we would have no reason to make such connections. This is a type of process, but once more these are connections that have already been established in logical discourse. They do not force us in any way to arrive at a new set of associations as a Cubist work might. Even if the original “Les Fenêtres” were not an experiment in dissociation, and instead a Cubist-like collage, Wieners’ version is, accordingly, a completely different kind of work. It is a poem that has as its philosophical foundation the idea that the world is a void upon which man imposes meaning, to which man gives form, an idea antithetical to the Postmodern perspective that underlies much of Wieners’ work.
In other words, we can say that Wieners is an author who is not really comfortable with some of the values we have come to associate with Postmodernism. For Wieners, in short, nature is not immanent, but is a void or at least a chaos from which man with his imaginative powers must call up meaning. Yet, it would be hard to describe Wieners as a Modernist, for in the vast majority of his poems Wieners uses techniques—direct presentation of the personal, reader participation, etc.—by which critics have come to define Postmodernism. Thus we are faced with a quandary of sorts. In Wieners we have come up against, who uses contemporary techniques that create a tension between the immanence of the thing being presented and the values which the poet and/or reader puts upon the thing. While this may appear to be quandary only from the perspective of our Postmodern lens, it is actually a quandary of which Wieners himself is aware, and an important tension at work in a great many more experimental poets’ works. If believing in the Pound-Williams notion of the immanence of nature requires of the poet that he constantly seek for ways of seeing anew, of “making it new,” that effort simultaneously denies the poet his past. In this post-Bergsonian world of durée the poet is asked to continually surrender his values as soon as he has perceived something. If he stops to reflect, if he remembers, his poetry is deadened, becoming a remnant of some previous process. This, in turn, produces a moral dilemma for the contemporary writer, for he understandably desires to assert value, especially when faced with a phenomenon like the Viet Nam War. Since the Postmodernist is already concerned with process it is, accordingly, tempting to convert the energies of discovering the essence of process in nature to the promotion of process or change through a propagandistic or didactic art. From Pound’s “Usury” Canto to Denise Levertov’s Staying Alive we have seen the precursors of Postmodernism and Postmodern poets themselves turn to a preconceived value-oriented poetry.
In a recent interview, Robert Van Hallberg brought up just this issue:
…You seem to have a firm sense of the poem’s commitment to
a moment in history. Do you feel that at a particular moment in
history, specifically in the last few years, the pressure of political
tensions may push the poet, even a lyric poet, toward a more public
and rhetorical poetry?
Wieners’ answer follows from his poetry:
Yes, I do…. Yes. Lyricism is still a quality of a political career.
…Until the right moment, I created from past-inhabited experiences,
or vice-versa. These topics arise only upon consideration.
What Wieners is suggesting here, it seems to me, is that the subject for the contemporary poet does arise at least as much if not more from his past values and the values he has come to in that past as it does from the present. We can surmise that for a poet like Wieners it was from the beginning impossible, caught as he was in the nightworld, to reject past values. Indeed, his desire to know the nightworld was grounded in his awareness of his own past and the societal values which he had know from childhood. Once he had become part of that nightworld, moreover, he must have discovered himself more than ever comparing it with those values. Survival came to depend more and more upon his imaginative powers to convert his suffering into statements of faith. Wieners came to depend upon what he has described as “…other realities / besides those existing before / your eyes.” Despite his playing down of the importance of poetry, it is totally consistent with his work that Wieners should see the poet as “a pastor,” or as a priest of sorts.
This same tension was potential in Rimbaud’s poems as well. His dérèglement was utterly dependent upon his knowledge of traditional systems of cognition, for only with that knowledge could he give his reader anything “deranged,” could he make nature through language alive in a new way. Eventually, once he had perfected it, Rimbaud would have been forced also to tear down his own system and start all over again. But, of course, he stopped writing before his poetry had become artifact.
Wieners’ solution, then, is to make use of this tension, for when he writes with it in mind, he is saved from flat didacticism. “Long Nook,” for example, is a poem that could not have been written without the experimentation of Rimbaud and Pound, yet we can immediately see that it is a poem that neither of them would have written. It would not have been “deranged” enough for Rimbaud, and it would have been too controlled, too much of an artifact for Pound’s taste. Yet what an exciting poem it is! As Gilbert Sorrentino has written of it, “There is not a line…not charged with risk.”
