Weldon Kees: On “Aspects of Robinson”

Weldon Kees
Weldon Kees

“Aspects of Robinson” is probably Kees’s best-known poem, which is to say it has been anthologized a few times since it first appeared in the New Yorker in 1948. It is, I propose, one of the finest short American poems of its period.

Aspects of Robinson
by Weldon Kees

Robinson at cards at the Algonquin; a thin
Blue light comes down once more outside the blinds.
Gray men in overcoats are ghosts blown past the door.
The taxis streak the avenues with yellow, orange, and red.
This is Grand Central, Mr. Robinson.

Robinson on a roof above the Heights; the boats
Mourn like the lost. Water is slate, far down.
Through sounds of ice cubes dropped in glass, an osteopath,
Dressed for the links, describes an old Intourist tour.
—Here’s where old Gibbons jumped from, Robinson.

Robinson walking in the Park, admiring the elephant.
Robinson buying the Tribune, Robinson buying the Times. Robinson
Saying, “Hello. Yes, this is Robinson. Sunday
At five? I’d love to. Pretty well. And you?”
Robinson alone at Longchamps, staring at the wall.

Robinson afraid, drunk, sobbing Robinson
In bed with a Mrs. Morse. Robinson at home;
Decisions: Toynbee or luminol? Where the sun
Shines, Robinson in flowered trunks, eyes toward
The breakers. Where the night ends, Robinson in East Side bars.

Robinson in Glen plaid jacket, Scotch-grain shoes,
Black four-in-hand and oxford button-down,
The jeweled and silent watch that winds itself, the brief-
Case, covert topcoat, clothes for spring, all covering
His sad and usual heart, dry as a winter leaf.

“Aspects of Robinson” demonstrates how Kees could take the material of the preceding literary generation and develop it into something distinctly personal. Robinson, a character who appears in four of Kees’s poems, is a classic figure in modern poetry, the cultivated, self-conscious, lonely man lost in an impersonal, urban world. Robinson bears a family likeness to T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Conrad Aiken’s Senlin. He also resembles Weldon Kees, and to deny that likeness is to ignore the source of the poem’s emotional intensity.

“Aspects of Robinson” is a formal poem of five stanzas, each stanza made up of five loose iambic lines. For the most part the lines are in either blank verse or unrhymed hexameter. The poem presents a series of scenes with a quickening tempo as the work progresses, and then suddenly slows into a final tableau. Understanding this pacing is crucial to understanding the poem. This reading will try to delineate its characteristic structure while placing the details of the poem within it.

The poem begins with two discrete episodes, each filling one stanza. These scenes carefully establish Robinson and the “landscape” of the poem, both of which will be exploited brilliantly later. “Aspects of Robinson” opens at the Algonquin, Manhattan’s famous literary hotel, where Robinson is playing cards, probably illegally. There is no nature in Manhattan, everything is an artifact. Even the light from outside is an unnatural blue. People are hardly more real. From inside the hotel, men on the street seem like insubstantial ghosts blown out of the Underworld. New York is, by implication an urban hell—Baudelaire’s “Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves.” Taxis streak through the rainy streets in violent colors—yellow, orange, red. Suddenly another voice interrupts the poem, “This is Grand Central, Mr. Robinson.” With the abruptness of a cinematic cut the reader is now in one of those speeding taxis. A driver’s voice is speaking to Robinson, but the reader has no sense of the context. This deliberate sense of dislocation will be repeated through the poem. The reader is forced to look between the lines to supply the context. Grand Central Station is only a few blocks from the Algonquin. Why does Robinson need a cab to get there? Why does Robinson need the station pointed out to him? Is he drunk, dreaming, lost in thought? Where is Robinson going? The reader hears only the mysterious, even macabre interruption.

The next stanza opens on a rooftop party in Brooklyn Heights, the handsome old neighborhood built on the cliffs above the East River and Brooklyn docks. But for a moment it could be any cliff above a waterway. Robinson stares down at the water and hears the foghorns calling to and from the ships below. The ominous imagery of the cold gray water is immediately trivialized by the sound of ice cubes being dropped into a cocktail glass. An osteopath in golf clothes begins chatting about his vacation to the Stalinist Soviet Union—an ironic juxtaposition less obvious today than in 1948. The poem momentarily seems directed at social satire when suddenly there is another macabre interruption. Unexpectedly, somebody unnoticed until now is standing beside the protagonist pointing out, “Here’s where old Gibbons jumped from, Robinson.” Some common acquaintance committed suicide by jumping from the point where Robinson was staring down. The water below once again seems ominous.

Each of the two opening stanzas presented a single episode that began and ended with Robinson’s name. Now using a similar technique but a faster tempo, the next two stanzas present a series of scenes, each depicting Robinson in a defining moment. The scenes feel almost like photographs, a yearlong series of snapshots capturing a man’s life: Robinson in Central Park admiring a caged animal; Robinson buying one or another of two morning newspapers as if the petty choices of a consumer represented real freedom. And Robinson is overheard speaking his only lines in the poem, polite but ontologically eerie chitchat on the phone—“Hello. Yes, this is Robinson . . .” He affirms that he is there and changes the subject. He is observed alone in an expensive restaurant. Robinson is often alone.

