John Wieners, 1934-2002
Fat moon thumbtacked to the sky. Raw sleight-of-hand light in the east, raddle, cloudbank, propinquity. A morning agape, with no “moot thuggery of preparedness.” A lease to the eager. Did I doze off to Robert Hass arguing (in “Zukofsky at the Outset”) that the initial one-word line “Immemorial” of Zukofsky’s 1925 “Memory of V. I Ulianov”—
is Tennyson’s word, a Victorian word, drenched in a particular idea of eloquence, and in idealism and, perhaps, sublimity. Perhaps it carries in it, as Tennyson sometimes does, a sort of sensuous Keatsian swoon. Tennyson came to own the word in 1847 when he wrote in The Princess a line that must have been in any undergraduate English major’s ear in 1925:I did. And, doing so, avoided thinking how, yesterday morning with my Cheerios and coffee, reading haphazardly “at” John Ashbery’s “Of Dreams and Dreaming” in an old issue of Grand Street—a poem beginning “Tell me more about that long street. Actually we’re overextended . . .”—I’d had a similar moot reflex: isn’t Ashbery’s “cocksucker” therein (“It was night over a mountain that seemed to be there, readily / and so useful we threw ourselves on the ground dank with animal / emotions and choked-out expletives: December first! The cocksucker / hasn’t been around lately we see through gaps in the dead / or is it dormant vegetation.”) indubitably Wieners’s own (out of “A Poem for Cocksuckers”: “The gifts do not desert us, / fountains do not dry / up there are rivers running, / there are mountains / swelling for spring to cascade.”)? Maybe. To own a word: what freight.The moan of doves in immemorial elms.
John Wieners, in a 7 August 1964 letter to Charles Olson (out of the Michael Seth Stewart-edited Lost & Found pamphlet “the sea under the house”: The Selected Correspondence of John Wieners and Charles Olson):
. . . the real doesn’t involve me, it’s what exhausts me. It’s the dreams* that nurture me, yet that isn’t true, because they don’t exist. It’s the possibility of them coming true, and what does that give me, but pleasure. It’s not enough: delight in the senses, lazily hazing the scene. It leads to agony; and the only real satisfaction is the scene: BY THAT, I MEAN WORK, I mean really, that’s the only pleasure, being able to give oneself to the scene, and by scene I mean the reality around in one in the terms of oneself giving himself to work. Which is simply this (typing,) this activity of mind, which involves the muscles, and senses, contracts the forehead.The constancy of the deferrals (“BY THAT, I MEAN”) and the note of indefatigable persistence (see, too, remarks to Michael Rumaker included in the letter: “if one stops working, they return, and sinks one into bitterness: sour the heart, and who wants that? I’m not living for that . . . ‘Make it last’ a man said to me once.”) recalling, oddly enough, Marianne Moore’s “The catnip that art is, or ignis fatuus, or drop on the cactus, does seem worth the martyrdom of pursuit . . .” (in a 26 January 1934 letter to William Carlos Williams). Too, there’s Moore’s remark (in an 18 January 1934 letter to T. S. Eliot shrugging off a book offer: “I am sure it is true there is not money in poetry for anybody and to say that I dislike the thought of being a loss to a publisher is far more than a mere understatement. . . . The writing in itself pays one or something is wrong with it . . .”) that “verse is the work I like best.” (See, too, the perfectly sly surety of “a dearth of backers emphasizes the magnanimity of the fearless”—I am reminded somewhat of Frank O’Hara’s late lines in a notebook, under the title “Oedipus Rex”: “He falls; but even in falling he is higher than those who fly into the ordinary sun.”—and the cuff at the ever-panicking ambitious of the make poetry matter crowd: “An array of appreciators is so unessential if one is valued by five or even two, that I cannot see why Ezra Pound exhausts himself trying to engender intelligence in the whole world.”)
Nearly enough. Maybe a small nod at Michael O’Brien’s Avenue (Flood Editions, 2012) in the form of two succeeding pieces, morning-work pertinent, its routines and rhythms:
Tabula rasa, lightAnd:
sifting through cloud,
foam at wave-lip,
torn, scattered, and it
all keeps coming though
sight move on.
Habit of dawn
clockwork and vesture
what we traced with our fingers
legible again as the
constellations go out.