John Wieners was born on January 6, 1934, in Milton, Massachusetts. After graduating from Boston College in 1954, Wieners heard Charles Olson give a reading at the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston. Inspired by Olson’s work, Wieners spent a year at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he studied with Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan.
After the closing of Black Mountain College in 1956, Wieners briefly returned to Boston and founded the small magazine Measure (published from 1957–1962) before relocating to San Francisco in 1958. It was there that he published his first book, The Hotel Wentley Poems (Auerhahn Press, 1958). The book became known for its frankness, as it openly addressed homosexuality and drug use, subjects he became known for writing about in his later works as well.
Wieners, who worked at City Lights and made his acquaintance with poets as diverse as Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara, lived on the periphery of several movements of the time—the Beats, the Black Mountain School, the New York School, and the San Francisco Renaissance—and would be granted cult status in the poetry community.
Ginsberg wrote, “John Wieners’s glory is solitary, as pure poet—a man reduced to loneness in poetry, without worldly distractions—and a man become one with his poetry. A life in contrast to the fluff and ambition of Pulitzer, National Book Awardees, poetry medalists.”
In 1960, Wieners returned to the East Coast, and for the next few years he spent time in both Boston and New York City, where he shared an apartment with Beat poet Herbert Huncke and managed and acted in the production of three of his plays at the Judson Poets Theater.
At the invitation of Olson, then the Chair of Poetics at SUNY Buffalo, Wieners enrolled in the school’s graduate program before eventually returning to Boston.
In the 1970s Wieners continued to write despite periods of institutionalization; throughout his life Wieners was in and out of institutions due to his drug abuse. His Asylum Poems (Angel Hair Books, 1969) was written while he was in an institution.
Wieners’s other poetry collections include Behind the State Capitol, or Cincinnati Pike (Good Gay Poets, 1975), Selected Poems (Grossman Publishers, 1972), Nerves (The Book Service, 1971), Youth (Phoenix Book Shop, 1970), Pressed Wafer (Gallery Upstairs Press, 1967), and Ace of Pentacles (J. F. Carr, 1964). In 2015, Wave Books released Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners, edited by Robert Dewhurst, Joshua Beckman, and CAConrad.
He also received awards and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, National Institute of Arts and Letters, and New Hope Foundations, among others.
Wieners lived and wrote in Boston’s Beacon Hill for over thirty years, until his death on March 1, 2002.