Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners

by Stephanie Burt

Long considered somewhere between a cult figure and a poets’ trade secret, Wieners (1934–2002) appeared in The New American Poetry in 1960 alongside Ginsberg, O’Hara, Creeley, and more. He has been remembered as part of that era, a poet who ran with the Beats in San Francisco and lived with Herbert Huncke in New York City, as well as a groundbreaking, risk-taking poet of gay identity and sex between men: “In dark rooms, cocks bulge against trousers”; “It is so lonely / I felt younger after doing him.” He also lived in and out of psychiatric institutions, finally settling in his native Boston. Yet readers expecting mere advocacy for gay liberation, Beat ephemera, or evidence of illness will find here a bracingly major surprise. Wieners presents himself as a man of astonishing seriousness, a channel for the occasional prophecy, attuned to literary ambition as to erotic devotion: “The poem / does not lie to us. We lie under its / law, alive in the glamour of this hour.” Those lines come from “A poem for tea heads,” i.e., pot smokers. Other poems praise, and denounce, heroin and cocaine. Lovelorn, excited, addicted, inspired, Wieners comes across as someone with no barriers, a man who could really put on paper the “hurts of wanting the impossible,” at least in his peak years, from about 1958 to 1972. Editors Beckman and CAConrad (poets themselves) and Dewhurst (Wieners’s biographer) include paragraphs from a published journal (City Lights has published more Wieners journals this year) along with a facsimile of Wieners’s disturbing Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike (1975), whose stuttering collages and homemade typography suggest a man already coming apart.

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2015.