The current literary reputation of Weldon Kees is both paradoxical and exemplary. It presents a paradox in that his work is held in high esteem by poets, especially younger ones, while it remains virtually unknown to academic critics. Moreover, while no biography of Kees has yet been written, his life and mysterious disappearance have achieved legendary status among poets. Although most academic anthologies and literary histories omit his work entirely, many poets specifically cite him as a major influence. His divided reputation is, therefore, exemplary in illustrating the growing split in American literary culture between the taste of imaginative writers and that of university critics.
An interesting essay remains to be written examining the reason for Kees’s obscurity during his lifetime. Well regarded by fellow artists and widely published in his era’s most influential journals, why did Kees never gain real prominence as a poet? That subject, however, lies beyond the limited purview of this article. My interest here lies not with the life but the afterlife—namely the strange development of his reputation since his disappearance and presumed suicide in 1955. The topic commands attention not only because Kees is one of the best American poets of the mid-century generation; the investigation also illuminates certain crucial contradictions in contemporary literary culture. The course of Kees’s posthumous reputation constitutes an instructive case history of how a writer with a significant, serious readership and growing influence fails to enter the academic canon. It also suggests how little substantive conversation now exists in literary life between poets and poetry critics.
Kees’s stature among poets has risen steadily since 1960 when Iowa City’s fledgling Stone Wall Press posthumously published his Collected Poems in a hand-printed edition of 200 copies. The volume received an extraordinary amount of attention for a fine press book of verse, especially one by a dead Nebraskan poet of limited reputation. The Collected Poems earned substantial notices in the New York Times Book Review, The Hudson Review, Partisan Review, Poetry, The New York Herald Tribune, and Saturday Review. The book’s positive reception, however, displayed two significant features that would become constants in restricting Kees’s subsequent audience. First, his champions were nearly all poets. Second, the collection they praised was virtually impossible to obtain; its small print run, high price, and severely limited distribution placed it outside the normal channels for trade books.
The early reviewers comprised a diverse assortment of poets who represented different critical orientations and regional loyalties—Howard Nemerov, Kenneth Rexroth, Winfield Townley Scott, Brewster Ghiselin, John Thompson, and Samuel French Morse. None of these dissimilar writers, however, disputed the bold assertion of the volume’s editor, Donald Justice (another poet, of course), that Kees was “an important poet, among the three or four best of his generation.” Morse’s review in Poetry typified the reaction among the poet-critics. He immediately recognized the artistic importance of this “unaccountably neglected writer” and specifically endorsed Justice’s high ranking of Kees among the best poets of the mid-century generation. Accepting Kees’s stature, Morse spent most of his review discussing the poet’s stark world view. Thompson likewise recognized Kees’s position as a uniquely memorable “representative of his time,” and he enthusiastically supported Kees’s claims to posterity. “Unless there are reasons I am unaware of,” he wrote in The Hudson Review, “someone who knew Weldon Kees and who knows about him should write it all down.” No one, alas, followed Thompson’s suggestion, but his sentiment bespeaks his conviction of the author’s enduring merit. Indeed, the publication of The Collected Poems seemed to augur a major critical revival of Kees’s reputation.
Two years later in 1962 The Collected Poems reappeared in a trade edition from the University of Nebraska Press. “An obscure press,” Donald Justice later commented, “it had been the publisher chosen by the poet’s father, because of the Nebraska connection.” The press made two decisions that fatally affected Kees’s future readership: first, they released the collection only in paperback; and second, they issued it under the Bison Books trademark, a specialist imprint used for titles by Nebraskan or regionalist writers. This double handicap kept the book from entering most bookstores and libraries beyond the Plains States. Moreover, since the volume was technically a paperback reprint (even though it was the first printing to have any general availability), it received almost no critical notice. Significantly, however, the three substantial reviews that appeared were not only all favorable but also all by poets—Burton Raffel, Thom Gunn, and Louis Simpson. Raffel’s appreciation in Northwest Review summed up the critical consensus to date when he wrote of Kees that “There can be, I think, no doubt of his importance.” Academic study of contemporary poetry was growing rapidly in the early 1960s; surely, Kees would now receive, however belatedly, serious critical attention.
