Peter Valente: “Notes on John Wieners’ ‘A Poem for Painters'” (Selected Poems 1958-1984), written after reading Bill Berkson’s Sudden Address

Peter Valente

Notes on John Wieners’ “A Poem for Painters”

In “A Poem for Painters,” John Wieners writes:

Paul Klee scratched for seven years
on smoked glass, to develop
his line, LaVigne says, look
at his face! He who has spent
all night drawing mine.

In his diary of 1906, Klee wrote about his “reverse glass paintings,”: “Besides, I moved with the utmost zeal on the smoothest surface, on glass, simplified, threw off ballast, until little or none remained.” Wieners put it this way: “My poems contain no // wilde beastes, no / lady of the lake music / of the spheres, or organ chants.” Robert LaVigne, an American artist associated with the Beats and Avant-Garde scene in San Francisco, stayed with Wieners at the Hotel Wentley [his first collection of poetry, written while at the hotel, was published in 1958, and called The Hotel Wentley Poems, with a cover by LaVigne]. In the quote above, Wieners’ use of the word “line” can apply both to a line of poetry (the poet working on his line), as well as to color (LaVigne working on his paintings, perfecting his line), thus connecting the work of both painter and poet. Furthermore, as Wieners writes LaVigne draws him; poetry and painting are in a symbiotic relationship. Bill Berkson, in Sudden Address (Cuneiform Press, 2010), writes “Poetry and Painting – the ‘interrelation of the arts’ happens when everyone has to take their ideas out for a walk.” In the following lines, Wieners’ description of the rising sun over the rooftops and his emotional state occur in terms of color:

The sun also
rises on the rooftops, beginning
w/ violet. I begin in blue
knowing we are cool.

Berkson, quoting Gertrude Stein, writes, “A writer should write with his eyes.” The sun begins with violet and furthermore, Wieners writes, “I begin in blue / knowing why we are cool.” “Blue” suggests a state of despair but to “begin in blue” also suggests Wieners is using language as a painter would; he is speaking about the tone of the poem as expressing an emotional state. Here “knowing” is also related to the color “blue,” but this is not intellectual knowledge but self-knowledge, gnosis.

The poets and painters at this time (50s and 60s) also were concerned with the new possibilities of space in their works. Gone was the concern with realism in painting or meter in poetry. Charles Olson famously wrote, “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America.” Helen Frankenthaler, an American abstract expressionist painter, has spoken of being inspired by Jackson Pollock to take the canvas off the wall and place in on the floor; this closes the gap between the artist and the canvas, making the body, with its movements, central in the creation of the painting; no longer upright, vertical, distant, but rather flat, horizontal, on the ground, as the canvas is, the artist’s body is now closer to open space of the canvas; in fact, Frankenthaler has spoken of how it seemed as though, the canvas being on the ground, the space was opening up all around her. The classic image of the painter as distant from the painting, in contemplation of the blank canvas with his palette in hand, a kind of romantic conceit, as he asserted his dominance over nature, over the materials, is now replaced by the painter or poet entering the very chaos of the white canvas (the page), and the risk that this involves; it is a more physical relation to painting, to color. As Mallarme said to Degas: “… poems are made with words, not ideas.”

Now, we can begin to speak of the scale of the poem, in the same sense as we would speak of a painting, in terms of the “live aspect of size in painting.” Here is the block of prose-like poetry that signals a change in scale from what came before:

South of Mission, Seattle,
over the Sierra Mountains,
the Middle West and Michigan,
moving east again, easy
coming into Chicago and
the cattle country, calling
to each other over canyons,
careful not to be caught
at night, they are still out,
the destroyers, and down
into the South, familiar land,
lush places, blue mountains
of Carolina, into Black Mountain
and you can sleep out, or
straight across into States

The passage is literally and figuratively, “a real travelogue in scale.” In his imagination, Wieners moves from the enclosed space of the Hotel Wentley to the wide open fields of America; it is a trajectory from the local to the universal; from the self to the cosmos, and ultimately, in the poem, from the “I” to the “We.” One can say that the scale of the poem grew larger to encompass a wider field of emotional experience. Bill Berkson writes:

There’s an ‘everything’ principle – the universal ‘everything’ principle – that poetry and painting share. It has to do with including. Fairfield Porter says, ‘There is an elementary principle of organization in any art that nothing gets in anything else’s way, and everything is at its own limit of possibilities [Weiners writes “Let me ramble here. / yet stay within my own yardlines.”] Any divergence from the ‘everything’ principle is obfuscation, which often is necessary as a ground swell, to add surface

This divergence, or shift in scale, away from the lyrical and emotional intensity of the previous lines, gives the poem a surface, a weight; the block of prose is like a broad stroke of the brush, saturated with color, across the canvas; this unifies or “connects the dots” between the lyrical passages and the block of prose-like poetry, opening up the field of the poem. Furthermore, Berkson, speaking of the American painter, Phillip Guston, writes: “Everything is standing stock-still in the freeze-frame, but ‘we can move everywhere as in life.’” In Wieners poem, the block of poetry is like a freeze-frame, a way of grounding the poem, that changes the rhythm, and slows down the tempo of the poem. It is “respect for the whole inexhaustible but truly personal limited surface of what’s at hand.” Wieners writes,

This nation is so large, like
our hands, our love it lives
with no lover, looking only
for the beloved, back home
into the heart, New York,
New England, Vermont green
mountains, and Massachusetts
my city, Boston and the sea.
Again to smell what this calm
ocean cannot tell us. The seasons.
Only the heart remembers
and records in words
of works
we lay down for those men
who can come to them.

