By John Wieners – 1934-2002
Promise you wont forget
each time we met
we kept our clothes on
despite obvious intentions
to take them off,
seldom kissed or even slept,
talked to spend desire,
worn exhausted from regret.
Continue our relationship apart
under surveillance, torture, persecuted
confinement’s theft; no must or sudden blows
when embodied spirits mingled
despite fall’s knock
we rode the great divide
of falsehood, hunger and last year
About the Poem
Reading this poem, I think we all know what John Wieners is talking about: gay sex in public. When the poem was written in 1968, Wieners had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals. In the 1960s, homosexuality was still illegal and considered a mental illness. Wieners was institutionalized again in 1969, and at least once more in 1972. Massachusetts law justified involuntary hospitalization for those who conducted themselves “in a manner which clearly violates the established laws, ordinances, conventions, or morals of the community.” Gay men became a scapegoat for mental health experimentation. The torture and persecution he alludes to in the poem included insulin coma therapy, electroshock treatment, and the experimental use of barbiturates and sedatives.
Living with his parents in Massachusetts in the later 1960s, Wieners had no access to private property where he could engage in sex. His only recourse was to have sex in public places and try not to get caught. In Michael Rumaker’s memoir of his time in San Francisco with a literary crowd which included Wieners, he makes clear the dangers in 1958–1959:
…the Morals Squad was everywhere, and the entrapment of gay males in the streets, the parks, and in numerous public places was a constant fear and common occurrence. Often the most handsome, hung, desirable-looking cops were used for the plainclothes operations. I often wondered who did the selecting.
While the above passage is about San Francisco, life for gay men was not much different in New York City or Boston in the late 1960s.
About the Poet
John Wieners was born on January 6, 1934, in Milton, Massachusetts. After graduating from Boston College in 1954, Wieners heard Charles Olson give a reading at the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston. Inspired by Olson’s work, Wieners spent a year at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he studied with Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan.
After the closing of Black Mountain College in 1956, Wieners briefly returned to Boston and founded the small magazine Measure (published from 1957–62) before relocating to San Francisco in 1958. It was there that he published his first book, The Hotel Wentley Poems (Auerhahn Press, 1958). The book became known for its frankness, as it openly addressed homosexuality and drug use, subjects Wieners became known for writing about in his later works as well.
Wieners, who worked at City Lights and became acquainted with poets as diverse as Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara, lived on the periphery of several movements from the 1950s—the Beat Generation, the Black Mountain School, the New York School, and the San Francisco Renaissance—and would be granted cult status in the poetry community.
In 1960, Wieners returned to the East Coast, and for the next few years he spent time in both Boston and New York City, where he shared an apartment with Beat poet Herbert Huncke and managed and acted in the production of three of his plays at the Judson Poets Theater. At the invitation of Olson, then the Chair of Poetics at SUNY Buffalo, Wieners enrolled in the school’s graduate program before eventually returning to Boston.
In the 1970s, Wieners continued to write, despite periods of institutionalization. Throughout his life, Wieners was in and out of institutions due to his drug abuse. His 1969 collection, Asylum Poems (Angel Hair Books), was written while he was in an institution. Wieners lived and wrote in Boston’s Beacon Hill for over thirty years, until his death on March 1, 2002.
May 11th, 2023 at 8:06 am
Thank you so much for this. I had not heard of Wieners, and it is always a pleasure to learn about a new and interesting writer. I only wish his life had been a little happier.