Back From Oblivion
A writer who refused to live in a world robbed of meaning
By Dana Gioia
June 5, 2017
The Poetry of Weldon Kees: Vanishing as Presence by John T. Irwin; Johns Hopkins University Press, 120 pp., $32.95
Weldon Kees is the most mysterious figure in modern American poetry. Lean, handsome, and impeccably dressed, he looked like a B-list Hollywood star, the sort who played the nightclub owner in film noir. In photographs, Kees smokes and broods—cool, stylish, and doomed. Born in Nebraska in 1914, he drifted through half a dozen colleges and cities before arriving in New York in 1943. An artistic polymath, he excelled at every medium he attempted—poetry, fiction, painting, jazz, journalism, and film. His poems appeared in The New Yorker. His paintings earned him a one-man show, praised by his fellow abstract expressionists. He wrote for Time, edited newsreels for Paramount, succeeded Clement Greenberg as art critic for The Nation, produced experimental films, wrote songs for a San Francisco cabaret, and coauthored a pioneering book in semiotics. If the career sounds brilliant but unstable, so was the man. As soon as Kees achieved something significant, he became dissatisfied—with his medium, his colleagues, or himself. Only poetry held his attention.
Fame eluded him, and polymathy didn’t pay. “An age of specialization,” Kees observed, found artistic versatility “puzzling or irritating and sometimes suspicious.” A restless bohemian, he didn’t fit into the academic postwar poetry world. Using ingenious forms often invented for a single occasion, his poetry promiscuously mixed high and low culture on equal terms. His lines veered suddenly from sardonic satire to piercing lyricism. Mordantly outspoken, he had no gift for cultivating the mediocrities who filled the ranks of metropolitan cultural life. “Problems of a Journalist” begins,
“I want to get away somewhere and reread Proust,”
Said an editor of Fortune to a man on Time.
But the fire roared and died, the phoenix quacked like a goose.
The poet’s former colleagues at Time surely understood the insult. “I can tell from the way you act you don’t want to be a success,” Truman Capote admonished Kees at a party. “Why, you’re a much better poet than that old Robert Lowell.”
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Dana Gioia is the poet laureate of California and the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He studied with Elizabeth Bishop at Harvard.