Criticism on Weldon Kees

Mark Doty

Although the poems of Weldon Kees were not widely read until some time after Kees's disappearance and presumed suicide in 1955, they represent an essential contribution to the poetry of the decade. Whereas Warren could abstractly name "our own time's sad declension," Kees seemed to internalize it, to embody throughout his work, with remarkable consistency, a sense of both cultural sterility and reduction and individual hopelessness; even the most straightforward and reportorial of Kees's images are informed by a tone of bitterness ("Outside, white buildings yellow in the sun. / Outside, the birds circle continuously / Where trees are actual and take no holiday"), The theme of cultural decline is everywhere enacted; "Round" contrasts the enthusiasms of Marvell, the humanist Renan, and Cezanne with the immediate realm of experience confronting the speaker: "something in my head / Flaps like a worn-out blind, The soil / in which the ferns are dying needs more Vigoro." "The Umbrella" traces mythic and historical associations of umbrellas in Hindu, Buddhist, and Greek cultures; as the poem's cata-ogue of historical associations moves toward the present, it becomes increasingly compressed, increasingly random, until the umbrellas of the Victorians, having lost all religious associations, are seen as trimmed with "sequins, artificial flowers, ostrich feathers, / God knows what else." Kees's choice of verbs to evoke the present is revealing: "The sea is pitted with rain. Wind shakes the house, / Here from this window lashed with spray, I watch / a black umbrella, ripped apart and wrong side out, / Go lurching wildly down the beach." "Pitted," "shakes," "lashed," and "ripped" suggest the barely containable violence of the present moment, and the troubling motions of the ruined umbrella against the gray and motionless harbor stand in bleak opposition to the past in which human gestures invested the object with meaning. For Kees, meaning has been drained both from things and from human lives, and now the umbrella, that sad representative of the human intention to protect, goes "flapping and free, / Into the heart of the storm." In his despair, the absolutism of his denial, Kees is in a sense the most contemporary of his contemporaries, the poet whose work most internalizes the conditions of post-Hiroshima society with its potential for the utter denial of all value.

from A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Ed. Jack Myers and David Wojahan. Copyright 1991 by Southern Illinois UP.

On Weldon Kees
Charles Baxter

This poetry constitutes a kind of ethnography, an ethnography of vacancy, where the collection of materials is more-or-less random. The non-identity of the self cannot ground anything and loses its boundaries in multiplicity, in counting and naming. If this is a nightmare of forlorn empiricism, it is also a peculiar variety of mysticism, the sort that goes on for too long and leaves the individual, undifferentiated among objects, still trying to get back to himself. Therefore the lists: in a pretense to control objects they only emphasize the lack of connection between themselves and the observer. The poems, at one level, fly apart in linguistic parataxis. This may have a certain surrealistic quality at first, but the unconscious seems to have no hand in their ordering, though a psychoanalyst would probably deny it; what yokes the objects together is only a neutral eye, forced to see them. They are funny because they are arbitrary, in the way that heaps of junk are sometimes funny, but that is because we see the incongruity, thanks to our own comfortable sense of order. If we can locate this experience that Kees writes about it would be in Sartre rather than Eliot, and the sickened detachment of Roquentin [central character in Sartre’s Nausea].

From Charles Baxter, "Weldon Kees," in Weldon Kees: A Critical Introduction, ed. Jim Elledge (Metuchen: Scarecrow P, 1985), 72.

On Weldon Kees’s "Public Library"
Dana Gioia

By intermixing three types of descriptive writing – objective third-person narration, unadorned dialogue, and quotation – Kees forces the reader to collaborate with him line by line in judging each character and incident. This piece also shows one technique Kees had learned from the modern masters of literature and cinema, namely how to condense a short story or poem by eliminating all unnecessary transitions and leaving in only the central observations or images. … In "Public Library" Kees uses montage to create a devastating documentary of a parochial cultural institution in a manner all the more convincing because of its ironic impersonality.

From Dana Gioia, "Introduction to ‘Two Prose Sketches’" in Weldon Kees: A Critical Introduction, ed. Jim Elledge (Metuchen: Scarecrow P, 1985), 101.

"Travels in North America"
Edward Brunner

… The California Quarterly consistently lent its support to verse that mounted a critique that was more or less surreptitious, depending on just who was reading it. A favorite disguise borrowed trappings from the thriller. This example had its own distinguished origin in W. H. Auden’s cryptic, flat descriptions of cityscapes in the 1930s that ominously conveyed something dangerous but out of sight. "Wandering through cold streets tangled like old string," Auden began "Brussels in Winter," one of the sonnets collected in Another Time (1940), "Coming on fountains rigid in the frost, / Its formula escapes you; it has lost / The certainty that constitutes a thing" (123). These hollowed-out European cities, with their shifting frontiers and double agents, went over with surprising ease into the American idiom of the roman noir with its long and vacant avenues more welcoming to automobiles than people, its blurry zones where officials and detectives sought a clue to a mystery whose exact dimensions kept shifting. The pages of the California Quarterly highlighted verse in which the format of the crime novel or detective story was not used for simple background detail but as a self-conscious heuristic device that could best articulate a crisis specific to this time. In this respect, too, the journal shows its regional roots: noir, as a politicized genre, was a product of postwar Hollywood. Noir films with their "contempt for a depraved business culture," as Mike Davis has reminded us, amounted to "a kind of Marxist cinema manq, a shrewdly oblique strategy for an otherwise subversive realism" (41).

