Nebraska Center for Writers

Weldon Kees Sidebars

by James Reidel



Gerard Malanga
on Weldon Kees
[...]

ELP: You create a historical context to continue knowing and reading the work that could be lost.

GM: Absolutely. It's creating a historical context where there was none or where there would have been one had not some quirk of time intervened to sideline someone like Gene Derwood and her work. The same thing with Weldon Kees or Willard Maas or Marie Menkien. These are important people who were very genuine in the kind of work they were creating, but through some personal calamity they got sidelined. I was reminded of all this having just finished reading a biography of Weldon Kees. Turns out we have a few things in common. First off, we're both Pisces. We're also both polymaths, visually grounded. He was a really terrific painter. My interest was more into film and photography (though he took pictures as well). As children we designed our own make-believe newspapers and kept scrapbooks of what caught our eye. We're cat lovers. Oh, and we were the only child in the family. No siblings. That explains a whole lot.

ELP: You both started young.

GM: We both published early and in a lot of the same places, like The New Yorker, Poetry, Partisan Review. And we were victims of intellectual snobbery. Well, Kees was. Delmore Schwartz turned out to be Kees's nemesis. He hated Kenneth Patchen--tried convincing Jay Laughlin into dropping him from the New Directions's roster. When Schwartz became poetry editor of Partisan Review he started rejecting Weldon's poetry. Schwartz tormented Kees by keeping his poems in a desk drawer, pretending he'd misplaced them. Little petty things like that. Schwartz was a little shit--intensely jealous of Kees because he could write a good poem and write other things besides. Short stories, nonfiction. Book reviews. Music. Intensely versatile and professional. Well, we know what happened to Delmore. He got consumed by his own bile. His insanity killed him. Kees is now having a renascence.

ELP: So you identify with Kees?

GM: I first came across Kees's work early on, not really knowing anything about the man or how versatile he was. Whenever I visited Marie and Willard I had complete run of their library. That was where I first cut my teeth on the Oscar Williams's anthology, The War Poets. One day Willard told me how Kees disappeared and they never found the body--jumped into the current under the Golden Gate Bridge, his car found in the parking lot. Willard related this to me in 1960, and the incident had only occurred five years earlier! The other day a friend rang me up and put the receiver close to her computer so I could hear Kees reading his poetry. It was through a web site and it brought a lump to my throat. He sounded the way I imagined him to sound, with natural sounding friendly voice. There was none of that melodramatic artifice you still hear in a lot of the poetry being read aloud these days.


Reprinted with permission from "The Poetry in Something: An Interview with Gerard Malanga" by Erik La Prade, Rain Taxi Review of Books Online Edition, Summer 2004. For the full interview, go to http://www.raintaxi.com/online/2004summer/malanga.shtml


Weldon Kees
by Joseph Brodsky

If Weldon Kees were alive today, he would be 79 years old; but the first thing that makes this unthinkable is his poems. Their vehement bleakness makes it all too plausible that on July 19, 1955, when a car registered in his name was found near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the 41-year-old Weldon Kees had committed suicide.

No body was ever found. Now and then a rumor would have him alive and well under an assumed name, south of the border. However, during the last 35 years, nothing even remotely close to his diction, either under his or an assumed name, has appeared in print. As far as this evidence goes, the poet is dead. ... Suicide, as the great Czech poet Vladimir Holan once said, is not an exit; it is the word "exit" painted on a wall. Suicide--or, for that matter, a disappearing act--is also bad PR, particularly when the general disposition of the public toward poetry is that of benign neglect (of such extraordinary proportions, it must be added, that one wonders what the word benign is doing here). Whatever happened to the body of Weldon Kees, the body of his work, given the size of this nation's potential readership, might just as well also rest at the bottom of the Pacific.
The consolation, perhaps, is that it is not there alone. Scores and scores of outstanding American poets see their work consigned to the same fate by the existing system of book distribution in this country. "The American people"--in the memorable phrase of a former U.S. senator--"have the right to be wrong." This sounds truly democratic and in line with the Constitution, yet nature and Providence, or both, thrust poets into the nation's midst to make it more lucid. As things are, the American people's right to know their own poetry is denied to most of them.
With that, democracy is denied its purpose, for democracy is not an end unto itself. The purpose of democracy is to become enlightened democracy. Democracy without enlightenment is but a well-policed jungle. What does this have to do with Weldon Kees? Not much, perhaps, except that his dark vision could spare many an individual the loneliness of his or her agony. It could because in Kees's poetry agony is raised to the level of art. And this is the level to which, to paraphrase Walter Pater, all human experience, be it negative or positive, aspires.
This is what enlightenment is all about. It should not be mistaken for therapy, although it can perform that task also. At a certain point, men and women should grow up and recognize that they are the sum not only of their intentions and convictions but also of their deeds. In clarifying this point, the poems of Weldon Kees come in handy. He is a poet of remarkable totality of approach toward the world and his very self. Behind his irate dismissal of both, one discerns a fierce Calvinist spirit; one sees a man summoning his epoch and himself to his own last judgment and finding no argument in either's defense, and, naturally, no grace.
He does this with relish and with savage irony. How is it, one may wonder, that a boy from Nebraska turned into this merciless, supreme agonist? Was there something in his background? Was it the Wall Street Crash, or the years of the Great Depression? Was it the war on the Continent, and perhaps the need to compensate for his guilt at not taking part in it? A failed marriage? Should we wax Freudian?
We should not. Neither taken separately nor in their totality will these explanations account for this poet's diction. They will not because Kees was not alone on the scene, although there is no denying his cooperation in that diction's hardening. Its origins are not in his life but in his very art and in its terrifying ability to impose standards upon work and life alike. The measure of one's surrender to these standards is, frankly, the measure of one's talent, and Kees was a man of immense talent. Herein lies the explanation of his artistic success and his human tragedy.
To put it simply, by the time of Weldon Kees's arrival, the dominant note in poetry on both sides of the Atlantic was that of negation of the modern reality. The source of that note was, of course, European Romanticism; its current mouthpiece, Modernism. To be sure, the reality by and large did not deserve any better. On the whole, art's treatment of contemporary reality is almost invariably punitive--so much so that art itself, especially the incurably semantic art of poetry, can be suspected of having a strong Calvinist streak.
It does: because aesthetic authority cannot be delegated. However, unlike its practitioners, it is capable of an equivalent of grace.
Be that as it may, Kees had no alternative but to pick up that note of negation and play it the best he could. He did, and he played it better than anyone around, to the bitter end. He was a genuine American soloist, with no mute and no support. He played better, to my mind, than Eliot and, on occasion, Auden, whose respective repertoires were wider to begin with. Because they existed, Kees had to go further. He had to go further, I suspect, also because he was from Nebraska. Unlike his great and small contemporaries, he took negation and alienation literally.
His poems display neither the incoherence of nostalgia for some mentally palatable past nor, however vaguely charted, the possibility of the future. All he had was the present, which was not to his Muse's liking, and eventually not to his own either. His poetry, in other words, is that of the here and now and of no escape, except for poetry itself. Yet for all he had to say about the present, his language is amazingly clear and direct, and the formal aspects of his verse are amazingly conservative. Evidently Kees did not feel the imperative of arrythmia so palpable among his less memorable peers, not to mention successors.
This makes his sanity less questionable than many a melodrama buff would have liked. As for his spiritualistic imagery, that, too, I believe, owes more to Max Ernst than to his own nightmares. The real nightmare for him was to do a mediocre job; his 1975 Collected Poems (edited by Donald Justice) shows him in absolute control of his subconscious. Kees was a professional, not an amateur, and certainly not a sissy. Amateurs and sissies don't write poems as tough as the ones you find in this selection. Once or twice this toughness could be faked, but not for 12 years: the duration of Weldon Kees's career as a poet. Then, too, it's deliberate, which is to say genuine. And it makes one think that whatever happened on July 19, 1955, was not a fluke. It was deliberate. On that day America lost a very tough poet. For him, it was presumably the end of his rope, but it should not be that way for us. He should be read, and here are a few of his poems. In them, you will hear that keen, implacable, truly American solo, which cannot be mistaken for anything else. This is our trumpet; this, if you will, is our early cool. It is calling to us from the depth of the 1950s, the Eisenhower years. It is very pure, very heart-rending. Its silver penetrates the darkness, and vice versa, almost in gratitude. It sounds sort of like a trumpet solo by Clifford Brown, who also died around the same time.

InfoTrac Article A13905320
From The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1993 v17 n2 p92(7)
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1993 Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


Gurt 2002 — the roundtable sponsored by the Department of Linguistics of Georgetown University — is the occasion for the launch of the journal Visual Communication (Sage Publications) featuring a screening of rare films and photographs by Weldon Kees used in the landmark work in social interaction of Gregory Bateson and Jurgen Ruesch.


A Two-Poem Jesus Poem Anthology

I read some poetry the way others read old National Geographics—at stool, in the early morning, when there is some respite and a some tissue of privacy from the busy life. For being grounded in the utterly human performance of a bodily need, I find—and have heard it said—that one is the least connected to his or her body, that this is closest we come to being pure thought, to becoming the spiritual animal.

What better time is there to be transported by a good poem? I love to read Cavafy in the john. I love his Late Classical and Byzantine settings, in which I could see myself sitting on a pillar instead of the pot, writing a Gnostic gospel or two, or even an apocryphal apocalypse, so as to rise above the barbarian scene and make sense of the world, my name Jovian instead of Jim.

Cavafy, interestingly, did not find the life of Christ so interesting as I have let on here. He imagines all kinds of lives (especially Julian the Apostate) from those early centuries. There are, however, no poems really about Him, a blind spot that may be revenge for ruining a few thousand years of beauty and class as Cavafy understood them.

Two poems could almost fill this void now. There are others, surely, enough for an anthology. But I like my anthologies to be like my faith in the “Church of the Air.” And more poems would certainly dilute the resonance of Weldon Kees’s “A Distance from the Sea” and Franz Werfel’s “Jesus and the Carrion Path.” Both share that conceit of being narrated by some anonymous disciple—and both poets had an interest in apocryphal or even heretical points of view. Kees, compelled by the The New Yorker, changed a line in “Robinson at Home” from “a Priscillian heretic” to “a heretic in the catacombs” because, as he wrote his friend and editor Norris Getty in 1947:

The New Yorker people felt their readers wouldn’t understand the reference “in spite,” as I was told in a curious communication from them, “of the familiarly of many of our readers with early Church history.”

