Weldon Kees Sidebars
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
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.
Jesus Poem Anthology
I read some
poetry the way others read old National Geographicsat 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 findand have heard it saidthat 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.
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
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
Keess A Distance from the Sea and Franz Werfels
Jesus and the Carrion Path. Both share that conceit of being
narrated by some anonymous discipleand 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 wouldnt
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 Bahai 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 Werfels Jesus and the Carrion Path I had
to reread Keess 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. Werfels 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.
from the Sea
To Ernest Brace
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 crowds response was instantaneous. He
Handled it well, I thoughtthe 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?
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 infinitehorn-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.Its dark here on the peak, and keeps on getting
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.
1975 by the University of Nebraska Press
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 mountains 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.
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.
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!
myself Lovenow I have to stop
Gagging myself before the most dreadful
Laws, ah, Im as empty as the lowest whore,
As full of it as my cuckooing despair.
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?!
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 Gods dove lilted
Rapturously in the blue, giant wind.
James Reidel, tr.
on a parable from the writings of Abdul-Bahá, the leader of the
Baháí faith in the early
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
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
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
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
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-
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:
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.
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
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
("Aspects of Robinson")
In bed with a Mrs. Morse, . . .
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
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,
"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.
(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
is what you can expect from us:
opportunity to have your work evaluated by college professors.
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.
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.
most importantly, detailed, critical assessment of your reading and
example, we recently assessed this paragraph from an exam.
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.
what we had to say.
CLICK HERE TO ENLARGE
addition to detailed corrections of your text we offer comments like the
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
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.
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
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
an art critic. He was briefly Clement Greenberg’s successor as the art
for The Nation, a position he abandoned when he moved to San
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,
editor was Whittaker Chambers. A volume of Kees’
critical writings, Reviews and Essays 1936-1955, which includes
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
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
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
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’
letters, full of literary gossip, were written to Johnson from New York
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
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,
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
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,
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
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
experience for anyone acquainted with the life and work of Weldon Kees.
was never an amateur or a dilettante in any of his artistic endeavors.
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
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
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
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
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
amazing achievement by "the most versatile artist" of his day. The
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 /
American studies by Weldon Kees, Denver, c.
The houses were identical all up and down the block. One-story
oatmeal-colored stucco, with red-shingled roofs and copies of the
paper folded in triangles on the porches.
To make sure, Purviance
houses from the corner. It was, after all, the only safe way. Once, he
opened the front door of the house next to his, to witness a sight he
soon forgotten. If only he had had his camera that day! A lot of money
being made by some of the boys in that racket, he reflected.
Their house was the seventh from the
Purviance limped up the steps, picked up
and went inside. In the front room, his sister and some of her high
friends were playfully doing something to the dog that was causing it
in pain. His grandfather sat by the window, dropping poison into the
bowl. He hummed contentedly, his upper plates rattling.
How good it was to be home!
Purviance went upstairs. Gangrene, the
said. He went in the bathroom and examined his leg. It was a hideous
The doctor had been quite right in his diagnosis. It would have to
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
still around, the one Aunt Hortense had used in the weeks following
fall she had taken down the back steps. The crutch had been very
until the time complications had set in.
He frowned; then his face cleared. He
seeing the crutch in the attic not many weeks before. It was still in
shape; even the little rubber dingus on the end was pliable and
would go up and get it later in the afternoon.
Currier & Ives
One of the most colorful of the Park scenes. Greeley strolling on
in foreground. Waterfall in center background. Hunter with his dog on
bank. Very attractive view of Mount Vernon. Old time winter scene:
types of sleighs, a group skating, children snow-balling. The
Lee" steaming down the river, with a happy negro family dancing
their cabin on the bank. The "Stonewall Jackson" sailing
with the same happy negro family on the roof of their cabin.
Colored coachman leading sleigh and pair
to door of a mansion. The family leaves for a drive. "The Shade
of Washington." "Feeding the Chickens." Terrific
of the Ninth Ohio Volunteers. Pair of dogs raising a covey of
"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
foreground. An amusing cartoon of Jeff Davis, dressed in woman's
running from some Yankee soldiers. "Poor Trust is Dead, Bad Pay
Him." (Dog, with "Trust" on his collar, lying on his
"Look at Mama." (Young lady
child near a mirror where she points out her mother's image.) Two
kittens playing around a basket from which they are pulling the roses.