In earlier years, Weldon Kees had been first to reclaim Auden’s perspective by drawing upon noir material in "Crime Club" and "Xantha Street," both of which appeared in Poetry in 1943 and were collected in The Fall of the Magicians (1947). Relocating to the West Coast in 1950 only enhanced Kees’ drop-dead tone. In "Travels in North America," the travelogue-poem he completed soon after his cross-country drive (at 110 lines, the longest work in Poems 1947-1954), the Bomb appears without fanfare in a middle segment:

The land is terraced near Los Alamos: scrub cedars,
Pinon pines and ruined pueblos, where a line
Of tall young men in uniform keep watch upon
The University of California’s atom bomb.
The sky is soiled and charitable
Behind barbed wire and the peaks of mountains –
Sangre de Christo, Blood of Christ, this "fitting portent
For the Capital of the Atomic Age." We meant
To stop, but one can only see so much. A mist
Came over us outside Tryuonyi caves, and a shattered cliff.

Here as elsewhere Kees is incapable of being scandalized. Corruption is so integral a part of all he sees that mere description alone discloses truths so bitter they are best not pursued. Tagging the Bomb as the "University of California’s" is enough to suggest that someday every university will have its own, just as they now boast their own sports teams. Within that laconic exaggeration lurks a darker anatomizing of the arms-race as a competition between act-alike rivals. Characteristically, Kees stands as the witness who, having seen it all, has grown to expect nothing. To the noir sensibility, the other side of the tracks is everywhere. The plainest description discloses menacing portents. "An ancient gull," he writes in one signature passage, "Dropped down to shiver gravely in the steady rain." This ravishing blend of assonance and consonance produces an extravagantly sumptuous surface just heavy enough to arouse an immense distrust. What is being hidden? Why does that gull, so wise and ancient, knowingly shudder? About the "Sangre de Christo" mountains, then, there is little to add except to remark that nothing in these times can be shocking. After all, the irony of locating the site for the all-destructive bomb next to these mountains, named so long ago, has already been finessed in what Kees presents as the commercialized language of the travel brochure.

From Edward Brunner, Cold War Poetry (Urbana: U Illinois P, 2000).

"Travels in North America"
William T. Ross

"Travels in North America" is pretty much what its title implies. If the poet cannot achieve any real Whitmanesque enthusiasm for the American landscape, the poem at least conveys a certain delight in variety. It also makes clear that it is a postwar landscape that is being traversed. Los Alamos is on the itinerary, where "tall young men in uniform keep watch" over "The University of California’s atom bomb." Naturally, following a journey across country, celebrating cities and monuments one after another, does not lend itself to any sort of rigorous or unusual structuring. But one oddity does present itself – the poet is not describing a journey being taken or recalled from mere memory. Instead the poem is set up dramatically to suggest that the speaker has a map in front of him and is recalling his journey with its aid. The names on the map not only allow him to recall places he actually visited, but those off the route whose entries in guide books caught his eye.

Finally, even a respect for variety vanishes as the speaker is overcome with the "sudden sense" that he has "seen it all before." It is only at the end that the poem becomes more distinctly Keesian, only then that he begins to brood on the significance of journeys:

Journeys are ways of marking out a distance,
Or dealing with the past, however ineffectually,
Or ways of searching for some new enclosure in this space
Between the oceans.

Kees never says which reason motivated his journey. Instead, he now locates himself at the shores of the ocean, watching the afternoon waves cast their refuse on the shore. Amidst an extraordinary amount of dead, ruined, and watersoaked debris is a "ragged map, imperfectly enclosed by seaworn oilskin." And now it is this stained and partially indecipherable map, and not the road map used at the beginning of the poem,that receives our attention, as the poet slips further and further away from an actual journey and into reverie and fantasy. For the map brings back the past: first a night ten years earlier in Brooklyn Heights, then he quickly jumps to the west and back again past service stations and Ford assembly plants until he is on the "washboard roads / Of Wellfleet," Massachusetts. After this memory of summer vacation,, the poet shifts to the future where he can see, "where you are, and where I am, / And where the oceans cover us." The poem is neither neurotic nor paranoid enough to make us assume that the speaker is talking about either a suicide or a retreat into fantasy la Prufrock. He may simply be conceding that death is certainly the ultimate destiny of all travelers. One is hard-pressed, frankly, to decide whether this ending does anything for the poem. The first two-thirds of "Travels in North America" are a good workmanlike description of the American experience in some of its gritty particulars/ Perhaps the should have ended before trying to shift from the shared experience of the landscape to the hidden turmoil or memories of a single psyche.

From William T. Ross, Weldon Kees (Boston: Twayne, 1985), 97-98.

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