Robert Kelly Kelly, Robert - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Robert Kelly 1935–-

American poet, novelist, and short story writer.

A prolific poet, Kelly has also garnered considerable attention for his contemporary short fiction. He has produced a large body of short stories, much of which is experimental and focuses on different modes of expression. Kelly views creative writing as a return to the primitive self, a way of finding the primeval center of modern humankind.

Biographical Information

Kelly was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1935. By age thirteen, he was writing poetry. Kelly dropped out of school when he was fifteen and attended City College, where he completed his B.A. in 1955. Kelly began graduate work in medieval studies at Columbia University, but left after three years without obtaining a degree. Kelly earned his living as a translator while writing and soon published his first short story “Ring: Fragment of a Novel Entitled ‘The Moment of Sound.’” Since 1960, Kelly has been employed as a teacher. He has taught German language at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and has served as director of poetry for Milton Avery Graduate School, as well as professor of English. Kelly has been a visiting professor and resident poet at several universities and is known for his promotion of other writers by developing writing courses, holding workshops, and co-founding several literary magazines, among them The Chelsea Review (1957), Trobar (1960), Matter, and Sulfur.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Most of Kelly's volumes of short fiction are collections of previously published material from a variety of literary magazines. A Transparent Tree (1985), his first major agglomeration of stories, comprises work originally published from 1972 to 1983 and includes Cities (1972) and Wheres (1978), both also published separately. The stories therein consider the return of modern man to the primordial self, the actualization of one's true center, and the journey to human solidarity. In Doctor of Silence (1988) Kelly continues this thematic exploration. Here, he describes alternative methods by which the individual can return to the primary and many of the stories depict animals as intrinsic to this process of reinvention and reintegration. Cat Scratch Fever (1990) is a collection of what Kelly refers to as his “Russian Tales.” Although the range of material covered in this tome may seem disjointed, some critics have commented about the stories' cohesiveness as vehicles which approach the elemental ‘other’, and that are structured as varied fables, instructions, legends, and poetic narratives.

Critical Reception

Kelly's writing is considered by certain commentators to be obscure, ambiguous, and difficult, although others believe that this obscurity allows a more cursive interpretation. Kelly's experimental prose style has been favorably compared to the forms and patterns of poetry which requires the reader to concentrate on words and images and to observe the emergence of motifs and thematic designs. Critics have remarked that as Kelly attempts to negate the normal associations of fiction in order to express the confusion of life, his stories—which may seem simple initially—reveal themselves to be complex and sophisticated, even Byzantine. Scholars have praised the brashness of Kelly's fictive technique, and some reviewers believe he deserves greater critical recognition than previously received.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Cities 1972

Sulphur 1972

A Line of Sight 1974

Wheres 1978

The Cruise of the Pnyx 1979

How Do I Make Up My Mind Lord?: Story Devotions for Boys 1982

A Transparent Tree: Fictions 1985

Doctor of Silence: Fictions 1988

Cat Scratch Fever 1990

Queen of Terrors 1994

The Scorpions (novel) 1967

Finding the Measure (poetry) 1968

The Common Shore, Books I–V: A Long Poem about America (poetry) 1969

Kali Yuga (poetry) 1970

Flesh, Dream, Book (poetry) 1971

The Convections (poetry) 1977

The Book of Persephone (poetry) 1978

The Flowers of Unceasing Coincidence (poetry) 1988

Red Actions: Selected Poems, 1960–1993 (poetry) 1995

Albert Mobilio (review date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Mobilio, Albert. Review of A Transparent Tree, by Robert Kelly. Village Voice Literary Supplement 39 (October 1985): 3.

[In the following review of A Transparent Tree, Mobilio states that Kelly adds a new dimension to the short story genre.]

“Telling is one thing, and hearing another,” says the ancient reciter in “Calf of Gold,” the opening tale in A Transparent Tree. Though the fictive act is infinitely interpretable, often both obvious and obscure, few writers embrace this paradox as completely as Robert Kelly has in his first collection of novellas and short stories.

