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A Drowned Talent

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 with definition. In his poems—lugubrious, haunted, sometimes witty—hope is rarely present.

Before leaving the quotation from Mr. Justice, we need to ask further: of what was Kees’s disappearance a “symbolic act,” comparable with the gestures of Rimbaud and Hart Crane? Rimbaud can scarcely be said to have lived in “the present civilization.” He deserted poetry because he had exhausted his command of it; he deserted nineteenth-century European society for a complex of romantic-decadent reasons it is unnecessary to recapitulate here. The immediate provocation of Crane’s suicide was remorse for his unresolved homosexuality, was it not? So far as I know, he wasn’t preparing to abandon poetry either because he had mined its resources or because American society was an obscene spectacle—though at times he believed it to be. I see no easy connection between the flight of Rimbaud into Africa and the suicide of Crane or Kees (or, it follows, those of John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton).

Suicide often turns out to be an unearned increment in a poet’s fame. Would Kees’s poems have been collected and published if he had not become a subject of curiosity and speculation? Many poets writing at the same time as Kees have not been re-collected or even collected, probably because they didn’t come to a wet end or their poems don’t fit the current rage to depreciation. Kees has not been a conspicuously neglected poet. (Most American poets are, by their fellow men, neglected. If, as I believe, most educated readers have never heard of Weldon Kees, how many have heard of Anthony Hecht—or Donald Justice?) Kees’s poems were published throughout the Forties and Fifties in leading periodicals, among them Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, The Sewanee Review, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and others. Three volumes were published in 1943, 1947, and 1954, respectively, and certain of his poems have since been included in three of the best recent anthologies of American poetry; those assembled by Mark Strand in 1969, by Hayden Carruth, 1970, and by Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair in 1973.

Viewed from the outside, Kees’s professional life was, on the record, successful. He arrived in Manhattan from the Midwest, aged twenty-nine, presently became a staff writer for Time and documentary filmmaker, took up painting and acquired a fair reputation among the incipient Abstract Expressionists. His mode was the collage, in which, as in many of his poems, he combined disparate materials and images to create a new unity; the objective was, of course, dissimilar: in painting, an autonomous composition; in poetry, an incongruity, usually derisive.

Two years before his death or disappearance, he had been engaged in the San Francisco area as a creative photographer, assisting Jurgen Ruesch, a master of comparative psychiatry, who was gathering visual material for an extended study of the way people communicate with one another, the way they reveal their cultural assumptions in their surroundings, in their clothes, their posture, and so forth: another version of collage, one might say. During an interview in 1952, Kees, by his own account fruitfully employed by the Ruesch project, declared in a solemn parenthesis that good poetry must be rooted in “a tragic sense of life, achieved by the process of growing up in the modern world.” According to the interviewer, Helen Voigt, he then laughed and brushed off the statement with, “Let’s throw out that stuff!”

Yet he believed in “that stuff,” so long as we press further his notion of the tragic and that tell-tale phrase about growing up. A close reading of his work leads one to suspect that for him growing up, in any world, was the tragedy. Another undated poem in this collection, “Place of Execution,” begins:

Where are the marvelous cities that our childhoods built for us,
With houses unlike those that we have come to know,
And the cathedrals and the violet streets? And all the rooms
Miraculously designed, warm as our nights, with friends at every door?

Where did he think they were? Let’s take his metaphor at face value; the marvelous cities, the cathedrals, and the violet streets were in the story books or had been bombed off the face of the earth, as he well knew. Many had remained, but clearly Kees was not going to leave America to live with them. Actually, he didn’t want his rhetorical questions to be answered. He preferred to be inconsolable for the vanished Arcadia of his childhood and nothing but nightmare was permitted to replace it. If you try to read Kees’s poetry as “a body of work rather than a collection of isolated moments of brilliance” (Mr. Justice’s suggestion) you may find yourself irritated by the poet’s dangerous proximity to the world of Charles Addams, with its bats, frogs, sinister cats, dark houses, axe-murderers, and young girls dying—the whole Gothic paraphernalia.