Werfel, an Austrian Jew of that same wide circle into which one could include Mahler, Freud, Alban Berg, and many others whose Viennese world disappeared with the Anschluß, seems to have looked to Baha’i writings. Both poets find a “mission” in setting down alternatives to the Official Story as if their “apocrypha” reveals the tragic nuance that not only undermines thousands of sanctioned verses and still takes nothing away from them in the same breath.

I place these two poems together because of an accident of talents. I have this biography of Kees in-press and started translating Werfel as something to keep me from running off the rails between my own poems. As soon as I had reached the end of Werfel’s “Jesus and the Carrion Path” I had to reread Kees’s “A Distance from the Sea.” Both poems share a geography of shoreline and mountains and paths. There is even the same concern for lighting, for the way Christ holds his head, and other auteurisms that suggest both poets are thinking of moviemaking. Kees, of course, always intentionally cinematic and directorial, has written a poem that could be filmed on a back lot. Werfel’s could be made with UFA-like special effects and Peter Lorre before he turned up in Hollywood. Yet clearly, what brings both poems here for a time in hypertext is that you cannot escape the mysticism of men at odds with the savior and as much reconciled, whether he is the S.O.G or not.

—James Reidel

A Distance from the Sea

To Ernest Brace

“And when the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was
about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto
me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and
write them not.”—REVELATIONS, x, 4.

That raft we rigged up, under the water,
Was just the item: when he walked,
With his robes blowing, dark against the sky,
It was as though the unsubstantial waves held up
His slender and inviolate feet. The gulls flew over,
Dropping, crying alone; thin ragged lengths of cloud
Drifted in bars across the sun. There on the shore
The crowd’s response was instantaneous. He
Handled it well, I thought—the gait, the tilt of the head, just right.
Long streaks of light were blinding on the waves.
And then we knew our work well worth the time:
The days of sawing, fitting, all those nails,
The tiresome rehearsals, considerations of execution.
But if you want a miracle, you have to work for it,
Lay your plans carefully and keep one jump
Ahead of the crowd. To report a miracle
Is a pleasure unalloyed; but staging one requires
Tact, imagination, a special knack for the job
Not everyone possesses. A miracle, in fact, means work.
—And now there are those who have come saying
That miracles were not what we were after. But what else
Is there? What other hope does life hold out
But the miraculous, the skilled and patient
Execution, the teamwork, all the pain and worry every miracle involves?

Visionaries tossing in their beds, haunted and racked
By questions of Messiahship and eschatology,
Are like the mist rising at nightfall, and come,
Perhaps to even less. Grave supernaturalists, devoted worshippers
Experience the ecstasy (such as it is), but not
Our ecstasy. It was our making. Yet sometimes
When the torrent of that time
Comes pouring back, I wonder at our courage
And our enterprise. It was as though the world
Had been one darkening, abandoned hall
Where rows of unlit candles stood; and we
Not out of love, so much, or hope, or even worship, but
Out of the fear of death, came with our lights
And watched the candles, one by one, take fire, flames
Against the long night of our fear. We thought
That we could never die. Now I am less convinced.
—The traveller on the plain makes out the mountains
At a distance; then he loses sight. His way
Winds through the valleys; then, at a sudden turning of a path,
The peaks stand nakedly before him: they are something else
Than what he saw below. I think now of the raft
(For me, somehow, the summit of the whole experience)
And all the expectations of that day, but also of the cave
We stocked with bread, the secret meetings
In the hills, the fake assassins hired for the last pursuit,
The careful staging of the cures, the bribed officials,
The angels’ garments, tailored faultlessly,
The medicines administered behind the stone,
That ultimate cloud, so perfect, and so opportune.
Who managed all that blood I never knew.

The days get longer. It was a long time ago.
And I have come to that point in the turning of the path
Where peaks are infinite—horn-shaped and scaly, choked with

thorns.
But even here, I know our work was worth the cost.
What we have brought to pass, no one can take away.
Life offers up no miracles, unfortunately, and needs assistance.
Nothing will be the same as once it was,
I tell myself.—It’s dark here on the peak, and keeps on getting
darker.
It seems I am experiencing a kind of ecstasy.
Was it sunlight on the waves that day? The night comes down.
And now the water seems remote, unreal, and perhaps it is.

Copyright © 1975 by the University of Nebraska Press

Jesus and the Carrion Path

And as we walked away from the dead dog,
Of whose teeth the Lord spoke charitably,
He led us from the sea to the mountain,
Up which we dragged ourselves gasping for breath.

And the Lord made it to the summit first,
And while we stood around on this last rung,
He pointed out path on path to the mountain’s foot,
Trails tearing down to the storm on the plains.

But there was one that we thought would be easy,
That all of us saw as gently flowing to the valley.
And when Jesus turned around to ask,
We called out, we screamed: Choose this one!

But he just bowed his head and went on ahead,
Meanwhile, we were just happy to be alive
From the fresh air, the green melting into green,
From olives and almonds dangling above.

Then suddenly there reared up in our path
A crumbling wall with a dark doorway.
The Savior pushed it open and waited
Until every one of us had stepped through.

And there before us was what closed our eyes,
What planted us like stalks in that place,
The sun dancing on a horrible stream
Of carcasses that were hacked to pieces.

Grim rats swam in that breeding ground
Of snakes, already half-eaten by decay,
Rotting deer and ass and above them
An aura of pestilence and countless flies.

An inescapable sulfurous stench
Bubbled from those evil puddles of flesh,
Which made us bend over the yellow grass
And vomit from the fear and the disgust.

But the Savior held up his hand and cried
And cried passionately to heaven without end:
“My God, my Father, hear me and take
This horror from me and forgive them!

“I called myself Love—now I have to stop
Gagging myself before the most dreadful
Laws, ah, I’m as empty as the lowest whore,
As full of it as my cuckooing despair.

“You my Father, since you are my Father,
Let me live like one of these rotting creatures,
Let me preach your mercy in this dead meat!
Can there be love when you have to puke?!”

Look! Suddenly His face flushed with anger
About those hunts, which we all knew about,
And as we reeled around totally blinded,
His halo got lost in the surrounding light.

He swiftly knelt down and plunged
His hands into that corruption,
And ah, a smell of roses, one more deep,
Rose from His utter whiteness.

But then he took and piled rotting flesh
On his hair and crowned himself with maggots,
From his sash hung a hundred corpses,
From his shoulders vermin and bats.

And as he stood like this in darkening day,
The mountains burst open and lions wept
At his knee, and those joined in the flight
Of wild geese came down in a rain of wings.

There were four black suns dancing calmly
And a stream of light that did not run dry.
The sky burst. And God’s dove lilted
Rapturously in the blue, giant wind.

Franz Werfel
James Reidel, tr.

Note: Based on a parable from the writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, the leader of the Bahá‘í faith in the early nineteenth century.

Translation copyright © 2001 by James Reidel


Ex Libris Weldon Kees -by James Reidel

It took me many years of trial and error to finally have this mental filmstrip of Weldon Kees on his lunch hour, browsing the shelves of the Holiday Bookshop, which used to be at 49 E. 49th Street. He could easily walk there from Paramount’s newsreel studio on W. 43rd Street, where he worked as a scriptwriter. The bookstore was in the vicinity of his favorite restaurants, such as Diamond Jim’s at 42nd and Broadway, where he ordered pot roast and potato pancakes. He also liked Marnell’s on East 47th Street and some of the restaurants between 7th and 8th Avenues on 45th Street. The Hapsburg House, Ludwig Bemelmans’ café, had murals of the little girls from his Madeline stories for children. There, Kees, author of the poem "For My Daughter," in which he at once expressed a longing for and revulsion from a daughter of his own, could enjoy the irony of his presence in such a setting. He also found enchanting the restaurant’s lesbian clientele, which included Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.

This neighborhood also afforded Kees the chance to run into old friends from his days at Time — or the New York intellectuals who befriended him when he first arrived in the city in the winter of 1943, a former Denver librarian and a promising young writer who seemingly had published in all the avant-garde magazines. Once he came up behind Edmund Wilson on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 45th Street. Even though they had not seen each other in some time, they quickly dispensed with warming up to each other and fell into a conversation about the "shocking and dreadful" new Lionel Trilling novel, The Middle of the Journey, with the character based on Kees’s old boss at Time, Whittaker Chambers. So many of Kees’s encounters were like that in the ‘40s — the decade — and in the Forties — that part of uptown. One could go for years without seeing a friend and then there he or she was on the sidewalk. And one took up where they had left off. It made Kees feel at once estranged and part of the city, too, like his alter ego Robinson, the man with "the heart dry as a winter leaf," who had already made the first of his three appearances in The New Yorker — the magazine where Wilson worked.

On the same day he encountered Edmund Wilson, I can imagine Kees entering the Holiday Bookshop. His eye would have fallen on art books. (He painted abstractions and would succeed his friend Clement Greenberg as The Nation’s art critic.) It would have fallen on books about music theory and music history. (He lectured on these subjects at the Abstract Expressionists’ "school" in the Lower East Side.) And he would have looked out for his friends’ new books — Howard Nemerov had just published his first book of poems The Image and the Law — and taken a kind of inventory of books by his new publisher, Reynal & Hitchcock: Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and his first trade book of poems, The Fall of the Magicians. Certainly Kees saw a stack of Silver Poets of the 16th Century, a new title in the Everyman’s Library. I know he purchased a copy because I, his biographer, now own it.

Kees’s copy of Silver Poets of the 16th Century came from Jim Carroll’s bookstore in San Francisco, the city where Kees lived until 1955. By then he had amassed a rather large library of books, many of them first editions and entire runs of the little magazines in which he published such as Furioso and The Tiger’s Eye. This collection Kees began during his college years in Lincoln, Nebraska. It grew as he moved from city to city: Chicago, Hollywood, Denver, New York, Provincetown, and finally San Francisco. He kept his books in meticulous order, even when he had to make do with nothing but bricks and boards for shelves. When he lived on Dana Street in Berkeley, he had at last found a home in which he had built-in bookcases in the living room. I have a photograph of his wife Ann Kees, wearing black slacks and a matching mock turtleneck, sitting with a wall of books behind her, as much a stylish object as the books were in the well-ordered life of poet husband. And my book, Silver Poets of the 16th Century, might even be in that photograph, too, shelved perhaps near where Ann Kees’s hands rest on one of the lower shelves, where, I am sure, Kees would have alphabetized the book under the name of the anthology’s first poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt.

