In this case, 'we are all guilty' is probably true. I came across Kees's poem 'The Beach in August' in the little magazine Samphire (long since defunct) in late Seventies. I was mildly intrigued, but a few more nudges were necessary.
We owe this book to those who kept on nudging. To Donald Justice who first compiled this Collected Poems in 1960, and, above all, to the American poet and critic Dana Gioia, who, as part of a brilliant campaign to rescue serious poetry from the clutches of American academia, has long championed Kees as an important poet. Gioia's essay 'The Loneliness of Weldon Kees' in his still-to-be-published-here (another nudge) Can Poetry Matter? is the best introduction to his work.
Kees might have been the archetypal mid-century American poet. He was multi-talented: writing jazz, making films, above all painting abstract expressionist paintings. As Gioia points out, he came a generation after the ur-Modernists, Pound, William Carlos Williams, Eliot, Stevens, and his work has none of the self-conscious tricksiness and stage apparatus of heroic modernism. Some would superficially call it traditional (he writes villanelles and is usually tightly iambic) but I see it as mature modernism, spare and lean.
Kees's mentors were Auden, Eliot and Baudelaire, but the flavour is mostly updated Baudelaire. Baudelaire ought to have been the seminal figure for 20th-century poetry, but Eliot diverted poetic history by costively hugging him to himself, putting him out of bounds to others (as Eliot was fond of saying Milton had done with blank verse). But Kees shows that this exclusion zone was unnecessary, in his swirling mini-dramas of American angst. He is the master of the bitten-off line ('some mildewed plunder fit for cats to drag'), but what is most remarkable is the way his verse moves, with a formal structure, but using natural word order so that the tension and release create what Auden valued: a miniature verbal contraption that springs into action when you read it. Some of these poems read like early John Fuller (another disciple of Auden), particularly 'A Good Chord on a Bad Piano', with its wonderful laconic title.
There is nothing abstract expressionism about the poems, but they are almost invariably enigmatic - like Edward Hopper paintings set in motion. Filmic cutting has never been so naturally woven into the fabric of poems. This quality is to the fore in the 'Robinson' poems. Robinson is an alter ego, and the persistence of Robinson's absence in the poems about him seems to point to Kees' own end.
On 18 July 1955, Kees left his car by the Golden Gate Bridge and disappeared. He had talked of a new life in Mexico, so there are those who believe he didn't die, even that he resurfaced as Thomas Pynchon. The poet Simon Armitage, Kees's chief advocate in Britain, followed the trail in last Wednesday's Bookmark (BBC2), even, at one point, donning the clothes so painstakingly listed in the poem 'Aspects of Robinson'. But the point of Kees is enigma - the riddle can no more be solved than the poems can deliver an end to the torments they describe.
Compelling as the surface of the poetry is, it requires a key, which Dana Gioia supplies: Kees's myth is that of a fallen world, in which time and will are frozen, awaiting a redeemer. A Christ-figure appears repeatedly but always disappoints, as in the eerie 'River Song'. The most explicit of Kees' redemption poems is the lengthy 'A Distance from the Sea'. Christ's miracles, particularly walking on the water (a raft beneath the waves), are described as elaborate fakes, not in a spirit of mockery, but because 'life offers up no miracles, unfortunately, and needs a little assistance'. Art is one such contrived miracle.
Weldon Kees's apt name and the mystery of his disappearance have kept him from sinking without trace until now, but Robinson, who we can be sure is still around, must be astonished to see that poems are capable of resurrection. Kees succeeds in capturing what Auden strove for in The Age of Anxiety, the sad note that underpinned the America of Bebop and Jackson Pollock. These are the kind of lyric poems that stay with you as talismans - charms against ennui. They did not protect Kees, but isn't that the fate of every minor miracle worker?
THE BEACH IN AUGUST
The day the fat woman
In the bright blue bathing suit
Walked into the water and died,
I thought about the human
Condition. Pieces of old fruit
Came in and were left by the tide.
What I thought about the human
Condition was this: old fruit
Comes in and is left, and dries
In the sun. Another fat woman
In a dull green bathing suit
Dives into the water and dies.
The pulmotors glisten. It is noon.
We dry and die in the sun
While the seascape arranges old fruit,
Coming in with the tide, glistening
At noon. A woman, moderately stout,
In a nondescript bathing suit,
Swims to a pier. A tall woman
Steps toward the sea. One thinks about the human
Condition. The tide goes in and goes out.
From: Collected Poems by Weldon Kees.