Yours Presently: The Selected Letters of John Wieners
Edited by Michael Seth Stewart
University of New Mexico Press ($75)
Momentous Inconclusions: The Life and Work of Larry Eigner
Edited by Jennifer Bartlett and George Hart
University of New Mexico Press ($75)
by Patrick James Dunagan
Whether or not the idea of a Black Mountain School of American poetry should actually exist is rather moot. It serves quite well as a term for grouping the poets in attendance during—as well as those associated with publishing activities surrounding—the final years of Black Mountain College circa 1951-54, when direction of the rural North Carolina institution fell to poet Charles Olson. The known triumvirate of the Black Mountain School has Olson at its center buttressed by Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan (both of whom taught at the college, however briefly, alongside Olson). Any number of poets are available for broadening the huddle, but no matter how large that huddle grows to be, poets Larry Eigner and John Wieners will always remain near its center.
Olson served as a major influence on the work of both Eigner and Wieners, though they provide widely differing examples of what qualifies one to be part of the Black Mountain School. Both appear in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry: 1945-1960, the common reference point for the idea of there being a Black Mountain School, but Allen doesn’t place Wieners under the “Black Mountain,” subheading. Instead he puts him in his final, unclassified grouping of poets, despite the fact that a young Wieners was a star in Olson’s classroom at Black Mountain. This has led to some confusion, such as Jonathan C. Creasy’s mistaken editorial claim in his Introduction to Black Mountain Poems (New Directions, 2019) that Wieners isn’t included in Allen’s anthology at all. On the other hand, Allen does place Eigner under Black Mountain even though Eigner never came anywhere near Black Mountain’s campus. Eigner’s Black Mountain connections derive from the influence of Olson and others on his work, along with his associations via correspondence and where he published.
For poets coming of age in the 1950s, correspondence proved essential to sustaining and growing their friendships and associations. Yours Presently: The Selected Letters of John Wieners opens with his missives from Black Mountain to his friend and former classmate Robert Greene from Boston College. Attentively detailed, these letters are both gossipy reports on fellow students and various events happening at the college and demonstrative of the strength of Wieners’s self-introspection. Writing to Greene on May 24, 1955, he describes presenting two poems in a class of Olson’s:
I brought in two poems, a love poem, which begins, “I have wanted to write a love poem like the river merchant’s,’” and another, an address to Hart Crane and Harry Crosby, two suicides. I did not work hard on them, especially the suicide one, as it was written while I was stinking on Friday, and written while I was in tears up to my knees. I brought them to class last night, read them in my turn . . . and I asked a question: I would like to know how I can stop writing poems like this: Olson laughed and laughed, he said you never can, and you better not. He asked me what I meant, and I answered with: preoccupation with myself. The class then launched into them. In a second, failure is turned into success, at least for other people. Olson then began answering my question. I don’t remember what he said in quotes, but he talks about the intensity, me John Wieners, the desire, the trouble in the poems, that the use of language is my image, on and on, talking as if I am a poet, possessing the talent to convert experience into form. We went to Peek’s afterward, and I could hear him talking up the other end of the table about the emotion in the poems.
Readers of Wieners will likely recognize this mention of the poem “Hart Crane, Harry Crosby” found in Wieners’s Cultural Affairs in Boston: Poetry and Prose, 1956-1985 (Black Sparrow Press, 1988), as it makes for a gripping read, demonstrating Wieners’s tremendous power, as Olson says, to “convert experience into form.” As an out gay man, Wieners never held back from being forthright in his poems, expressing his sexuality as part of the dauntless gambit with candor at play in his work. Inclusion of unpublished poems is a definite highlight of these letters, and the other poem mentioned is an example; until now unpublished, it can be found a couple pages later in a letter to Michael Rumaker wherein it is entitled “Ode to the Instrument.”
