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Vanished Act: The Life and Art of Weldon Kees
University of Nebraska Press, 2003
418 pp., $35.00
Weldon Kees and the Arts at Midcentury
University of Nebraska Press, 2004
238 pp., $24.95
by Caroline Langston
How to Disappear
On the face of the matter, it seems unlikely that an artist who was an unapologetic atheist, a leftist, and a congenital rebel against both the academic and the avant-garde establishment could number such classicists as poet Allen Tate and critic Cleanth Brooks among his friends and advocates—or, more improbable yet, that his artistic reputation, several decades after his death, would be championed by the New Formalist poet and Republican-appointed head of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia.
Improbable, yes—but perhaps more than any other mid-century artist, Weldon Kees defies easy classification. Born the well-off only son of a small-town industrialist in Nebraska, Kees wrote short stories, novels, and remarkable, Eliot- and Auden-influenced poetry in the Thirties and Forties before turning to abstract painting, jazz composition, and experimental film as media for his restless creative energy. He wrote some of his best early poems while working as a librarian in Denver, moved to New York and lived among some of the best-known artists and writers of the 20th century, then several years later abandoned New York in favor of bohemian San Francisco, where he is presumed to have committed suicide in 1955 by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. (His car was found in the nearby visitor's lot.) He was 41 years old.
Untimely death has boosted the public profiles of any number of artists, from Shelley to Sylvia Plath, but such was not the case for Kees, whose poems quickly disappeared from anthologies and whose participation in New York's Abstract Expressionist movement went widely unrecognized. Instead, as Dana Gioia has described, in subsequent decades Kees became the object of devotion for an underground cult of writers "whose passion for Kees's poetry extended into a fascination with his frenetic life and mysterious disappearance." Slipping into deep obscurity in the decades following the 1960 publication of his Collected Poems in a well-received but difficult ...