To say that academic attention was not forthcoming would be the gentlest euphemism: public discussion of Kees’s work stopped for nearly two decades. No critical articles followed the initial spate of reviews. Few anthologies added his poems. He remained unmentioned in literary histories and reference books. No one collected his short stories, theater works, or essays. His one surviving novel, Fall Quarter, remained unpublished. The paperback edition of Collected Poems went out of print. Kees seemed headed for the fate of most writers—a brief flurry of activity after his death and then eternal oblivion. As Cyril Connolly observed in Enemies of Promise, to write a book that will hold good for even ten years afterwards is a rare accomplishment. Literary culture rightly assumes that all books are destined to join the incalculable holdings of what Nabokov called the “Lethean Library”—unless posterity provides a compelling reason for remembrance.
Kees had died in obscurity. His work had been published posthumously under unfavorable circumstances. No group, faction, institution, or individual had a vested interest in his revival. Yet, against all odds, this seemingly marginal writer had acquired serious readers—not many at first but committed ones. Gradually Kees developed an underground fame among young poets. What resulted was nothing so ordinary as a critical reputation but the formation of a cult.
A cult is a religious community built around devotion to a single deity—not necessarily exclusive devotion but special fealty. Since they hold beliefs at odds with conventional creeds, cults tend to be clandestine affairs. Members often claim to possess occult knowledge unavailable to outsiders, and they communicate openly only to fellow devotees. The early advocates of Weldon Kees were almost all poets and artists. Their interest went beyond the conventional limits of New Critical orthodoxy; their passion for Kees’s poetry extended into a fascination with his frenetic life and mysterious disappearance. One might even say that the cult of Kees grew out of the juxtaposition of life and art—the stark and searing poetry viewed against the doomed and nihilistic life that produced it. As Justice suggested in the preface to The Collected Poems:
If the whole of his poetry can be read as a denial of the values of the present civilization, as I believe it can, then the disappearance of Kees becomes as symbolic an act as Rimbaud’s flight or Crane’s suicide.
Kees’s importance among poets surely rests at least partially on that symbolic—indeed almost sacrificial—demonstration of art pursued for mortal stakes. Despite its ironic exterior and worldly tone, Kees’s poetry displays an earnest intensity. His life was dedicated to art as a means of spiritual self-discovery in a world that offered him no religious consolation. Even his restless shifting between media (which ultimately included fiction, film, music, theater, and painting in addition to poetry) reveals the totality of his commitment. Kees refused to confine his creative identity within the mandatory specialization of institutionalized cultural life.
To poets in a society that increasingly defined literature in terms of either narrow academic professionalism or market-driven commercial publishing, Kees’s integrity and independence proved clarifying. Like his friend and contemporary, Elizabeth Bishop (who once took him to visit Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeths), he represented the poet as an individual standing at a remove from both institutional cultural life and the literary marketplace—not entirely scorning either but refusing to be defined in their terms. Likewise, Kees’s continuing obscurity among critics demonstrated to imaginative writers the obvious blind spots of contemporary scholarship. Unsanctioned and uncanonic, Kees also had the appeal of being a personal discovery. Most poets first encountered his work not in a classroom or textbook but in private reading or the recommendation of a friend. The poetry had the additional cachet of being hard to obtain. Going beyond the Nebraska paperback was a challenging and expensive proposition. Copies of The Last Man (1943), The Fall of the Magicians (1947), Poems: 1947-1954 (1954), and the Stone Wall Collected Poems began to sell at ever higher prices. To purchase those four titles today would cost at least two thousand dollars.
