John Wieners’ Usefulness

By Clive Matson

            “Oh put down thy vanity man the old man told us under the tent. You are over-run with ants.” .” – John Wieners, from “A poem for early risers,” The Hotel Wentley Poems (Auerhahn Press, San Francisco: 1958), page 12.

Many lines from John Wieners have taken up permanent residence in my psyche. They’ve been exact and revelatory for more than fifty years, and the intelligence that came up with his words is mysterious. But the process is not.

Ezra Pound wrote “Pull down thy vanity” in Canto 81, and Wieners must have started there. A friend read the Canto while we were camping in Baja California in remote mountains, and that’s significant. For me, the clutter that inhabits awareness falls away in the presence of nature.

Pound’s poem contrasts what one loves with what vanity has built. “What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage” he proclaims, and references classical Greek, 19th century Spanish, and early American history. But Canto 81 is not easy to understand. This reader gets more involved with Pound’s stance than with his material.

Wieners brings Pound’s insight to street level. It’s a common refrain, of course, from Bible school and Ecclesiastes (1:14 and throughout) “All is vanity and vexation of spirit” probably down to many of our parents’ exhortations. But look at the subtexts: Ecclesiastes puts us in a house of worship for a sermon and Pound puts us in oratory awe, hearing a sage rail at the culture. John Wieners talks to us.

Wieners distills to usefulness a line that doesn’t ordinarily reach outside its literary circle. Why put us in church or in the library, why give us any word that doesn’t communicate directly? Wieners’ work has brevity and clarity. No need to add to the clutter! “The small fires I burn in the memory of love.” “Held as they are in the hands of forces they cannot understand.” “Who has opened the savagery of the sea to me.” ‘The poem does not lie to us, we lie under its law.”

Keeping the anachronism “thy” in Wieners’ lines on vanity gives them a single, cavernous echo from the Old Testament. That one reverberation is all that’s needed. “You are over-run with ants” backs up the dictum with a physical sensation; it doesn’t need to be phrased “Thou art over-run…,” which would put us back in church. It comes as a small surprise that “Canto 81” contains an ant: “The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.”

Wieners brought the ant from its obscure setting and made it an apt correlative in the body, working just as he did with the arcane “Pull down thy vanity.” What about “the old man told us under the tent”? Is this Wieners taking an appreciative snapshot, or is it a dig at Pound? In any case the image brings the reader into the realm of revivalist tents and country preachers. This grounds us with a thump.

Most of Wieners’ couplets have literary or folklore sources. “The scene changes” and a variety of others are from William Carlos Williams’ “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”; “My middle name is Joseph and I walk beside an ass on the way to what Bethlehem,” the Bible and William Butler Yeats; “God love you, Dana, my lover,” Irish folk sayings and the Bible, as well as “The small fires I burn in the memory of love” and many others. “I do not split I hold on to the demon tree.” I suspect this is taken from somewhere in the hip lexicon.

Inversions and anachronisms in service of what Wieners intends are frequent in Hotel Wentley.“When green was the bed my love and I laid down upon.” This phrasing gives the lyricism a mythic tenor. Equally instructive might be “I am engaged in taking away from god his sound.” Conventional phrasing, like “I’m engaged in taking god’s sound away from him,” would not demonstrate the aural resonance Wieners claims.

Wieners wrote Hotel Wentley in one week, on an amphetamine run. That could be evidence of the drug’s ability to aid focus, but one could also lament amphetamine as a contributor to chaos in the remainder of Wieners’ life. The drug created neither Wieners’ wisdom nor his refining. Both are evident in poems from before 1958, and, curiously, many of the lines in Hotel Wentley are distilled from Wieners’ earlier poems

It’s startling that, instead of the Wieners’ line above, I remembered “Held in the hands of forces we cannot understand.” This is a Wieners-like revision of his own words. The line comes from “A poem for painters,” in which paintings in an Edvard Munch exhibition are templates for some of Wieners’ most brilliant stanzas. My inadvertent revision brings those words out of the museum, and out of the clutter, into the palpable present. This process is natural, or is natural with me, and we may all do it: turn literature into something useful. I suspect the extreme daring and vision and entitlement in using this process so extensively for writing Hotel Wentley is unequaled anywhere in literature.

In this discussion, the practical is presented as essential to poetry. Many people have asked, “What makes good poetry?” Not easy to answer, with today’s entrancing personalities and spectacular intellects. Poetry should be passionate and clear; it should cut through the clutter; and it should be useful in living. This smacks of “Gebrauchtmusik,” music for public events, of the nineteen-twenties and thirties that gave us Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith. It’s a stretch to view Wieners’ poems as parallel to Gebrauchtmusik, unless we accept that events in consciousness are equivalent to external events. A difference is that musicologists and connoisseurs judged whether the compositions were useful. Wieners’ lines show their usefulness over time, staying as cornerstones, or guides, or signposts in our minds. The judgment is made organically, and internally, by our psyches.

I’m reminded of a professor’s question, in 1959 at the University of Chicago, which became my signal to leave the university: “Why did Milton write Paradise Lost?” I raised my hand. “It’s the tug-of-war between good and evil,” I offered. “Life is like that.” I wanted as clean a relationship with literature as with mountains and valleys.

The professor replied, “That’s a good answer, but it’s not the one I’m looking for.” Milton identified with the devil, he explained, and God was the king of England, with whom Milton had a long quarrel.

My answer, like the answer embedded in Wieners’ poems, is more useful.


(With help from Sally Bolger, Vince Storti, and John Paige.)