Born in Milton, Massachusetts, Wieners attended St. Gregory Elementary School in Dorchester, Massachusetts and Boston College High School. From 1950 to 1954, he studied at Boston College, where he earned his A.B. In 1954 he heard Charles Olson read at the Charles Street Meeting House on Beacon Hill during Hurricane Hazel. He decided to enroll at Black Mountain College where he studied under Olson and Robert Duncan from 1955 to 1956. He then worked as an actor and stage manager at the Poet’s Theater in Cambridge, and began to edit Measure, releasing three issues over the next several years.
From 1958 to 1960 Wieners lived in San Francisco, California and actively participated in the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. The Hotel Wentley Poems was published in 1958, when Wieners was twenty-four.
Wieners returned to Boston in 1960 and was committed to a psychiatric hospital. In 1961, he moved to New York City and worked as an assistant bookkeeper at Eighth Street Books from 1962-1963, living on the Lower East Side with Herbert Huncke. He went back to Boston in 1963, employed as a subscriptions editor for Jordan Marsh department stores until 1965. Wieners’ second book, Ace of Pentacles, was published in 1964.
In 1965, after traveling with Olson to the Spoleto Festival and the Berkeley Poetry Conference, he enrolled in the Graduate Program at SUNY Buffalo. He worked as a teaching fellow under Olson, then as an endowed Chair of Poetics, staying until 1967, with Pressed Wafer coming out the same year. In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. In the spring of 1969, Wieners was again institutionalized, and wrote Asylum Poems.
Nerves was released in 1970, containing work from 1966 to 1970. In the early 1970s, Wieners became active in education and publishing cooperatives, political action committees, and the gay liberation movement. He also moved into an apartment at 44 Joy Street on Beacon Hill, where he lived for the next thirty years.
In 1975, Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike was published, a magnum opus of “Cinema decoupages; verses, abbreviated prose insights.” For the next ten years, he published rarely and remained largely out of the public eye. In 1985, he was a Guggenheim Fellow.
Black Sparrow Press released two collections edited by Raymond Foye: Selected Poems: 1958-1984 and Cultural Affairs in Boston, in 1986 and 1988 respectively. A previously unpublished journal by Wieners came out in 1996, entitled The Journal of John Wieners is to be called 707 Scott Street for Billie Holliday 1959, documenting his life in San Francisco around the time of The Hotel Wentley Poems.
At the Guggenheim Museum in 1999, Wieners gave one of his last public readings, celebrating an exhibit by the painter Francesco Clemente. A collaboration between the two, Broken Women, was also published.
Wieners died on March 1, 2002 at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, having collapsed a few days previously after an evening attending a party with his friend and publisher Charley Shively. Kidnap Notes Next, a collection of poems and journal entries edited by Jim Dunn, was published posthumously in 2002.
A Book of Prophecies was published in 2007 from Bootstrap Press. The manuscript was discovered in the Kent State University archive's collection by poet Michael Carr. It was a journal written by Wieners in 1971, and opens with a poem titled 2007.
On September 2015, City Lights Bookstore will release Stars Seen in Person-Selected Journals of John Wieners that collects four of Wieners' previously unpublished journals from 1955 and 1969. Wieners depicts a life where he is broken down and in pain, but still thriving to write honestly and in great detail about the life he is left with. These journals capture a post-war world that no longer exists, seen through the prism of Wieners’ sense of glamour.
- "The Hipster of Joy Street" Jacket 21, Pamela Petro, February 2003
- Jackson, Bruce (1999-02-26). "Buffalo English: Literary Glory Days at UB.". Buffalo Beat. Retrieved 2007-07-31.
- “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” January 30, 1968 New York Post
- "John Wieners Papers". University of Delaware Special Collections Department. September 1999. Retrieved 2007-06-11.
- "John Wieners", Penn Sound
- "John Wieners", Electronic Poetry Center
- Two poems by John Wieners
- University of Delaware profile
- A poem for record players, by John Wieners
- John Wieners resource page by Tom Raworth
- John Wieners last public reading, Hyannisport, MA 21 February 2002 on YouTube
- Works by or about John Wieners in libraries (WorldCat catalog)