Here, Wieners’ “orientation to things and space” is “something you can see as a passing flash in everyday life …” It is a view from the car as it is travelling on the highway; the flashing images evoke memories of home and of travel. But the description of geographical space shifts to a lyrical intensity, personal space; it is a change in perspective, tone.  Furthermore, “the approach is immediate and unfussed. No obfuscation. The subject is simple and inexhaustible; the whole image strikes the eye and mind instantly in equal measure like a natural light.”

Berkson, writing about Frank O’Hara, says, “If the poem has a hero, as it sometimes flirtatiously proclaims, that person is astir in his own and the worlds simultaneities – all shifters and syntax, sometimes dangerously overboard: ‘A hit? Ergo swim.’” This is what you do when, as Ted Berrigan, quoted by Berkson, writes, “The fucking enemy shows up.” In “A Poem for Vipers” Wieners writes “Soon I know the fuzz will / interrupt, will arrest Jimmy and / I will be placed on probation. The poem / does not lie to us.” Bill Berkson writes, in “History and Truth,”

Frank O’Hara’s most cogent political statement, ‘The truth is face to face’ serves by extension for the truth of art and poetry. Truth is face to face with every facet – or nuance – of fact. By nuance, every word of a poem gathers the poem’s surface energy

Wieners writes: “Let us stay with what we know.” The fact of the poem itself is truth; it does not lie to us. The fact of his impending arrest, presumably for possession of drugs or homosexuality, is faced head on, accepted even as the fate for such as himself, the poète maudit, since he will be “placed on probation.” He knows the score. Wieners concludes the poem in this way: “We lie under / its law [the poem], alive in the glamour of this hour / able to enter into the sacred places / of his dark people, who carry secrets / glassed in their eyes and hide words / under the coats of their tongue.” The secret is in the “eyes” and words are hidden under the tongue. Berkson writes, quoting Robert Smithson, “The word color at its origin means to ‘cover’ or ‘hide’; matter eats up light and covers it with a confusion of color.” He is, of course, talking about painting, but here in Wieners’ poem, the mouth is closed, and the secret is contained in the visual; presumably the eyes are glassy because of the influence of drugs or tears. In the latter case, the source of the pain is kept a secret, hidden from the light.

In “Poem for Painters” Weiners is adept at the long shot and the close up, as well as the tracking shot, as the scale shifts from the local to the universal. Wieners confronts the poem face to face. The language is not stationary but fluid, altering in scale; it does not simulate a classical painting or poem where the eye is guided in its movement; the movement of the eye does not follow a set pattern; it is governed by the breath not the meter, not by fixed geometrical space. The placement of the words on the page suggests the extension of the line in a painterly manner:

At last the game is over
and the line lengthens.

The extension of the line to the right of the page is not merely an affect; it shows, in a subtle visual way, that the line has changed, moved, shifted the scale of the poem. These visual effects have their analogue in painting. Berkson writes, “Everything you believe about space is so Latinate.” In Braque and Others: Selected Art Writings of Trevor Winkfield (1990-2009), Winkfield, a British artist writes, “Braque rightly dismissed Renaissance perspective as a ‘ghastly mistake.’”Wieners opened up the space of the poem, following Olson’s dictum: “the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.”

At the same time novelists were trying to break away from the 19th century novel, and its idea of fully developed characters and a narrative based on clearly defined causes and effects; these included Fielding Dawson, Michael Rumaker, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Robert Creeley, Paul Metcalf and later, Kathy Acker and her use of collage, and many others, including Wieners himself, in his occasional prose writings, such as “A Superficial Estimation” or “Cultural Affairs in Boston.” But a discussion of this is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say, the work of poets, painters, and novelists were undergoing a radical change in the 50s and 60s and later in the late 70s. “A Poem for Painters,” written in 1958 is a central and important poem, in this respect, and was included in Weiners’ first collection of poetry.

My reading of Bill Berkson’s Sudden Address was the inspiration for this essay. It is his reading of the relation between poetry and painting that gave rise to my thinking about Wieners’ poem in a new light, in relation to painting. In fact, many of the quotes above, from Sudden Address, dealing with painters like Phillip Guston, or poets like Frank O’Hara, applied to Wieners’ poem. This is not surprising since many of the poets and painters were working out new ideas at this time, whether it was at Black Mountain College or in San Francisco or in the New York School. Wieners could have been speaking for all of them when he wrote:  “I go out of bounds // without defense, oh attack.” Many poets such as James Schuyler and Barbara Guest wrote for art magazines. I am also reminded, more recently, of Baffling Means, a collaboration between Clark Coolidge and Phillip Guston, published in 1991. But, finally, the connection between poetry and painting, as Berkson writes, “lies elsewhere, with materials which criticism is ever hard put to recognize, because criticism most often doesn’t, as art will, talk about everything at once.”

Peter Valente is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of eleven full length books. Forthcoming is a collection of essays, Essays on the Peripheries (Punctum, 2021), and his translation of Nicolas Pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2022). He’s presently working on editing a book on Harry Smith.

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