By 1970 Kees’s cult status among poets became evident by the publication of several anthologies that made substantial claims for his work. In revising his Twentieth-Century American Poetry for Modern Library in 1963, Conrad Aiken included nine poems by Kees—more than any other poet born after Eliot. More influential, Robert Mezey and Stephen Berg’s popular revisionist anthology, Naked Poetry (1969), included a large selection of his work. Kees’s position as a cult figure was reinforced by his appearance in two other new anthologies edited by poets, Mark Strand’s The Contemporary American Poets (1969), and Hayden Carruth’s The Voice That is Great Within Us (1970). (Significantly, two of the editors—Mezey and Strand—had studied with Justice.) Of course, these collections remained anomalies; with the exception of a single edition of Richard Ellman and Robert O’Clair’s Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Kees remained invisible in anthologies edited by academic critics.
Meanwhile something odd was happening. Poems about Kees began appearing in small magazines. Whereas most literary reputations today are made by prose criticism or biography, Kees’s public legend grew largely through verse. This appears to be a unique accomplishment among modern American poets. While certain writers have become popular subjects for poems, especially elegies—Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, W. H. Auden and Anne Sexton, for example—their reputations were all made and sustained through prose criticism and biography. This singular fact may also partially explain both Kees’s general fame among young poets, who assiduously follow new verse, and his obscurity among academic critics, who generally read only verse already canonized by other critics and anthologies.
It is difficult to determine exactly when these poems began to constitute a trend, but Donald Justice’s “Sestina on Six Words by Weldon Kees” was undoubtedly the first such homage. Written before Kees’s disappearance, though not published until 1957, Justice’s poem does not deal with the biographical legend. Instead, it borrows formal and thematic features from Kees’s verse to recreate a poem in the older poet’s style. Although the sestina represents a specifically literary tribute to Kees’s work, some readers have nonetheless read it as a personal commentary and even sought occult messages in the text. One such reader was John Kees, the poet’s father, who wrote Justice presumably to ask if the text contained clues about his missing son’s whereabouts. The tone of the poem and the six repeated end words, which are borrowed from Kees’s “Sestina: Travel Notes,” are sufficiently suggestive to make such occult misreadings tempting, especially to someone unaware that the words mentioned in the poem’s title derive from a published poem and not a private communication. Justice’s poem begins:
I often wonder about the others
Where they are bound for on the voyage,
What is the reason for their silence,
Was there some reason to go away?
It may be they carry a dark burden,
Expect some harm, or have done harm.
The other early poem was “The Disappearance,” a villanelle written by Kees’s closest friend of his final years in San Francisco, Michael Grieg. First published in 1957, “The Disappearance” recounts the strange circumstances of the poet’s presumed suicide. Grieg’s poem opens:
Now it’s dispersed. You willed it. It is done.
You bridged the past to meet the morning star.
Fog folds what fabled afterworld you won.
Two nights after, when I came, you were gone.
A moth was whirring its wings in your car,
now it’s dispersed. You willed it. It is done.
This pair of early poems defined the two genres of homage that would emerge—the mythic and the stylistic. First are poems like “The Disappearance” that describe real or imaginary moments in Kees’s life to create a myth of the doomed or alienated writer. Second are poems like Justice’s sestina that borrow and develop stylistic elements from Kees’s work. Despite their differences in approach, the two initial poems share an interesting similarity. Both Justice’s sestina and Grieg’s villanelle are composed in the “French” forms Kees used so adroitly. Even at the beginning Kees’s influence on subsequent poets has been potent in shaping not only their themes and tone but even their choice of forms.
Today one could assemble a small anthology of poems written in homage to Kees. A few like Lucien Stryk’s “Lament for Weldon Kees” were written by poets who knew him. Most, however, came from younger poets who depict an imaginary Kees. David Wojahn’s “Weldon Kees in Mexico, 1966,” for instance, presents a happy middle-aged Kees living under an assumed name in a Mexican village ten years after his disappearance. In Larry Johnson’s “The Capture of Weldon Kees,” however, the poet is arrested in Mexico for pushing another man to his death thirty years before when faking his Golden Gate Bridge suicide. Such poems demonstrate how Kees’s life and art have become intricately interwoven in the imagination of his followers. Consciously reshaping the actual author into a legend, they treat both the life and poems as raw material for new work. A similar process of myth-making emerges in the occasional reports of Kees being spotted after his disappearance—most notably journalist Pete Hamill’s front-page account in a 1987 San Francisco Examiner of meeting the poet in a Mexico City cantina in 1957. These uncorroborated and unlikely stories tell less about Kees than about his devotees. Who would not wish the poet a better fate than a leap of death at forty-one? But wish-fulfillment should not be confused with reportage. Although such speculation raises the possibility of an altogether more literal afterlife for Kees, the only verifiable survivor of his presumed 1955 suicide is the poetry.
