Vanishing Act

Unjustly overlooked poet Weldon Kees

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.



“Poetry saved my life.”

Vendela Vida,
Vendela Vida

You hear it said: “Poetry saved my life.” There are books with that in the title.

I’ve said it myself.

It’s usually meant figuratively. When I’ve said it, I know I meant it figuratively.

But when author Vendela Vida says it, she means it literally.

As the novelist told NPR Fresh Air host Terri Gross on June 30, 2015, she owes her life to poetry.


During the course of the interview, Gross asked Vida about her novel, “And Now You Can Go,” in which a woman is confronted by a man with a gun intent on suicide.

And he because he doesn’t want to die alone, he poses a mortal threat to the woman.

In the novel, a young woman is walking through a park in Manhattan, when a man calls out to her using the word “ma’am,” and she turns around.

The man is suicidal and has a gun. And, he doesn’t want to die alone. The woman is terrified, and in her desperation to find a reason to give him to go on living, she tells him about her love for books.

Interviewer Gross is skeptical. As Gross says, “she does it by trying to convince him that there’s, like, great poems and fiction out there, and I’m thinking, like, are you kidding?”

Well, it just so happens that this vignette in Vida’s novel is based on an actual event in her own life.  As she told Gross, “I think the first 10 pages, are based on something that happened to me when I was 21 years old and I was studying at Columbia, and I decided to go for a walk one December day in Riverside Park. I think it was around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and I was approached – like the protagonist in the book – by a man who didn’t want to die alone, and he had a gun.”

What Vida told Gross next is so good I want to quote her directly.

“And so I started saying to him, you know, there’s so much great stuff out there,” said Vida. “There’s poetry. You know, I sounded like some deranged schoolteacher at this point, and I had recently been reading the work of Mark Strand, the poet, and so I started just reciting some of his verses to this man.

“I started just, you know, the beginning of one poem, the ending of another – anything. I said, let’s go to the bookstore and let’s go look at some work by Mark Strand. It was the craziest thing. You know, I didn’t know what I was saying even, but I saw some kind of flash of interest or recognition in this man’s eyes, and he said, OK, let’s go to the bookstore.

“And so we started walking up to Broadway Street. And when, you know, as we were getting near, he said, you know, he said, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry, and he put his gun away, and he ran.”

When Gross heard the explanation, she was apologetic for suggesting that the scene in the novel was unbelievable.

“Oh, there’s no need to apologize, Terri,” said Vida. “No, it seems – it is – it was very bizarre, and, you know, I think it is a very unlikely situation. It does seem like a very, like, writerly dream to think that poetry can save someone’s life, but in my case, you know, it literally did.”

I love that story.

I also love the fact that Vida contacted poet Mark Strand and told his the story.

Strand served a term as the U.S. Poet Laureate in 1990-91, and it turned out was delighted by Vida’s story.

And who wouldn’t?

Here was a poet … a poet who had been honored with the highest honor his country could bestow … and finally, he had some assurance that he had made a difference in someone’s life.

His poetry had actually SAVED a life. Maybe two.

We poets go through life playing a game of Marco Polo. You know, the swimming pool game. We poets are perpetually coming to the surface and hollering “Marco!”

Whenever we hear a “Polo” in reply we are surprised and gratified.

In this case, Mark Strand heard a resounding “POLO!” from Vida.

Poetry has saved my life in figurative ways.

Poetry has allowed me to turn heartbreak, grief, despair, and tragedy into small bouquets of beauty.

If that’s “saving my life,” great. I’ll take that.

This is working …

Sara Teasdale
Sara Teasdale

Yesterday, in response to the post about love not always working out, I received a great recommendation from a friend.

I was introduced to poet Sara Teasdale. (Where had she been all my life?)

She was popular with the public and many critics, though others called her work “unsophisticated.  Which means she and I will get along just fine.

Though not considered a major poet, she was popular and good enough to win the first Columbia Prize for Poetry in 1918, would later become the Pulitzer Poetry Prize.

She had a troubles in love, dating poet Vachel Lindsay before marrying another man.  Years later, she divorced and rekindled her ill-fated love affair with Lindsay, who was married by this time, himself.

Things didn’t work out. Lindsay died by suicide in 1931. Teasdale took her own life two years later.

Her wonderful “tell-off” poem, “I Shall Not Care,” was rumored to have been a suicide note to the deceased Lindsay. But it was written years before. It is heart-breaking and wickedly good.

I Shall not Care

When I am dead and over me bright April
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted,
I shall not care.

I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
When rain bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
Than you are now.