Because few readers are likely to recall Weldon Kees, I feel I should quote him to begin with, so that we understand the character of the mind whose verse I shall be discussing. This is one of Kees’s previously uncollected poems, not dated but probably written late in his short career, which is to say in the early Fifties.
If this room is our world, then let
This world be damned. Open this roof
For one last monstrous flood
To sweep away this floor, these chairs,
This bed that takes me to no sleep.
Under the black sky of our cir- cumstance,
Mumbling of wet barometers, I stare
At citied dust that soils the glass
While thunder perishes. The heroes perish
Miles from here. Their blood runs heavy in the grass,
Sweet, restless, clotted, sickening,
Runs to the rivers and the seas, the seas
That are the source of that devour- ing flood
That I await, that I must perish by.
This irregular but rigorously worded sonnet seems almost wholly representative of the poet’s temper over a period of fifteen years: the claustral setting which embraces the world, the insomnia, the perishing heroes, the “monstrous flood,” “the black sky,” the dust and the blood.
That Kees himself perished in a devouring flood is more than probable. On July 18, 1955, the poet’s car was found near an approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. Since his body was never found, one can only say for certain that, as Thurber might have put it, Kees is either extinct or somebody took him. Rumor has persisted that the poet is not dead but has been living incognito on some foreign strand, after leaving a volume of scornful, almost impeccable poems as his last testament to a society he had covertly despised for years. Yes, well—it makes a good film scenario to imagine the chap alive two decades later, anonymous and bearded in Vera Cruz, cadging drinks while waiting for his next copy of The New York Review.
Donald Justice, in his introduction to these poems, seeking to explain the anticipation in them of Kees’s “final event,” has this to say. “If the whole of his poetry can be read as a denial of the values of the present civilization…then the disappearance of Kees becomes as symbolic an act as Rimbaud’s flight or Crane’s suicide.” With all respect for Mr. Justice, I would say that it takes an exceptionally well-stocked mind, and sufficient wisdom to avoid suicide, to deny, with any authority, “the values of the present civilization.” There is little evidence in the poems that Kees ever grasped the values of the present civilization. He was alert to the contradictions and idiocies of American society in his time—another matter. His verse may be distinguished from that of Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, and Robert Lowell, all of whom he admired, precisely because, unlike theirs, his poetry rarely implies a struggle for comprehension; he was satisfied …