The Curious Case of the Vanishing Poet
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s the most important poet you’ve never read.
By Fiona Zublin
Vanished Without a Trace: Our take on some of history’s enduring mysteries.
One spring evening in 1957, two Americans sat in a Mexican cantina and talked throughout the night. One, 21 years old and full of artistic aspirations, would become the columnist Pete Hamill; the other was the mustachioed, erudite and long-vanished poet Weldon Kees.
That’s how Hamill told it, anyway. Kees, once deeply ensconced in the American arts scene, had disappeared two years before the alleged meeting — a mystery that has dogged the literary scene ever since. Though largely forgotten now by academia, Kees has been resurrected by poets who, over the years, have rediscovered his work.
Kees has grabbed “dozens of poets by the throat and changed their work.”
On July 19, 1955, Kees’ car was found in a bank of fog by the Golden Gate Bridge, keys in the ignition. When his mother was told he’d jumped off the bridge, she protested, “But he was never the athletic type!”
Born in Nebraska in 1914, the missing poet is most certainly dead by now, no matter what happened in 1955. But what’s almost more fascinating than the mystery of Kees’ fate is the divide between artists and scholars over the writer’s legacy on American poetry. “My interest in Kees has nothing to do with his suicide,” says California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia. “I simply think his work is spectacularly powerful.” Gioia says that for most scholars, Kees is a mere footnote, dismissed as a minor poet when compared with Robert Lowell or Elizabeth Bishop. The Cambridge Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Poetry doesn’t even mention Kees, and the only biography of him, Vanished Act, was written by a poet, rather than an academic.
But for poets themselves, including Gioia, it’s another story. Gioia finds Kees’ body of work staggering, modern, finely tuned to an age of media and cynicism. Kees even inspired a book of essays and poems, Aspects of Robinson, by dozens of poets who have been been influenced by him. Despite his near absence from scholarly lists of important poets and not being taught in college, Kees has “grabbed dozens of poets by the throat and changed their work,” Gioia says.
And he wasn’t just a poet either. Kees was “a one-man avant-garde,” Gioia says. He wrote a novel in the early 1940s that remained unpublished because Knopf deemed it too unpatriotic in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor; he also made experimental films, was a modestly successful painter, wrote jazz ballads and scored a film. Kees was married for a while, but his alcoholic wife had a psychotic breakdown that led to their divorce, and he maintained a barbiturate habit that exacerbated his bipolar disorder. He ran in the same circles as Pauline Kael, William Carlos Williams and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and he had a cat whom he called Lonesome.
It’s Kees’ poetry that is the most revered of his creative work, particularly four poems published in The New Yorker that tell the story of a Prufrock-esque everyman named Robinson. “Kees is always departing,” says James Reidel, author of Vanished Act. “He doesn’t write a book of Robinson poems, doesn’t exploit his creation.” Reidel notes how Kees’ moving from one art to another was a struggle against the “existential rigidity” of committing to just one thing. Some have insinuated that he never became famous because he couldn’t commit to being a poet, but the fact remains that while his paintings and films are decent, his poems powerfully chronicle a low-key apocalypse. Kees’ work is so evocative that many have been tempted to seek clues to his personality in his most famous character, Robinson. And for clues to his fate? Robinson is “afraid, drunk, sobbing,” but he never launches himself off a bridge, runs away to Mexico or has all-night conversations with a young Pete Hamill.
So what really happened to Kees? Reidel believes he jumped, and Gioia says he’s “almost certain” that Kees, who was obsessed with the Golden Gate, met his end there. If he’d fled to Mexico, Reidel reckons, Kees’ creative drive would have led to new notoriety, rather than sipping tequila on a beach until the end of his days. “It would have been impossible,” Gioia says, “for him to disappear quietly.”