Wieners by night (PoemTalk #43)

John Wieners, 'The Acts of Youth'


Ammiel Alcalay, Gary Barwin, and Danny Snelson joined Al Filreis to talk about a poem by John Wieners for which we at PennSound have two recordings. The version used as the basis of this PoemTalk discussion was part of a brief two-poem performance at the Poetry Project in New York, in 1990. (He also read "Confidence" that day.) “The Acts of Youth” was written in the early 1960s and published in Wieners's second book, Ace of Pentacles, in 1964.<--break- />

So here was a late performance of an early poem — a poem, it turns out, that Wieners constantly revised.

What of the second recording of the poem? Well, it had been somewhat buried — if that's the apt term — inside a long recording made by Robert Creeley and given to the PennSound staff by Will Creeley in a box of many reel-to-reel tapes. Wieners had visited Creeley’s ENG 1670 course at Harvard in 1972; the fabulous instructor, sensing the rarity of the occasion, had the characteristic presence of mind to make a recording. The sound quality isn’t perfect, even after digital conversion and enhancement, but one can clearly hear Creeley and Wieners as they try to remember the poem Wieners had earlier mentioned he'd want to recite for the students. This was, of course, “The Acts of Youth.”[1] As Danny Snelson remarks during the PoemTalk discussion, the two readings, that of 1972 and that of 1990, are just about as distinct as could be. In ‘72 Wieners held to the lineation as indicated on the printed page. By ‘90 he was running through every stop sign in a literally breathless performance.

Gary Barwin took the broken meter of the second performance quite seriously, and as a musical exercise — to help him discern the actually quite consistent beat of what must have seemed at St. Mark’s that day an improvisation based on the end-of-tether-ish way Wieners was feeling — Gary put some persistent sound behind the Poetry Project recording. In the PoemTalk show you can hear an excerpt from this, but Al promised that we would give access to the whole thing, so here it is.

Listeners will readily grasp Ammiel Alaclay’s special attachment to the life and work of John Wieners. Which is to say (among other things), Ammiel knew Wieners for many years and his various comments on this remarkable personage provide surely one of the highlights of the PoemTalk series.

PoemTalk was engineered and directed by James LaMarre and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.

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1.  The visit to Creeley’s Harvard class produced a conversation worthy of close study. There’s an 8-minute discussion of the poetry of affect and its relation to the impetus for writing. Then there’s a 3-and-half-minute discussion of Amiri Baraka. and 17 minutes on “homosexuality in poems” and related matters.