Other hommages poétiques have been written by Marianne Boruch, Christopher Buckley, Vic Coccimiglio, Ron Egatz, David Fenza, Robert Funge, John Gill, R. S. Gwynn, Christopher Howell, Tobey Kaplan, Steve Kronen, David Lehman, Larry Levis, Walter Martin, John McKernan, Robert Miklitsch, Hugh Miller, Howard Moss, George Myers Jr., Howard Nemerov, Chad Oness, Patric Pepper, Robert Phillips, Larry Rafferty, James Reidel, Roy Scheele, Dan Scheltema, Steven Schneider, Ray Shepard, Adele Slaughter, Cathy Song, Leon Stokesbury, Reed Whittemore, Harold Witt, and myself, as well as those mentioned earlier by Justice, Grieg, Wojahn, Johnson, and Stryk—to list only Americans. There are undoubtedly others unknown to me. The Dutch poet Elma van Haren has also written about Kees. Robert Lowell mentioned Kees in the original published version of “Last Night,” which discusses the self-destructive nature of their common literary generation, although upon reprinting the poem in History, Lowell removed Kees’s name and listed only poets he had known personally—Roethke, Berryman, Jarrell, and, being Robert Lowell, himself. There are also speculative influences. Some poets believe that Kees’s Robinson poems were an unacknowledged source for Berryman’s Dream Songs. Robinson is also the likely model for Justice’s Tremayne poems.
Kees’s prominence as a symbol in contemporary poetry is overt and indisputable, but his direct influence goes beyond providing subject matter for younger poets. Less obvious but more interesting has been his role in shaping certain contemporary experimental poems. A distinctive part of Kees’s oeuvre are poems with complex but non-linear organization in which Kees employed techniques of collage and musical repetition to achieve lyric intensity. These highly original and emotionally powerful poems have gone largely unnoticed in academic literature, but later poets quickly recognized their artistic potential. They provide tantalizing models of poems that combine the energy and surprise of avant-garde work with the concentration and integrating force of traditional forms. By writing conscious and careful imitations of Kees’s originals, later poets have, in effect, tried to take his experimental nonce forms and turn them into repeatable patterns like a sonnet or sestina.
“Round” provides one clear case of Kees’s formal influence. This brilliant poem is found in only one current anthology, but it has inspired enough imitations to suggest that Kees invented a new repeatable form, a “round” or “fugue,” in which seemingly unrelated verbal themes are placed in revelatory counterpoint. “Round” consists of three, irregularly rhymed eight-line stanzas:
“Wondrous life!” cried Marvell at Appleton House.
Renan admired Jesus Christ “wholeheartedly.”
But here dried ferns keep falling to the floor,
And something inside my head
Flaps like a worn-out blind. Royal Cortissoz is dead,
A blow to the Herald-Tribune. A closet mouse
Rattles the wrapper on the breakfast food. Renan
Admired Jesus Christ “wholeheartedly.”
Flaps like a worn-out blind. Cézanne
Would break out in the quiet streets of Aix
And shout, “Le monde, c’est terrible!” Royal
Cortissoz is dead. And something inside my head
Flaps like a worn-out blind. The soil
In which the ferns are dying needs more Vigoro.
There is no twilight on the moon, no mist or rain,
No hail or snow, no life. Here in this house
Dried ferns keep falling to the floor, a mouse
Rattles the wrapper on the breakfast food. Cézanne
Would break out in the quiet streets and scream. Renan
Admired Jesus Christ “wholeheartedly.” And something inside my head
Flaps like a worn-out blind. Royal Cortissoz is dead.
There is no twilight on the moon, no hail or snow.
One notes fresh desecrations of the portico.
