Ungrateful city: The collected poems of John Wieners
Dewhurst, Robert Stuart
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John Wieners (1934-2002) was a central figure of the "New American" poetry, whose work has been critically untended since his retirement from public life in the mid-1970s. After graduating from Boston College in 1954, Wieners enrolled in the final class of Black Mountain College and subsequently participated in poetry communities in Boston, San Francisco, New York, and Buffalo throughout the 1950s-1970s. Following the publication in 1975 of Behind the State Capitol: Or Cincinnati Pike, a magnum opus of two-hundred pages, Wieners gradually retired from public view. At the time of his death in 2002, he left behind a disordered literary archive distributed across nearly a dozen public institutions. Despite Wieners's esteem among his contemporaries and influence on postmodern lyric poetry, at present there remains a dearth of scholarship on his work, which may be largely attributed to the complicated condition of his archives, the absence of a critically edited volume of his collected poems, and the limited (primarily anecdotal) nature of his known biography. Ungrateful City: The Collected Poems of John Wieners aims to redress this state of affairs, mounting a literary biography as well as a critical edition of Wieners's collected poems from sustained archival and oral-historical research. Ungrateful City is comprised of two linked but independent parts. Part one, "John Wieners: A Career Biography, 1954-1975," is the first biography of Wieners, focusing on the two most active decades of his writing career. A remarkable aspect of Wieners's biography is the fact that he migrated between the poetic subcultures of Black Mountain College, the San Francisco Renaissance, New York City, Buffalo, and Boston throughout the 1950s-1970s. Ungrateful City traces Wieners's social and aesthetic ties to these various places, repositioning him at the center of a larger, revisionary narrative about the geographical range of the New American poetry. Scholarship on the New American poetry has tended to organize itself around a largely geographical logic, which does not well account for a peripatetic figure such as Wieners. By placing spotlight on "minor" as well as "major" poets of the era, and documenting occluded poetic scenes in Boston and Buffalo, Ungrateful City works against received definitions of the New American poetry and builds a case for an enlarged perspective on the movement, treating Wieners's biography as a social as much as personal history. Part two of Ungrateful City is a critical edition of Wieners's collected poems, representing the first successful effort to collect his complete published works as well as the first scholarly edition of his poems. Wieners published seven collections of poetry during his lifetime, but these books represent merely the "tip of the iceberg" of his poetic multiverse of prolific magazine publication, drafting work, and journaling in the 1950s-1970s. Ungrateful City collects: all of Wieners's published books; all of Wieners's hundreds of published-uncollected poems from ephemeral small magazines and broadsides; a representative selection of about 150 pages of "Drafts and Fragments" from the poet's unpublished manuscripts; and a representative selection of about fifty pages of Wieners's experimental prose. All of this material is contextualized by a critical apparatus that includes: separate critical and editorial introductions, comprehensive notes on each poem (including literary annotations and manuscript information), a glossary of proper names, and three bibliographies of additional unpublished manuscripts, uncollected prose, and journals. With Ungrateful City, the impressive breadth of Wieners's poetic corpus and of his social life within multiple communities of the New American poetry are for the first time clarified, thereby puncturing the obscuring mythos that has gathered around him and creating a stable, organized archive for future scholarship.