Biography of Weldon Kees
Weldon Kees was born in Beatrice, Nebraska, on February 24, 1914. His father, John Kees, owned a hardware store. As a boy, Kees had an interest in music, art, and writing. He also published his own movie magazine. In 1935, he graduated from the University of Nebraska with a B.A. degree. While still in college, Kees began to publish fiction in many mid-western literary magazines.
Kees began to write and publish poems shortly after college. His first job was working for the Federal Writers' Project in Lincoln, Nebraska. Through the 1930s Kees mostly wrote short stories, placing them in the little magazines and intellectual quarterlies (Prairie Schoone, 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 (eventually published in 1990). In 1943, the couple moved to New York City, where Kees wrote for Time magazine and published reviews in national magazines and newspapers such as The Nation and The New Republic. Kees's first collection of poems, The Last Man, was published in 1943. His second collection, The Fall of Magicians, first appeared in 1947.
In the mid-forties, he also began to paint; he had one-man shows at galleries including the Peridot Gallery. His painting was often shown with and compared to abstract expressionists such as William de Kooning. Between 1934 and 1945, he published more than thirty stories.
In 1951 Kees moved to San Francisco. In California, he began to study and play jazz piano, while continuing his painting. His jobs included writing film reviews for radio, writing for a theater review entitled Poets Follies, and working on screenplays. Much of this writing is collected in the volume Reviews and Essays, 1936-1955 (1988).
In the mid 1950s, Kees became increasingly depressed. His wife became seriously alcoholic and then mentally ill; the two separated in 1954 and were divorced. His final book, Poems 1947-1954, was published in 1954.
On July 18, 1955, his car was found abandoned on the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. He had told a friend that he wanted, like Hart Crane, to start a new life in Mexico. He had also suggested that he might kill himself. His disappearance has been treated as a presumed suicide.
Five years after his disappearance and presumed suicide, Kees's Collected Poems was first published. In his introduction to that volume, Donald Justice called Kees among the three or four best of his generation. Justice went on to note that Kees is original in one of the few ways that matter: he speaks to us in a voice or, rather, in a particular tone of voice which we have never heard before. Kees's Collected Poems have since been reprinted twice. His collection of fiction, Ceremony and Other Stories, first appeared in 1983.
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Weldon Kees Poems
A Musician's Wife
Between the visits to the shock ward The doctors used to let you play On the old upright Baldwin Donated by a former patient
A Distance From The Sea
To Ernest Brace "And when the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto
Covering Two Years
This nothingness that feeds upon itself: Pencils that turn to water in the hand, Parts of a sentence, hanging in the air, Thoughts breaking in the mind like glass,
The dog stops barking after Robinson has gone. His act is over. The world is a gray world, Not without violence, and he kicks under the grand piano, The nightmare chase well under way.
For My Daughter
Looking into my daughter’s eyes I read Beneath the innocence of morning flesh Concealed, hintings of death she does not heed.
The porchlight coming on again, Early November, the dead leaves Raked in piles, the wicker swing Creaking. Across the lots
Under the bunker, where the reek of kerosene Prepared the marriage rite, leader and whore, Imperfect kindling even in this wind, burn on.
The Bell From Europe
The tower bell in the Tenth Street Church Rang out nostalgia for the refugee Who knew the source of bells by sound. We liked it, but in ignorance.
Squat, unshaven, full of gas, Joseph Samuels, former clerk in four large cities, out of work, waits in the darkened underpass.
The End Of The Library
When the coal Gave out, we began Burning the books, one by one; First the set
Late Evening Song
For a while Let it be enough: The responsive smile, Though effort goes into it.
Butcher the evil millionaire, peasant, And leave him stinking in the square. Torture the chancellor. Leave the ambassador Strung by his thumbs from the pleasant
La Vita Nuova
Last summer, in the blue heat, Over the beach, in the burning air, A legless beggar lurched on calloused fists To where I waited with the sun-dazed birds.
A Pastiche For Eve
Unmanageable as history: these Followers of Tammuz to the land That offered no return, where dust Grew thick on every bolt and door. And so the world
Not a third that walks beside me,
But five or six or more.
Whether at dusk or daybreak
Or at blinding noon, a retinue
Of shadows that no door
Excludes.--One like a kind of scrawl,
Hands scrawled trembling and blue,
A harelipped and hunchbacked dwarf
With a smile like a grapefruit rind,