From there the letters quickly expand, covering the erratic geographical movements Wieners made throughout the first half of his adult life. Always with Boston as home base, he trekked from Black Mountain to New York City out to San Francisco before returning East up to Gloucester and on to Buffalo. The majority of letters contained in this collection span this fifteen-year (1955-1969) period of frequent relocations and general trials. A mere thirty pages of letters date from 1970 to 1997; it is somewhat unclear if this dearth is due to an actual falling off of correspondence by Wieners or merely reflects what’s currently available in archives.
As the letters amply testify, by 1970 Wieners had already had a wildly eventful life. He had been on and off hard drugs multiple times and institutionalized on several occasions for months on end. He courted and was courted by poets across the communities represented in Allen’s anthology and beyond. He edited his own magazine, Measure, which ran three issues chock full of notable friends and associates. He taught university while earning his MA in Buffalo, then traveled to Europe for a reading at the renowned International Arts Festival in Spoleto in 1965. He suffered heartbreak at the hands of wealthy arts patron Panna Grady, fantasized a bizarrely and disturbingly detailed non-existent sadomasochistic relationship with Creeley into being, and published several collections of poetry with small presses to much acclaim. By contrast, from the 1970s until his death he infrequently traveled outside of Boston, published new work less and less, and focused more on his queer activism, particularly on the local level. No matter how scorched, he lived a gloriously charged life of the imagination.
Larry Eigner embarked upon a different yet parallel track after hearing poet and editor Cid Corman’s Boston radio show This is Poetry in the fall of 1949. While Corman was never at Black Mountain, he corresponded with and published several of the associated poets in his literary magazine Origin. As a result, when Eigner fired off a postcard “disagreeing with the non-declamatory way Corman presented the work of Yeats,” it proved vital to his coming into the Black Mountain orbit and “started a nearly forty-year relationship.” Momentous Inconclusions: The Life and Work of Larry Eigner provides engaging and wide-ranging consideration of the poet’s prolific adventure in poetry. Gathering together freshly written essays by eight contributors covering an array of topics, along with a short (yet meaty and diverse) selection of letters by Eigner spanning 1953-1992, it serves as an excellent companion commentary to Stanford University Press’s four-volume Collected Poems (2010).
Similar to Wieners, Eigner’s work arose directly from Olson’s example and encouragement. As Barrett Watten affirms, “Eigner’s work is the prototype of [Olson’s] projective verse.” He shares the same seemingly inborn ability to “convert experience into form” that Olson applauded in Wieners at Black Mountain. Marie Landau describes one feature of Eigner’s success achieving this effect as deriving from challenging and transforming the traditional autobiographical lens of the lyric. The act of observation at the heart of his poetry is driven by this shift in attentiveness away from the egocentrism commonly found in Occidental history. Eigner’s poems also possess a haiku-like clarity for capturing the passing moment. Linda Russo comes strikingly close to echoing descriptions of Japanese poetic traditions when she comments: “Listening is one form of bodily registering, of creating a connected situatedness, and Eigner’s poems bear witness to a long history of open window listening.” The open window shows the world and Eigner, with discretionary discernment, allows incidentals of that world to enter into his poems.
In a footnote Russo further remarks on Eigner’s being paraplegic: “he had to extend himself outside of ‘himself’ as a physical phenomenon—a gesture that translates into a poetics.” This is not to say Eigner’s condition defined his poetry, but he discovered and pursued the means within himself to sidestep any physical limitation. Eigner’s poetry moves viscerally upon the page, sounding out in its spatial engagements with a light and open airiness. Seth Forrest argues for listening to the silent, inner attributes of Eigner’s soundings upon the page, broadening the often-narrowed understanding of Olson’s emphasis upon breath: “to think of projective verse poems as containing the ‘speech-force’ of orality is to miss the aural dimensions of writing entirely.”
Offering “writing advice” in a 1975 letter to his young niece, Eigner tosses out this pithy summation for what it all comes down to: “Words and the world.” What else is there to it? What else does the poet make poetry out of but what they hear and see? What else does any finished poem ultimately leave behind? If nothing else, the lives of Eigner and Wieners serve as testaments to the nature of their artistic commitment and the extent to which how they lived remains thoroughly immersed in the poetry they left behind.