'The most beautiful and truest'

Collecting the letters of John Wieners

Like many (most?) of us, I fell in love with the poetry of John Wieners the minute I plunged into The Hotel Wentley Poems, its palpable ache and epic scope — I was knocked out by this twenty-four-year-old lyric poet in a rundown hotel making the beyond-audacious declaration that he was “taking away / from God his sound.” I read the poems in rapid succession, then again and again, slower each time. I’d entered my doctoral program — entered the room — intending to focus on nineteenth-century American fiction, but by the time I went home I’d blown through Wentley and Ace of Pentacles and I knew that whatever my dissertation wound up being, it was going to be centered on the work of John Wieners.

After a brief flash of anger — how did I go thirty-four years (at the time) and not hear about John Wieners? Who failed to tell me? Who can I blame? — I got to work, continually shocked at the dearth of critical attention and available material. I read all the books of poetry and journals — the twisted lyricism of 707 Scott Street, Bootstrap Press’s amazing Book of Prophecies and Kidnap Notes Next — but from there, if I wanted more of John Wieners I had to go into the Special Collections at the million libraries where his letters and journals are scattered. His own papers are held in several different collections — most notably at Boston College, the University of Delaware, Syracuse University, and the University of Connecticut — but the real corpus of his writing, the letters he sent out constantly, are dispersed far beyond those libraries, hidden in other writers’ papers and private collections.

I started with the easiest and, in many ways, most central correspondence for my research, that between Wieners and his mentor Charles Olson. Their letters are split between two collections — Wieners’s letters to Olson are in the latter’s papers at Connecticut, and Olson’s own letters are in Wieners’s papers at Boston College — and so gathering them was no problem (my friend and college Robert Dewhurst, who’s currently gathering Wieners poems for a Collected Poems, helped me with reproductions from Boston that I was unable to get) — the only real trouble was Olson’s notoriously cryptic handwriting. It took a crew of readers and code-breakers to help me transcribe those letters, a process less akin to transcription than to argument-based graphomancy. We preserved one postcard of Olson’s handwriting in the chapbook,[1] when he replied to Wieners immediately after reading “Acts of Youth” to say that it was “one of the most beautiful and finest of poems I have ever read.” Well, that’s what we thought it said; I got a letter from Ralph Maud after he got the chapbooks, telling me, based on the facsimile of the postcard, that he was certain Olson had written not “finest” but “truest.” I looked at it again and he was of course correct — it should read “Ages of Youth” (Olson misremembered the title, and Wieners preserved the mistake as the poem’s section title in Ace of Pentacles) “is one of the most beautiful and truest of poems I have ever read.”

There are two moments in the Wieners-Olson letters that really stand out for me. The first concerns that tour de force, “Acts of Youth,” and the circumstances of its creation. Wieners writes on December 5, 1961, anxious about traveling to New York to see a play of his performed (he hadn’t traveled in a year, after a cross-country road trip from San Francisco to Boston ended with his forced institutionalization); a few weeks later he writes Olson again, saying that all went well, and that he’d written a poem (dated at the bottom, December 5, 1961) that he said “had merit in places.” This was “Acts of Youth,” and Olson’s reply was the postcard quoted above.

The second is from a few years before, before San Francisco and Wentley, when twenty-three-year-old Wieners was staying briefly in New York with Frank O’Hara and his longtime friend and roommate Joe LeSueur in 1957. O’Hara and Wieners had met the prior year, when they both worked on the same play at the Poets’ Theater in Cambridge, and became fast friends. LeSueur recounted their visit from the colorful young poet, quoted in Brad Gooch’s excellent O’Hara biography City Poet:

John went to do some sort of research at the Forty-Second Street public library while we went to see The Curse of Frankenstein at Loew’s Sheridan. That evening John, high on Benzedrine, came home and told us about the horrifying, hallucinatory experience he’d had at the library. Later I said to Frank, “Isn’t it funny, we go to a horror movie and don’t feel a thing and John goes to the library and is scared out of his wits.”[2]

O’Hara commemorated that visit from twenty-three-year-old Wieners in “To a Young Poet,” in which he recounts that “while we are seeing The Curse of Frankenstein he / sits in / the 42nd Street Library, reading about Sumerians.”