Kelly, dauntingly prolific author of more than 40 books of verse, dismisses the distinction between poetry and fiction as “scarcely necessary.” The description of prose as “poetic” usually connotes elaborate metaphor and stylized diction. Kelly gives us this and more; his stories flash with insight yet thrive on enigma, seem tightly built but feel porous and open-ended, using language to simultaneously say and deny the ability to say at all. No doubt this is fiction, but it's fiction that synthesizes narrative form and poetic thought.

Poetry or prose, certain trademarks abide. “Cities,” a Calvino-like Baedeker of imaginary civilizations, offers the densely textured geography and exotic esoterica familiar to fans of Kelly's verse. “Where shall I take myself,” our tourist begins, “with my ostrich luggage and my peacock pride”? Amid the magical landscapes of Tibet and North Africa, he discovers secret...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

George Myers, Jr. (review date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Myers, George Jr. Review of A Transparent Tree: Fictions, by Robert Kelly. Small Press Review 18, no. 4 (April 1986): 6.

[In the following review of A Transparent Tree, Myers compares Kelly to Italo Calvino and Leo Lionni.]

In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino describes an imaginary city where images of things are emblematic of other things. In Leo Lionni's Parallel Botany, a book describing imaginary plants, a species of shrub shrinks as viewers approach it. Thus, close inspection is impossible; perspective never changes. Robert Kelly's new fiction collection, A Transparent Tree: Fictions, is very like Calvino and Lionni's plants and cities: His tales are riddles wrapped in enigmas.

Like the Oriental wonder box in which one container reveals a yet smaller one, Kelly's stories are endless pursuits of ciphers and codes—clues to nothing, really, which are forged into somethings by the fire of Kelly's spectacular imagination.

But what is that something? What does one see in a room walled by mirrors? What becomes most apparent? In one story, “A Calf of Gold,” a wandering reciter of folk tales learns that hearing a tale is more magical than the telling of one. After all, “understanding isn't so important.” With such cautionary advice, we cut into the lush, mahogany world of A Transparent Tree. Occasional density and allusiveness frame imagined cities, a civil war sharp-shooter, a vampire inhabiting the body of a woman (a parallel for Kelly, the life giver, inhabiting his stories), and a bundle...

(The entire section is 671 words.)

Don Skiles (review date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Skiles, Don. Review of A Transparent Tree: Fictions, by Robert Kelly. American Book Review 9, no. 1 (January 1987): 16.

[In the following review of A Transparent Tree, Skiles claims that the prose in this volume is “highly metaphorical, metaphysical, and mystical.”]

This is Robert Kelly's forty-third published book, his first collection of short fiction. He previously published a novel, The Scorpions (1967). A Transparent Tree is a book of “fictions”; it certainly is not the usual volume of short stories. The book consists of three novellas and six shorter pieces. Obviously, each piece has distilled over a long time;...

(The entire section is 919 words.)

Robert Hauptman (review date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hauptman, Robert. “Literature in Search of an Audience.” Catholic Library World 59, no. 4 (January/February 1988): 161–62.

[In the following review of Cities, Hauptman describes Kelly's prose as highly pleasurable.]

Robert Kelly has been publishing his work for almost three decades. He is respected as a prolific poet and innovator; he is honored among peers; and he is adjulated by disciples. But far too few know his Cities; too few realize that it is one of the most tantalizingly beautiful travelogues ever witten. For sixty-five lyrical pages Kelly sings of Jaouedda, Ahampura, Ára, Wuara, Lyonesse, and many other secret cities—exotic,...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

Elizabeth Shostak (review date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Shostak, Elizabeth. Review of Doctor of Silence: Fictions, by Robert Kelly. Wilson Library Bulletin 63, no. 1 (September 1988): 81–2.

[In the below review of Doctor of Silence, Shostak evaluates Kelly's writing in terms of negative possibility.]

