Fanny Howe reads John Wieners’ “The Acts of Youth”
Poetry of American Identity: A Collection of Field Recordings by Award-winning Contemporary Poets
The Acts of Youth
And with great fear I inhabit the middle of the night What wrecks of the mind await me, what drugs to dull the senses, what little I have left, what more can be taken away? The fear of travelling, of the future without hope or buoy. I must get away from this place and see that there is no fear without me: that it is within unless it be some sudden act or calamity to land me in the hospital, a total wreck, without memory again; or worse still, behind bars. If I could just get out of the country. Some place where one can eat the lotus in peace. For in this country it is terror, poverty awaits; or am I a marked man, my life to be a lesson or experience to those young who would trod the same path, without God unless he be one of justice, to wreak vengeance on the acts committed while young under un- due influence or circumstance. Oh I have always seen my life as drama, patterned after those who met with disaster or doom. Is my mind being taken away me. I have been over the abyss before. What is that ringing in my ears that tells me all is nigh, is naught but the roaring of the winter wind. Woe to those homeless who are out on this night. Woe to those crimes committed from which we can walk away unharmed. So I turn on the light And smoke rings rise in the air. Do not think of the future; there is none. But the formula all great art is made of. Pain and suffering. Give me the strength to bear it, to enter those places where the great animals are caged. And we can live at peace by their side. A bride to the burden that no god imposes but knows we have the means to sustain its force unto the end of our days. For that is what we are made for; for that we are created. Until the dark hours are done. And we rise again in the dawn. Infinite particles of the divine sun, now worshipped in the pitches of the night.
Fanny Howe on John Wieners’ “The Acts of Youth”
Transcription of Commentary
I don’t think this poet would mind having a woman read his work aloud anymore than this woman would mind a man reading my poetry aloud. John Wieners’ poems are the means by which he rescues himself. The poems relieve his anguish as they offer rhythm in the ritual of writing that echoes a lyrical way of thinking. His lines carry contradictions and loops, which he lets stand. The poem is the answer to the questions it asks, but has no resting place. The poem is homeless. There’s no expectation of a sympathetic reader out there to nod with him or of a room full of inquiring poets or critics who will sigh. Wieners is entirely private, inward: a person whose loneliness amounts to the only presence he can recognize. To delineate the outlines of this loneliness is to see it as something embodied in darkness, as itself shedding bits of light. He lays himself bare in order to hear his own hearing clearly.
What he hears is not just himself but those outside who are helpless and tossed. He speaks for the failures in this country, and out of a Catholic identity that’s mysterious to people who don’t understand its codes. Out of insomnia comes self-damnation and fear. What have I done to myself, and what will be done to me? Because of the acts of his youth, the poet is damaged, but will he also be punished for it? Will a hospital—or worse yet, prison—be his destination? As he writes: “For in this country its terror, poverty awaits; or / am I a marked man, my life to be a lesson / or experience to those young who would trod / the same path, without God.” These questions consistently lead him outward towards others, to the poor he prefers. “Woe to the homeless who are out on this night.” They are the ones who trigger the ontological questions he carries with him from poem to poem. In America there is such a thing as a middle class that lasts like a thick glass, but he isn’t of it.
Wieners includes God in his poems as the knower, not the one who acts as judge, avenger, priest or helper. The knower is present and inactive, as is the figure of loneliness, who is taking notes on the sidelines. God and loneliness are one form and one force. “God . . . knows we have the means to sustain its force unto the end of our days.” This force is always suffering and is also, thanks to the peculiarity of his sentencing, “a bride to the burden.” A Catholic’s final identity is the one writing the Wieners poems. It’s an identity of mystics, accomplished through degradation and lowliness, and winding up as a “particle of the divine sun, now/ worshipped in the pitches of the night.” It is blindingly material.
From Selected Poems, 1958-1984 by John Weiners, edited by Raymond Foye.
Reprinted by permission of Black Sparrow Books, an imprint of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.
Copyright © 1986 by John Weiners.
- “The lives of a spirit; Glasstown: where something got broken,” by Fanny Howe (catalog record)
- “Selected poems,” by John Wieners (catalog record)
Fanny Howe (1940- ) was born in Buffalo, New York. She is the author of over twenty books, including poetry collections, novels and short story collections, and collections of essays. Her honors include the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.
Learn more about Fanny Howe at The Poetry Foundation
John Wieners (1934–2002) was born in Boston and educated at Boston College, Black Mountain College, and SUNY Buffalo. He is the author of several poetry collections and books of memoirs and letters, and he was the founder and editor of the literary magazine Measure. A Beat poet and a member of the San Francisco Renaissance, Wieners was the recipient of many honors, including awards from the Poets Foundation and the National Institute of Arts and Letters, as well as a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Learn more about John Wieners at The Poetry Foundation