There she took her lover to sea
and laid herself in the sand.
He is fast, was down the dune
with silk around his waist.
Her scarf was small.
She opened her clothes to the moon.
Her underarms were shaved.
The wind was a wall between them.
Waves break over the tide,
hands tied to her side with silk,
their mind was lost in the night.
The green light at Provincetown
became an emerald on the beach
and like stars fell on Alabama.
The poem begins with a direct narrative statement in the past tense, with the vague “There” hinting at a world beyond time, like the “faraway country” of children’s tales. We are immediately made, however, to question these expectations. The construction of “to sea,” because there is no article, makes us think of the infinitive “to see,” which changes the whole tone of the line and urges us to move to the second line to find out what it is that she wants him to see. But we are not told; we are simply described the process of her lying down in the sand. The word “laid” is wrong here, however, and the object of the verb, “herself,” makes no sense. Even as a sexual pun it is, at first thought, ludicrous. Yet, when we think back to the first line, we recall that it was she who “took” to her “to sea,” and thus, we see the connotations of the pun. As the seducer, she encourages her lover to have sexual intercourse by seductively lying down in the sand, a seduction which is reflected by Wieners’ use here of l and s sounds (lover, laid; she, sea, herself, sand). But in that seduction she is also taking on the male role (as we shall see there are reasons for the stereotyping of roles) and, thus, in the sexual slang sense, is “laying herself.”
Suddenly, in the next line, there is a shift. A command is whispered in the present tense, ostensibly her command: “Go up and undress in the dark.” In its short, clipped iamb with a labial ending followed by two anapests, we are told more about the upward movement of the male than about her. This movement is rhythmically stirring compared to the slower pace of the first two lines, and in the next line, a mirror image of the previous line (an anapest followed by two iambs which gives the sense of downward movement), words like “fast” and “down the dune” give the male’s movements a vital energy. This sense of vitality is reinforced by the use of the present tense. The shift in tense in the first line of the second stanza does two things: first, it begins what I shall call a whistling sensuality of the second line, a sensuality suggested by the short s sounds (was, silk, his, waist) and by the associations we have with the texture of silk; second, this shift in tense creates a balancing effect in which we are given a sense of the male’s wholeness and surety. The correspondence of the last line of the first stanza and the use of the word “around” in the following line with the two iambs on either side of it (“with silk,” “his waist”) all contribute to this sense of balance. With all this detailed attention to the male, moreover, we are asked to take a special interest in his movements. When in the next line we are presented with a direct statement that draws attention to his genitals which are evidently not completely covered by the scarf tied around his waist, accordingly, we become voyeurs in the same way in which the woman is in her waiting position. We come to perceive at least one meaning, thus, of what it was she wanted “to see.”
“Her scarf was small” subtly suggests that the male is aroused and ready for sex. And by the next line we see, once again, the female’s readiness as she “opens” her clothes to the moon. The next line, “Her underarms were shaved,” repeats this whole idea of preparedness, and there is something slightly sinister in that fact. Compared with the male’s natural vitality and energy these is something almost unnatural in her presentation of herself to the moon, creating an almost surrealist quality here that inexplicably makes us feel that we are observing something connected with ritual, as if she were worshipping the moon. I do not believe that Wieners would have us ignore, moreover, all the more traditional associations that this image calls up. Facing the moon this way, she comes to be connected with it as an archetypal female symbol and as a traditional symbol for the imagination and mutability.