Robert Kelly's fictions can perhaps be introduced most easily in terms of what they are not: neither the spare, flat stares at ordinary life associated with minimalism, nor ripping good yarns, these works puzzle and provoke by challenging the conventions of the narrative form itself. Kelly's characters do not behave like ordinary fictional characters, who have recognizable lives (names, occupations,...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

Tom Howard (review date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Howard, Tom. Review of Doctor of Silence, by Robert Kelly. Small Press 7 (June 1989): 39.

[In the following review of Doctor of Silence, Howard contends that Kelly creates a new definition for fiction.]

Fiction, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is “an imaginative creation or a presence that does not represent actuality but has been invented.” In the twenty-seven stories in Doctor of Silence, poet Robert Kelly not only fulfils these criteria but expands them to create an entirely new definition of literature. Kelly smears human experience on glass slides, nonchalantly inserts them into a microscope, and then twists...

(The entire section is 377 words.)

Stephanie Rabinowitz (review date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Rabinowitz, Stephanie. Review of Cat Scratch Fever, by Robert Kelly. Small Press 9 (Fall 1991): 56.

[In the following review of Cat Scratch Fever, Rabinowitz asserts that Kelly’s stories are truly versatile.]

The mere scope of Kelly's fictional worlds in this amazing collection of 31 stories testifies to a versatility that is rarely witnessed in today's post-modern writings. The self-reflexive anecdotes and pensive moments in Cat Scratch Fever are photo-real in their simultaneous awareness of language, authorial presence, comic style, metaphor, and emotion.

Both the title story and “Orange” employ a deliberate...

(The entire section is 206 words.)

Marc Laidlaw (review date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Laidlaw, Marc. “Writing and Religion: Unreal but Loaded.” American Book Review 13, no. 4 (October 1991): 14.

[In the following review of Cat Scratch Fever, Laidlaw describes Kelly's fictions as “a myriad of dazzling forms.”]

Kelly concentrates on cause-effect as a single organism. In fact, the first bewitching tale in Cat Scratch Fever, “The Scribe,” wryly portrays the very act of seeking cause (within-cause-within-cause) as work best suiting a monk completely isolated from the complex world of sensation, where cause is a hopeless muddle. Yet even this futurist scribe knows that his work is no more than crabbed annotation on broad...

(The entire section is 734 words.)

Marilyn Moss (review date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Moss, Marilyn. Review of Cat Scratch Fever, by Robert Kelly. Review of Contemporary Fiction 12, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 147–48.

[In the following review of Cat Scratch Fever, Moss discusses the “craftsmanship” of Kelly's fiction.]

Robert Kelly's new collection of short fiction [Cat Scratch Fever] is a beautifully crafted ode to our contemporary world. If we find our own selves reflected back in any of the thirty-one pieces here, then we are in good company—for Kelly is a craftsman who shares our intimate thoughts and knows how to glance along with us at the chambers of our imagination. In one instance we are with the narrator of the...

(The entire section is 370 words.)

Robert Kelly with Larry McCaffery (interview date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Kelly, Robert, and Larry McCaffery. “A Rose to Look At: An Interview with Robert Kelly.” In Some Other Frequency: Interviews with Innovative American Authors, pp. 170–95. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

[In the following interview, Kelly discusses his interest in poetry and fiction as well as his creative process.]

Say it all
over again.
but say it all.
Write everything.

The Loom

The literary task Robert Kelly has set for himself—that is, to “write everything”—is, to be sure, an ambitious undertaking; but in a career that now spans some forty years Kelly certainly has a good running...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Antioch Review 4, no. 1 (winter 1989): 115.

Review of Doctor of Silence.

Book World 21, no. 25 (June 1991): 12.

Review of Cat Scratch Fever.

Harris, Bertha. New York Times Book Review (19 January 1992): 9.

Review of Cat Scratch Fever.

Los Angeles Times Book Review (13 January 1991): 10.

Review of Cat Scratch Fever.

McCaffery, Larry. New York Times Book Review 135 (15 September 1985): 18.

Review of A Transparent Tree.

Moore, Steven....

(The entire section is 113 words.)