By Clive Matson
“Oh put down thy vanity man the old man told us under the tent. You are over-run with ants.”
Many lines from John Wieners’ The Hotel Wentley Poems (Auerhahn Press, San Francisco: 1958) have taken up permanent residence in my psyche. They’ve been revelatory and exact for fifty-some years, and the intelligence that came up with those words is a mystery. But the process is not.
“Pull down thy vanity” comes from Ezra Pound’s “Canto 81,” and Wieners must have started there. A friend (1) read that line while we were camping in Baja California in remote mountains, and that’s significant. The clutter that overtakes my awareness falls away in the presence of nature.
Pound’s poem contrasts what one loves with something that vanity seems to have built. “What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage” he proclaims. His issue, one scholar (2) suggests, begins with disillusion over worldly action and politics. But Canto 81 is not easy to understand. This reader gets involved with Pound’s stance more than with his material.
Wieners brings Pound’s insight to street level. It’s a common refrain, of course, from Bible school and Ecclesiastes (3) “All is vanity and vexation of spirit” probably down to many of our parents’ exhortations. But look at the subtexts: Ecclesiastes puts us in church 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 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.” ‘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 to 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”? This could be Wieners taking an appreciative snapshot of Pound, or perhaps digging at Pound, I have no idea which. On the surface, though, 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. A Wieners scholar (6) will be challenged to find the sources. “I do not split, I hold on to the demon tree.” Is this 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, however. Both are evident in poems from before 1958, and, curiously, many of the lines in Hotel Wentley are distilled from Wieners’ earlier poems. A Wieners scholar will no doubt note this.
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 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 in identifying thoughts and feelings. I suspect the extreme daring and vision and entitlement that used this process in writing Hotel Wentley is unequaled anywhere in literature.
In this discussion, the practical is presented as essential to poetry. One of our editors (5) asked, “What makes good poetry?” Not easy to answer, with today’s entrancing personalities and spectacular intellects. Poetry should be passionate, clear, cut through the clutter, and be useful in living. This smacks of “Gebrauchtmusik,” music for public events, of the nineteen-twenties and thirties that gave us Kurt Weil and Paul Hindemith. If we accept that events in consciousness are equivalent to external events, then it’s not a stretch to view Wieners’ poems as parallel to Gebrauchtmusik. A difference is that musicologists and the public judged whether the art was 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 (6) question, in 1959 at the University of Chicago, which became my signal to leave the university: “Why did Milton write Paradise Lost?” And the youngest, shyest person in class raised his hand for the first time, having been drawn into that poem because of its real-seeming issue. “The tug-of-war between good and evil,” I offered, “because 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.” Which was that Milton identified with the devil, and God was the king of England, with whom Milton had a long quarrel.
My answer, like the answer embedded in Wieners’ work, seems more useful.
1) Sal Bolger
2) Andrew Woodward
3) Ecclesiastes 1:14 and throughout.
4) Robert Dewhurst
5) Vince Storti
6) Don’t remember his name
“I find your essay provocative on two levels…
First for pointing out the connection between Wieners’ deep awareness of recognized writings, particularly Pound, that have deeply influenced literature as a whole and have influenced his own work in directions that bring elements of those works into meaningful focus for the non-academic world of ‘the street’. He had the foundation, he knew the ‘rules’, but he moved/wrote on a whole other level/way of seeing that didn’t embrace the accepted way of doing things. In other words, he lived his life the only way he could live it even if it left him, so often, ‘on the outside looking in’ . Many folks, including me, were touched by the courage and elegance of his words.