John Wieners: “The Savagerey of the Sea”

Photographers Unknown, The Savagerey of the Sea

God love you
Dana my lover
lost in the horde
on this Friday night
500 men are moving up
& down from the bath
room to the bar.
Remove this desire
from the man I love.
Who has opened
the savagery
of the sea to me.

See to it that
his wants are filled
on California street
Bestow on him lan-
gesse that allows him
peace in his loins.

Leave him not
to the moths.
Make him out a lion
so that all who see him
hero worship his
thick chest as I did
moving my mouth
over his back bringing
our hearts to heights
I never hike over
anymore.
Let blond hair burn
on the back of his
neck, let no ache
screw his face
up in pain, his soul
is so hooked.
Not heroin.
Rather fix these
hundred men as his
lovers & lift him
with the enormous bale
of their desire.

6.20.58

John Wieners, A Poem for the Old Man, The Hotel Wentley Poems, 1958

Born in Boston in January of 1934, John Wieners was a poet and both an anti-war and gay rights activist. He was also a member of the San Francisco Renaissance, a movement which made that city the center of the American poetry avant-garde in the 1950s. Wieners studied from 1950 to 1954 at Boston College where he earned his Bachelor of Arts. After hearing a reading by postmodernist poet Charles Olson at Boston’s Charles Street Meeting House, Wieners enrolled at Black Mountain College where he studied under Olson and Robert Duncan, a modernist poet and shamanistic figure in San Francisco’s artistic and poetic circles.

In 1956 after returning to Boston, Wieners met visiting poets Frank O’Hara and Jack Spicer and became close friends with poet Stephen Jonas, a relationship which lasted until Jonas’s early death in 1970. He, along with Jonas, close friend Jim Dunn, Jack  Spicer and poets Ed Marshall and Robin Blaser, formed a group which they labeled the School of Boston. All the members of the group, except for Dunn, were openly gay and congregated regularly in the bohemian Beacon Hill District. There they published limited-run chapbooks of poetry and the “Boston Newsletter”and “Measure”, both short-run publications which contained poems on queer vulnerability and survival.

In 1957, John Wieners relocated to the North Beach area of San Francisco with his boyfriend Dana Durkee. This relationship soon broke up. The result of which was a period of intense creativity for Wieners as he began to associate with the artistic and literary community of the city but it also led to a deterioration of his mental health. In San Francisco, he became closely associated with painter and set-designer Robert LaVigne and collage artist Wallace Berman, both of whom were involved in the Beat Movement.

In 1958 at the age of twenty-four, Wieners published his first collection of poems entitled “The Hotel Wentley Poems”, which contained both Beat and queer poems. Written during a six-day stay at the hotel in the queer Polk Gulch neighborhood, the poems balance the loss of his boyfriend Dana with the social atmosphere of the queer bars and friends. After this publication, he became a contributor to publisher Donald Allen’s influential “New American Poetry” anthology.

Worn down by an atmosphere of constant paranoia, homophobic landlords, drug busts and entrapment by undercover police, John Wieners’s mental health gradually declined. Arriving in New York, his erratic behavior from a drug cocktail prompted an acquaintance to call Wieners’s parents; damaging stays in several Massachusetts institutions followed. At Medfield State Hospital, Wieners lost his manuscripts and was threatened with electrical treatments. As an inpatient at Bournewood Hospital in Waltham, he was given ninety-one insulin treatments which caused memory loss.

Recovering at his parents’ home in Milton, Wieners continued his poetic writings in his notebooks and letters. His great poem “The Acts of Youth” was included in a January 1962 letter to his peer and former teacher Charles Olson; the poem alternates between visions of pain and suffering and dreams of resurrection. Wieners’s second collection of poems entitled “Ace of Pentacles” was published in 1964. In the following year, Wieners was engaged by Olson on a Guggenheim graduate fellowship at State University of New York, Buffalo.

In 1966 in Buffalo, John Wieners began the only significant hetero-relationship of his life with patron and heiress Panna Grady. That ended after Grady terminated a pregnancy and began a relationship with Charles Olson. In the following years, Wieners suffered a series of losses: the deaths of Olson, his friend Jonas, and both his parents. While inside another institution, the Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island, he heard about the 1969 Stonewall uprising from Charley Shively, a representative from the new Gay Liberation movement in Boston. This became one of the most important friendships in Wieners’s latter life.

Wieners began publishing poems, plays, and essays in Boston’s “Fag Rag”, a militant magazine published by Shively and others of the anarchist Fag Rag collective. The magazine was a medium for homosexual poetry, history, reviews and art that was sex-positive and which associated homosexuality not with tragedy but with joy. The collective later formed the Good Gay Poets Press in 1972, whose second publication was Wieners’s long poem “Playboy” which recounted Fag Rag’s presence at the 1072 Democratic convention in Miami. The Good Gay Poets Press also published Wieners’s full-length book “Behind the State Capital; or Cincinnati Pike” in 1975. A prominent theme in the book was Wieners’s defiance of traditional gender roles.

After the publication of “Behind the State Capital”, John Wieners nearly ceased writing poems and letters. Incapacitated by years of abusive mental health care, he lived frugally in his Beacon Hill neighborhood and became reliant on emotional and financial support from his old friends. Wieners continued to give occasional readings and worked on producing articles for the “Fag Rag” magazine. Its final issue in 1987 had a photograph of Wieners and Shively kissing at Gay Pride on its front cover.

John Wieners died on the 1st of March in 2002 , at his side were his longtime supporters and friends Charley Shively and Jim Dunn. Many of Wieners’s later writings were lost; many were never published. His papers are housed in several university collections and some of his late poems are in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

John Wieners’s 1971 journal, discovered in the Kent State University archive collection, was published by Bootstrap Press with the title “A Book of Prophecies” in 2007. City Lights Bookstore and Publishers released “Stars Seen in Person: Selected Journals of John Wieners” in 2015; it contains selections from four unpublished journals written from 1955 to 1969. A comprehensive selection of Wieners’s poetry, “Supplication”, was published in 2015 by Wave Books.

Note: For those interested in the life and work of John Wieners, a must read is the Boston Review article by poet and scholar David Grundy entitled “Queer Shoulders at the Wheel”. This article was published in the May 2021 Arts in Society section : https://www.bostonreview.net/articles/queer-shoulders-at-the-wheel/

Jim Dunn’s article for the 2015 “I Have You By the Ears: John Wieners Ephemera” exhibition at Harvard’s Poetry Room can be found at: https://woodberrypoetryroom.com/?p=1793

Top Insert Image: Jerome Mallmann, “John Wieners”, Date Unknown, Gelatin Silver Print

Third Insert Image: Elsa Dorfman, “John Wieners”, Date Unknown, Gelatin Silver Print

Fourth Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “John Wieners”, Date Unknown, Gelatin Silver Print

Bottom Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “John Wieners, New York”, 1985, Gelatin Silver Print

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