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Brilliance Into Darkness

By: A.M. Juster
June 14, 2017

eldon Kees, a troubled polymath who seemed on his way to becoming America’s T.S. Eliot, disappeared near the Golden Gate Bridge on July 18, 1955 at the age of 41. Save for tenacious advocacy by poets Donald Justice and Dana Gioia, no one would remember him today.

Kees was a superb jazz musician and lyricist. He wrote stories, plays, and, for Time magazine, reviews of movies, literature, and art. At the time of his disappearance, critics were increasingly describing him as one of the world’s top abstract painters. A careful student of history, religion, and philosophy, he co-authored a book on nonverbal communication with psychiatrist Jurgen Ruesch.

John Irwin, professor of English at Johns Hopkins, starts The Poetry of Weldon Kees: Vanishing as Presence by analyzing Kees's mythology rather than his poetry. In the years before he disappeared, Kees often talked about committing suicide or starting a new life in Mexico. Not long before his disappearance, Kees stopped just short of jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. On the day of his disappearance, he left his car parked near the bridge with some neatly folded clothes—but no note. Police officers found little in his rented room except two books and his cat, Lonesome.

Kees was born the same year that Ambrose Bierce disappeared during a quixotic visit to Mexico—a coincidence that nourished Kees’s fixation with disappearing and establishing a new identity south of the border. He greatly admired the poetry of Hart Crane, who killed himself in 1932 by leaping over the railing of a cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico. According to biographer James Reidel, Kees's decision to live in Brooklyn Heights in the late 1940’s was a tribute to Crane.

Irwin skillfully builds on these facts to demonstrate that Kees was a self-conscious architect of his own mythology. He notes that Kees amassed notes about suicide while working at a psychiatric clinic, and that the poet often talked about writing a book on famous suicides.

Irwin argues that Kees did, in fact, leave an inventive suicide note, in the form of the books he left in his room: Dostoyevsky’s The Devils and Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life. Both share similar positive assessments of suicide: a Dostoyevsky character calls it “the ultimate freedom,” and Unamuno says it's “the supreme longing for life.”

Irwin fights the tide of contemporary criticism in arguing that understanding Kees’s life is essential to understanding his often obscurely allusive poetry. If Kees:

staged his death as his final aesthetic act, then that act provides a lens through which to detect and interpret the structures, motifs, and images that accumulate with an obsessive force in his poems. And certainly obsessive compulsion is the right notion here, for as Kees’s poetry progressed over the years the depressing sense of meaningless repetition, of a quotidian predictability and soul-killing boredom, seemed more and more to be either his poems’ explicit subject or their pervasive background.

Irwin's analysis of Kees's poetry, as seen through his life, begins with the opening lines of 1949's “Round”:

                          “Wondrous life!” cried Marvell at Appleton House.
                           Renan admired Jesus Christ “Wholeheartedly.”
                           But here dried ferns keep falling to the floor,
                           And something inside my head
                           Flaps like a worn-out blind. Royal Cortissoz is dead.
                           A blow to the Herald-Tribune. A closet mouse
                           Rattles the wrapper on the breakfast food. Renan
                           Admired Jesus Christ “wholeheartedly.”
                           Flaps like a worn-out blind. Cézanne
                           Would break out in the quiet streets of Aix
                           And shout, “Le monde, c’est terrible!” Royal
                          Cortissoz is dead. And something inside my head
                          Flaps like a worn-out blind.

The opening line alludes to Andrew Marvell’s 776-line poem, “Upon Appleton House, to My Lord Fairfax,” in which Marvell celebrates man’s ability to create transcendence in a world overseen by God. Kees immediately undercuts the line’s second-hand exultation with an allusion to Ernest Renan’s controversial book, Vie de Jésu (1863), which denied the divinity of Christ.