This photograph was taken during a happier time, in 1952. Two years later, Ann’s alcoholism resulted in her institutionalization and a broken marriage. And Silver Poets of the 16th Century would have been put in a box by Kees in September 1954 and probably never put back up on a shelf, for he lived tenuously in cramped apartments for the next ten months.

On July 18, 1955 Weldon Kees parked his car on the Marin County side of the Golden Gate Bridge and has not been seen since. Taking over his son’s affairs in the weeks after the disappearance, John Kees, a retired hardware manufacturer, entrusted the books to one of Weldon’s friends for safekeeping should Weldon ever return. The arrangement John made with Weldon’s property were more to comfort his mother Sarah than it was for their son to take up his life where he had left off.

But Weldon did not reappear from Mexico or Hawaii or Australia — or even Los Angeles — all places his friends thought he might have gone to start up a new life. In late 1956, the elder Kees gave instructions for the sale of the books to Kees’s friend, Walter McGrail, a former silent film actor Kees had befriended and now the owner of the Old Book Shop on Sutter Street. McGrail and his sister Miriam had appraised Kees’s books in his apartment before John had the movers come to empty it. They had hoped to receive Kees’s entire collection, including an entire shelf of Henry Miller first editions, a copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which had been signed by Kees’s friend, James Agee. There were also first editions of Gertrude Stein, Lorca, Eliot, Kenneth Rexroth, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Max Beerbohm, and Virginia Woolf. These books and others — Kees’s copy of Nemerov’s first book of poems, his copy of Under the Volcano, which he read again on a train to San Antonio in 1950 — had been promised not only to the McGrails but to a number of Kees’s friends who wished to have something to remember him.

The most valuable books from the collection, however, were not inside the cartons that finally shipped to the McGrails. ("The number of missing books is rather startling," Miriam McGrail complained to the sender, who either claimed the books had actually been his or had been borrowed and not returned.) Nevertheless, a considerable number of Kees’s books were sold from the Old Book Shop, and for many years it was fairly easy to find one of them in the stalls of San Francisco many secondhand bookstores.

Silver Poets of the 16th Century is signed in ink on the flyleaf by Weldon Kees. He put his name in all his books this way. Though he liked having personalized stationery printed and the like, he did not have a bookplate made. There is a bookplate in Kees’s copy of Silver Poets of the 16th Century, and it did not take long for me to buy into thinking that it’s Horace Schwartz’s, the late San Francisco literary agent. Schwartz, like Kees, was originally from Nebraska and befriended the poet in January 1955. Schwartz had once played tympani for the Cleveland Symphony and had conducted one of Harry Partch’s percussion ensembles, which more than qualified him for the drum roll that opened Kees’s show, "The Poets Follies of 1955," at which the San Francisco strippers Lily Ayers and Rikki Corvette read Sarah Teasdale and T. S. Eliot in addition to the other bohemian entertainments that Kees directed. The flyleaf of Silver Poets of the 16th Century also bears the thin, mechanical pencil signature of Horace Schwartz’s son, Stephen. So I connect dots, I line M&Ms of maybes in my favorite colors, for biography begins with something like play, like first-grade homework, for how else could it hook you for a lifetime? I start seeing this book as something that devolved to the younger Schwartz via the elder, who could have been a friend who had received one of Kees’s books.

I had more to go on than just the book, too. I had received a letter from Horace in 1984. He had responded to an author’s query in The New York Times Review of Books, and I wrote him back with a battery of questions, some of which I was very proud of for the way I sounded so well-informed about Kees. I did not want to sound naïve. I did not want to be a waste of time. But Horace did not have much to say and his reply, which petered out as his memories seemed to touch on more than just Kees’s wounds:

Weldon (after his N.Y. life) was broken, ill, neurotic man. He took large doses of medicine for various illnesses. Weldon remained a New Yorker, displaced Nebraskan very like James Agee. Time-Life and The Nation had scared him for life. Weldon was a brilliant, sad poet of the Yeats type — introspective, beaten, provincial. He could portray American reality with the same acid truth as Wallace Stevens. But America has no place for a Weldon Kees. Weldon was a very beautiful man, of exquisite sense and feeling.

Horace did, however, enclose a typescript of his son’s poem "Homage to Sir Thomas Wyatt" as a kind of rain check for not being able to perform for all my questions. I could only remember that I had read the poem without much good will, for such unsolicited gifts that seemed beside the point were as welcome as getting only clothes for Christmas. I wanted Kees’s dots, my biographer’s candy. But after I had dug Horace’s letter and his son’s poem out of a box of files, I found that I had already met up with Silver Poets of the 16th Century before the Bookfinders search engine did:

Your book came to me, my friend, from the other world-
A copy owned by my father’s friend, Weldon Kees;
Another poet, an early suicide;
I was a child of eight years when he died.
Beneath Kees’s signature are penciled notes listing page numbers and brief comments such as "wonderful" and "magnificent." These superlatives intrigue me, for Kees had a style for dispraise, but not one for praise. I turned to the first of these poems, a Wyatt sonnet, on the lark that I might see some rare passion from not just shown for some jazz in his record collection. (One of many compartmentalizations in which he retreated in his last years from the disappointment of being an American poet.) Perhaps seeing him warm to some lines of poetry would have an afterglow. After finishing a book about him, after thinking about him so much, I had as much on paper as Rilke had an archaic torso and what could be imagined. But there were many more cold, lunar pieces than this effusion over an Elizabethan that even he knew would be there. After all, he had said himself — foreshadowing my own endeavor — sketching out an unwritten novel in 1944 about a poet-cipher and his biographer:

The task of fully discovering and understanding another human being — at least this one — is an impossibility.

Yet reading the words, the lines, the passages underlined in a book by another hand is like following a person up a deserted street. They are ahead of you. There is no one else. Kees understood that you can be picked up by the undertow of such an experience in one of his poems:

Somewhere in Chelsea, early summer;
And, walking in the twilight toward the docks,
I thought I made out Robinson ahead of me.
From an uncurtained second-story room, a radio
Was playing There’s a Small Hotel; a kite
Twisted above dark rooftops and slow drifting birds.
We were alone there, he and I,
Inhabiting the empty street.
("Relating to Robinson")

This strange impression of following someone is all the more keen as I opened Silver Poets of the 16th Century. There are only a few lines underlined, only a few poems framed in pencil. I would think if the book were marked up more intensely, the strange impression would be drained. Here, in this book, it seems that only the most essential lines have been identified, the lines that contain the only things that mattered to the reader. In the editor’s introduction, Wyatt’s "blend of haunting cadence with direct personal utterance" flows into this underlined passage:

show clearly and unmistakably the influence of the English song-books then so much in fashion.

My first response is to suspend all doubt and relate this to Kees and no one else. He would have read this remark first in this book and, I think, would have savored it. He used the popular music of his own time in his poems. Certainly, he would have at least paused over this sentence long enough to feel some kinship, some parallel. Perhaps he felt for a moment that he would be remembered this way, years from the day he bought the book at the Holiday Book Shop and, perhaps, saw copies of his book going unsold, that he might be a silver poet of the 1940s — silver being a way "to distinguish without disparagement" the minor poets of three centuries ago.

I turn to the flyleaf. Page 4 is the first notation, with the comment, "from Petrarch? No." This takes me to one of Wyatt’s sonnets completely set off in penciled brackets. The lines jumped out:

I find no peace, and all of my war is done,
I fear, and hope. I burn, and freeze like ice.
I fly above the wind, yet can I not arise.
And naught I have, and all the world I season.
That loseth nor locketh holdeth me in prison,
And holdeth me not, yet can I scape nowise:
Nor letteth me live nor die at my devise,
And yet of death it giveth me occasion.
. .
 . . .  . . . . . . . . .
I desire to perish, and yet I ask health

These lines suggest so much of Kees’s struggle to be at once free and involved. I can see the man who wrote poems about how room the size of Nebraska and rooms the size of small, New York apartments closed in just as much on you. I can see the Irascible painter who helped in the effort to get all of his Abstract Expressionist friends into Life magazine and then wanted nothing more to do with them — and fame. I see the man in 1951 who, in utter despair over the rejection of this new book of poems, wrote his mother to tell her that he had published enough poems for a lifetime — was he thinking of Wyatt, who died in his forties? And I see the same man who published that book, who posed for dozens of publicity photographs in the last year of his life as if he would need them for his revived career, his rediscovery, his reclamation, his second wind after the midlife crisis of his 41st year had passed.

Inspired impressions burn off like fog, and I need more to go on. I return to the flyleaf. Whatever is on page 14 is "wonderful." And, as I turn the pages, I that feeling that trail back is getting cold. Something about the line weight of the penciled annotations is not right, the loop of the terminating lowercase L. Then there is that word, "wonderful," which Kees would only use in irony.

The poem is Wyatt’s rhyme royal chestnut from Tottel’s Miscellany, known by its first line: "They flee from me, that sometime do me seek." And Kees had already learned something from the Elizabethans well before he bought his copy of Silver Poets. Compare sensuous limbs of Wyatt’s lover

When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small

to those of Kees’s "daughter."

Death in certain war, the slim legs green.
Or, fed on hate, she relishes the sting
("For My Daughter")

Three hundred years span the composition of both lines. Masochism and incest have replaced courtly love. Yet, if the alligator clips of modern sensibilities could be hooked to the tender lines of Wyatt remembering the sylph who no longer sleeps in his bed to Kees’s sardonic meditation on fatherhood ("These speculations sour in the sun./ I have no daughter. I desire none."), the meter would register like increments of pain and longing. I would need to go to another Kees poem to see the same disappointment in the animal performance of love:

Robinson afraid, drunk, sobbing Robinson
In bed with a Mrs. Morse, . . .
("Aspects of Robinson")

Pages 22 and 23 are "magnificent." Page 32 is "equally magnificent." More love poems. This isn’t Kees. He would never revere anyone so obviously. Kees talking is more like the first pages of his academic seriocomedy, the novel Fall Quarter, in which he imagined how he might have turned out had he earned that Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Chicago, where the Elizabethans were turned into a form of torture:

His professors had been unable, in spite of all their efforts, to trip him up in his orals. He had fallen down on only one question; he had been unable to furnish them with the date of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s death. It was regrettable, but he knew it now: 1542. He was not likely to forget it again.

