Weldon Kees: Naked Kees

Weldon Kees
Weldon Kees

Old ghost, friend of this house, remain!
What is there now to prod us toward
The past, our ruinous nostalgia?

—”Return of the Ghost”

I first read Weldon Kees by accident. It happened so casually and under such fragile circumstances that it probably should not have happened at all. Twenty-one years ago in the bicentennial summer of 1976, I found myself working in Minneapolis. I had just completed my first year at Stanford Business School. Having only recently left graduate school in literature, I had never before worked in a large corporation. I did not so much dislike my job as feel vastly remote from it. Perhaps I did not let myself admit what I really felt. I watched my daily life with the dazed detachment of a patient observing a scalpel cut into an anaesthetized limb. I worked ten hours every day, drove home, changed out of my suit, and went off to the Edina Public Library.

I always get a physical thrill entering a good library, but that summer I also felt a deep sense of relief like a long-distance swimmer breathlessly reaching the shore. I read every night until closing time (ten o’clock in those generously budgeted days), and inevitably left with a small stack of books. One of the borrowed volumes was Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey’s 1969 anthology Naked Poetry. (The very title of this once influential collection still exudes a redolent whiff of the late Sixties.) Naked Poetry boldly stated its aims of presenting contemporary poetry stripped of formal literary devices, especially rhyme and meter, though the actual selections—at least in the first edition—included many poems in form. Many of the writers featured in Naked Poetry were already canonic figures like Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman. The rest were the established contenders of the next generation like Adrienne Rich, James Wright, W. S. Merwin, Philip Levine, and Robert Bly. All had familiar names—with one exception, a dead poet named Weldon Kees.

Reading has been an important part of my life. I remember discovering particular books as vividly as I do my first glimpses of great cities or my first meetings with intimate friends. Recollections of reading and rereading a favorite writer—like Rilke or Auden, Borges or Nabokov—remain as fresh and poignant as recalling the stages of a love affair. Discovering Kees had such a profound and immediate effect that I still remember the experience in detail. I want to describe my mental process during that initial reading as exactly and candidly as possible. My aim is decidedly not self-aggrandizement. Looking back, I flinch at the petty snobbery I exhibited. I confess to it now only because I want to tell the story honestly. Writing about literature, we should never try to appear nobler than we really are. Human beings read books with all their imperfections intact, and our real responses are usually more interesting than our proper public poses. Perhaps some readers may ever recognize their own prejudices in my responses.

Few people read every poem in an anthology. They skip around—quite rightly—as fancy or curiosity dictates. When I first turned to the Kees section of Naked Poetry, I had no intention of reading it. Full of youthful vanity fed by Harvard graduate school, I prided myself on my knowledge of contemporary poetry. I had never heard of the author. His photograph, however, caught my eye—a brooding man, his face turned away from the camera, staring down at the choppy waters of a bay. Glancing at the brief author’s note, I saw that he had been born in Beatrice, Nebraska—not a strong selling point to a bicoastal Californian. “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.

“Crime Club” surprised me. It was not only a strong and memorable poem but also original in subtle ways. Simultaneously satiric and strangely disturbing, even frightening, “Crime Club” had a steady narrative line that moved from the amusingly absurd to the coldly apocalyptic. (Later I would recognize this shift in tone and image as characteristic of Kees.) The style was urbanely conversational, a bit too brittle at times perhaps, but the lines had a definite musical lilt—metrical but not in conventional accentual-syllabics. I was both moved and fascinated by the poem. How did I reconcile my immediate and powerful attraction with my previous disdain for the unknown poet? I modified my earlier opinion as little as possible. “How interesting,” I thought condescendingly, “that an obscure minor author can sometimes create single strong poem.”

Out of curiosity, I read the next selection by this putatively one-poem minor poet. Its title was “Aspects of Robinson.” Different from “Crime Club” in tone and theme, it nonetheless bore the same identifiably personal stamp. It also delivered a more complex and profound emotional impact—at once quiet and harrowing. The next two selections, “Robinson” and “Relating to Robinson,” augmented it to form a sort of short sequence. The three poems portrayed a haunting imaginary character who seemed—even on first glance—a hellish alter ego of the poet.

