Made another discovery recently, this one thanks to my old friend and schoolmate, the photographer and artist (and poet) John Marquand.
John turned me on to his favorite poet, Weldon Kees, an important, but overlooked poet from the last century. Kees really hasn’t gotten the attention his fans think he deserves, possibly because his output was small.
He was a modern day Renaissance Man, who in addition to writing poetry, was a novelist, short story writer, painter, literary critic, jazz pianist, and filmmaker.
Kees’ career was cut short when he disappeared in 1955 at age 41, a presumed suicide. His car was found near the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, but his body was never found.
Kees captured the despair of modern urban life in the 20th Century, and expressed in fresh ways.
Perhaps the best examples of this is his series of four “Robinson” poems about an outwardly successful, but inwardly despairing modern man.
One of these is perhaps his mostly widely known poem, “Aspects of Robinson.” This essay by one of Kees’ champions, the poet Dana Gioia, gives a far better explanation of the poem than I ever could write.
If you’re interested in this sort of thing, it’s worth your time to read the whole essay, but I’ll include a tidbit:
“This poem demonstrates how Kees transformed the alienation and vacuity of contemporary life into lyric poetry. It does not offer readers comfort or escape. Kees did not transcend the problems of his century with a religious or a political faith. He did not elude the vulgarization of public culture by stealing away into an aesthetic realm. What he offered was uncompromising honesty, the transforming shock of recognition.” — Dana Gioia
It would very well be that the Kees’ uncompromising honesty combined with his inability to find redemption amidst a fallen culture finally led to his demise.
Some have speculated that Kees’ anti-hero, Robinson, was named after E.A. Robinson, the earlier American poet, who enjoyed a bit of a revival after Simon and Garfunkle adapted one of his poems into a famous song in the 1960s — “Richard Cory.”
There are certainly similarities between Kees’ Robinson, and Robinson’s Richard Corey. But Kees’ Robinson is much more of a world-weary man of the mid-century. Robinson’s Cory was a member of the sated upper class at the turn of the century.
More intriguing is the theory that Kees’ Robinson is really an aspect of the poet himself.