Perhaps the neglect that Weldon Kees’ poetry has suffered results from the lack of a single, brilliant “masterpiece.” There is no long poem, no ambitious project or sequence like those on which many modern and contemporary poets have founded their reputations. There is no pretentious, gaudy innovation of form that would assure him a place in debates on “technical craft.” Many of Kees’ poems suffer from flaws such as awkward allusions or tedious repetitions, but despite all such deficiencies his work is original for its soft voice that expresses a tone of hard bitterness. That voice is not especially pleasing in its barrage of satiric details, yet it retains a unique capacity to haunt the memory of anyone who has read his poems. Donald Justice is surely correct in asserting that Kees’ poetry “makes its deepest impression when read as a body of work rather than a collection of isolated moments of brilliance,” for “there is a cumulative power to the work as a whole to which even the weaker poems contribute.”
In Kees’ early poems such as “The Speakers,” one detects the unmistakable echoes of T. S. Eliot, while a poem such as “Variations on a Theme by Joyce” employs a Joycean “war in the words.” Even in those first poems, however, Kees comes quickly to his own sense of rhythm and tone. Although he played with formalism by using the villanelle and the sestina, and while he experimented with form in such poems as “Fuge” and “Round,” Kees settled in to a rhythmic prose line that was more flexible than traditional meter and more restrictive than free verse. Possessing a naturally good ear, Kees successfully wed form and content by starting with facts and things and then consummated them by placing the right words in the right order—in short, a wholly natural proselike but lyrical style. The consequent unobtrusive tone of the poems is the very heart of Kees’ poetic vision.
Kees chose as an epigraph to his final book a passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (1860) that reveals much about Kees’ own perspective in his poetry. His quest was to enter “those dark caverns into which all men must descend, if they would know anything beneath the surface and illusive pleasures of existence.” Hawthorne’s novel itself is a study of ambivalent meaning in a world scattered among the fragments of tradition and the incomprehensible debris that is left to the artist. Seeing himself in a similar world, but facing an even more painful disintegration than Hawthorne had perceived, Kees sought to enter his own “dark caverns” by explicating and disclosing the ironies of the “surface” and satirizing the “pleasures of existence.” Whatever hope marks that quest—and it does not appear with any frequency—can be found in the intense scrutiny of both personal and public experience, capable not only of recognizing and accepting continuous despair, but also of remaining detached from its implications. Kees proposes a self-protective hope, simple, isolated, solitary, and stationary, out of which, with absolute denial, the self can create a system of values by which it can survive—honestly and naturally—with perhaps its greatest pleasure being in art itself.
“For My Daughter”
The pervasive anguish and bitterness that runs through Kees’ poetry like grain through wood appeared in his earliest work. In the early poem “For My Daughter,” as the speaker gazes into his “daughter’s eyes,” he perceives “hintings of death” which he knows “she does not heed.” Continuing his contemplation of the destruction of her youth, he fears that she will be subjected to the “Parched years that I have seen” and intensifies his dread by assuming that she will be ravished by “lingering/ Death in certain war.” Worse yet, the speaker bemoans the possibility—even probability—that his daughter will be “fed on hate” and learn to relish “the sting/ Of other’s agony” in which the masochism of self-destruction overwhelms the tenderness of love. In the midst of such bleak projection, Kees undermines the speaker’s fearful uncertainties. “These speculations,” says the speaker, “sour in the sun.” Just as the reader begins to applaud the father for coming to his senses and rejecting his indulgent morbidity, Kees delivers an excruciating shock in the last line: “I have no daughter. I desire none.” The reader now realizes that the despair is even greater than he had supposed; the speaker has already chosen not to have children, because he sees nothing but betrayal and suffering in his vision of the future. He chooses to withhold his own “procreative urge,” viewing it as his own inevitable complicity in the suffocation of the unborn generations.
“The Conversation in the Drawing Room”
That rather private sense of futility gives way in other poems to a dramatic rendering of an equally futile sense in interpersonal relationships. In “The Conversation in the Drawing Room,” Kees creates a dialogue between Hobart, a young man aghast at a “spot of blood” that is “spreading” on the room’s wall, and Cousin Agatha, who refuses to acknowledge his hysteria as anything but the result of reading The Turn of the Screw (Henry James, 1898) before bedtime. Agatha sees herself as compassionate and progressive; she remarks that the “weather is ideal” and ruminates on joining “a new theosophist group” as Hobart announces that the spot is “growing brighter.” When he urges her to examine it, she dismisses it as an “aberration of the wallpaper” and suggests that he suffers from indigestion. When Hobart points out that the spot has become “a...
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