The mirror from Mexico, stuck to the wall,
Reflects nothing at all. The glass is black.
Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.
Which is all of the room—walls, curtains,
Shelves, bed, the tinted photograph of Robinson’s first wife,
Rugs, vases, panatellas in a humidor.
They would fill the room if Robinson came in.
The pages in the books are blank,
The books that Robinson has read. That is his favorite chair,
Or where the chair would be if Robinson were here.

By now I was deeply engaged. My condescension slipped away. As I read further in the section, I sat riveted by the emotional intensity and expressive musicality of the poems. I was also astonished by their tonal variety and technical originality. His poetic language was as omnivorous as American culture. Brand names, foreign words, literary allusions, musical terminology, and slang not only happily coexisted in the same poem, but also credibly came from the same voice. Kees had such imaginative range that no two poems—despite their unifying vision—were alike.

I read that afternoon, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Mann, as one reads only a few times in one’s life. As I finished the last of the eighteen selections in Naked Poetry, I knew that I had found a major poet. How had such a superb contemporary escaped my ken? I resolved to go out immediately and find every collection of his work. It was a Saturday afternoon. I had the day free. I drove over to the main branch of the Minneapolis Public Library heady with excitement. I looked forward to feasting on his books. There were probably collections of his fiction and essays. There would also be criticism. Maybe even a biography. I was eager to see what other readers thought about him. I had haunted libraries since third grade. Whatever books and commentary existed, I would find.

What I found that afternoon was nothing. There was not a single book of any kind by or about Weldon Kees in the Minneapolis library system. His work, I also discovered, did not appear in anthologies. There was no biography. He also went unmentioned in the biographies of his contemporaries. No information appeared on him in the standard reference works. Nor were there chapters on him in the many critical books on contemporary poetry. There had never even been a full-length essay published on his work. Gradually I realized why I had never heard of Kees. Hardly noticed during his lifetime, in death he had been almost entirely forgotten. The line of readers who sustained his slight reputation was so small that their individual faces were visible—Donald Justice, who had edited The Collected Poems, and a few of his students like Robert Mezey. Their advocacy had hardly been heard in the crowded field of contemporary poetry.

A suicide at forty-one, Kees had outwardly succeeded mostly in one thing—vanishing. Even his body had never been recovered. Washed away like Virgil’s drowned Palinurus, “Naked in death upon an unknown shore,” he had disappeared without rites or remembrance. Most of his work—the stories, novels, plays, and criticism—had never been collected. Some of it had been lost. Only the poems, a small brilliant body of work, survived precariously—without criticism or commentary, without biography, almost without readers, cast naked to posterity.

I did more digging on Sunday and discovered Kenneth Rexroth’s short obituary-review of the 1960 Collected Poems. The little commentary existing on Kees, I gradually realized, dated back fifteen or twenty years to the brief book reviews of the original volumes. Nothing more recent seemed to exist. The old reviews, however, revealed two things. First, Kees had received negligible attention during his lifetime. Second, the posthumous Collected Poems was immediately recognized as an important book by reviewers who had mistakenly assumed that widespread critical regard would follow. No further attention had been forthcoming, however, and it seemed unlikely any more would follow in the future. (I did not know then that other young poets were similarly discovering Kees; and a new generation of readers would gradually emerge over the next two decades.)

I searched Twin City bookstores in vain for a copy of The Collected Poems. Finally I phoned Louisa Solano, the owner of the Grolier’s bookshop in Cambridge. She did not have a copy in stock but promised to find me one. Two weeks later a copy of The Collected Poems arrived in the mail. I read it from cover to cover, amazed at its power and coherence. The individual poems spoke to one another and formed a collective vision of apocalyptic intensity, simultaneously heartless and tender. I was so moved and fascinated that I felt the injustice of Kees’s neglect with bitter immediacy. The poems haunted me. So did the image of their lost author. I remembered how in the Aeneid the shade of Palinurus cannot rest until he has been given proper funeral rites. Nor could his shipmates finish their journey until they paid their debt to the dead. Didn’t Kees’s restless ghost also deserve some small ritual to ease its passage? No one else seemed interested, and so the task fell to a stranger. I decided to compose the essay on his poetry that I wanted to read. Not knowing how else to begin, I took out a pad of paper and started to write.

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 Verse (Volume 14, No. 3/1998).