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Saturday, March 6, 2010

A strange tale of two poets: Ginsberg, Wieners

Old friend Rusty Barnes posted on his FB page that he's become interested in the poet John Wieners and that he may write a piece on Wieners. Great idea! I told Rusty that I have a story to tell about Wieners and Allen Ginsberg. I'm posting it here for all who may be interested in these two American poets:

In the late '60s (school year 1968-69) I was an undergrad at Johns Hopkins and enrolled in one course, poetry writing, in the graduate writing seminars. One of the grad students was a poet named Charles (Charlie) Plymell. Charlie was about 30, a few years older than most of the other grad students. He's had a long career in poetry, and is sometimes cited as a sort of Zelig figure in American poetry, not really famous himself but turning up in so many life stories and anecdotes of other poets. This is another one. Charlie came into the writing seminars with recommendations from ferlinghetti and Ginsberg - he'd hung around the beat scene in SF and was already published in some of the better magazines of the day (Evergreen, if I remember). This set him well apart from and ahead of the rest of us. We looked up to him. And he was the nicest guy imaginable - generous to other writers, encouraging, not stuck up in the least.

Sometime during the year, Ginsberg came to the area to give a reading at Goucher College, our "sister school," about 10 miles away. They did a series of major readings before a very large audience. Charlie of course knew Allen Ginsberg, and said he could maybe get Allen to come into our seminar for a reading. And he did - Allen came in for a two-hour session with the 15 or so of us. He read, talked about his work and about other writers, answered questions - absolutely terrific, smart and personable, totally friendly and encouraging to all of us emerging writers.

Afterward, the head of the seminars, an old gentleman named Elliott Coleman, temperamentally the polar opposite of Ginsberg, offered to pay him - the seminars invited writers in pretty often and paid a modest stipend. Ginsberg - so true to his character - declined, said he was being paid well by Goucher, didn't need the extra money. Coleman was persistent, and Ginsberg suggested that they use the money to invite another writer - helping everyone, including the students. Coleman agreed, and Ginsberg suggested John Wieners.

Wieners had published a few books by then - his latest was a strange book called "Nerves." We'd all read some of his work and were looking forward to the reading. I would say it was the worst reading I have ever heard before or since. He sat at the head of the table, intoned as if he were reading to a stadium full of people, read straight through his work, no questions, nothing. He was shaking with "nerves" I think - it was as if he'd never given a reading in his life. Awful. I felt terrible for him, a suffering man.

Wieners's career, for most part, sputtered after that - he's best known, if at all, by his early works.

About 20 years later, sometime in the late '80s anyway, I was books editor at the Providence Journal when Ginsberg's "Collected Poems" came out in a fine edition from I think Harper & Row. I learned that he was doing a promotional tour, so I eagerly booked an interview with Allen in Boston. I went up with photographer and met Allen in his room at the Four Seasons. He was finishing up a room-service breakfast, and a man sat across the table from him, literally slurping up some eggs - John Wieners.

Ginsberg introduced us and, without telling how memorable the Wieners reading was, I recalled the story of Johns Hopkins. Ginsberg was touched by the memory.

Throughout my interview with him (I think I still have a tape), Allen kept trying to draw Wieners in; for example, I asked Allen which contemporary poets he was reading, he'd answer, then say: Who are you reading, John?

Wieners, sadly, was a totally destroyed man at this time. He looked like an alcoholic street person, ragged and emaciated, with stringy hair and a bald crown. He couldn't answer any question - just kind of giggled and shrugged his shoulders. I'm sure he rarely ate any meal, let alone a room-service breakfast. Oddly, he carried with him a small pb copy of Eliot's "The Cocktail Party." I asked him about it, but he couldn't tell me why he was reading it (I wondered later if Allen had given it to him).

Wieners did not have too much longer to live, sadly.

After the interview, Allen Ginsberg signed my copy of his Collected Poems, noting the date and location, and finally writing: Interview, with John Wieners. Of all my signed books, it's probably my most treasured.

1 comment:

  1. Great story, Elliot. I've heard about many versions of Wieners at this point, and this one is so poignant. Thanks!