Then the sick feeling rises that I may have followed a college boy marking out poems he might read on a date with Sylvia Plath. (But this is me scaring myself more than it is some animadversion aimed at someone I do not know. I could have followed someone into this book who is serious guy, a mensch for all I know.)

The same pencil that signed the other name to the flyleaf, the son of Kees’s friend Horace Schwartz, seems to have made the notes, all of them. I get out some copies of Kees’s handwritten letters. In seconds, I can tell a difference that would be apparent even to the collector of signed baseballs.

And I have not remembered to remember that Kees was a good librarian once. He considered underlining passages hardly sublimation, a way to appreciate a poem, a line. To him writing in a book was dirty, like leaving a ring in the tub. This thing he had he even worked into a short story he wrote working at the Denver Public Library in 1940. In it a girl with "coarse hair " chews her nails and writes in a copy of Leaves of Grass: "This is a dirty filthy book. I hate it." This was all Kees needed to say what America really thought, too, of his kind of books. In Fall Quarter, it takes the form of a little boy dressed in a department store Indian costume copiously spitting in a rare volume. Kees himself even let on what he thought, imagining the "value" of a collection that could have just as much have been his:

When the coal
Gave out, we began
Burning the books, one by one;
. .
  . . . . . . . . . . . .
They gave a lot of warmth.
Toward the end, in
February, flames
Consumed the Greek
Tragedians and Baudelaire,
Proust, Robert Burton
And the Po-Chu-i. Ice
Thickened on the sills.
More for the sake of the cat,
We said, than for ourselves,
Who huddled, shivering,
Against the stove
All winter long.
("The End of the Library")

I turn around and backtrack out of Silver Poets of the 16th Century. Maybe "S. Schwartz" identified a few poems that seemed to inform Kees’s work, underlined a few Keesian lines in the Wyatts, but grew disappointed himself when he could not find some margin note or some underscore that betrayed Kees’s presence in the book. Some lines underlined in pencil have the word "seek." I start to see one of those Elizabethan anagrams. I have to stop this. I have to let my maybes melt in my hands. One lone book from Kees’s broken library is not a small piece of Rosetta stone for understanding him. It quickly turns from Lucy’s jaw to the monkey’s shinbone. This "little find" is simply one of Kees’s black peony seeds. (They tick in the poem "The Testimony of James Apthorp.") It is just a dot in the ellipsis that runs out from his short life, which I tried to put end to end. And it won’t be in the biography I finished, that might lie for a time in bookstores that Kees can never enter again browsing for that continuum he found in Silver Poets of the 16th Century, the one that keeps going on for whoever holds his books, his poems:

"This age is not entirely bad."
It’s bad enough, God knows, but you
Should know Elizabethans had
Sweeneys and Mrs. Porters too.
The past goes down and disappears,
The present stumbles home to bed,
The future stretches out in years
That no one knows, and you’ll be dead.
("The Speakers")


Weldon Kees Commodified
(at long last)
for Higher Education

In graduate school, I remember that my entreaties to write a dissertation about Weldon Kees were met with wan smiles and soft but forceful dissuasion from my academic advisors. This was Rutgers in the early 80s, where one of my professors gleefully waxed about his students “infiltrating” Reagan’s CIA to humanize it and another tried to clone the Partisan Review in his own image. My interest-and certainly the interest of many others-has survived the disinterest of gods and powerbrokers.  Much good work has been done on Kees. He has even entered the commercial academic mainstream in the page below, adapted from the web site of University Prep, Inc.

-James Reidel

 

This is what you can expect from us:

  • An opportunity to have your work evaluated by college professors.
  • The benefit of our experience in working with first year college students. We see what mistakes almost everyone makes and we know how to avoid them.
  • Tips on writing for style, expression and clarity, advice on developing your active reading skills, and ideas for effective ways to manage your time at school.
  • And most importantly, detailed, critical assessment of your reading and writing skills.

For example, we recently assessed this paragraph from an exam.

Weldon Kees' poem, "For My Daughter," can, in a way, be viewed as the opposite of what John Donne is saying in "Death be not Proud." John Donne is trying to say that Death shouldn't be proud because, "Death, thou shalt die." Kees, on the other hand, recognizes that this idea of a daughter, who doesn't really exist, is a hopeless idea, revealing his fatalism. In this way, John Donne can be viewed as optimistic and Weldon Kees is pessimistic.

Here's what we had to say.


CLICK HERE TO ENLARGE

In addition to detailed corrections of your text we offer comments like the following:

Your essential idea in this paragraph is good and you are certainly correct to identify a substantial difference between the theme of Donne and that of Kees. However, you need to focus on economy of expression. Several sentences are broken with unnecessarily complex clauses. For example, the first sentence of the paragraph can be simplified to communicate its point directly. Moreover, avoid colloquial expressions such as "in a way" or "trying to say." Colloquial expressions may be useful in spoken dialogue, but detract from the academic tone of your essay. Your use of the quotation from Donne is very good and serves to clearly illustrate the first half of your point. However, you need to use a quotation from Kees that balances the other half of your argument. If Kees is truly pessimistic as you suggest, what specific lines of his poem reflect that fatalism? For example, why not make use of the obvious expression of pessimism in the lines, "Night's slow poison, tolerant and bland,/ has moved her blood," as an example of a counterwieght to Donne's obvious optimism?

A complete UPI essay of approximately 7 to 10 paragraphs will allow us to identify weaknesses and problems in your writing and suggest ways to correct your weaknesses before those mistakes cost you in college.

The UPI courses also offer you a chance to read some of the best literature ever written. You'll choose from the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, William Shakespeare, John Donne, Percy Shelley and Plato. You will also get the chance to reflect on those texts through the lecture notes of professors who want to help you understand these works and express your ideas about them.


Stein Gallery Gives Clues to Mystery of Weldon Kees
by Hilton Kramer

This column ran on page 1 in the 4/19/99 edition of The New York Observer.

In July 1955, the American poet Weldon Kees disappeared and was presumed to have committed suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. His car was found on the north approach to the bridge, where it had been abandoned in the midsummer fog. There was no suicide note, and the body was never found. Kees and his wife had moved from New York to San Francisco in 1950, and at the time of his disappearance, at age 41, he had been working as a jazz pianist and writing songs.

Kees was clearly one of the most extraordinary talents of his generation, and his own talents were many. While he is mainly remembered today for his poetry — his Collected Poems is still in print and very much admired — Kees also had a brief but remarkable career as a painter and an even shorter career as an art critic. He was briefly Clement Greenberg’s successor as the art critic for The Nation, a position he abandoned when he moved to San Francisco.

He was a literary critic as well. In New York in the 1940s he contributed to Partisan Review, and he worked as a book reviewer for Time, where his editor was Whittaker Chambers. A volume of Kees’ critical writings, Reviews and Essays 1936-1955, which includes his art reviews for The Nation, is also in print. One of his other jobs in New York was editing newsreels, and earlier on he had written a good deal of fiction. Kees wasn’t exaggerating when he once described himself as "the most versatile artist now working in America."

It’s been a long time, however, since his paintings were last exhibited in New York, where he used to show at Lou Pollack’s Peridot Gallery. The Peridot was a highly respected venue for the American avant-garde in the 1950s, and it was there that I first saw Kees’ paintings nearly 50 years ago. I was in graduate school at Columbia University and going to lectures at the New School. I lived on West 12th Street, and soon discovered the Peridot, which was first located at 6 East 12th Street. (It later moved to upper Madison Avenue.)

The first show I saw at the Peridot was a Weldon Kees exhibition. I already knew Kees’ name (as a writer) from Partisan Review, and I knew he was also painting from an English professor I had studied with as an undergraduate — Maurice Johnson, who had been one of Kees’ most devoted friends since growing up together in Nebraska. Some of Kees’ most amusing letters, full of literary gossip, were written to Johnson from New York during World War II when the latter was serving in the US Army. What I mainly recall about that Peridot show at this distance in time is that the paintings, all in the Abstract Expressionist style of the then emerging New York School, were entirely executed in blacks, grays and whites.

In The Paintings of Weldon Kees, the small show that has now come to the Gallery Gertrude Stein, I am pretty sure that at least two of the pictures, The Delta and The Delta No. 2, were in that 1950 Peridot exhibition. The current show, which I regret to say has a rather makeshift look about it — some of the pictures are in urgent need of a cleaning and all are in need of better lighting — is based on an exhibition organized a few years ago by the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska in collaboration with the University of Iowa Museum of Art. If I am right about the Delta pictures, the date assigned to The Delta No. 2 (1951) would have to be changed. It’s my impression, in any case, that Kees didn’t continue painting in this vein after he left New York. I believe he concentrated on doing collages once he was settled in San Francisco.

Whatever its shortcomings, however, this exhibition is bound to be a poignant experience for anyone acquainted with the life and work of Weldon Kees. He was never an amateur or a dilettante in any of his artistic endeavors. He was a complete professional, and amazingly quick to pick up on new veins of feeling in the arts and new ways of realizing them even in a medium in which he was a novice. In New York in the 1940s, when established opinion was still largely hostile to the Abstract Expressionist movement, he understood its importance, and straightaway plunged in as a participant. He mastered a medium for which nothing in his literary experience could have prepared him, and produced paintings that were sufficiently compelling to be exhibited in the company of pictures by Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell and other luminaries at the New York School.

Kees seems to have understood the Abstract Expressionist impulse on immediate contact and from the inside, so to speak, long before it became a bandwagon. For a few years, he produced some very remarkable pictures. There is no doubt in my mind that, had he been of a mind to do so, Kees himself could have become one of the stars of the movement. Yet, on the verge of his own success, he fled from it in what we can now see must have been something like a state of panic for yet another attempt to begin his creative life all over again.

What demons afflicted his soul we shall probably never know with any certainty. What we do know is that he was rejected for military service in World War II on "psychological" grounds. Robert Knoll, the editor of Weldon Kees and the Midcentury Generation (1986), a book of Kees’ letters, suggests that he may have been diagnosed as a manic depressive. This makes a certain sense, to be sure, if only because Kees was obviously given to manic enthusiasms in his creative work. His paintings are clearly the result of one of his high periods of enthusiasm.

