Writing about literature, we should never try
"Weldon Kees," I thought patronizingly, "what a classic Nebraska farmboy name!" The author's note excited no particular interest until I saw that Kees had presumably jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. The breaking waves in the photograph, it occurred to me, were probably those of the San Francisco Bay. Alone in Minneapolis where I knew hardly a soul, I was homesick for San Francisco. For that sentimental, self-indulgent reason–and that reason alone–I read "Crime Club," the first poem in the Kees section. I intended to stop there. . . .
The Loneliness of Weldon Kees
When we think of the masterpiece that nobody praised and nobody read, back there in the past, we feel an impatient superiority to the readers of the past. If we had been there, we can't help feeling, we'd have kown that Moby Dick was a good book -- why, how could anyone help knowing?
On July 18, 1955, an abandoned car was found on the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. It belonged to Weldon Kees, a poet who had been living in and around San Francisco for five years. The circumstances suggested suicide, but there was also speculation that Kees had faked his death and disappeared to Mexico, where he had often talked of going to start a new life. He certainly had enough talent and energy to embark on a new career. In the twenty years since he had finished college, he had distinguished himself in half a dozen professions--poet, journalist, painter, musician, fiction writer, photographer, and filmmaker. But despite enough accomplishments for several men, Kees had been deeply unhappy. His marriage had broken up the previous July. He had aggravated his already severe mood swings with drugs and alcohol. He had begun researching a book on famous suicides. Yet no one saw him jump, and no body was ever found. Kees was forty-one years old.
Five years later two young printers in Iowa put together a complete collection of Kees's poems in an expensive hand-set edition of two hundred copies, edited by Donald Justice. . . . At that time most critics were too busy debating the merits of the Beats and Confessional poetry to give an outdated figure like Kees serious attention. He belonged to the poetry of the Forties, with its supple formalism and inauthentic irony, and that sort of verse must have seemed slightly remote to anyone immersed in "Howl" [Allen Ginsberg] or "Life Studies" [Robert Lowell]. Kees's work soon drifted out of print and out of mind. More than a decade passed before the Collected Poems was reprinted in1975, . . . [The book] received a few enthusiastic reviews, but had little impact. . . .
In San Francisco, Kees's name is occasionally mentioned in the litanies of undervalued West Coast writers, but the plaintiffs remark at most on a few details of his unhappy life. . . . Kenneth Rexroth, San Francisco's leading man of letters, stubbornly insisted on Kees's importance, but . . . as one San Franciscan writer complained, "Rexroth wants us to read everything." . . .
Kees is no better known in New York, the city where he spent his most productive years supporting himself first as a writer for Time, . . . then as a writer for Paramount Newsreel, and finally as art editor for The Nation. Here his obscurity is harder to understand, for New Yorkers do read, and they are even more fervent than San Franciscans in publicizing their own. Perhaps neglect was Kees's punishment for having committed the New York literary establishment's one unforgivable sin: moving to California.
What is especially strange about Kees's obscurity in New York is that he was an early figure in two of its most influential postwar movements in the arts: the rise of abstract expressionist painting in the 1940's and the slightly later collection of poets whose interest in the aesthetics of abstract expressionism earned them the title of the "New York School of Poets." . . . Nevertheless, Kees appears nowhere in the dozen or so books and anthologies dedicated to that movement.
Most important, Kees's work is just not part of the invisible anthology poetry readers carry in their heads. All other measures of Kees's fame would be of secondary importance if his work had found a real audience, however small. . . .
This neglect would not be so surprising except that, as a poet, Kees was one of the four or five most talented members of his generation. And this is the great postmodern generation of American poets that includes Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Delmore Schwarz, Randall Jarrell, and Theodore Roethke. That these other writers are so widely known and discussed while Kees is so forgotten seems strange indeed.
Kees's poetry is not obscure or difficult, especially when compared with the work of Berryman or Lowell. He speaks with a startling clarity. Indeed, his best work has an immediacy not found in the early work of any of his contemporaries, except Bishop and Roethke. Possibily it was this simplicity that made him uninteresting to academic critics. For while there are critical problems in Kees's work--mysteries so deep and painful that the reader cries instinctively for answers--they are not the sort of problems to be clarified by an unimaginative reading or seminar discussion. . . . It would have taken a passionate and articulate poet-critic like Jarrell to have explored Kees's work twenty years ago with sufficient tact and understanding to have won him an audience. . . . Since Kees's work has never received serious critical attention, it is the unabashed purpose of this essay, the first extended consideration of his poetry, to make a bid for reappraisal.
