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Weldon Kees: mysterious verses

An investigation into the arcane story of the poet whose mysterious disappearance (was it suicide?) led to his poetry's popularisation

“First of all, I want to introduce Mr. Weldon Kees,” said the announcer to San Francisco’s Poet’s Follies, six months before its star performer, jumped – or, perhaps, did not jump – off the Golden Gate Bridge. “Poet, painter, artist, etcetera, composer, critic, etcetera, etcetera... ad infinitum.”

To say the multitalented Kees was a man as striking as the poetry that came out of him was bitter and bleak would be an understatement. He sported a Howard Hughes moustache and a precisely tailored look, lived off a diet of Dexedrine pills and was in possession of a gregarious social manner that introduced him to some of the brightest figures of his day, including the likes of Mark Rothko, Truman Capote and Elizabeth Bishop.

But in a punchline that would have been in step with his poetry, his success as a poet and the origin of the cult riding up around him would be the death of him. On July 19, 1955, two cars were found abandoned on the approach to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, leaving the police to divine which was the 88th recorded suicide, and which was the 89th. One car belonged to a washed–up 59–year–old salesman named Joseph R Eppler. The other car had keys in the ignition, a lab coat folded neatly on the rear seat, and no note. It belonged to an obscure poet who had tried to jump off the week before, but hadn’t been able to force his foot over the barrier. Just the day before, he had been discussing leaving for a new life in Mexico – but for the man who gloried in his five villanelles how not to evade disaster – “The crack is moving down the wall/Defective plaster isn’t all the cause/We must remain until the roof falls in” – it did not seem very likely.

Right now, the poet who did or did not plummet off the Golden Gate Bridge is ripe cult material. As the world economy nosedives, we are in a Keesian brand of slump, at home with the bard of banking crises and his credit–crunched soul. “I have noticed distinct waves in Kees’s cult and, strangely enough, they follow the economy,” says James Reidel, author of "Vanished Act, The Life and Art of Weldon Kees". “Kees’s world view was formed during the Depression and now he comes back, like some Cassandra, to ‘comfort’ us in our despair because, seemingly, he could live inside it with a kind of serenity.”

Born in Beatrice, Nebraska, on February 24, 1914, into a prosperous manufacturing family, Harry Weldon Kees seemed destined to take over the family trade. This was something he resisted but never quite escaped the shadow of, always dressing like a sharp–suited professional, rather than the often–struggling bohemian he frequently was.

After graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1935, he married Ann Swan, who would support him, on and off, for the next 16 years as he tried his hand (generally with alacrity) at being a novelist, an artist, art critic, film reviewer, jazz pianist, composer, filmmaker, photographer, academic, librarian, and co–author of a study on non–verbal communication.

As the award–winning poet Michael Hofmann said, “I had not realised how ‘nearly’ Kees was, and how far he came in so many fields of artistic endeavour. Here was someone who dined at the home of William Carlos Williams... who helped edit Paramount’s historic newsreel footage for To The Shores of Iwo Jima and who, as late as 1955, was awarding a poetry prize to Robert Fitzgerald.”

Kees, William Heick, and an unidentified mental patient with her artwork Courtesy of James Reidel

Although Kees’s poems are always punctuated with sadness (if they are not already pumped with downright sardonic despair), in person he was an engaging figure who always seemed to find his way to the centre of whatever cultural buzz he happened to encounter. His collages were at one time displayed alongside those of Picasso and at another, beside Jackson Pollock’s.

Kees found his voice early. In "Subtitle", the opening poem of his first collection, "The Last Man", he begins at the place where he intends to take us – a world where the worst has already happened and where the ordinary all–American experience of attending the movie theatre is seedy, nightmarish and sinister.

“We request these things only:

All gum must be placed beneath the seats

Or swallowed quickly, all popcorn sacks

Must be left in the foyer. The doors

Will remain closed throughout

The performance. Kindly consult

Your programs: observe that

There are no exits. This is

A necessary precaution.”

"The cult attraction to Kees lies in this secret quality that the A–list missed, it’s the other secret knowledge, the Keesian mysteries” – James Reidel

Kees was the master of the innocuous detail twisted into a threat, the consumer of pulp–culture tracing the stain that the juice of the pulp had left behind. And, as a private depressive (and the husband of a wife who breakfasted, lunched and dined on gin) he is an expert at delineating the cracks of the mind. 

“Only a suburban house with the front door open

And a dog barking at a squirrel, and the cars

Passing. The corpse quite dead. The wife in Florida.

Consider the clues: the potato masher in a vase,

The torn photograph of a Wesleyan basketball team,

Scattered with check stubs in the hall;

The unsent fan letter to Shirley Temple,

The Hoover button on the lapel of the deceased,

The note: ‘To be killed this way is quite all right with me.’

Small wonder that the case remains unsolved,

Or that the sleuth, Le Roux, is now incurably insane,

And sits alone in a white room in a white gown,

Screaming that all the world is mad...” 