In the prologue to his fine edition of the letters, Mr Knoll writes that "Weldon Kees had the singular ability to know where the action was to be, and to participate in it: he foresaw the shape of art to come. Solitude was the price of his achievement, and it may have been greater than he could pay, emotionally fragile as he was." It is a melancholy story, and made no less melancholy when we recall that Kees’ life was, as his contemporary Robert Lowell wrote in one of his poems, "the generic one/ our generation offered" — a reference to the suicides of Randall Jarrell and John Berryman and Lowell’s own episodes of madness.

Still, we have the paintings and the poems and a good deal else, altogether an amazing achievement by "the most versatile artist" of his day. The exhibition of Kees’ paintings remains on view at the Gallery Gertrude Stein, 55 West 57th Street, through May 16.


The Weldon Kees issue of Verse is still available. Individual copies are $6 US and £4 UK at selected bookstores. Copies may also be obtained from Verse’s Editorial Offices at the Department of English, College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA 23187-8796 and at the University of St Andrews, School of English, Fife KY16 9AL, Scotland.




KEES CD! Holiday Rag (Pittsburgh: Badger Press, 1998) is a selection of original jazz music by Weldon Kees and the San Francisco Jazz Revival clarinetist Bob Helm. This CD contains seventeen compositions culled from demo tapes that Kees and Helm made in the early 1950s. The songs feature Kees singing his haunting lyrics and playing piano — including several original ragtime numbers. To order copies, write or e-mail Barry Thorpe, PO Box 888, Trinidad, CA 95570 / bthorpe@radc.com.


Three Exhibits

American studies by Weldon Kees, Denver, c. 1940

Edited by James Reidel

Home

The houses were identical all up and down the block. One-story bungalows, oatmeal-colored stucco, with red-shingled roofs and copies of the evening paper folded in triangles on the porches.

To make sure, Purviance counted the houses from the corner. It was, after all, the only safe way. Once, he had opened the front door of the house next to his, to witness a sight he had not soon forgotten. If only he had had his camera that day! A lot of money was being made by some of the boys in that racket, he reflected.

Their house was the seventh from the corner.

Purviance limped up the steps, picked up the paper, and went inside. In the front room, his sister and some of her high school friends were playfully doing something to the dog that was causing it to howl in pain. His grandfather sat by the window, dropping poison into the goldfish bowl. He hummed contentedly, his upper plates rattling.

How good it was to be home!

Purviance went upstairs. Gangrene, the doctor had said. He went in the bathroom and examined his leg. It was a hideous color. The doctor had been quite right in his diagnosis. It would have to come off, anyone could see that.

Purviance put down the lid of the toilet and sat on it. The sooner the operation was over, the better. Perhaps that old crutch was still around, the one Aunt Hortense had used in the weeks following the nasty fall she had taken down the back steps. The crutch had been very helpful up until the time complications had set in.

He frowned; then his face cleared. He remembered seeing the crutch in the attic not many weeks before. It was still in fine shape; even the little rubber dingus on the end was pliable and secure. He would go up and get it later in the afternoon.

Currier & Ives

One of the most colorful of the Park scenes. Greeley strolling on driveway in foreground. Waterfall in center background. Hunter with his dog on river bank. Very attractive view of Mount Vernon. Old time winter scene: various types of sleighs, a group skating, children snow-balling. The "Robert E. Lee" steaming down the river, with a happy negro family dancing outside their cabin on the bank. The "Stonewall Jackson" sailing up-stream, with the same happy negro family on the roof of their cabin.

Colored coachman leading sleigh and pair of horses to door of a mansion. The family leaves for a drive. "The Shade and Tomb of Washington." "Feeding the Chickens." Terrific bayonet charge of the Ninth Ohio Volunteers. Pair of dogs raising a covey of partridges. "The Queen of the Turf — Maud. S." (Driven by W W Bair.) "Trotting for a Great Stake." Part of the town in flames. Confederate army on foot; civilians in carriages flocking across bridge in foreground. An amusing cartoon of Jeff Davis, dressed in woman's clothes, running from some Yankee soldiers. "Poor Trust is Dead, Bad Pay Killed Him." (Dog, with "Trust" on his collar, lying on his back.)

"Look at Mama." (Young lady holding a child near a mirror where she points out her mother's image.) Two white kittens playing around a basket from which they are pulling the roses. Entitled, "Kitties Among the Roses." Currier & Ives cat prints are now much sought for. Have you a Currier & Ives cat print?

"Grand National Democratic Banner" Peace! Union! and Victory! Colored lithograph. Portraits of Genl. Geo B McClelland and Hon Geo H Pendleton. Figure of Liberty, scene emblematic of prosperity, clasped hands and horns of plenty. ($6.00) Washington on a river bank, seated on horse, telescope in right hand, arm extended. Washington on a gray horse. Washington on a brown horse. Washington on a different white horse. Washington asleep; thorough a doorway a glimpse of the camp.

In a cloud above his head three female figures representing Liberty (with her foot on a crown), Justice and others scattering flowers from a horn of plenty. Washington standing with his arm outstretched. "The Fiend of the Road" (Fine copy of this humorous winter scene.) $85.00.

"The Fruits of Temperance" (A contented family in a well furnished home. Through the window is a scene suggestive of commerce and industry.) "God Bless Our Home" (Motto on scroll with background of bouquet of flowers.) A ne'er-do-well trudging the roadside, a crying child by his side. The despairing wife follows carrying two younger children.

No. 1: "Skip softly lub, don't sturb de ole man and de bull pup." No. 2: "Hurry, Mister Johnsing, dars dat chile lopin wif de coachman." Very amusing. (Pair, $15.00)

Interior of a shoe store. A female raising her skirt to show her new shoes. Clerk stands by apparently satisfied with the fit. White kitten on table trying to reach canary in cage. Curly-haired boy with hands clasped; border of red drapes. On the lawn the mother is seated with her youngest child. A brother and sister play with a St. Bernard dog. Is "Trust" on his collar? It is. Burning ships, vase of flowers, Indian brave in full war-paint, motto on scroll; apples, pears, strawberries, cherries, etc., with a bird in center of group. The animals enter the Ark under Noah's direction. "Chang" and "Eng," the World-Renowned Siamese Twins.

An American Study

"It's all right with me," he said. He was a large man in a white-and-blue striped shirt and a rather soiled panama hat. He had been perspiring freely.

"Oh, everything's all right with you," his wife said. "It would be all right with you if the sky fell in."

She was complaining about the rain that had begun to fall just as they were about to start on a sight-seeing tour of the city.

The sky was dirty and streaked, and a girl in a red raincoat went by in the rain, her mascara running down her cheeks.

They vent back into the hotel lobby, passing several men, each of whom wore a fez and an idiotic expression. A Shriners' convention was on.

"I should've joined," he said, looking at the men.

"What?" his wife asked. "Joined what?"

"The Shriners," he said. "They've always impressed me as a pretty fine sort of organization."

"You and your organizations," she said bitterly. "As if I didn't have enough that winter you was in the Klan."

Her husband said nothing. They went by the potted palms, stepping over some Shriners who had passed out on the stairs. A few had assumed positions of some interest. The elevator was out of commission. They walked up the three flights.

In their room, the woman sat on the edge of the bed and took off her hat. It was a large purple hat with a velvet ribbon.

"Give me the phone book, Rumb Dumb," she said.

He handed it to her. "What you going to do?"

"See if there's any Feibleman's in the book. I think Aunt Cora told me once that a cousin of ours lives down here."

He went in the bathroom and began to shave.

"Water's sure hard in this town," he remarked.

She was looking in the F's.

"About the hardest water we've run into, this trip."

She raised her head. "Pipe down. How you expect me to concentrate with you talking all the time?"

He shaved cautiously around his chin and adam's apple.

"Not a goddamn Feibleman," his wife said after a while. "Not a goddamn one." She dropped the book on the floor.

"Too bad, honey," he said from the bathroom, getting lather in his mouth.

After dinner it had stopped raining and they saw one of the Hardy Family pictures, which was enjoying a three-day run at one of the neighborhood theatres near the hotel.

Copyright © 1999 by the Estate of Weldon Kees


Afterword to The Waiting Room

a play by Weldon Kees

In a letter dated April 21, 1955, three months before his car was found on the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge and he disappeared forever, the poet Weldon Kees confided to a musician friend that he looked forward to writing "for the theatre for a while." Kees mentioned his musical revue, Pick Up the Pieces, which he had started in the late summer of 1954, just after his divorce from his wife Ann, who he had institutionalized for alcoholism and paranoid behavior unhealthily informed by the televised Army–McCarthy hearings. The revue had "dragged out" for months, interrupted by other ventures that included a new book of poems and a long-running literary burlesque show, Poets' Follies 1955, for which Kees wrote a few one-act satires. Now he was enthusiastically "writing another play," and he had "a long one in mind"—his tone suggesting something more serious. As far as new poems were concerned, he wanted to "fiddle" with them again. "But I'm a bit tired," he confessed, "of that particular struggle."

The new play, The Waiting Room, Kees wrote for three actresses who had been helping him renovate the Showplace, the name he had given to barn-shaped structure in San Francisco's Mission District, which had served as a boy's club—and a music hall in the Barbary Coast days. With the last of his personal funds, he leased the building for $60 a month, with the hope that it would become a center for cultural life in the city.
One of the actresses, Nina Boas, an attractive young woman with long dark hair tied in the kind of ponytail that was fashionable in the 50s, even served as inspiration. Privately bemoaning the fact that she was married, Kees poured his real feelings for Nina in creating a lead role for her. As it turned out, Nina did not disappoint him. Observing her in the play's first readings in early May, Kees remarked that Nina "does everything but fly a kite" as Nancy, the disturbed young woman left waiting for her husband and child. At one of these readings, he may have heard the love poem that he had originally planned for her to recite instead of the Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Kees intended The Waiting Room to be part of a program that included three other one-acters: Sweeney Agonistes by T.S. Eliot, The Gallant Cassian by Arthur Schnitzler, and The Tenor by Frank Wedekind. The choices, certainly approved if not made by Kees comprised an evening of drama titled 4 Times 1 that was never performed. The San Francisco Fire Marshal ordered the Showplace closed due to code violations. With the cost of repairing the building too high, Kees canceled the show, a decision that sent him into a depression that even his attempts at humor failed to hide. "The fire department's final dicta involved sheetrocking The Showplace practically down to the faucets in the lavatory," he wrote one of his actors in early June, "the towel, clutched compulsively for so long has now been thrown in." Soon after, Kees began to talk of suicide and starting a new life.

