WELDON KEES


That sense of private discovery and secret knowledge and admiration is the source of my continuing interest. I wouldn't be sorry to see it remain that way in part.

Donald Justice,
on how to appreciate Weldon Kees

Pick up the pieces,
Throw them away, say amen,
Because like Humpty Dumpty,
I can't be put back together again.

Weldon Kees,
from his song "Pick Up The Pieces"
Weldon Kees scraping off material for texturizing one of his canvases. (Click to see a larger image.)

 

Read "The Disappearing Poet" by Anthony Lane in The New Yorker

The poet Weldon Kees was born in Beatrice, Nebraska, on February 24, 1914. His work places him with Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Kenneth Rexroth, and other poets of their generation. Kees's work is less well known. Yet he is at once a coterie figure and a poet included in Harold Bloom's "canon." The reasons for this start with how Kees saw himself when his first book, The Last Man (1943), was published. In a letter to his friend and editor, Norris Getty (of Waco, Nebraska), he felt more comfortable with the modernism of the past and the effect of his disassociation still contributes to the problem of where he figures in American poetry:

I must say I feel too little sense of "belonging" with my immediate contemporaries, with the exception of four or five guys. It's so easy, don't you think, to feel a sense of identification with the men of the Pound-Eliot generation, or even the Hart Crane-Tate-Horace Gregory generation, rather than the present gang, with its Rukeysers and Shapiros and John Frederick Nimses.

Kees was born to Sarah and John Kees, the owner of a hardware factory in Beatrice. Their son showed a precocious interest in writing, piano, and art. In the 1920s, while still a boy, he published his own movie magazines, which he filled with stories, poems, and facts about his favorite Hollywood stars. The early influence of motion pictures can be seen in poems like "Subtitle" and in the closure of "1926" (MP3), Kees's autobiographical poem, in which he returned to an autumn evening on North 5th Street in Beatrice to see that everything that was going to happen was already present in the idyllic small town of his youth:

The porchlight coming on again,
Early November, the dead leaves
Raked in piles, the wicker swing
Creaking. Across the lots
A phonograph is playing Ja-Da.
An orange moon. I see the lives
Of neighbors, mapped and marred
Like all the wars ahead, and R.
Insane, B. with his throat cut,
Fifteen years from now, in Omaha.
I did not know them then.
My airedale scratches at the door.
And I am back from seeing Milton Sills
And Doris Kenyon. Twelve years old.
The porchlight coming on again.

One of Kees's playmates was Spangler Arlington Brugh, better known as the actor Robert Taylor, whom he followed to Doane College in 1931. Kees, in search of courses in creative writing, went on to the University of Missouri, and finally found a literary circle around Lowry C Wimberly, the editor of Prairie Schooner and an English professor at the University of Nebraska, from which Kees graduated in 1935. Like many young writers in the 30s, Kees wanted to be the next Hemingway, Wolfe, or Faulkner. This romantic and American aspiration, however, eluded him. He wrote several novels, which were considered promising by the editors who sent them back because of their lack of "uplift" and outré content. He had more success with his short fiction and published over forty short stories from 1934 to 1945. Kees began to write poetry seriously at about the time that he started working for the Federal Writers' Project in Lincoln, where he met Norris Getty. With Getty for a reader, Kees rapidly matured as a poet and became widely published during the last years of the Depression. Kees lived in Denver from 1937 to 1943. There he married Ann Swan, who would be his helpmate through most of his literary career. By the time the Second World War broke out, Kees had already visited New York and made important connections to the literary operators behind The Partisan Review, New Directions, and the like. When Knopf rejected his novel Fall Quarter, Kees, in 1942, for the most part abandoned fiction.