The day after the epic trip to the library, Wieners wrote to Olson to report back on his research, a spiral out from Sumerian, Egyptian, and Tinguian mythology to astrological formations and out to the streets of New York beyond the library, the patterns of jewels in the windows at Tiffany’s, the calls of random passers-by. It’s a dizzying letter, and in the context of the Wieners-Olson letters the letter can be seen for what it is: a scene of pedagogy, of the eager student back to the teacher, expanding on the work of the classroom. In this case, the classroom was the one that gave birth to “The Special View of History” and “The Curriculum of the Soul,” and so it is natural — thrilling, really — to see the student taking the lessons in such reckless, amphetamine-fueled, brilliant webs of meaning. It is, in my opinion, the greatest term paper ever submitted:

[New York City]
Sept 22 & 23 1957[3]

Dear Charles:

Just back from 8 hrs with near every book S Noah-Kramer[4] ever wrote, at NY PLib. Except he aint no noah. I cant understand why the Sumerians did so little for him, that he can impose on them : find as fault their lack of ‘epistemology’ cause & effect, ‘logic’. Of course, this is mainly From the Tablets of Sumer (Falcon’s Wing Press 1956) & it is a write down. The one done 12 yrs earlier, which I hope I’ll get tomorrow, for the texts (translations alone), better. that’s the only value of his labor, what he makes available. Not one phrase from the man himself. Which is harsh, but 8 solid hours, is too long to be kept waiting. When I should have looked only for their words.

                                                                                                                                             I remember some of the loveliest poems being told by you before. When Inanna lost it in the garden.

The main purpose of this is to serve as cover for the enclosed, which is the prize. They told me you wouldnt have reproductions in the house, but I want you to see this anyway. So lucky to have it at all. The original is possibly a 1/5th larger. Beside it/ the only other of his I could find:  THE PRESENTATION IN THE TEMPLE.  Would you say that is a capella in the upper left corner of PARADISE?

I spent last night again on da capo & it is much better. But still want to wait a few days before sending.  I want you to know how much I feel you laid on me (out for me) last Tuesday & Wednesday. The Rimbaud of mine is not improved turning into paragraphs, form like Illum. but da capo has come full swerve from this that’s it’s more packed/ but no immediate hooks for any reader, I fear.

I have thgt. too along the way, that Orion: O’Ryan is of the secret of secrets. I want you to know this, that whatever I might stumble on shall not be revealed. I agree, you pass it through the work, until someone else makes breaks its surface or // thru their work // then no one [arrow from “thru their work” to:] into the source. else shall be turned on the stars [arrow down to bottom of page, where he’s handwritten: until then no one else shall be turned your stars (i.e. per me)]. Ican find nothing encouraging out about Capricorn, & wonder how I should have adopted him, so strong. Only the horn, and the Blood that breaks thru. Like Dionysius’. No ATTENTION AT ALL TO RITE IN Kramer! Which is what I want. Dates, and objects, and how often and many. Like we have it so clear from the Indians, the little I know. Orion can lead you. (I only read #2); leads you into as much field … “Capricorn is part of the earthly triad; it is the place of the creation of Saturn (with Aquarius); it governs the thighs and knees.” I wd rather be under Aries’ horn,

(OH YES: it is covered wagon:)    Perseus and mother put into chest and thrown into the sea, the children (Zeus, etc) of Uranus imprisoned in the body of their mother, the earth. That is an actual:chronos
-apochtastasis (?) fact
Or am I taking it wrong. That being locked
up with them, does not prove they are carried
in us. Except we know they are. I wrote something
long time ago, (12 mos.) about the way I hold my cigarette like She does. over to Page II

And I will send that. Once I can get a corner out there. Also on the Boston train from Gloucester, I wrote like crazy, which I’ll send. Maybe the cigarette one tonight. Just throw it away afterwards.

