Weldon Kees Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Although the poetry of Weldon Kees (keez) eventually dominated his literary career, he began by publishing more than three dozen short stories in little magazines, such as The Prairie Schooner, that were scattered throughout the Midwest. From his first published story in 1934 (while still an undergraduate) to his last one in 1940 (“The Life of the Mind”), Kees’ reputation grew steadily and impressively. He was frequently cited in annual anthologies such as those published by New Directions. Edward J. O’Brien designated twenty of his stories as “distinctive” in his Best Short Stories, an annual distillation from thousands of stories published in English; indeed, O’Brien’s 1941 volume was dedicated to Kees. Kees’ commitment to short fiction, however, had already waned by then.

In addition to short stories, Kees published a number of reviews in prestigious periodicals such as Poetry, The Nation, and The New York Times Book Review. His interests were astonishingly diverse, and he reviewed books of poetry, fiction, music, art, criticism, and psychology. In 1950, Kees served as art critic for The Nation, publishing an important series of articles on the “abstract expressionists.” He also wrote the essay “Muskrat Ramble: Popular and Unpopular Music,” based on his study of jazz, which was anthologized for its insights into popular culture. Kees also tried his hand at writing plays, and he left behind an experimental, off-Broadway sort of play, The Waiting Room (pb. 1986).

Besides writing, Kees managed to make, or help to make, several short “art films” that are representative of American expressionist cinematography of the period. Notable are The Adventures of Jimmy, for which he wrote a jazz score, and Hotel Apex, his own psychological study of urban disintegration. His filmmaking extended to studies in child and group psychology that led to an association with the psychiatrists Gregory Bateson and Jurgen Ruesch; with the latter, Kees coauthored Nonverbal Communication: Notes on the Visual Perception of Human Relations (1956), which contains a stunning series of still photographs taken by Kees himself. Published after his disappearance in 1955, this volume and The Collected Poems are essential for an understanding of Kees’ poetry.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Although Weldon Kees was fairly well known and critically acclaimed by reviewers such as Rexroth in his own time, his work has become all but forgotten. A thorough assessment of his place in American poetry remains to be done, yet one senses that Kees has been influential and important in unacknowledged quarters of contemporary poetry. The inclusion of Kees in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1973) would expand his audience. His editor, Donald Justice, saw fit to revise The Collected Poems fifteen years after initial publication. Larry Levis, whose first three books have each won a major national award, includes the eulogy “My Only Photograph of Weldon Kees” in his book The Dollmaker’s Ghost (1981).

If, as Rexroth has suggested, Kees was “launched” into poetry by Conrad Aiken, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden, he also assimilated the objectivist viewpoint of William Carlos Williams, the incremental method of Ezra Pound, the prose rhythms of Kenneth Fearing, and the proletarian realism of James T. Farrell, in moving far beyond those early influences. Kees may, indeed, yet be seen as an important figure in the transition from modernist poetics to the postmodern sensibility, with its preoccupation with loss, fictions of the self, and parody of older forms.

More than as an unknown link in the history of poetics or as an artist of amazing versatility, Kees’ achievement is a poetry that is singularly voiced in its blunt honesty and articulate despair over the loss of Walt Whitman’s American idealism. There is no poet in all of American literature more bitter than Kees; yet that “permanent and hopeless apocalypse” (Rexroth) in which he lived does not hinder his eloquence, nor does it erode an eerie serenity that constantly seems to accept certain doom. Kees even seems to anticipate the now-familiar despair of the nuclear age in his poem “Travels in North America,” in which he declares that “the sky is soiled” by the “University of California’s atom bomb.” Had he been publishing in the 1960’s or the 1970’s, Kees might be read widely. As Rexroth has concluded, the poems of Kees may simply have been “just a few years too early.”


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Cotter, Holland. “The Absent Irascible: Weldon Kees in Postwar New York.” The New York Times, April 30, 1999, p. 38. A description of Kees’ paintings and a brief profile of his work in visual art and poetry.

Elledge, Jim. Weldon Kees: A Critical Introduction. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985. The first book-length study of Kees’ work, this volume collects nearly fifty essays and reviews—all the important criticism published before 1985. Eleven previously “lost” poems, a bibliographic checklist, and an index to Kees’ works are also included.

Hamilton, Ian. Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth-Century Poets. London: Viking, 2002. Contains an entry on the life and work of Kees.

Knoll, Robert E., ed. “The New York Intellectuals, 1941-1950: Some Letters by Weldon Kees.” Hudson Review 38 (Spring, 1985): 15-55. After a brief biography, Knoll quotes and comments on some of Kees’ correspondence from the 1940’s. This focused collection of letters provides a fascinating glimpse of intellectual society at the time.

_______. Weldon Kees and the Midcentury Generation: Letters, 1935-1955. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. Consists mostly of extracts from letters written by Kees and contains lengthy and useful commentaries by the editor....

(The entire section is 455 words.)