Entitled, "Kitties Among the Roses." Currier & Ives cat
are now much sought for. Have you a Currier & Ives cat
"Grand National Democratic
Union! and Victory! Colored lithograph. Portraits of Genl. Geo B
and Hon Geo H Pendleton. Figure of Liberty, scene emblematic of
clasped hands and horns of plenty. ($6.00) Washington on a river bank,
on horse, telescope in right hand, arm extended. Washington on a gray
Washington on a brown horse. Washington on a different white horse.
asleep; thorough a doorway a glimpse of the camp.
In a cloud above his head three female
representing Liberty (with her foot on a crown), Justice and others
flowers from a horn of plenty. Washington standing with his arm
"The Fiend of the Road" (Fine copy of this humorous winter
"The Fruits of Temperance" (A
family in a well furnished home. Through the window is a scene
commerce and industry.) "God Bless Our Home" (Motto on
background of bouquet of flowers.) A ne'er-do-well trudging the
crying child by his side. The despairing wife follows carrying two
No. 1: "Skip softly lub, don't
sturb de ole
man and de bull pup." No. 2: "Hurry, Mister Johnsing, dars
lopin wif de coachman." Very amusing. (Pair, $15.00)
Interior of a shoe store. A female raising
to show her new shoes. Clerk stands by apparently satisfied with the
White kitten on table trying to reach canary in cage. Curly-haired boy
hands clasped; border of red drapes. On the lawn the mother is seated
youngest child. A brother and sister play with a St. Bernard dog. Is
"Trust" on his collar? It is. Burning ships, vase of
brave in full war-paint, motto on scroll; apples, pears, strawberries,
cherries, etc., with a bird in center of group. The animals enter the
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
white-and-blue striped shirt and a rather soiled panama hat. He had
"Oh, everything's all right with
his wife said. "It would be all right with you if the sky fell
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
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,
men, each of whom wore a fez and an idiotic expression. A Shriners'
convention was on.
"I should've joined," he said,
at the men.
"What?" his wife asked.
"The Shriners," he said.
always impressed me as a pretty fine sort of organization."
"You and your organizations,"
bitterly. "As if I didn't have enough that winter you was in
Her husband said nothing. They went by the
palms, stepping over some Shriners who had passed out on the stairs. A
assumed positions of some interest. The elevator was out of
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
"Give me the phone book, Rumb
He handed it to her. "What you going
"See if there's any Feibleman's
book. I think Aunt Cora told me once that a cousin of ours lives down
He went in the bathroom and began to
"Water's sure hard in this
She was looking in the F's.
"About the hardest water we've run
She raised her head. "Pipe down. How
me to concentrate with you talking all the time?"
He shaved cautiously around his chin and
"Not a goddamn Feibleman," his
after a while. "Not a goddamn one." She dropped the book on
"Too bad, honey," he said from
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
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
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
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
digest the lessons of the
European existentialists. It suggests the influence of Waiting for
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
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
Others would have seen self-portraiture in Kees's women, for he was as much
entertainer as he was the poet manqué, as much the mysteriously
and damaged child,
whose show business ventures resembled the play of his precocious childhood
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
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
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
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."
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
The Life of the
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.
fragment of an original screenplay by Weldon Kees and Vincent
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 LSDin
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.
[. . .]
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.
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 its
for you. Martha takes it. Its 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 Marthas. Seated at
the window is a man only part of whose face can be seen. CUT.
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 Scobeys 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 Marthas 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
Selected excerpts from the Gadabout
Weldon Kees: Ennis is a worried man. Somebody has
the finger on him for dough. Its blackmail
or some sort of squeeze. Its either
McHugh: This happens after he leaves the
WK: Its something thats been
gathering weight, been taking on pressure for a
long time. Hes had inklings.
VM: Or is he the kind of weakie who
wants something so badly that how he gets it
wontWhat would he want? What, to get
away? Suppose he wanted to get away so
WK: He cant get away. This is a security
job. This is such a top security job, you know
they wont let you quit.
VM: No. Thats right. And you cant
leave the country.