Did you know this? I dont see how so confidently now but it does bring Pharmakos: Fool together, a little.

“Hebrews knew him as Kesil, the Foolish or Self-Confident, or as Gibbor, the Giant, identified with Nimrod and tied to the heavens for impiety.”

And “Peruvians believe a criminal held in by two condors”

This morning with the dawn I went out and begin walking up
Fifth Avenue from Washington Square, where they yelled at me: “ Oh Ham-let!
                                                                                                                         Oh phelia  ”

but I went on from one window to the next, passed along. Until I came to Tiffany’s #727, and they have a relatively small window for jewels, etc. Only each one had every detail like an undeveloped negative drops OF THE ZODIAC. It filled six windows. It is simply that, I think. A process used on an some original MAP, but I am going back tomorrow, Monday. And try to talk me into one, which I will send to you. It was as laid / more than eye wants / out like Roxbury-Malden in Earth’s orbit, eclipitica, and precise drawings of every constellation, the 1st and 2nd magnitudes carried jewels (well, the first one of any sort of the sky I have ever seen.) That the face on the prow of ARGOS is you! The mouth no, not as much.

The sun does enter the world again under our sign, but Aries it says ‘early mythologies identify the Ram with Zeus, with AMMON, the ram god of Egypt.’

And look, why RA died. But you told us that before. I have my parents, both kinds.  It’s the Grand ones I’m looking for, that it is the time now for them to begin to hide or as Miss Stein:

“When I grow up, you can be the old Grandfather and come live with us!”


This is all there is on alan as I first got it. But I find now: the Hebrew means (tho out of use): small-eared dog.
                                       “alan Tinguian  (Philippine Islands)”
“Spirits, half-human, half-bird with toes and fingers reversed. They are sometimes mischievous or hostile, but are usually friendly.(?) They are described as hanging, bat-like from trees and as living in forests. In Tinguian mythology and folk tales they appear as foster-mothers of the leading characters and are pictured frequently as living in houses of gold.”

Also now that I think of it, that our goat must come in with some blood on his hoof or horn from the sacrifice of the king → of Saturn the very day same day → or one before. Again, tho, I mix the movement of the stars, with myths surrounding them. That the bird alan might have something hidden in the salaman-der “sometimes a bird, living in fire”

And Rigel (you again must know) sometimes is The Foot in the Mud also known as The Double Axe. That I just see this: “In astrology, Capricorn {→ I somehow see him (Le Fou) as unable to fall — unless he cuts his own foot off} is a feminine nocturnal sign, movable, cardinal, and melancholy, and in nature, cold, dry and earthy. The mansion of Saturn and the exaltation of Mars” (All those adjectives, I mistrust it.) Plus I don’t like “her” clothes. But there are leads.


Please pardon the mess — it is such a displeasure to read. But I am in PO across from Penn Sta. On the way out.

Last night the living nightmare, so today trembles.
from Union Square, the rain on the newspaper stand
we sat in it.

There was a stakeout to bag junkys. And, I amble in after typing this. Alan’s red shirt was my banner. I joined the confederates again. No one was busted. // Much love



1. “the sea under the house:” The Selected Correspondence of John Wieners and Charles Olson, ed. Michael Seth Stewart, 2 vols., Lost & Found Series III, May 2012.

2. Brad Gooch, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (New York: Knopf, 1993), 301.

3. Series II, Folder 220, Charles Olson Research Collection, Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries. Reprinted by permission of the Charles Olson Estate.

4. Samuel Noah Kramer (1897–1990), Ukrainian-born American scholar whose work in Sumerian mythology was integral to Olson’s sense of history.