The Waiting Room is one of the earliest examples of American theater to digest the lessons of the European existentialists. It suggests the influence of Waiting for Godot, for Grove Press had published the English text of Samuel Beckett's play in 1954, and Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit. Yet Kees's hell in the pursuit of happiness takes on a decidedly American shape and tempo: that of the American teleplay. Before writing his play, Kees had made several attempts to write—and star—in a locally produced television series titled Helm's Hideaway, about a bar established by a struggling group of actors and jazz musicians. He had also, in April 1955, tried to form an alliance with a San Francisco television production company to produce T.S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes for television. Both of these ventures were intended to fit the half-hour time slots that television stations still had open for locally produced programming. This consideration may have factored in the length of The Waiting Room—and later worked against it.

An American pathos, which Kees refined from the dark undertow of the black comedy that flavors much of his poetry, also sets The Waiting Room apart from modern European theatre. The headline Jill reads in the play, with its reference to Eisenhower, is from a newspaper that lines the bottom of a birdcage. Kees's intended audience, many of whom were as much disappointed by the defeat of Adlai Stevenson as he was, would have recognized the playwright's social commentary. Others would have seen self-portraiture in Kees's women, for he was as much the frustrated entertainer as he was the poet manqué, as much the mysteriously disappointed and damaged child, whose show business ventures resembled the play of his precocious childhood in Beatrice, Nebraska. There he put on puppet plays for the other children in the Carnegie Library not all that far removed from the shows he put on for the bohemians of San Francisco. At 41, Kees had began to reassess his life in terms of what he had accomplished and what he had not, and he told friends that the weeks in which he planned to stage The Waiting Room would be "rough ones" for him.
The original cast—whose only performances were the rehearsals of The Waiting Room under the playwright's direction—included Nina Boas as Nancy, Jan Davis as Jill, and Penny Vieregge as Patricia. The Man with a Cigar was played by Eric Vaughn, Nancy's Father by Walter McGrail, Bert Shackleton by Byron Bryant, and Millie Erickson as Nancy's Mother. In the years immediately following Kees's disappearance, these actors and a handful of Kees's friends were the only ones to possess copies of the play and know how Kees wanted it performed. Eventually, by word of mouth in San Francisco, the play came to the attention of the poet Kenneth Rexroth. In a review of Kees's Collected Poems in the Sunday New York Times of January 8, 1961, Rexroth wrote that
Besides these moving poems, Weldon Kees left behind an excellent play of the type now most successful off-Broadway, called "The Waiting Room." I hope his heirs will make it available soon. Like his poems, it was just a few years too early.
In a matter of days, Kees's father John Kees, the trustee of his son's literary estate, received requests to read the play from New Horizons Productions and Jullis Productions (off-Broadway theater groups), WCBS-TV's New York Forum, and an independent producer, John C. Fleming. At first the elder Kees tried to enlist the services of his son's former literary agent, Henry Volkening, to handle the inquiries and market the play, but then took on the task himself of providing copies of the play to various interested parties.
Delays in editing and making copies of the play, as well as delicate health, made it hard for John Kees to quickly honor the requests to see it. There were differences in the copies and mistakes had been discovered—and new ones introduced. Copies were not sent until June, yet, as one producer wrote, interest in the play was still very high. Other companies, the American Literary Exchange and the best of the off-Broadway groups, the Phoenix Theatre, expressed interest in securing the rights to produce the play off-Broadway. Writing from Iowa City, Donald Justice, the editor of Kees's Collected Poems, wrote John that he wanted to "secure a local production" of the play from the drama department at the University of Iowa.
While most of the producers found the play out of the ordinary, they considered it too short for use on its own. And where the length of The Waiting Room might have been perfect fit and its world out of the same ethos of the new Twilight Zone series, times had already changed before Weldon Kees could even be declared legally dead. By 1961 the teleplay was an anachronism. Knowing this, Paul Melton of WCBS sent the play back to Nebraska. "I don't mean to damn it with faint praise at all," he wrote the elder Kees, "but the two words that occur to me to describe it are interesting and amusing."

The Waiting Room       John Kees continued to push for a world premiere of his son's play. With John's death in October 1961, however, the determination to do so was lost for many years until there came a revival and painstaking reclamation of Weldon Kees's work. Then, in the Spring 1986 issue, Prairie Schooner printed an unedited and uncorrected typescript of The Waiting Room.
Subsequently, in October 1988, the play, thirty-three years after the closing of The Showplace, enjoyed its long delayed premiere at a literary festival in Kees's honor held in his hometown. There The Waiting Room was simply and, to paraphrase Willa Cather, "honestly" performed in the Best Western Motel on the old federal highway leading into Beatrice. The cast, composed of the Beatrice Community Players, came under the direction of a drama teacher borrowed from the local high school, a detail not lost on a few of us who were there. Kees himself had first acted on the stage of that high school in the very early 30s. Knowing this, I could not help but feel the full circle forming as the three actresses turned a church pew and a motel restaurant into his waiting room. I could almost feel him back for this one night only.                                                                                             J.R.


The Life of the Mind

by Weldon Kees

Note: "The Life of the Mind" was originally published by Robert Lowry in The State of the Nation: 11 Interpretations, at his Little Man Press in Cincinnati in 1940. This story was later anthologized in Best Short Stories of 1941. Although it is a fine piece of Weldon Kees's social commentary, it has not been included in the selections of his fiction that Dana Gioia and I have edited.

Click here to read the story.                                               J.R.


Gadabout: A fragment of an original screenplay by Weldon Kees and Vincent McHugh

In December 1954 the poets Weldon Kees and Vincent McHugh taped their discussions for the screenplay of a film they titled Gadabout, a B-picture thriller set in San Francisco and other California locations. The story centers around the disappearance of Helwig Ennis, a mentally-unbalanced research scientist who possesses a secret formula. He has been "treated" with LSD—in a way that suggests Kees may have heard of the CIA's MK-Ultra Project in San Francisco's demimonde. The other chief characters include Martha Allen, a reporter for the San Francisco Gazette; Professor Bliss Culbert Allen, her father and the head of Ennis'sv research lab; Townsend Rudiger, an advertising executive from New York; Charles E. Forward, Personnel Director of the laboratory and Soviet GPU agent; Glen McBain, a CIA agent; and Harry Peyrel, a private eye tailing Miss Allen. Only the tape and this fragment of the screenplay survive.


Sequence I

[. . .]

One point on the initial sequence when Martha is walking up to the campanile a hot rod crowded with hotrodders moves rapidly down the drive. A cat darts out in front of its headlights and the hotrodders swerve toward the cat to try to kill it. Martha goes over to the cat but the cat is dead.

Sequence II

Martha pulls up in front of her apartment house in S.F. It is now roughly eleven thirty at night. Here, certain mood shooting of the upper parts of the old Victorian bldgs. Martha gets out of the car and we dissolve to her coming into her apt. She is greeted by her roommate, a divorcee of the Glenda Farrell type. The house has many cats in it, seven or eight cats. There is some dialogue of complaint about how the cats have been acting. She also tells Martha that during the evening there have been repeated phone calls from a man who left his name. He is from N.Y. and is called Townsend Rudiger. This name rings a bell to Martha, a knowledgeable newspaperwoman. However, she is most intent upon finding Ennis. The roommate also tells Martha that there was a ring at the bell only fifteen minutes ago but she did not answer because she was afraid. At this point the telephone rings. Martha starts. The girlfriend answers it, says it’s for you. Martha takes it. It’s Rudiger, wanting her to go out with him and see the town.

We cut to Rudiger and introduce him in a telephone booth in a large hotel. He is in evening clothes and is a smoothie, a tassely golden Scott-Fitzgerald type gone rotten. We cut back to Martha who agrees to go out with him and says she will be ready in half an hour. She hangs up. The roommate is getting ready for bed. Activity of cats. Martha petting cats. Martha thinks she hears a sound out in the street. She goes to window and draws the curtains. In front of the house a man is standing in darkness, a silhouette. As Martha looks down, his head turns and he looks up at her window. From far off the sound of fog horns and bells at sea. The man turns his head away and at that point a delivery truck, with "Flying Chopsui" painted on the side, pulls up. The man who has been standing there, picks up a basket containing dirty dishes and gets into the car. Conversation, very brief, between driver and man in Chinese. Very amused, good-natured, they drive off. Martha in close up, face expressing relief. She comes into the room feeling better, makes an affectionate gesture toward one of the cats. We cut back now as the camera with zoomar lens moves across st. and zooms up to a window of a house directly across from Martha’s. Seated at the window is a man only part of whose face can be seen. CUT.

Sequence III

Townsend Rudiger in taxi, pulls up in front of the house. Quick business of introductions, "do you know this one?" "Oh, yes, of course I remember him." All that sort of thing. Quick dissolves. Conversation. Where would you like to go? She wants to go to jazz joints where she thinks she might possibly run into or pick up information on Ennis. He is all for hitting such places as Place Pigalle, Algiers and so forth. She wins the argument. Quick sequences. S.F. atmosphere, Telegraph Hill, Hangover, Embarcadero joints, Pier 23, Blackhawk, ending with Martha and Townsend seated at a table at the Tin Angel. Clancy Hayes with Scobey’s band on bandstand. Clancy sings theme tune, "Haunting." Cuts throughout Sequence III of Glenn McBain around but not observed by Martha or Townsend; planted in such a way that audience has ambiguous relation to McBain. Is he on Martha’s side or the people after the formula? At this point in the Tin Angel, after Clancy had completed his song, Martha talks to one of the waitresses who says that Ennis was in earlier and seemed in rocky shape. Said he might be back later. Martha, very tired. Townsend has to get up in the morning. Debatable whether to stay or not. Finally wait around for awhile but Ennis does not show. It is almost closing time. The waitresses are beginning to shake off the tablecloths and the musicians are getting bushed. They leave. They walk up the st. to hail a cab, and stand on the corner, waiting for a cab. Camera pans to the other side of the Embarcadero. We see a man rather dumpy, 35, shambling, a bit drunk, across the street. He comes into the Tin Angel. The place is almost deserted. The musicians are putting away their instruments. He climbs up to the bar and the bartenders says, "How are you, Helwig?" Helwig looks at the bartender, sand past the bartender, to his face in the mirror, and says "give me a double rye." The bartender says, "this is the last one." He pours him a drink, Helwig looks at the bartender and says, "Eddie, have you ever wanted to take the world and just," and at this point he cups his hands and presses them together. "Have you ever wanted to squeeze the world into a little tiny ball?" At a table behind, Chas. E. Forward is sitting, staring at the mirror. The light is reflected off his glasses—sinister.