Using this quickened tempo, the third stanza begins a brilliant counterpoint of proper nouns. Robinson’s name is set against a catalogue of things to buy, possess, or use. Count the proper nouns and brand names in the next eleven lines: Central Park, Tribune, Times, Sunday, Longchamps, Mrs. Morse, Toynbee, luminol, East Side, Glen plaid, Scotch grain, oxford button downs, and the name Robinson itself twelve times. The repetition of the name alone could easily become irritating. But Kees controls the rhythms of the poem so well that, set against these other names, “Robinson” becomes an insistent and solitary ground bass for despair.

The fragmentary pageant of Robinson’s life continues in the fourth stanza. He is afraid. He is drunk and sobbing in bed with a married woman. He is at home, an insomniac deciding between a book and a drug, as if they were equal choices. He is at the beach staring listlessly out at the summer waves. As in the earlier episodes, Robinson is largely a passive spectator. He observes the world around him with detachment or despondency.

Up until now the poem has stayed true to its title. It has presented a man through fragments, exterior aspects of an unarticulated interior life. A jumbled collection of superficial observations that should not add up to a total person, and yet somehow do. Sadly, they give some sense of an achingly human being underneath. It is as if a man were no more than the sum of his pastimes and possessions.

The poem ends in one long sentence fragment that provides an anatomy, simultaneously individual and impersonal, of contemporary alienation. Robinson is seen—perhaps still sitting in his East Side bar—dressed as meticulously as a model in a spring fashion advertisement. In every detail he appears the successful, well-dressed man. The quick, cumulative technique of the earlier stanzas now slows to catalogue the details in one final tableau. Robinson is described at length but only in terms of the clothes he wears, one item after another, “all covering / His sad and usual heart, dry as a winter leaf.” The final line is chilling, but what makes it so effective? The contrast could easily have been too sharp and sudden. The answer, I believe, is that the final twist not merely rejects the fashionable exterior but qualifies it on every important level. Robinson’s secret despair is located by the poet literally in his heart, the one natural organ in this sardonic, sartorial anatomy. This “sad and usual” organ is literally covered by his clothes in the same way that the sadness it represents is covered by the outer show of success. The new clothes he dons for spring don’t change his usual, inescapable despair.

“Usual” is the key word here. His heart is not reborn with the spring as his wardrobe is. It persists “dry as a winter leaf.” Everything around Robinson renews itself, even his self-winding watch, but he himself is not renewed. His stylish possessions mock him. His fresh public attire is not merely superficial; it is, quite literally, a travesty. Even the sounds of the poem link the exterior Robinson with his sad interior. Notice two acoustic effects, the run-on rhyme of “brief” and “leaf” (the poem’s only end rhymes) and the subtle transformation of “covert” into “covering.” These musical correspondences strike harmonies on a deeper level. The violent lineation of “brief- / Case” create a subliminal reminder of mortality and a preparation for the final image. Likewise, Robinson’s fashionable waterproof woolen coat, which is specifically what a “covert topcoat” is, connotes the deception of his outer appearance, also prefiguring the final image. Kees works with such speed that the reader does not initially have time to register the sheer accuracy of these effects while listening to the poem, but the details contribute to the cumulative power of the total poem. On an almost unconscious level, they prepare the reader for the startling final image.

The challenge for a poet is to reconcile the fallen world of experience with the aspirations of the imagination. This poem demonstrates how Kees transformed the alienation and vacuity of contemporary life into lyric poetry. It does not offer readers comfort or escape. Kees did not transcend the problems of his century with a religious or political faith. He did not elude the vulgarization of public culture by stealing away into an aesthetic realm. What he offered was uncompromising honesty, the transforming shock of recognition. “All a poet can do today is warn.” Kees used the ephemera and detritus of a spiritually bankrupt society—brand names, slang, advertising slogans, popular songs, fashion terms, celebrity names—to provide a backdrop stark enough to dramatize the human situation. Even his humor, one of his great strengths, almost always has a painful sting. He practiced a realism so bitter it borders on prophecy. He presented only the choices history offered his generation, and none of them were attractive. There are contemporary poets more modern than Kees, but none of them seems truer to modern life. He wrote about the noisy world we are trapped in, about the spoiled landscapes that surround us, using the sordid images that confront us every day. Many writers tried to fuse these fragment into art, but few had the necessary imaginative energy. Kees did. He is the poet our age deserves whether it wants him or not.

This piece originally appeared as the conclusion of the essay, “The Achievement of Weldon Kees,” first published in the Spring, 1979 Kees issue of Sequoia. Text is reprinted here with revision, by permission of the author.

Weldon Kees, “Aspects of Robinson” from The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees edited by Donald Justice by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 1962, 1975, by the University of Nebraska Press. © renewed 2003 by the University of Nebraska Press.

First published in Verse (Volume 14, No. 3/1998).