"A middle class voice from a telephone book"

I saw John Wieners (1934-2002) read his poetry on at least two occasions in Boston. The first time was at the Old West Church in the spring of 1997. The next time was that fall, at a reading with Fanny Howe that Jim Behrle organized at Waterstone's Bookstore. On both occasions, Wieners read in a distinct manner that managed to alienate some audience members, but completely won me over, combining seemingly disjointed comments about the poems he was reading, interruptions to gloss the weather outside, Massachusetts news, reflections on old friends, Boston characters & places, or observations on the reading itself. I remember him reaching into his pockets and bag to pull out newspaper clippings he read from, pausing to breathe and mumble inaudible comments to himself, pulling his glasses off repeatedly, rubbing his eyes, then returning to the poem at hand, all these interruptions performed as fluid extensions of the poem. At Waterstone's, the poem he began with was "Ode on a Common Fountain" from his 1964 book Ace of Pentacles. Part of the drama of those readings was wondering if he was going to finish the poems or trail off into silence.

At Waterstone's he read for about 15 minutes, and while he read many people in the audience seemed uncomfortable with his interruptions and pauses. At Old West Church, he stopped to comment on Allen Ginsberg's recent passing, and read his friend's late poem "Fun House Antique Store" (from Cosmopolitan Greetings). Both times, I watched him read with the weight of literary history on my mind, knowing of him as the legendary poet who composed The Hotel Wentley Poems, and whose journals from San Francisco in the late 1950s had just been published by Sun & Moon Press as 707 Scott Street (in my view, his best book). So, his anarchic reading style didn't cause any discomfort in me, it merely reinforced my view of his work as being profoundly based on improvisation and performance, allowing for the poet's voice to be influenced by the time and place of composition.

Wieners was kind enough to sit down for an interview with me in the summer of 1997 at his apartment on Beacon Hill's Joy Street. During that hour-long conversation, he employed a similar approach to my questions as I saw during his poetry readings. He never quite answered my admittedly amateurish questions, instead commenting on the sounds coming in off the street, memories he had of fellow poets and friends, or witty observations ("You look like a young Fidel Castro," he said to me at one point), all while smoking an endless supply of Pall Mall cigarettes. One of the friends he mentioned several times was Charles Olson, who he referred to as a "mighty magus stratus," crediting him with teaching him everything he knew about poetry. When I mentioned how much I had enjoyed reading 707 Scott Street, he said he was surprised anyone found value in those old notebooks. He seemed both pleased and startled that I would consider that book anything other than a relic from a distant era. I take that self-effacing attitude toward his own work as evidence of his genuine humility and politeness.

This connection to Olson is clear to me in two ways. One, in that both poets displayed a fierce allegiance to their respective cities, Boston and Gloucester, making them the focus of their poetics. And secondly, Olson's now-famous reading/lecture at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965 seems to be a model for how Wieners approached his own poetry readings, at least during the the two times I saw him read in Boston. Poetry was for him a living, dynamic state of being, more important than publication or the recognition of critics & scholars. Poetry should be lived and experienced on a daily basis, unfiltered.

In her book Career Moves (Wisconsin, 2000), Libbie Rifkin devotes an entire chapter to analyzing Charles Olson's chaotic and controversial performance in Berkeley, which was viewed by some as a drunken rant and by others as an original fusion of self and poem via the spoken word. Rifkin quotes the following excerpt from the audio transcript of Olson at Berkeley:

OLSON: No, I wanna talk. I mean, you wanna listen to...a poet? I mean, you know, like, a poet, when he's alive, whether he talks or reads you his poems is the same thing. (SLAPS TABLE)
OLSON: Dig That! (APPLAUSE). And when he – and when he – and when he is made of three parts, his life, his mouth and his poem, then, by god, the earth belongs to us. And like – and what I think has happened is that that's – wow, gee, hmm, one doesn't like to claim things, but god, isn't it exciting? I mean, at least I'm – I mean, I can, I feel like a kid. I'm in the presence of an event, which I don't believe, myself.

You can see this same conception of the poet and his work as an event to be experienced, not merely read, in Wieners's piece "Lisbon Indian Summer," which was composed specifically for a conference he attended in Maine in 2000. What makes Wieners so relevant to me is his dismissal of the protocol that surrounds poetry readings, with their banal and self-serving routines. His approach to reading poetry aloud is diametrically opposed to the careerist self-absorption one finds in so many poets, whether they be self-proclaimed renegades or self-important scholars. I can't think of anything more distasteful than poets who consider their work in terms of its cultural capital, as measured in publications, readings and influence. I find Wieners's humility infinitely more useful and inspiring. In his funny, self-aware millenial poem, "Lisbon Indian Summer," Wieners writes:

Between Diction and Dance
I thought I'd call my reading
A middle class voice from a telephone book
Because I'm old now
and finally attained that grace from the dime.

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