Selected excerpts from the Gadabout tape

Weldon Kees: Ennis is a worried man. Somebody has the finger on him for dough. It’s blackmail or some sort of squeeze. It’s either—

Vincent McHugh: This happens after he leaves the laboratory.

WK: It’s something that’s been gathering weight, been taking on pressure for a long time. He’s had inklings.

VM: Or is he the kind of weakie who wants something so badly that how he gets it won’t—What would he want? What, to get away? Suppose he wanted to get away so badly—

WK: He can’t get away. This is a security job. This is such a top security job, you know they won’t let you quit.

VM: No. That’s right. And you can’t leave the country.

[. . .]

VM: Do we stay on the girl’s line or do we bat her out? This is your main problem, I mean in the story—

WK: In the girl’s motivation?

VM: No, no. Do we stay with the girl all the time?

WK: Oh no, we can’t do that. It makes for much too boring a picture—

VM: Oh?

WK: —if you stay with one person all of the time.

VM: Well?

WK: I think M . . . That was the trouble with M.

VM: What about that one Montgomery did, in which the audience—?

WK: It gets to be a drag. Your eye gets tired of looking. I don’t care who it is. As far as movies go, you can’t stay, you’ve got to keep cutting. You’ve got to keep cutting all the time. It makes for more fast moving stuff.

VM: Yeah, you’ve got to keep cutting.

WK: It makes for more excitement, and that way if you know where one person is all the time, you’ve lost something in terms of dramatic tension. You might as well do a stage play.

[. . .]

VM: What about the line of action for these foreign agents?

WK: They . . . have an inkling, not through Ennis, but through another line they’ve got.

VM: They know about Ennis?

WK: They know about Ennis is the man to get to. They know that Ennis is weak. Ennis’ psychiatrist is a complete sellout to them. Ennis’ psychiatrist is a guy who is on dope. He’s a completely corrupt man. He’s a guy who sleeps with his woman patients. He’s a phony Freudian. There is a scene in which the psychiatrist, I mean this Freudian analyst, is having the pressure put on him to help somebody out, and he says, "It’s $25 with me boys, that’s the way I’ve always worked." He points up at the wall and here’s a picture of Freud, and he says, "I got it straight from the master."

VM: Psychiatrists are going to think we had a bad time with somebody.

[. . .]

WK: Let’s not forget. Did you jot down that business I had about going down to the—we get her down to the sports car races in Pebble Beach around about reel seven—

VM: Yeah.

WK: —and that’s when our big chase starts. And we can go into a—I think a chase in that beehive down south. You know those tract houses where everything looks alike?

VM: Oh yeah, yeah.

WK: I think a chase around in that country would be wonderful. I don’t think anything like that has ever been done.

VM: Where are these races? I remember now.

WK: There down at Pebble Beach, and that has some marvelous stuff down there, windblown pines—

VM: Yeah.

WK: —and the woods down there, and movie stars’ homes. Well, she could go down there to do a double assignment. She’s going down there to check with Crosby and also covers the sports car races.

VM: Yeah, yeah. You might get her in the boccie ball court.

WK: Oh yeah, I think that’s essential.

VM: And somebody tosses one of those balls. You know the way they toss them?

WK: Oh yeah.

VM: And just misses her.

WK: Uh-huh.

VM: Yeah. They are really kind of terrifying.

WK: Oh they are, sure.

[. . .]

Weldon Kees and the staff of San Francisco Films, 1955

                                                                                              J.R.


A theatrical interlude from Weldon Kees’s revue, The Seven Deadly Arts . . .

It’s Easy to Criticize

by Weldon Kees and Martin Hesse

Bill Ackridge (puts down guitar and moves up steps) Now, in the next sketch, if you can see your programs in this poorly-illuminated hole—and if I catch anybody striking a match . . . Well, I know a couple of boys at the Fire Department pretty well . . .

An actor walks across stage, stops, lights a cigarette.

Ackridge Now, watch it there, Joe! That goes for a stick of tea, too. You know that.

Actor (nervously hiding cigarette behind his back) Gee, Bill, sorry. I thought you said when I slipped you that last can from Mexico . . .

Ackridge (abruptly) I’ll see you later, Joe. In front of the bail bond place down the block. After the show.

Actor He’s got his sign up. I noticed it coming to the theatre from my grandmother’s.

Ackridge The sign that says, "Gone to the jail"?

Actor No, no. The one that says, "Gone to San Quentin." (He ambles off, sticking the cigarette in his mouth.)

Ackridge It’s actually a very clean little group we have here at the Interplayers. I hope you all understand. Every outfit has one or two people . . .

Another actor walks across stage carrying a large hypodermic needle.

Ackridge (doing a double take) Barry! I’ve warned you!

Another Actor (all innocence) Just going next door to have a shot of penicillin, Bill.

Ackridge Just watch it, now. Just watch it. We’ve had our second warning from the Health Department this week, you know that as well as I do.

Another Actor I’ve got this funny sore throat that just hangs on and on. (Looks at needle with interest and goes off.)

Ackridge (to the audience) It’s been like this all through ten weeks of rehearsals. (pause) Well, to get back to the script.

Reaches in his pocket, can’t find it. One of the girls hurries in and hands him a sheaf of dirty and dogeared pages.

Ackridge Excuse me a minute . . . Hmm . . . Let’s see now . . . (reads) "Dear Mr. Ackridge, I can’t tell you how thrilled I was at your performance the other night. I wonder if you would be interested in having a drink with me after the theatre—whenever you’re free. I am twenty-six, five foot three, blonde, and . . ." (to audience nervously) That isn’t it. (more shuffling through pages of manuscript) Maybe this is it . . . (complainingly, to the audience) No . . . They’ve thrown so much work in this show at me that I really haven’t had the time to get up on everything—

Kees (at piano in pit) For Christ sake, Bill, let me find it.

Kees has moved up on stage and takes the manuscript from Ackridge. Together they try to find a particular sketch.

Kees (finally) There! You never can find anything. You know as well as I do that I’ve fought you being cast for this part from the beginning, Bill. You Stanislavskyites . . .

Ackridge Just go back down there and play the notes, how about it, Weldon?

Kees I think I’ll go out in front and have a smoke.

Ackridge (looks at watch as Kees shuffles up the aisle, speaks to audience) This company is run along democratic line, you know. (shouts at Kees) You’ve got about six minutes.

Kees You were all right in Hitchcock’s play, and some other things, but I’ve told them from the beginning . . . You coming, Adrian? Carol?

Adrian Wilson (as he, Kees, and Carol Leigh exit) I told you we should have done Oedipus Rex.

Ackridge A nice enough fellow, but no real vision. Confidentially . . . (very businesslike) Well, as I was saying, in the next sketch . . . (tries to find the title of it on the page) Oh yes, a thing called "It’s Easy to Criticize." Now that he’s gone . . . (nods toward the street) . . . I might say I never cared too much for it. For me, it doesn’t have that . . . well . . . largeness . . . that sense of warmth and optimism and . . . well, real vision. Idealism. (muses, looks at page again wearily) Well, let’s get on with it. (briskly) In this sketch, which is about art critics . . . (aside) What a subject! (to the audience) I play the part of a hard-bitten newspaperman.

An actor, propman type, slovenly, comes in with a Brooks Brothers tweed jacket, a snap-brim hat, and a neat conservative tie. Stands in readiness.

Ackridge Managed to make your entrance all right tonight, eh? (to the audience) A hard-bitten newspaperman . . . They used to look like this.

Takes hat, shoves it way on the back of his head, puts cigarette butt in the corner of his mouth. Another propman enters fast, hands him a 1920’s-type telephone.

Ackridge (Lee Tracy manner) You heard me, Charlie! I’ve covered the big ones for the Herald, the Times, the News—name any sheet in this man’s town and "Scoop" Ackridge was right there with the best goddamn newspapermen that ever won the Pulitzer. (in his natural role) But today . . .

Propman helps him off with his jacket. Ackridge quickly gets into a snap-on conservative tie, buts on Brooks Brothers jacket, adjusts hat to appear next, well-groomed Montgomery Street type.

Ackridge Hard-bitten, eh? Columbia University School of Journalism, class of 1943, graduate work at the University of Chicago, Master’s Degree on "Social Implications of Typography, Format, and the Headline as a Cultural Determinant." Fulbright Fellowship. Wife and two children. Live in Belvedere, where I raise champion airedales. A fine animal, the airedale.

Kees, Adrian Wilson, and Carol Leigh come down the aisle.

Kees Well come on, get on with it!

Ackridge Just play the notes, just play the notes.

Kees (sitting down at the piano) Did (name of actor) get to the theatre yet?

Ackridge Didn’t they give you the message? He had to work late at the bowling alley tonight. (looks at watch) Said he thought he’d make it in time to slap his makeup on.

Adrian Wilson He’s been having a lot of trouble setting up the pins lately.

Ackridge As I was saying . . . (looks sternly at the musicians in the pit)


Notes

Weldon Kees is the primary author of this sketch, written for the Interplayers, the San Francisco theater group in September 1954. Bill Ackridge and Carol Leigh were members of the group, as was the poet, painter, and editor of the literary journal Kayak, George Hitchcock. Adrian Wilson, the printer (and amateur jazz clarinetist), set Weldon Kees’s last book, Poems 1947–1954.

Kees intended this sketch to lead into a send-up of four San Francisco art critics celebrating a housewife assembliste (i.e., one who glues seashells and the like together). One of the Interplayers played of Kenneth Rexroth, Kees’s rival . . .

Rexroth This is the apogee of assemblism in our time. I have only seen nadirs before. The craft of the assembliste has been brought to such fruition that, to my way of thinking, there is no more that can be said by anyone at any time, through this medium of the bark, bits and bobs school. Now she must move on to some new and original form of her own. Where will this lead her? Think what she would do with moss, peat, or larvae! She may even turn to sequins—those prosaic things—but in the firm and capable hands of Matilda Maggie Turtle, they will become MAGIC THINGS. Or she may pick up just anything on the beach and suspend them. You’re thinking—Ah, mobiles—no, these will be new delights to fascinate the eye and titillate the inner eye.


