SOLITARY PLEASURE : SELECTED POEMS, JOURNALS AND EPHEMERA
By John Wieners
Pilot Press. 136 pages. £12. ISBN 987-1-73977029-7-7
A BOOK OF MUSIC
By Jack Spicer
Pilot Press. 18 pages (unnumbered). £8. ISBN 978-1-7393649-0-8
Reviewed by Jim Burns
It seems a long time since I first came across the work of John Wieners and Jack Spicer in the pages of little magazines coming from the United States, And they were both in what became almost a reference book for those of us interested in what was happening in New York and San Francisco ; The New American Writing 1945-1960 (Grove Press New York, 1960). It was thanks to that book I got hold of a copy of Wieners’ The Hotel Wentley Poems (Auerhahn Press, San Francisco, 1958).
Not everything I read in the books and magazines that arrived was to my liking, and some of it frankly left me confused. But compared to most of what I saw in British publications it was “interesting”, and that’s always been a key word in my evaluation of literature. Not is it “good” or “bad” but is it “interesting”? I don’t mind a poem being flawed if it promises something a little different, but find it hard to stay involved with the well-written but conventional verse that appears so often in print.
John Wieners, born 1934, always struck me as the kind of poet who, whatever else he was, was never dull. His work was often uneven and it could occasionally come across as more like notes, asides, comments. The trick was, I always thought, to not differentiate too much between the poetry and the prose, the shaped pieces and what might be construed as the casual. In other words, it was best to take the writing as a whole and not look for the kind of poem that is likely to get into anthologies. Wieners did have some that fit into that category and can stand alone, but I still maintain that they have more to offer when seen in the wider context of his work.
Perhaps I ought to qualify some of what I’ve said in the preceding paragraph by pointing out that Wieners did appear in a couple of anthologies of Beat-related writing. Ann Charters’ The Penguin Book of the Beats (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1993) had several poems from The Hotel Wentley Poems, as did Anne Waldman’s The Beat Book (Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1996). It could be that they lend themselves to being anthologised more than some of Wieners’ later work, their structures being relatively formal, their narratives fairly straightforward. It could also be that the fact of them being written in San Francisco when the Beat outbreak was at its height qualifies the poems for inclusion in a Beat framework.
That’s why Solitary Pleasure is welcome, especially now when I suspect his work is little known in Britain. It did have some currency here in the 1960s and 1970s, and there was a collection, Nerves, published by Cape Goliard in 1970, and a Selected Poems from Jonathan Cape in 1972, but it was usually necessary to depend on imports from America if one wanted to read Wieners over the years. Luckily, the splendid Black Sparrow Press published large collections in the 1980s. And now Solitary Pleasure will, I hope, encourage British readers to look at his work. It provides a selection of his poems and combines them with excerpts from his journals and some odds and ends. Intensely personal, the effect is to throw light on Wieners’ life, his addiction to drugs (“Take this curse off/Of early death and drugs”, says a 1969 poem), his involvements in the gay world, his breakdowns, and his poverty. Wieners never got rich from poetry. And he lived his later years in quite basic circumstances..
I’ve deliberately not quoted lines from his poems, because to do so would, I feel, give an unsatisfactory impression of his work. It really does need to be read in context. The same might be said of Jack Spicer, and the poems in A Book of Music depend on each other for their cumulative effect. It’s a small book, with the poems seemingly dating from 1958 or so, but only published as a collection in 1969 by White Rabbit Press. I came across a brief reference to A Book of Music, which appears to have been known to Spicer’s friends and associates in San Francisco in the late-1950s, in the biography by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (Wesleyan University Press, Hanover, 1988).
From all accounts, Spicer was not the easiest person in the world to get along with. He could be argumentative – did his alcoholism have anything to do with this? - and carried on feuds with other poets. It seems he was misogynistic and expressed racist opinions at times. I don’t want to say too much about those aspects of his character – the aforementioned biography deals with them in detail – but there is a telling quote about a visit Spicer made to New York which, someone said, “brought out all the most unlikable parts of Spicer - his emotional rigidity, his scorn, and the latent, and hideous, anti-semitism”.
Leaving all that aside, and none of it is evident in the poems in A Book of Music, it’s evident that Spicer, like Wieners, had a troubled life, some of it resulting from the tensions he experienced as a gay man in what was a fundamentally hostile society. Jack Spicer (born 1925) died in the poverty ward of a San Francisco hospital in 1965. John Wieners (born1934), outlived him and died in a Boston hospital in 2002.
It’s good to see these two books in print. I doubt that Spicer’s poetry will ever be popular, or perhaps even read by more than a few scholars or literary historians interested in what was happening on the West Coast in the late-1950s and early-1960s. John Wieners has a greater chance of being remembered. He published on a wider basis with both poetry and prose, though we shouldn’t overlook Spicer’s posthumously published detective novel, The Tower of Babel (Talisman House, Hoboken, 1994).