The next line contributes to this sinister mood. The description of the wind as a wall between them, obviously, is one way of saying that they are embracing each other. But the fact that the wind is suddenly brought in here, and that it metaphorically becomes a “wall,” in addition to the fact that the w sounds (wind, was, wall) recreate the whining sound of the wind, suggest that nature itself is somehow being affected by this coming together of the couple. It is almost as if before the final moment of sexual intercourse, the wind is holding them apart.*
In the next stanza this idea is repeated. The “waves breaking against the tide” metaphorically represent the orgasm, but again we recognize that there is something violent, disintegrating about this, especially when Wieners uses “tied” homonymically in the next line, and then rhymes it in the same line with “side.” At first, it is not clear whether her hands are tied to her side, but with the connection of “tide” to “tied” we are logically, if a little roundaboutly, led to thank that his hands are those which are tied. For “tide” cannot help but be connected with the moon, and therefore, with the female. We have a parallel construction, then, reinforced by the rhyming of “tied” and “side.” This is less complex than it sounds; it is simply the parallel relationship of male to female, and female to male, but it is important in how it affects the poem, subtly restating her dominance. He is tied to her.
It soon no longer matters, however, for in the sex act they have now “lost their minds in the night.” Their individuality no longer exists, as they abandon their cognitive faculties. In love, they have transcended the world in the Romantic sense, have become one with the world. But in so doing they have lost the natural vitality of being in nature that we saw previously in the male. Archetypally we have just witnessed the seduction by an Eve of an Adam. Just as suddenly it becomes quite clear what Wieners has meant by the female’s desire to take her lover “to see.” She has determined to show him a world beyond the everyday material reality.
In the last stanza we also are made “to see” this transcendent vision. But we see it both in its dangers and ridiculousness. The green light is also Gatsby’s green light in The Great Gatsby and, accordingly, represents the absurdity and dangers of the American dream; in Wieners’ poem that light is transformed into the ridiculous “emerald on the beach,” and, as if that were not absurd enough, the emerald surrealistically falls like stars on Alabama, this last phrase calling up the Brecht-Weill song “Moon over Alabama,” which makes the sex act we have just witnessed slightly tawdry, corny, and sentimental—all of which connects to the pornographic title of the poem itself. In the end we are made to see the silliness and destructiveness of associations. Like the female whose conscious preparedness is witnessed most clearly as she undresses to the moon, we would worship the associations more than the object itself and end up with the tawdry and sentimental instead of the vital being we observed in the man’s race down the dune.
We cannot come to understand this poem, however, without traditional symbolist values. Wieners may assert the Postmodern approach to poetry, but he requires that we know and use more traditional constructs. And while it is clear that these last lines present a vision which is quite ludicrous, they simultaneously present a fascinating and disorienting transformation the likes of which we have seen in Rimbaud.
Writing poetry for Wieners means combining both the seductive and imaginative awareness of the female in “Long Nook” and the vital energy in process of the male. And it is between the distribution of these two visions that Wieners sees himself as “pastor” (Selected Poems, p. 5).
*The original version of “Long Nook” (published in Floating Bear, no. 10 ) makes this even more clear by setting off the line and putting it in quotations: “The wind was a wall between them.”
College Park, Maryland, December 1975
Reprinted from Sun & Moon: A Quarterly of Literature & Art (No. 2, Spring 1976).
John Wieners outside the Grolier Bookshop, Cambridge
John Wieners at a bar
Reading this essay today, I am quite amused by my rather limited and often unsophisticated notions of Postmodernism, but I have left them intact, in part because in 1975 and 1976, when I was writing this essay, discussions of poetry and Postmodernism were at an early stage, with very little commentary on the subject.
The reader may also be confused that I speak of figures such as Rimbaud, Stein, Pound, Williams, and other writers who wrote in the so-called Modern period as being Postmodernist figures. But that was just my point, as I later expressed it quite clearly in terms of fiction in my Doctoral dissertation, which argued that there were, in fact, at least two opposing Modernisms. In poetry figures such as Yeats, Frost, Eliot, Stevens, and later writers such as Lowell and Berryman represented a sort of “high modernism,” while other poets such as Rimbaud, Stein, Pound, Williams, Olson, and later writers such as Creeley, Ginsberg, O’Hara, Ashbery, Cage, and Antin represented a tradition that would eventually come to be defined as Postmodernism.
Today I might not care at all to characterize Wieners’ poetry as either Modern or Postmodern, but the tensions within his work seem to still be worth discussing.
Los Angeles, July 1, 2008