On the Hotel Wentley Poems

John Wieners

I admire and am often mesmerized by the poems of John Wieners because they presuppose a music exhilirated--made absolutely alive--by deprivation and, at times, by self-destructiveness. They are "the score of a man's struggle to stay with what is his own."

The Hotel Wentley Poems, Wieners's first book (1958), are available online--all of them. This is a book that should be read in one sitting, and it offers a powerful reading experience. Not quite Beat (although he was feeling beat--out of it, not beatific--and he was in San Francisco at the time he wrote these poems in successive days) and not quite Black Mountain, the poems can be placed in their time and aesthetic context with some pleasure taken by the placer; but they do really well as more generally "New American" or, frankly, contextless, or in the similar/different context of love poetry across the literary ages. I have two favorite passages. One is the seventh and final section of "A poem for painters" and the other is a passage near the end of "A poem for museum goers." The latter movingly situates the speaker (a writer--the author of these very poems) both in the history of art (the art of lovers leaving lovers) and in the desolate present room at the Hotel Wentley, the room of the poem.

Lover leaves lover,
1896, 62 years
later, the men
sit, paws and
jagged depths
under their heads,

Now the season of
the furnished room. Gone
the Grecian walls & the

cypress trees,
plain planks and spider
webs, a bed

only big enough for one,
it looks like a

The speaker didn't want this but he knows how keenly and well the depression has provoked these poems. They're his way out but also his deathbed.

The seventh section of "A poem for painters" needs little explanation. Another magnificent poem about the poem, it puts itself in the tradition of the defense of poesy, by first enumerating what the present poem lacks. Otherwise, the section serves the same purpose as the passage quoted above:

At last. I come to the last defense.

My poems contain no
wilde beestes, no
lady of the lake music
of the spheres, or organ chants,

yet by these lines
I betray what little given me.

One needs no defense.
Only the score of a man's
struggle to stay with
what is his own, what
lies within him to do.

Without which is nothing,
for him or those who hear him
And I come to this,
knowing the waste, leaving

the rest up to love
and its twisted faces
my hands claw out at
only to draw back from the
blood already running there.

Oh come back, whatever heart
you have left. It is my life
you save. The poem is done.

PennSound makes available a recording of Wieners reading of "A poem for painters" (in a pre-published version). The recording of this and other poems was made by Robert Creeley, probably at a Berkeley poetry conference, probably in the summer of 1965.