AT AGE 21, John Wieners (1934–2002) was high on poetry. The Black Mountain College student wrote to a friend in the spring of 1955, “I just know now that as long as I live I will be a poet, that my life, way of and function of, will be the writing of poetry, as long as it lasts.”
Wieners’ teacher Charles Olson had fueled his ambitions a few days earlier. During a writing class, the young man listened in stunned amazement as Olson lauded his poetry and the poet himself, in Wieners’ quotation of his teacher, for “possessing the talent to convert experience into form.” To top it off, Olson showed up at his room the next morning and “talked with me for two hours, talked not in the way that if you work hard you will be a poet someday, but that if you work hard you will be a better poet than you are now.” Wieners worshiped Olson, whose essay “Projective Verse” he considered a breakthrough in poetics. In the heady days of their early acquaintance, Wieners declared Olson to be “the only Man to have said anything new or fresh about Poetry—since before Pound.” The exacting, hard-drinking Olson would become his close friend and mentor.
The letters Wieners wrote from Black Mountain, located in western North Carolina, are among the most engaging in Yours Presently, showing him in his youth, an out gay man full of angst and ambition, revved up on art and raring to meet his destiny. Sadly, there would be much difficulty ahead, as he abused drugs in imitative pursuit of Rimbaud’s “derangement of the senses” and suffered recurring bouts of mental illness that landed him in one hospital after another.
Hilary Holladay is the author of The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography (2020).