“Wondrous life!” cried Marvell at Appleton House.
There is no room here to discuss the various stylistic features that Kees ingeniously combines to create the cumulative lyric effect of this bitter satiric poem. Quotations, clichés, proper nouns, foreign words, brand names, syntactic fragmentation, contrasting levels of diction, and repetition as well as rhyme and meter are only a few of the specific techniques used to sustain the novel musical structure governing the poem. None of these techniques, however, have been lost on later poets. At least four poets independently wrote one or more direct imitations of “Round”—R. S. Gwynn, David Lehman, Leon Stokesbury, and myself—and those poems in turn inspired further imitations. Gwynn’s “In Place of an Elegy,” for example, emulates both the prosody and process of Kees’s original in three eight-line stanzas, although he reduces the frequency of repetition slightly to build a more linear narrative:
Facing a gray morning, I read “The Joys
Of Lasting Friends,” the last F essay written
By one K. R., who was, for a time, my student.
A flash of rimless glasses. Back row.
The radiator. Surely someone must know
The answer. Surely. Minds like bolts of satin
Unroll, course through my fingers, are forgotten,
Those who are neither beautiful nor wise.
“The Joys of Lasting Friends,” No irony.
The firing squad inside the radiator.
All victims gone by May. No matter.
And someone writes, “Much noise but little heat
And that is nothing, much.” Empty seats.
Faces of rimless glass. “The photo flatters
Her,” I offer. Wind rustling through blank paper.
Fingers touching wounds. Her childhood bleeds.
For lasting friends can see right thru you but
Still see you thru. And what to say this morning?
Transparent things. Ranks of shade now forming
Against the wall. Surely she knew. A shot
With no report. And here I singled out
A word as “clever.” No answers. The straining
Of fabric. None remember. From the burning
Car there were screams, her own voice screaming.
Stokesbury, by contrast, more directly imitates the repetitions and non-sequiturs to create a lyric poem that moves sideways to its emotive effect. “The Lamar Tech Football Team Has Won its Game” begins with a Keesian series of disconnected observations that Stokesbury will counterpoint throughout the poem:
The Lamar Tech football team has won its game.
My grandmother has died. The newspaper, yesterday,
Said, “Siamese Twins Cut Apart, One Lives.” My father
Says, “Some things you have to learn to accept.
Take the good parts with the bad.”
One could trace the influence of other Kees poems like “Aspects of Robinson,” “1926,” and “The Lives” on later writers, but the overall point would remain unchanged. Kees has significantly shaped the styles, subjects, and formal procedures of later poets in ways no critic has yet noted.
The growth of Kees’s underground reputation eventually convinced the University of Nebraska to reissue The Collected Poems in a revised edition in 1975. The event belatedly provoked a few more poets—including Ben Howard, James Reiss, Robert Stock, and Sharon Libera—to write appreciatively about Kees’s verse and complain about his critical obscurity. About the same time the Stanford literary magazine, Sequoia, organized a special issue on Kees, edited by Ted Gioia. When it eventually appeared in 1979, the issue bore the cover headline “Is Weldon Kees America’s great forgotten poet?” Sequoia included memoirs by William Jay Smith, Lucien Stryk, and Norris Getty as well as short critical articles by David Barton and Emily Grosholz. Occupying the entire second half of the issue was a long, passionate, and rather clumsy essay by me. Published nearly a quarter century after his disappearance, this essay represented the first extended consideration his poetry had ever received.
