How the Hotel Wentley Poems Undermined My Self-Confidence
by Irving Rosenthal
I was visiting Allen Ginsberg one day, and in the midst of our usual light gossip about friends, artists, poets and their welfare, Allen showed me a small black booklet he had just gotten, and asked if I’d ever seen it before. No, I said. It was called The Hotel Wentley Poems. He asked me to read it, and I did. In the booklet were the names John Wieners, Auerhahn, and Dave Haselwood, which I’d never heard of before. In my work as an editor, I used to receive a number of unsolicited, cheaply printed booklets of poetry similar to this one, usually published by the author or his or her close friends. The contents were always disappointing. So I read this booklet with what could be called a stiff prejudice. When I finished, I told Allen I didn’t think much of it. He looked quite alarmed and started bustling about his apartment, fetching reels of tape and a small tape recorder, which he placed close to where we were sitting. He inserted a tape, and as he was connecting it and finding the right starting place on it, he said, John Wieners read these poems at a reading I went to last night. I want you to listen to them. I said OK. What I didn’t say, was Look, I’ve read a lot of verse in my life, and here, on my first trip to New York, I’ve already been taken to too many poetry readings. In the middle of a boring poem you can shut the book. In the middle of a boring poetry reading it’s not so easy to walk out without seeming to be insulting the scheduled poets or their faithful fans. May I tell you about my great enlightenment? It’s that poetry has become a totally visual art. It has to stand or fall on the colors and fragrance it can put forth from frozen patterns on a printed page. (The Fluxus poets got the theory right, but, like a bunch of programmed automatons, they purged their so – called poems of all meaning, beauty, and subtlety.) To finish the lecture I denied to Allen, I said (or would have said), Poetry as an oral art is dead. Dead in the coffee shops of the Village.
In the meantime, Allen had found the right starting place and pressed the play button. There was a whimper—in a Boston accent—a pitifully sad whimper—a crying barely held back—by the weakest sliver of strength—like that of a child—clinging to a meager hope or faith. It was all he had left. Near the front of his book John Wieners says “The poem / does not lie to us.” (No doubt certain of his friends had.) I cried out. His lament swept through my body. How could anyone hearing his voice, not want to offer him all the love they could muster? How could anyone not want to console him? And how could anyone not identify—for all time—this text with his voice? I cannot now re – read any of the Wentley poems with my eyes, without hearing his voice in my ears. So much for proud theories!
After I had moved to New York I became close friends with both John Wieners and Dave Haselwood. Both of them used to visit New York from time to time, John always on his way back to Boston, and Dave to visit old friends and bookstores wise enough to carry his books. I was lucky enough to enjoy the succession of those publications, which, after Hotel Wentley, Dave printed all by himself (or sometimes with a student) in San Francisco. When I say he printed them, I mean literally, by hand – set lead type on a letterpress. Each book or chapbook he published was even more beautiful than the one before. I was so proud of San Francisco then. You see, I am a native, and little by little, perhaps not even deliberately, Dave, in his correspondence, started luring me to make my native city home again. Some of the book covers and title pages of publications of the Auerhahn Press (which is what he had named his publishing company) are sublime. One book, Lami, is like a tiny Moreauvian masterpiece. It is not of this realm. It gives the impression of having been created by misty Gandharvas in bondage to a slight, quiet tradesman wearing an ink – smudged smock. Every decorative rule or flourish in the book looks like it was dropped in exactly the right place by a pair of faultless translucent fingers.
Dave’s goals were quite obvious, the chief one being to show his chosen poets how good they were—that their work merited all his typographical effort, not to speak of hard physical labor. Also, of course, he wanted to create beautiful (and cheap!) books for everyone to enjoy. I don’t know how he found all the different poets whose talmuds – to – be he would codify. This mild, soft –spoken man was like a searchlight. He was the best editor, let alone book creator, of that time and period. His vision was the broadest.
A book that I had written was in the hands of Grove Press. It was a book of several hundred pages. My choice of a publisher would have been Auerhahn, but Dave could barely make ends meet for his thin poetry books (thin in pages), not to speak of defending a book against possible P.O. impoundings. The consensus of friends (Allen most vehemently) was that size – wise my book had to go to a commercial publisher if it was going to be printed in my lifetime, and no commercial publisher would be brave enough to take it on but Grove. Grove was famous for its fight against censorship (though irkingly notorious for ugly book covers). Anyway they held my book three years waiting for the right strategic moment, but when that moment arrived, and they finally decided to publish it, I asked, in an innocent way, if I could choose the designer, who’d cost them no more than what they usually paid. In fact I offered to cover his or her fee out of my royalties. That part of it they sweetly refused, but gave me a green light on the designer. I wrote to Dave immediately, and he agreed to design the whole book without exceeding Grove’s usual production costs. A Nobel prize could not have blown me higher. One way or another, I was to be added to his pantheon! Where the gods live. Where they play harp and harmonium.
I know people will see me with ego all over my chin, but the dust jacket of Sheeper is my favorite Auerhahnly cover. It’s electric (watch people when they see it for the first time). It’s outspoken! Ritualistic! Filled with color! Ah, if only the text were up to the standard of its envelope. Dave! Give me another chance!