Some of his most celebrated poems are those on the character of Robinson. These chart the outline of a “Cold War everyman”, as the poet Donald Justice explains it. In them, Kees appears to map out the conventional life he almost led, transcribed with a peculiar lilt of satire mingled with pity, in which the poetry trips out like prose. In "Aspects of Robinson", he puts his hero in reels of poses. 

“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.”

Although Weldon is not Robinson, Robinson shares his creator’s untidy unhappiness beneath the polite exterior, sharing, too, his natty dress. 

“Robinson afraid, drunk, sobbing Robinson

In bed with a Mrs Morse. Robinson at home;

Decisions: Toynbee or luminol?” 

“Robinson in Glen plaid jacket, Scotch–grain shoes,

Black four–in–hand and oxford button–down...

...covert topcoat, clothes for spring, all covering

His sad and usual heart, dry as a winter leaf.”

Kees reads some of his work to a blonde friend shortly before his mysterious disappearance, 1955 Courtesy of James Reidel

Kees himself, Reidel suggests, knew the quality of the poems he was producing. “Robinson is a finishing touch to his poetry,” he says. “He produced the last Robinson poem and then within a year told his mother he was finished as a poet, complete.”

During his lifetime, however, Kees struggled to find a wider audience. His collection of poems "A Breaking and a Death" gathered 20 rejections in a row. With his mastery of the poetic forms of sestina and villanelle, harking back to the 20s rather than forward to the 60s, Kees’s output was neither surrealist, beat nor confessional – he was out of step with his time.

Truman Capote, bewildered by Kees’s talent and utter lack of single–minded focus, once demanded of Kees, “Why don’t you want to be a success? I can tell from the way you act you don’t want to be a success... Why, you’re a much better poet than that old Robert Lowell,” before adding of himself, “I just feel terrible. Nobody likes my novel that I want to have like it. All the wrong people are praising it.”

James Reidel, suggests that this might be precisely what Kees wanted – the “grey area between neglect and fame” where all the right people could find him. “He loved being B–list the way he loved B–movies. But he knew this came at a price. His poem "The Musician’s Wife" reveals that he knew he played chicken with being chronically and then fatally disappointed, ‘self–sabotage’ as you say – the cult attraction to Kees lies in this secret quality that the A–list missed, it’s the other secret knowledge, the Keesian mysteries.”

“I used to get out the records you made

The year before all your terrible trouble,

The records the critics praised and nobody bought

That are almost worn out now.” 

“Perhaps cult is the wrong word for Kees’s appeal. Perhaps religious order would be better for those bitten by Kees?” – James Reidel

In 1954, things started to spiral downwards for Kees. His wife, Ann, was drinking – “more than you, me, Malcolm Lowry and Tallulah Bankhead put together,” he explained to a friend. She was also hallucinating and he helped her check into a clinic. “She improved greatly there but left against advice after three weeks. We are now separated and she has agreed to a divorce, and I hope she will be all right. We were married for 16 years and a lot of it was not so good.”

A year later, the critic Pauline Kael recalled, “All of us who saw Weldon frequently and who were used to being yanked out of bed by his fantastically early telephone calls – knew that he was miserable. He had been telling us all how slack and lethargic and miserable he was... It was as if a dynamo had suddenly run down – and we couldn’t think of any way to help start it up.”

Noting his failure to get his book of poems published, Kees wrote, “If the situation of poets continues to worsen at the same galloping rate it has been in recent years, let’s go down into the abyss. It won’t be a really awful abyss – there’ll be a lot of charming and good things in it: just no poets, that’s all.”

At the time of his disappearance in 1955, he was writing the book on suicide, provisionally titled, "How-Not-To-and-Why-Not-To-Do-It". The likelihood of a suicide, he had studied, was multiplied in the summer months and exacerbated by a bad diet. In July, on a diet of speed, Kees fitted his own bill. What did not, however, was his pre–suicide behavior – leaving his red socks soaking in the bowl, paying off the final instalment on his car; his passport, sleeping bag, cheque book all gone. His ex–wife, Ann, was adamant that he had not jumped and, since 1955, there have been numerous sightings of “Weldon Kees” – once in Mexico, where he had spoken of going – with a blonde.

If he is alive today, a dapper, mustachioed 94–year–old, he will no doubt be enjoying reports of his poetic lionisation half a century on, mainly by his fellow poets. In the year of his death, he could not get into print. Five years after Donald Justice brought out the Complete Works – for years impossible to get hold of, now available in your local bookstore – the cult of Kees is growing by the year, devotion ramped up in elegies, readings, borrowings and homage.

“Perhaps cult is the wrong word for Kees’s appeal,” says Reidel. “Perhaps religious order would be better for those bitten by Kees?” If Kate Moss’s t–shirt is to be believed – Ginsberg is God. If so, then Kees is Christ and his Golden Gate jump the symbolic, sacrificial death for the resurrection of the poetic soul.