[. . .]
VM: Do we stay on the girls line or do
we bat her out? This is your main problem, I mean
in the story
WK: In the girls motivation?
VM: No, no. Do we stay with the girl all the
WK: Oh no, we cant do that. It makes for
much too boring a picture
WK: if you stay with one person all of
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 dont care who it is. As far
as movies go, you cant stay, youve
got to keep cutting. Youve got to keep
cutting all the time. It makes for more fast
VM: Yeah, youve got to keep cutting.
WK: It makes for more excitement, and that way
if you know where one person is all the time,
youve lost something in terms of dramatic
tension. You might as well do a stage play.
[. . .]
VM: What about the line of action for these
WK: They . . . have an inkling, not through
Ennis, but through another line theyve 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.
Hes a completely corrupt man. Hes a
guy who sleeps with his woman patients. Hes
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, "Its $25 with me
boys, thats the way Ive always
worked." He points up at the wall and
heres 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: Lets not forget. Did you jot down
that business I had about going down to
thewe get her down to the sports car races
in Pebble Beach around about reel seven
WK: and thats when our big chase
starts. And we can go into aI 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 dont 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
WK: and the woods down there, and movie
stars homes. Well, she could go down there
to do a double assignment. Shes 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 thats essential.
VM: And somebody tosses one of those balls.
You know the way they toss them?
WK: Oh yeah.
VM: And just misses her.
VM: Yeah. They are really kind of terrifying.
WK: Oh they are, sure.
[. . .]
Weldon Kees and the staff of
San Francisco Films, 1955
Its Easy to
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 holeand 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 . . .
Ill see you later, Joe. In front of the bail bond
place down the block. After the show.
Actor Hes got his sign up.
I noticed it coming to the theatre from my
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 Its 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! Ive 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. Weve had our second warning from the Health
Department this week, you know that as well as I do.
Another Actor Ive got this
funny sore throat that just hangs on and on. (Looks at needle
with interest and goes off.)
Ackridge (to the audience)
Its been like this all through ten weeks of rehearsals.
Well, to get back to the script.
Reaches in his pocket, cant
find it. One of the girls hurries in and hands him a sheaf of
dirty and dogeared pages.
Ackridge Excuse me a minute
. . . Hmm . . . Lets see now
. . . (reads) "Dear Mr. Ackridge, I
cant 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 theatrewhenever youre free. I
am twenty-six, five foot three, blonde, and . . ."
(to audience nervously) That isnt it. (more
shuffling through pages of manuscript) Maybe this is it
. . . (complainingly, to the audience) No
. . . Theyve thrown so much work in this show at
me that I really havent had the time to get up on
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
Kees (finally) There! You
never can find anything. You know as well as I do that Ive
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 Ill 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)
Youve got about six minutes.
Kees You were all right in
Hitchcocks play, and some other things, but Ive told
them from the beginning . . . You coming, Adrian?
Adrian Wilson (as he, Kees,
and Carol Leigh exit) I told you we should have done
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 "Its Easy to Criticize."
Now that hes gone . . . (nods toward the
street) . . . I might say I never cared too
much for it. For me, it doesnt have that . . .
well . . . largeness . . . that sense
of warmth and optimism and . . . well, real vision.
Idealism. (muses, looks at page again wearily) Well,
lets 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
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
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 1920s-type
Ackridge (Lee Tracy manner)
You heard me, Charlie! Ive covered the big ones for the
Herald, the Times, the Newsname any sheet in this
mans 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, Masters 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
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 Didnt they give
you the message? He had to work late at the bowling alley
tonight. (looks at watch) Said he thought hed make
it in time to slap his makeup on.
Adrian Wilson Hes been
having a lot of trouble setting up the pins lately.
Ackridge As I was saying
. . . (looks sternly at the musicians in the
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 Keess last book, Poems
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,
Keess 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 sequinsthose prosaic thingsbut 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. Youre thinkingAh,
mobilesno, these will be new delights to fascinate the
eye and titillate the inner eye.
Heick. Used with permission.
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
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.
[. . .]
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.
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
in France. He is also one of the few
writers of my acquaintance who really knows painting; Tate was
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
Auden Wet His Bed
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.
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.