Photo: William Heick. Used with permission.

                                                                                              J.R.




Helm's Hideway — a television show by Weldon Kees

In November 1954, Weldon Kees described his idea for a television program in a letter to the jazz clarinetist Bob Helm, his friend and music collaborator. At the same time, he was as much taken up with preparing a book of poems for publication — he had just written Allen Tate for a jacket blurb when the television idea struck — which shares the imagination behind the strange, cathartic personality of Helm's Hideaway. Like the poems Kees had gathered for his book, the television show looks ahead to what Kees might have written, which is to say Helm's Hideaway is confessional. Kees saw the actors — his San Francisco friends — playing themselves and making light of their own setbacks. The show, as he imagined it, would be as easy as turning a camera on himself, the piano player, a persona that he felt comfortable with in real life — unlike Robinson.

[. . .]

One thing that awaits yr return is a TV show some of us are cooking up. The way it came about is this: Bill Ackridge, an excellent actor, comedian, and singer (who plays a Brubeckian character in the washboard-Consumers' Union skit and is also handling PERFECT FOR ME) knows about a backer who wants to sponsor a low-budget (naturally) TV show. I got to thinking of something that might work and Barbara Brockway and I have been kicking around a format. As I see it now, the cast would include the following: you, Ackridge, Harry McKenna, Freddie, Barbara & myself. The show cd be called HELM'S HIDEAWAY or something along those lines. Story line somewhat as follows: a group of disgruntled and unemployed actors and musicians open their own club, but business is on the lean side. You, Freddie, and Ackridge (an excellent guitarist, rather Al Caseyish but versatile as hell) are the house trio. Ackridge also doubles as major domo and waiter, if business demands, which it usually doesn't. Barbara plays an actress & former writer of radio commercials who is a waitress at present. Harry McKenna (a remarkable actor & comedian, about 55, worked with the Theatre Guild in the twenties and had been in many Broadway shows) is an out-of-work actor who tends bar.

Weldon Kees's sketch for the set of Helm's Hideway.

I play a song-writer who can't get his songs published or recorded. You and I, it goes without saying, have collaborated on tunes. Sometimes, during the course of the show, Freddie and I play piano duets. (We have been working on this, sounds fair & I can get pretty good with a lot of rehearsing.) There is also a vocal trio — you, Ackridge & me. Format of show, which Barbara & I will lay out rough scripts for, would call for two or three tunes for each half-hour show. Beauty of the set-up is that everybody involved ad libs well & the thing wouldn't involve extensive rehearsals. Both Barbara & Ackridge direct well for the stage. Everybody involved in the cast can double in some way — acting, singing, playing instruments, a couple can even dance. I have inquired around and had some dealings with the people at AFTRA. Actors now get $43.50 for a half hour TV show (this also covers 2 hrs of rehearsal time.) (Musicians who don't speak lines still get $14!) We can use an enormous amount of original tunes, and use guest stars — actors, dancers and musicians that are around. Dialog would be easy-going: cast bitching about things, reminiscing about experiences in the theatre, clubs, recording dates, people they've known. — We will keep mulling this over & Bill will try to keep his sponsor warm; but I think we will away your return before heating it up to a boiling point. Let me have yr reactions to this. Could budget the thing at around $350, at the lowest (need to hire a good man to build sets, do stage managing, and look out for props, contacts, etc.) but maybe the sponsor would stand more. Too early to tell.

[. . .]

                                                                                              J.R.




San Francisco Letter — A Kees Fragment

In March 1955 Weldon Kees planned a series of "San Francisco letters" for Art News. Hoping to depict the city as an alternative to the cultural epicenter of New York, Kees intended his letters to be more than simply a survey of art events. Kees felt San Francisco was a refuge from negative trends in American society that affected artists, writers, and their allies. The following is from Kees's trial letter. Only the opening paragraphs remain. Art News did not pick up the series. Instead, a listing of "summer events" appeared under Kees's byline in the June issue, a month before he disappeared.
ALLEN Tate has written some of the best poems and criticism of our time, and has been called "one of the most distinguished living American men of letters," occupying a position resembling that of the late Paul Valéry in France. He is also one of the few writers of my acquaintance who really knows painting; Tate was buying de Kooning, for instance, years before 57th Street heard of him. In late March, he was in San Francisco for a few days during the course of trip to read his work and lecture in a number of towns and cities on the West Coast. We have been friends for many years, and it was extremely pleasant to see him again after a long time. Tate had never visited here before. We had lunch at a restaurant near the ocean, not far from Cliff House, and then walked for a while on China Beach, a little-frequented spot in the Presidio and only a short distance from downtown. It offers a remarkable view of Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific, with gulls and lighthouses and an appalling brilliance of sunshine and, on that day, a small, shy dachshund with whom Tate and I attempted to strike up an acquaintanceship. There were blizzards in other parts of the country that day, as I recall; we felt hot in our business suits. Tate has never struck me as an overly-excitable man, but he turned suddenly as we walked on the sand and exclaimed, "Why hasn't anyone told me about Northern California before?" They had, I suppose; he was merely reacting as most visitors from the East (Tate now teaches at the University of Minnesota) to this city. And as we drove back through the Presidio, he looked out at the houses on the hills, like slices of white cake, and spoke of how they reminded him of towns on the Mediterranean.
Everyone who comes here wants, apparently, to stay; at least they say so. And more and more are arriving, thousands and thousands of them. The city spreads and grows down the Peninsula as smog-dazed refugees from Los Angeles and nervous émigrés from New York and other Eastern points pull in. Among them are increasing numbers of painters, writers, and educators. Something of this sort needs to be said in order to talk about the atmosphere of this city, where so much art activity, good, bad, and indifferent, is carried on.
It is possible to avoid here the narrowness of role into which one is cast in other towns I have known; I am thinking of places where painters speak only to painters, and where some of them merely talk to themselves. Novelists, poets, painters, sculptors, film-makers, printers and designers, composers, musicians and actors find it easy to meet on common ground, to become friends, and even to work together. Art galleries are springing up like so many ice plants; some of the blocks on Fillmore Street, in the Marina, are beginning to resemble a more sunlit version of 57th Street. Only New York has more art movie houses, and the last official count of little theatres in the area was forty-three, all of them group members of the Regional Theatre Council. There are undoubtedly many more unrecorded. As for the museums, I plan to deal at length with some of their current activities in a subsequent letter.


Kees's snapshot of the Golden Gate Bridge.

                                                                                                 J.R.



Auden Wet His Bed

W.H. Auden was considered the most influential poet in America in the early 50s. Many poets measured themselves against him. One was Weldon Kees, who, perhaps more than his other contemporaries, worked intensively to differentiate his poetry from that of Auden’s. Kees, unfortunately, suffered for this after his promising start in the late 40s. As a matter of course, Robert Giroux of Harcourt Brace and other editors rejected his last book, A Breaking and a Death, for economic reasons when poetry books and poetry readings were very much in fashion as long as they were by fashionable poets like Dylan Thomas. Here Kees, in a 1954 letter, took the opportunity to drop decorum and pass along some intelligence and shoptalk to Conrad Aiken — out of reach of Muses’ ears:

Dear Conrad, The lady with whom Wystan "Cuddles" Auden was staying, a teacher at SF State College, who has offered similar accommodations on earlier occasions to "Little Farfel" Spender and the late Welsh rarebit, told a friend of mine that she couldn’t wait for him to leave her bed & board. Turns out Ole Wyst wets the bed every night. Sheer spite, the lady thought. — So if he ever wants to hit the hay at your place, get out the baby’s rubber sheeting, or, better yet, send him over to the corner of the hen-house.

Tough about WC Wms. Who is the new librarian at the LC? Does he still let the members of Congress take out as many Erle Stanley Gardners as they can carry? I believe Williams is scheduled to come out here, but God I’m tired of poetry readings. Even tireder of all the Homages to Dylan.

                                                                                                                                   J.R.



Where's That Happy Ending

Weldon Kees's poetry and life are expressed in the lyrics he wrote, like this torch song, written in October 1954, with music by Freddie Crews.

Where's that happy ending?
Where's that perfect man?
Where's that stair ascending,
To the house I planned?
I got it straight from the movies
And from the books that I see
That happy ending waited for me,
Just had to be;
Now in a room in the city,
Night after night all alone,
I stare at hands that are pretty;
Though they're all my own,
They reach for no phone call.
With the sun descending,
Lights across the bay,
There's a comprehending,
When the world goes gray,
Strange how the things believed in
Fall like the leaves from a bough.
Where's that happy ending now?

Special thanks to John Schulman of Caliban Books and Bob Helm, Kees's friend and music collaborator, for making these lyrics available.                                                                                                                                    J.R.




Weldon Kees and Alger Hiss

With the passing of Alger Hiss, it is interesting to look at what Weldon Kees thought of his accuser, Whittaker Chambers, the self-professed Soviet agent, translator of Bambi, and Kees's editor at time in 1943. This is Kees's reaction to Chambers' autobiography, Witness, from a 1950 letter:

I have been, am, and am becoming more & more out of sympathy with the doctrines of Mssrs. Dostoievsky & Chambers, with their absolutisms & assurance & intolerance; I think they insult human variability & that they insult every human being who has tried to struggle for goodness & decency without benefit of the particular dogmas of Dostoievsky & Chambers. They insult every member of every other religious faith, whose views I would not for a moment admit are inferior to those of Dostoievsky & Chambers. They insult the dignity of every great moralist and philosopher and artist who has searched his own vision. They insult the good and decent and kind men I have known who did not believe, with Dostoyevsky, that all nobility, all culture, receives its strength from the idea of God. Dostoievsky says that "if we do not acknowledge Christ we shall err in everything." But I think that men may acknowledge Christ until they are blue in the face & still do evil: for I have watched Whittaker Chambers, for instance, in operation, and it is not a pretty sight; and I believe deeply and with all my heart that moral and ethical values exist aside from religious belief: "If anyone proved to me that Christ was not in the truth, and it really was a fact that the truth was not in Christ, I would rather be with Christ than with the truth." To such stuff as this, I say, resoundingly, loudly, and with spirit, No.                                                                                                                                                                                                           J.R.

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