The special issue of Sequoia marked the first focused attention Kees had ever received, and its appearance signaled a turning point in his reputation. Since its publication the activity around Kees has greatly increased. Until the Sequoia tribute few readers had seen any of Kees’s short fiction. His last story had appeared in 1945, and no collection had ever been published. Sequoia reprinted “The Ceremony,” a short, chilling tale from 1940. Based on this story, the noted fine press printer Harry Duncan asked me to collect the prose fiction in book form. The subsequent appearance of Kees’s Ceremony and Other Stories in 1983 (with an expanded edition from Graywolf Press in 1984) set off another series of reviews. More recently Lawrence Joseph, Charles Baxter, Evan Connell, Jim Elledge, R. S. Gwynn, and Lewis Turco have written enthusiastically about Kees’s poetry and fiction. The Twayne series, which prides itself on covering everyone, published William T. Ross’s overview, Weldon Kees in 1985, which is still the only full-length critical study devoted to the author. Meanwhile the one academic scholar who had consistently championed Kees, Robert Knoll of the University of Nebraska, published a comprehensively annotated collection of the poet’s letters in 1986. Two years later poet James Reidel, who earlier had reprinted a group of Kees’s stories in Columbia, collected the Reviews and Essays, 1936-1955. Reidel also edited Kees’s novel, Fall Quarter, for Story Line Press in 1990 (and he is currently under contract for a biography of the poet). When Aralia Press publishes Kees’s one-act play, The Waiting Room, the bulk of his mature work will finally be in print for the first time.
While Kees’s reputation grew among American poets, a small but influential cult also emerged in England. Once again his champions were all poets; no significant academic critic espoused his cause. Hugo Williams was Kees’s first English apologist. Having made a genuine and profound imaginative identification with the American poet, Williams frequently went out of his way to praise Kees’s work in print. When Poetry Review featured Williams in 1985 by publishing his “Ten Desert Island Poems,” he chose “Aspects of Robinson” above personal favorites by Hart Crane, Robert Frost, and Randall Jarrell as his only American selection. Six years later in his popular Times Literary Supplement column, “Freelance,” Williams wrote, “The most battered book in my possession is The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees,” and lamented that the book was unavailable in Britain and “usually out of print in America.” He also recounted his unsuccessful attempt to get his own publisher, Oxford University Press, to issue the book. Williams had first learned of Kees’s work from another poet, Alan Ross, the editor of London Magazine. Ross had also written a poem “Weldon Kees at the Golden Gate,” a hommage, which incorporates over a dozen lines quoted from the Kees:
Sleuth of the self, grey-gloved
Haunter of shadows, the ocean’s margin.
“Someone in uniform hums Brahms. Servants prepare
Eyewitness stories as the night comes down.”
Meanwhile another series of personal contacts expanded Kees’s following in England. The American poet William Logan, a former student of Justice at University of Iowa, had edited a special British number of Agni Review. Instead of paying Michael Hofmann the small fee for his poems, Logan sent him a stack of American books, including a used paperback reprint of Kees’s Collected Poems. Again the Kees cult spread through a poet-to-poet personal recommendation, and what struck the enthusiastic new reader was the contrast between Kees’s extraordinary poetic merits and his utter invisibility in literary culture. Hofmann soon initiated an influential chain of readers—starting with the poet Christopher Reid, then an editor at Faber and Faber, which eventually published Kees’s Collected Poems in 1993. Hofmann also converted Simon Armitage to the Kees cult. As Armitage later wrote in “Looking for Weldon Kees”:
I’d heard it said by Michael Hofmann
that Collected Poems would blow my head off,
being out of print
and a hot potato
it might be a hard one
to get hold of;
more than a case of shopping and finding
nothing on the shelves between Keats and Kipling.
Brassy, streetwise, and aggressively stylish, Armitage became the crucial figure in the British Kees revival. Other poets had written individual poems about Kees; Armitage wrote a short book, Around Robinson (1991), which was subsequently incorporated into his second Faber collection, Kid (1992). For Armitage, Kees was not merely a captivating subject; he was a disturbing alter ego. The deep identification earlier poets had habitually made with Kees became in Armitage’s case a creative obsession. His passion soon caught the interest of B.B.C. producer Daisy Goodwin, and together they made a sixty-minute television film, Looking for Robinson (1993). Goodwin’s film is a faux documentary, which depicts Armitage visiting America to search the trail of the vanished poet Weldon Kees. As the narrative unfolds, however, Looking for Robinson gradually becomes a film noir homage to Kees’s sensibility. Poems by Armitage and Kees share the soundtrack with interviews and Kees’s own music. The film’s collage-like texture also resembles Kees’s own artistic methods. (Poets influenced by Kees are almost inevitably fascinated by his idiosyncratic and innovative use of verbal collage, a Modernist technique he uses with singular musicality. As a result, homages to Kees habitually contain direct quotations from his poems.) The broadcast of Looking for Robinson brought Kees to wide attention for the first time—ironically in a foreign country he had never visited. Urged by Hofmann and Armitage, Faber published a handsome paperback reprint of Collected Poems. This 1993 volume was not only Kees’s first British edition; it also represented the first time Kees’s poems had been published in a widely available edition.
