Weldon Kees: Biographical Note

Born in Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1914, Weldon Kees graduated from the University of Nebraska (Linsoln) with a B.A. degree in 1935. After a brief visit to Hollywood, he returned to Lincoln where he joined the Federal Writers’ project. Early poems were included in the specialist "Federalist Writers" number of Poetry for August 1938, and in Lincoln, he was a member of a literary circle that included Loren Eiseley and Mari Sandoz.

Through the 1930s Kees mostly wrote short stories, placing them in the little magazines and intellectual quarterlies (Prairie Schooner, Horizon, Rocky Mountain Review). He continued to write fiction after leaving the Federal Writers Project for a job as a librarian in Denver. In October 1937 at the age of 24, he married Ann Swan. His reputation as a writer of fiction continued to grow. A novel, Fall Quarter, was completed in 1941, but its whimsical tale of a young professor who battles the dreariness of staid Nebraskan college life was thought by publishers to be too droll for a year in which war seemed imminent (it was eventually published in 1990).

Kees moved to Manhattan in 1943. His first book of poems, The Last Man, was published in 1943. He worked briefly for Time but was laid off in an employee reduction ("Just being away from Whittaker Chambers," he wrote to Malcolm Cowley, "makes one feel like a new man."). His circle expanded to include Edmund Wilson, Allen Tate, Horace Gregory, Dwight MacDonald and Philip Rahv, and his writing began to appear in a variety of publications, not only Time but the New York Times, the New Republic, Partisan Review, as well as Poetry and Furioso.

Around this time Kees stopped writing fiction. His new interest was painting, in which he developed skill with remarkable speed. Soon he was exhibiting alongside abstract expressionists Willem de Kooninge and Hans Hoffman, and when Clement Greenberg left vacant the post of art critic for the Nation in 1949, Kees was recommended to take his place. The Peridot gallery twice presented Kees in a one-man exhibition, and one of his pictures was included in the 1950 Whitney Annual. While completing his paintings and writing his art criticism, Kees also assembled a second book of poems, The Fall of the Magician, published in 1947.

Though remarkably successful in Manhattan (he was, after all, only 36), Kees was dissatisfied with life in New York and decided to relocate it to the West Coast in 1950. While continuing to paint and write poetry, he now developed an interest in traditional New Orleans style jazz and song-writing. He played the piano with professional jazz groups and peddled songs and lyrics to publishers (though with little success). He infrequently linked up with members of the San Francisco Renaissance (he read at Kenneth Rexroth’s place), and he enjoyed the work of California artists like Clyfford Still.

In addition to contributing reviews and sketches to San Francisco dailies, he worked as a photographer with Jurgen Ruesch and Gregory Bateson for various projects they were developing for the Langley Porter Clinic at Berkeley. With Ruesch, he shared the authorship of Nonverbal Communication: Notes on the Visual Perception of Human Relations (1953), which can best be described as a proto-semiotic text that suggests a taxonomy by which to "read" visual signs and gestures that take their place as part of a network of culture. Though the photographs that Kees supplied are supposed to be merely illustrative, many of them display a dry and understated wit, and some even offer momentary glimpses into someone else’s life in a way that makes that life seem disturbingly askew.

In the bay area, Kees continued to paint; he wrote sketches for a local revue; with Michael Grieg he broadcast a weekly radio program from KPFA; he worked on essays on popular art, including early jazz musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton. And in 1954, Poems 1947-1954 was published by Adrian Wilson, a Bay area publisher.

At the age of 40, Kees would appear to be as close to a renaissance man as one could be in the mid-1950s. But complications were developing in his personal life. His wife became seriously alcoholic and then mentally ill; the two separated in 1954 and were divorced. Kees’s frantic work schedule (he worked on experimental films, he peddled his song lyrics, he planned to adapt "Sweeney Agonistes" for television) may have served as a mask for distraught feelings. With close friends, he spoke frankly about the need for some radical change in his life – sometimes postulating suicide, other times planning to relocate outside America.

His automobile was discovered parked near the Golden Gate bridge with the keys inside on July 18, 1955. His disappearance has been treated as a presumed suicide.

Kees was much admired as a poet’s poet, and his work was especially inspiring for young poets in the 1950s who were searching for a way to register their disaffection without resorting to the excess of the Beats or Confessional verse. Donald Justice’s sponsorship of an edition of collected poems in 1960 was central to the revival of his reputation, though it was his inclusion by Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey in the 1970 anthology Naked Poetry that was instrumental in bringing his work before a wide public.

See also James Reidel's Weldon Kees Site at mockingbird.creighton.edu/NCW/kees.htm

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