. . .
Harry Weldon Kees was born in Beatrice, Nebraska, on February 24, 1914, the son of John A. Kees, a prosperous local businessman. . . . [G]raduating from the University of Nebraska in 1935, [b]y then he had already published two short stories in Prairie Schooner and had seen two of his one-act plays performed.
In 1935, Nebraska lay devastated by the Depression, and out of necessity Kees took an editorial job with the Federal Writers' Project in Lincoln . . . [but] stayed with the job only a year before moving to Denver, where he worked as a research librarian. . . .
Kees published his first poem [at 23]. . . . Placed at the beginning of his Collected Poems, it could easily have been written last to summarize the contents of the volume. The poem ends:
We say again: there are
This early piece already shows many of the characteristic techniques of Kees's mature poetry: the direct manner, the conversational style that operates at the edge of prose, the powerful contemporary images, the emotional intensity seething below the matter-of-fact surface.
In 1943, when the poet was twenty-nine, his first book, The Last Man, appeared from the Colt Press in San Francisco. The book contains many of Kees's best poems. Few American poets have made such a strong and enduring impression in their first book. Kees was one of those rare poets who produced no juvenilia. Almost every poem in The Last Man was unmistakably spoken in Kees's own voice and proper register. While it was easy to see his sources--Eliot, Baudelaire, and, above all, Auden--their tone and subject matter came so naturally to him that after a few poems it is impossible to see Kees as their imitator, but rather as some terrifying reincarnation, un semblable, un frère. . . .*
For My Daughter
For Kees is not a comfortable poet to read. He is one of the bitterest poets in our literature. . . . Life for him was a meaningless exile from a country he could not recall, . . . Unlike most confessional poetry, his poems do not direct the reader's attention toward the writer. Rather they focus that attention on a world of common experience. . . .
Coming a full generation after the great experimental writers like Eliot, Joyce, Pound, and Williams, he felt no need to struggle with the nineteenth century in his verse, because unlike them he felt no dangerous attraction to it. . . . Kees did not have to display his modernity in the same way as so many of his contemporaries who busied themselves in disguising, subduing, denying, and at times transforming their innate Romanticism under some ferocious mask of modernity. . . .
Kees began by writing fiction. He had a novelist's eye for his subject, which, I suspect, is more dependable than that of most poets, simply because it is less concerned with exploiting its own idiosyncracies and more with registering perceptions that can be endorsed by other people. . . . In its ability to grab the reader's attention, Kees's poetry resembles that of our language's most accomplished novelist-poet, Thomas Hardy. . . . [A]s in Hardy, the reader usually remembers the entire poem as much as particular lines in it. . . . It is lamentable that the handful of reviews Kees's work received in the author's lifetime fastened on its similarities to Eliot and never made the attempt to understand it on its own terms. The distinctions between Eliot and Kees are crucial.
There is a consistent landscape behind Kees's poetry, but it is not an Eliotic wasteland because there is no hope, religious or otherwise, of renewal. . . . Kees's figures are usually young men who want to escape but cannot, and their despair vents itself in sardonic self-contempt. The poems exhibit a tremendous energy, one that doesn't work only at a deliberate, Eliotic pace, but often breaks out in single, passionate explosions.
The Scene of the Crime
There should have been some witness there, accusing --
Poems like this show Kees's particular genius. He can present a scene of terrifying importance with a speed and fluency unmatched by anyone of his generation.
[*] "You! hypocrite lecteur!--mon semblable,--mon frère!": The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot, line 76.
 A special issue of Sequoia devoted to Kees was published in 1979 by Dana and Ted Gioia, the essayist's brother, who is a jazz critic and pianist. The first quotation is from "Naked Kees," first published in Verse in 1998. The rest is an excerpt from Dana Gioia's much longer essay, "The Loneliness of Weldon Kees," which continues from this point to an in-depth analysis of Kees's work, and is contained in his seminal collection Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture (Graywolf Press, St. Paul, 1992). Gioia has also edited a collection of Kees's short stories The Ceremony and Other Stories (Abattatoir Editions, 1993; Graywolf, 1994.) For other Gioia treatments of this once under-appreciated poet, including, "The Cult of Weldon Kees," see http://www.danagioia.net/essays/ekees.htm.