Surely the strangest of the British homages is Peter Crowther’s 1995 story, “Too Short a Death.” First published in Martin Greenberg’s Celebrity Vampire anthology and then reprinted in Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (1995), Crowther’s tale not only mixes dark literary satire and gothic horror, it also combines the two established genres of Keesian homage—the mythic and the stylistic. The story’s protagonist, David MacDonald, is a celebrated experimental poet who has undertaken a highly publicized search for Weldon Kees. (The parallel with Armitage’s 1993 film is clear.) After a year of conspicuous failure, MacDonald returns to Kees’s hometown of Beatrice, Nebraska where he encounters a middle-aged man who looks “like a movie star from the late fifties/early sixties.” The handsome stranger wears “a plaid sportscoat, oxford button-down with a red-and-green striped necktie” and “heavily polished Scotch grain shoes.” Many poetry readers will already recognize the nameless man as Robinson, the mysterious figure of Kees’s four most famous poems.
Poetry readers, however, are not likely to suspect what genre readers have already guessed—that the world weary stranger is a vampire. But sustained suspense is not Crowther’s intention, and soon Robinson has confessed both his literary and supernatural identities. MacDonald then realizes that many of the seemingly mysterious images in the Robinson poems make literal sense when applied to a vampire. (Reader-response critic Stanley Fish may play with the absurd idea of an Eskimo reading of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” but Crowther charmingly delivers a vampire reading of Kees’s Robinson poems.) Revealing that Kees has only recently died, Robinson then recounts his five decade friendship with the poet, including the real story of Kees’s faked suicide and subsequent travels. Poetry aficionados may be relieved—and horror fans disappointed—to learn that Kees declined the opportunity to join the Undead. Vampirism is not the sort of immortality to attract a poet.
Even by the standards of genre fiction, “Too Short a Death” is a singularly odd work. By turns ingenious and bizarre, elegiac and erudite, Crowther’s tale sometimes reads like a critical appreciation disguised as a horror story—an eerie hybrid, half pulp fiction, half Kunstlerroman. If “Too Short a Death” never quite achieves sufficient lyric intensity or psychological depth to transcend the limitations of its genre, the story nonetheless provides the most elaborate and sensational version of the Kees myth. Crowther’s story also represents an ambitiously sustained homage to the poems. The author weaves dozens of quotations and allusions into the text, provides occult readings for many poems, creates a series of Kees-influenced poems for his fictional protagonist, and finally presents the opening lines for “Robinson at Rest,” the single new poem the dying vampire allows MacDonald to save from the burning house that contains both Kees’s body and nearly forty years of new work. Crowther’s story reflects the alluring fantasy of Kees’s possible escape from death—a point emphasized by the story’s final words: “Weldon Kees (1914-1993).”