Kees’s governing attitude was firmly articulated in the Thirties when the irreconcilable diversity and conformity of the democratic spectacle, the Great Depression and thunder in the East, provided a ready subject for the Instant Ecclesiastes. He made clear his view of the world in his early poem “The Speakers.”

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.

Most of his poems comprise a systematic gloss for each of these themes. After a brief detour into something like surrealism, a touch of which he intermittently retained, he settled for a more directly satirical or rancorous perspective, rarely interrupted by any formulation of the good life. Taking a cue from Auden’s early style, he resolved that if the present was unnegotiable, the past was bankrupt. “The castle is mortgaged now, my dear, / The mortgage is overdue: / The moat, the tower, the beautiful yards, / The silverware and the frightening guards….” He speedily found a tougher and more sinuous diction with which to convey his disaffection.

Steadily, throughout the remainder of his work, he performed a perennial American ritual, seeking to disinherit himself further, slaying the European father, duly registering every negative aspect of the American scene, definitively burying the present with the past, the domestic with the foreign. Kees’s urban America is heavily populated by sadistic scientists, feeble-minded matrons, obscene hostesses, stuffed owls, legless beggars, wicked publishers, and shock victims in sanatoria. Love, in Kees’s poems, is never seriously considered as a means of redemption. “…Remembered words and the act / of love / Are but interruptions. And the world, like a beast, impatient / and quick, / Waits only for those that are dead….” “Love is a sickroom with the roof half gone / Where nights go down in a continual rain.” In “Crime Club,” a tour de force on the border between hilarity and dementia, the sleuth, Le Roux, incurably insane, is “screaming that all the world is mad, that clues / Lead nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen; / Screaming all day of war, screaming that nothing can be / solved.”

He brings such effects off beautifully, always skirting, as I have said, the pit of the inane. What saves them is the scrupulous structure of the single poem, his ear, and his infallible choice of the modifying imprecation. Even as “something in [his] head flapped like a wornout blind,” he observed the forms, composed stunning tercets, villanelles, sestinas, and free verse formalized by the logic of its sour argument. If the last dozen collected poems in this volume are arranged with chronological accuracy, we can acknowledge that Kees consummated a lifetime’s expression of fright and nausea with a meticulous projection of it. “The Coming of the Plague” is a vision out of Bosch; “The Furies” is a nightmare unqualified; so is “Wet Thursday,” with its evocation of a monstrous cat becoming, forever, the poet’s “spiteful and envenomed shadow.”

To wonder what kind of poetry he might have written had he managed to survive is, I suppose idle. There is in his verse a discernible development, at least there is commutation between the raw macabre and a type of irony which demanded that he include more of the world and, including it, find food for thought less poisonous. “A Distance From the Sea” exemplified the Out which might have enabled him to stay In: an inquest, under the aspect of wit, of the more monumental illusions that move mankind. Considered along with other poems of this genre—I think of Cavafy’s, and Auden’s prose poem of Herod, of David Slavitt’s “Jericho” and Daryl Hine’s “Untitled”—Kees’s does not remain in the fold of satire; the poem suggests that out of contrivance a kind of faith is born, if only a faith in the intention behind the contrivance.

Conceivably, he discovered the saving symbol too late. In any case, he speaks here in the person of an apostle who stage-managed the Miracles—notably the walking-on-the-water stunt, contrived with a submerged raft. Why? Because “Life offers up no miracles, unfortunately, and needs assistance.” A few lines from this poem (the only one that ends with a perhaps) are, I think, a better concluding reminder of Kees’s drowned talent than the compulsive hallucinations by which he can more readily be characterized.

   …I think now of the raft
(For me, somehow, the summit of the whole experience)
And all the expectations of that day, but also of the cave
We stocked with bread, the secret meetings
In the hills, the fake assassins hired for the last pursuit,
The careful staging of the cures, the bribed officials,

The angels’ garments, tailored faultlessly,
The medicines administered behind the stone,
That ultimate cloud, so perfect, and so opportune.
Who managed all that blood I never knew.

…—It’s dark here on the peak, and keeps on getting darker.
It seems I am experiencing a kind of ecstasy.
Was it sunlight on the waves that day? The night comes down.
And now the water seems remote, unreal, and perhaps it is.

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