Fearing he would soon be drafted, Kees relocated to New York in 1943. What he thought would be a temporary stay lasted until 1950. While living in New York, and later in Brooklyn, Kees wrote for Time Magazine and Paramount's newsreel service, and published numerous reviews in The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, and The New Republic, many of which are collected in Reviews and Essays, 1936-55 (1988). Kees took up painting and figured in the establishment of the Abstract Expressionist movement and he published his second volume of poems, The Fall of Magicians (1947), which included "Robinson" (MP3), the first of four persona poems that featured Kees's New Yorker Man, three of which first appeared in that magazine:

The dog stops barking after Robinson has gone.
His act is over. The world is a gray world,
Not without violence, and he kicks under the grand piano,
The nightmare chase well under way.
The mirror from Mexico, stuck to the wall,
Reflects nothing at all. The glass is black.
Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.
Which is all of the room walls, curtains,
Shelves, bed, the tinted photograph of Robinson's first wife,
Rugs, vases panatelas in a humidor.
They would fill the room if Robinson came in.
The pages in the books are blank,
The books that Robinson has read. That is his favorite chair,
Or where the chair would be if Robinson were here.
All day the phone rings. It could be Robinson
Calling. It never rings when he is here.
Outside, white buildings yellow in the sun.
Outside, the birds circle continuously
Where trees are actual and take no holiday.

Robinson expresses the estrangement Kees felt with his life in New York, an estrangement that could not be ameliorated by his summers in Provincetown's art colony. In October 1950, Weldon and Ann Kees drove cross-country to San Francisco. There, Kees collaborated on behavioral science films with the anthropologist Gregory Bateson and the book Nonverbal Communication (1956) with the psychologist Jurgen Ruesch. He also made art films, continued to paint and exhibit, and write poems. When his last book, Poems 1947-1954 (1954), was published, Kees had divorced Ann, become dependent on amphetamines, and entered into many different "cultural ventures," including a film review program on radio, which featured Pauline Kael; a literary-bohemian stage review, Poets Follies; a film company, for which he wrote screenplays; a theatrical enterprise that entailed restoring a theater and writing plays; and numerous collaborations with Bay Area jazz and blues musicians. Despite his efforts to extend the Jazz Age Bohemia and Avant Garde of the 20s and recreate the enchantment that movies had given him in his youth Kees was overwhelmed by depression during June and July 1955. He told a friend that he wanted to start a new life in Mexico, a land that fascinated him because Hart Crane, Malcolm Lowry, and other writers had found there an escape from America. Kees also told the same friend that he had also tried to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge, the place where his car was found on July 18.

Save for a few anthology appearances, the three editions of The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees (1960, 1962, and 1975), with its introduction by Donald Justice, have preserved Kees's reputation. Since 1983, however, his life and work has enjoyed a reclamation. Columbia (1983), the literary journal of Columbia University, issued the first selection of Kees's fiction. It was followed by The Ceremony and Other Stories (1984), selected by Dana Gioia. Weldon Kees: A Critical Introduction (1985) featured essays about Kees and a bibliography by Bob Niemi. Kees's letters were gathered together by Robert E Knoll in Weldon Kees and the Midcentury Generation (1986). Reviews and Essays, 1936-55 (1988), edited by James Reidel, with an introduction by Kees's friend, Howard Nemerov, presents Kees as a reviewer and cultural critic. Mr Reidel also edited and introduced Kees's academic comedy, the novel Fall Quarter (1990) and helped the Watershed Foundation produce Land's End (1992), rare archival recordings of Kees reading his poetry.

Kees's reputation has also flourished abroad. In 1993, BBC2's Bookmark program aired Looking for Robinson, a documentary by Daisy Goodwin, in which the English poet Simon Armitage traveled across the United States in a kind of road movie rediscovery of Kees's world in New York, Beatrice, Lincoln, and San Francisco. Kees has also found an audience in the Netherlands — perhaps because of his Dutch-sounding name — where his poetry has been translated and placed on the World Wide Web at various times.

Presently, a biography by James Reidel is being prepared for publication in the near future. The University of Iowa will sponsor an NEH-funded symposium on Kees and an exhibit of his paintings. The head of the Kees project, Dr Stephen C Foster of the University of Iowa's Program for Modern Studies, will edit a companion monograph that will include contributions by several scholars. Also at Iowa, the Windover Press at the Center for the Book will print a chapbook of previously unpublished Kees poems.

                                                                                                               James Reidel


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