- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004

THE COLLECTED POEMS OF WELDON KEES

Edited by Donald Justice

University of Nebraska Press, $13.95, 180 pages

WELDON KEES AND THE ARTS AT MIDCENTURY

Edited by Daniel A. Siedell

University of Nebraska Press, $45, 238 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY JOSEPH BOTTUM

It takes prose to sell poetry, these days. Nothing moves a poet into public consciousness better than a book-length biography, particularly if the poet’s life was filled with incident, or intersected the lives of other famous figures, or came to a peculiar end.

The poet Weldon Kees had that kind of life — and that kind of death. On July 19, 1955, his car was found abandoned near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, from which the 41-year-old is presumed to have jumped. His work has held the esteem of poets for some while, but it never quite crossed over into the general knowledge of poetry readers.

Perhaps the reasons are related. His verse runs down channels like these: “A crack is moving down the wall. / Defective plaster isn’t all the cause. / We must remain until the roof falls in.”

And the technical excellence is matched with an essential grimness, a view of the world as a deficient place we can, at best, wait out. “The smiles of the bathers fade as they leave the water, / And the lover feels sadness fall as it ends, as he leaves his love,” he wrote. “And the world, like a beast, impatient and quick, / Waits only for those who are dead. No death for you. You are involved.”

This isn’t poetry designed for mass appeal. But it’s very good, indeed. So good, that his first editor, Donald Justice, claimed that the best part of admiring Kees’ verse was the sense of belonging to a coterie of insiders with the power to appreciate the little-known work:

“That sense of private discovery and secret knowledge and admiration is the source of my continuing interest. I wouldn’t be sorry to see it remain that way in part.” The small, art-house edition of Kees’ poetry that Mr. Justice brought out in the 1960s became famous in poetry circles for the difficulty of finding a copy of it.

But now we have a third, and more complete, edition of “The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees,” in a generally available paperback. We have, as well, a fine collection of essays about the poet’s work in Daniel Siedell’s “Weldon Kees and the Arts at Midcentury.”

And, once again, it turns out to be prose that has prompted a general interest in the poetry — the promotion of Kees in the public consciousness driven by the appearance last year of James Reidel’s biography, “Vanished Act: The Life and Art of Weldon Kees.”

The life that Mr. Reidel chronicled was a curious one. Born in Beatrice, Neb., in 1914, the young Kees followed a common pattern: that of the precocious and talented boy who has a checkered academic career and cannot quite find his place.

Graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1935, he tried his hand at fiction, writing stories and novels that all his editors agreed were “promising”—that kiss of death for a young, ambitious writer.

By 1942, he had abandoned fiction and moved to New York, where he stayed until 1950, writing essays and reviews for the likes of Time, the New Republic, and other magazines.

It was around that time, as well, that he took up visual art, and his abstract-expressionist paintings were — again — considered promising without quite being excellent.

In 1947, he completed his second volume of poems, “The Fall of Magicians,” which included what seemed at the time might be his breakthrough poems, about a city dweller named “Robinson,” that the New Yorker began publishing: “The dog stops barking after Robinson has gone. / His act is over. The world is a gray world, / Not without violence, and he kicks under the grand piano, / The nightmare chase well under way.”

But Kees was unhappy in New York, and in the fall of 1950, he and his wife Ann moved to San Francisco. He found much to do there: working on anthropological documentary films with Gregory Bateson, publishing another book of poems, joining a film-review radio program, holding exhibitions of his paintings, writing screenplays, restoring an old theater, and writing songs for various local jazz musicians.

But none of it quite clicked, and he quickly fell into the sadly typical cycle of self-destruction: swallowing amphetamines to break his depression, then finding they left him more depressed; leaving his wife to find a happier love life, then finding himself mired in loneliness.

He told one friend he was going off to Mexico to escape from it all, but he found a closer exit in San Francisco, parking his car by the bridge and disappearing into the cold waters of the bay.

People who can do too many things often end up doing too few. Weldon Kees could paint pretty well, and he could write up a nice story, and he could compose an interesting song, and he could make a screenplay hang together.

And what of it all, really, survives? In the essays in “Weldon Kees and the Arts at Midcentury,” such authors as Dana Gioia, Dore Ashton, and James Reidel make the case for his skill in every art at which he tried his hand.

What none of these critics can do, however, is make the sum total into something that matters for its own sake. The many-sidedness of Kees’ work is finally more interesting than any particular thing he accomplished.

Except, perhaps, his poetry. Here, again, he could do too much to do any one thing well. He wrote villanelles, and knowing comedy (“The End of the Library” is a good example), and high modernism, and ironic traditionalism. But, in his poetry, as in the rest of his life, he needed to pursue one talent down to perfection, and that is precisely what he could never force himself to do.

Still, there is a compulsion in the poetry that will not be denied, even in Weldon Kees’ failure: “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.”

Joseph Bottum is Books & Arts editor of the Weekly Standard and author of “The Fall & Other Poems.”

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