Both books Kees left in his car discuss Renan, Irwin notes. Renan also clearly influenced Kees’s poem “A Distance from the Sea,” which speaks in a disciple's voice:

         There on the shore
         The crowd’s response was instantaneous. He
          Handled it well, I thought—the gait, the tilt of the head, just right.
          Long streaks of light were blinding on the waves:
          And then we knew our work well worth the time:
          The days of sawing, fitting, all those nails,
          The tiresome rehearsals, consideration of execution.
          But if you want a miracle, you have to work for it,
          Lay your plans carefully, and keep one jump
          Ahead of the crowd. To report a miracle
          Is a pleasure unalloyed…

Irwin skillfully analyzes the echoes of Eliot in these lines and the attention paid to “staging,” an apt description for the details of Kees’s own suicide. Note also the brutality of the “execution” pun and the chilling foreshadowing of “jump.”

The tension between the opening and second lines of “Round” forms a template for most Kees poems. As Irwin puts it, “Kees’s subject is the meaninglessness of repetition in a world devoid of transcendence….” Irwin meticulously unpacks the allusions within both the repeating phrase and the repeating sentence of “Round.”

Kees was a master of repeating forms, such as the villanelle. His powerful “Five Villanelles” appeared in The Fall of The Magicians (1947) shortly before Theodore Roethke and Dylan Thomas popularized the form. Kees used the villanelle’s relentlessness to create the same kind of claustrophobic aura and restless obsession infused into “Round.”

Irwin traces the influence on Kees of Wallace Stevens and, especially, Hart Crane. Vanishing as Presence focuses on Kees’s “Robinson” sequence (“Robinson” “Aspects of Robinson” “Robinson at Home” and “Relating to Robinson”), one of Kees’s claims to greatness. Irwin argues that “the fate of…Hart Crane hovers over the first of the Robinson poems”:

                         The mirror from Mexico, stuck to the wall
                         Reflects nothing at all. The glass is black.
                         Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.

Irwin's masterful description of Kees’s fixation with Crane leaves little doubt that the “Mexico” of “Robinson” is the Mexican port from which Crane departed on his final journey.

Irwin’s analyses often extend beyond current academic opinion, as when he makes the case for the furtive character “Robinson” being a tip of the hat to the undeservedly forgotten poet, E.A. Robinson—and more specifically to Robinson’s brutal poem on suicide, “Richard Cory.” Irwin also assists future scholarship in his chapter, “Kees, A Learned Poet,” by relentlessly explaining scores of obscure references from a broad range of disciplines. The only reference that thwarts Irwin’s tenacity is the identity of “Andrea” in “Abstracts of Dissertations” (by luck I know that the reference is to Andrea Navagero, a humanist in Pietro Bembo’s circle).

I have two reservations about The Poetry of Weldon Kees: Vanishing as Presence. One is more of a compliment—at 100 pages it is too short (an opinion I am not sure I have expressed about a book before). I would have loved to see Irwin analyze the crushing sonnet “For My Daughter” with a view to the poet’s family relationships. The preface explains that the author suffered a serious stroke early in 2014; it seems likely that he struggled heroically just to finish this book, so we should be grateful for what we have.

My more critical reservation relates to Irwin’s assessment of the value of Kees’s work. His final paragraph states:

At its best, Kees’s poetry is bleak and exhilarating. It is the poetry of reality—of simian-related beings abandoned on a relatively small, highly-favored rock, absolutely alone, as far as we can tell, in a vast uninhabited universe, beings whose relative size is so out of proportion to their cosmic surroundings and to their temporal ambitions as to be almost laughable. What can one do in a case like that except make poems, Kees seems to think.

Bleak? No argument. But “exhilarating”? Hardly. Irwin himself suggests that the suicides of Kees and Crane contributed to John Berryman’s suicide. This credible claim puts the burden on Kees’s admirers to distinguish between his masterful, innovative technique, rivaled only by Auden in the twentieth century, and his relentlessly destructive messaging.

Despite my differing assessment of the value of Kees’s poetry, I have no doubt that John Irwin’s book is essential. Its conversational prose avoids jargon, and it offers both thoughtful analysis and new insights derived from difficult research. The Poetry of Weldon Kees: Vanishing as Presence will thoughtfully guide future scholars. I recommend it highly.