Although this chronicle of the growth of Kees’s reputation may seem overly detailed, it is important to review the long list of writers who have gone on record praising his work. A skeptical reader needs to appreciate the sheer mass of Kees’s supporters before turning to the paucity of attention paid by academic critics. It would be pointless to list the many critical studies in which Kees does not appear. A few recent examples will suffice. In David Perkins’s two volume, 1300 page History of Modern Poetry, for instance, Kees does not warrant a single mention, although Perkins discusses modern poets as obscure as Richard Church, Eden Phillpotts, L. A. G. Strong, and John Pitts Sanborn. One suspects that Professor Perkins has never read Kees. Nor is Kees among the thousands of authors listed in the fifth edition of James D. Hart’s Oxford Companion to American Literature (1983). His work goes undiscussed and unmentioned in the bulky new Columbia History of American Poetry (1994) edited by Jay Parini and Brett Millier (except when I list him en passant in an article on Longfellow). Likewise Kees is mentioned nowhere in four excellent critical books which discuss the period in which he did his best work—Robert von Hallberg’s American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980, James E. B. Breslin’s From Modern to Contemporary, Bruce Bawer’s The Middle Generation, and Jerome Mazzaro’s Postmodern American Poetry. One searches in vain for even a passing mention of Kees in the works of critical consensus-makers as diverse as Helen Vendler, M. L. Rosenthal, Marjorie Perloff, William Pritchard, Vernon Shetley, or Denis Donoghue. Harold Bloom, who never once referred to Kees in his first twenty books, lists The Collected Poems among the nearly 1800 titles in the magpie appendices to The Western Canon, though nowhere else in the text—a kind gesture of no scholarly significance. Finally and most bizarrely, Kees’s poems have been dropped from the most recent edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Ironically, it appears that as Kees’s fame among poets grows ever larger his already marginal critical reputation shrinks further.
There is no need to continue the dreary catalogue of neglect. The facts speak for themselves. The disparity between the legion of imaginative writers who admire Kees’s work and paucity of academic interest demonstrates that there is something now oddly out of joint between the worlds of poets and literary critics. One wonders how much real dialogue about modern poetry now goes on between writers and scholars—even those teaching in the same university departments. The administrative division between English and Creative Writing departments found in most large universities has become symbolic of a deeper schism in sensibility, taste, attitudes, and parlance in literary culture. Poets and theorists not only share no common sense of purpose; they increasingly lack a common language in which to discuss their differences.
Do academic poetry critics read much verse independently of their formal programs of research? Are scholars now so preoccupied with literary theory that they have insufficient time left for literature itself? Is the endless rhetoric about opening the canon to new authors merely ideological posturing? Have literary specialization and professionalism become the mask for parochialism and lack of curiosity? And, finally, if today’s theory-obsessed scholars actually read Kees, would they even recognize the exceptional quality to which legions of poets have testified? These are not questions that one can answer adequately here, but one cannot refrain from asking them, however crudely.
Despite its derogatory associations, cult seems the right metaphor for the growing advocacy by writers for Weldon Kees. Cults flourish when established religions have lost their spiritual potency. His devotees share a fierce conviction that he is one of the best American poets of the last half century. To academic critics, this opinion probably seems either cultish superstition or charismatic excess. The cult of Kees has flourished at least in part because of the split between the creative and scholarly communities. Advocates possess specific esoteric knowledge—a major poet the experts have missed. The archbishops of the established religion have hardly noticed the cult’s existence. If they did examine it, the hierarchy would probably find its sacred texts occult or heretical; an orthodoxy seldom finds merit in dissent.
The case of Weldon Kees may lead some to worry about the state of literature. Such anxiety is never misplaced. There is always something dreadful to bemoan in the cultural situation. But, if Kees’s obscurity reveals certain problems in institutional literary life, it also provides encouragement about the vitality of poetry itself. Against overwhelming odds, Kees has escaped oblivion because of the passionate commitment of individual readers. His reputation has grown slowly but ineluctably without the mediation of the academy. His fame among writers has been built in reassuringly human ways—by poets writing verse or prose to explore their enthusiasm. His poems have been passed on mostly one reader at a time, poet to poet, teacher to student, friend to friend. If there is a Kees cult, it has distinguished itself by its deep belief in the imaginative power of poetry and independence from received ideas about the canon. Their conviction will outlive the current crop of Norton anthologies, Oxford companions and Ivy League histories. What better afterlife can a poet have than the enduring love and loyalty of serious readers?
The image above is the cover of the special Weldon Kees issue of Sequoia (Spring 1979). This issue was the first extended consideration ever published of Kees’s acheivement as a writer. The issue was edited by Ted Gioia, now a well-known jazz critic and pianist, in collaboration with his brother, Dana.
First published in AWP Chronicle (December 1995) and later revised and expanded as the introduction for The Bibliography of Weldon Kees (Parrish House 1997).