Weldon Kees, The Elusive Bard of East Tenth Street

Screen shot 2011-10-20 at 11.09.34 AM

A cultural oddity of the East Village is that it has more often been a home to poets than novelists. Some of the poets (Allen Ginsberg, W.H. Auden) are about as famous as poets get. Others (Edwin Denby, Bernadette Mayer) are known to only a few. The vast majority, as you would expect, are almost completely unknown.

Weldon Kees, who lived at 129 E. 10th Street (the apartment building directly next to St. Mark’s Church) from October 1943 until November 1945, and later rented a loft at 179 Stanton Street in the Lower East Side, is an exception. As a cult figure with an ardent following, he’s certainly known to some people –  but his connection to the East Village has been all but forgotten. Perhaps that’s appropriate: An absence as much as a presence, a shadow where a human should be, Kees is the Harry Lime of modern American poetry, as in the character played by Orson Welles in “The Third Man”: Now you see him, now you don’t.

Born in Nebraska in 1914, Kees was a dark-haired, always well-dressed man with a pencil mustache, an ever-present cigarette, and a slightly shady, B-movie aura. His life in New York was ostensibly one of multiplying successes – a reviewer for Time and art critic for the Nation, a madly multi-tasking documentary filmmaker, jazz musician, and artist (he exhibited with the likes of Robert Motherwell, and Willem De Kooning, though his reputation as a painter has faded) as well as a poet, and an acquaintance or friend of most intellectuals of note in the city. Yet an early champion of his work, Donald Justice, called him “one of the bitterest poets in history,” and the one emotion you will be hard pressed to find in his writing is joy. Its unmentioned absence is part of what gives his work its scary, third-rail power, and makes “The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees” one of those special books to which initiates form a lifelong attachment.

Although Kees lived in the neighborhood before it was officially known as the “East Village,” he was nonetheless a good fit. The French term, poète maudit (cursed poet) is appropriate to Kees, in a part of New York which once prided itself on being full of cursed poets. Less a radical than an instinctive dissenter with a black satirical streak, he and his wife, Ann Swan, were anti-establishment skeptics in the midst of the post-war American Dream, relatively uninterested in those supermarket staples no serious literary New York household could live without: status, glory, power. (At a party, Truman Capote rebuked Kees for being insufficiently interested in fame, though it would be more accurate to say he disliked how people went about achieving it.)

In “The Bell From Europe,” a straightforward poem which gives a sense of how nearly prosaic and unlyrical Kees could be, we get a taste not only of his life on East 10th Street, but of the East Village during the war. The “friends” alluded to in the final verse were what the naïve young American in Ezra Pound’s poem “Soirée,”  would call “A darn clever bunch!” They included the art critics Harold Rosenberg (who lived upstairs from Kees) and Clement Greenberg – the two leading proponents of Abstract Expressionism; Manny Farber, the film critic for the New Republic, and his wife, the memoirist, Janet Richards; James Agee, Dwight and Nancy MacDonald, and the novelists William March and James T. Farrell. Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy were also friends. The refugee referred to as “Mannheim” in the poem was, according to Kees’s biographer, James Reidel, modeled on Kees’s friend, Wolfgang Born, a German Jew who illustrated the first edition of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice.”


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.
One meets authorities on bells infrequently.

Europe alone made bells with such a tone,
Herr Mannheim said. The bell
Struck midnight, and it shook the room.
He had heard bells in Leipzig, Chartres, Berlin,
Paris, Vienna, Brussels, Rome.

He was a white-faced man with sad enormous eyes.

Reader, for me that bell marked nights
Of restless tossing in this narrow bed,
The quarrels, the slamming of a door,
The kind words, friends for drinks, the books we read,
Breakfasts with streets in rain.
It rang from Europe all the time,
That was what Mannheim said […]

Little known Kees may be, but not too many poets have the fiftieth anniversary of their death marked by a full-length essay by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, as Kees did in 2005. Though almost a footnote in comparison to other writers of his era (several of whom are rapidly in danger of becoming footnotes themselves), Kees managed something few if any poets achieve: a two-pronged posthumous fame.

Home of Weldon KeesBrendan Bernhard Kees’s home on East 10th Street.

The first is for his death and/or disappearance.  Weary of New York, Kees and his wife moved to San Francisco in 1950. He is believed to have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, at the age of 41, in 1955, but there were no witnesses. His car was found abandoned at the foot of the bridge, but his body was never recovered, and it is conceivable that he faked his suicide, changed his identity, and fled south to Mexico (moving to Mexico was something he spoke about with obsessive frequency to his friends). If he did do so, it was not to escape a crime, but to escape himself ; one way or another, Weldon Kees could no longer tolerate being Weldon Kees.

In 1987, Pete Hamill wrote a front-page article in the San Francisco Examiner describing how, as a young man, he had met an American answering to Kees’s description at a bar in Mexico City two years after his supposed death. There was another documented “sighting” outside Preservation Hall in New Orleans in 1962. Both reports are oddly persuasive, but unprovable. Mr. Hamill’s article has been dismissed by some as a “spoof,” though he recently assured me it was not. He did add, however, that he had also been “trying to show the way certain urban legends develop, from Butch Cassidy to Elvis sightings.” At any rate, if Kees did vanish rather than kill himself, he did a top-notch job of remaining invisible.

The second way in which posterity has been kind to Kees is because of the attention it has paid to four permanently unsettling poems he wrote about an urban Everyman referred to only by the surname, “Robinson.” The first of these was written during his stay at 129 East 10th Street. The poem, “Robinson,”  is not a portrait of Robinson himself, but – mischievously – of his empty apartment when Robinson is at work. Kees called the poem a “satire,” and it prefigured, in its surreal way, the coming commodification of the self – you are what your apartment says you are – and the conundrum of modern “identity”:

The mirror from Mexico, stuck to the wall,
Reflects nothing at all. The glass is black.
Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.

Which is all of the room – walls, curtains,
Shelves, bed, the tinted photograph of Robinson’s first wife,
Rugs, vases, panatellas in a humidor.
They would fill the room if Robinson came in.

The pages in the books are blank.
The books that Robinson has read. That is his favorite chair,
Or where the chair would be if Robinson were here.

All day the phone rings. It could be Robinson
Calling. It never rings when he is here…

The second of the quartet, “Aspects of Robinson,” is generally regarded as Kees’s masterpiece. Mr. Lane refers to it as “the portrait of the post-war man-of-affairs,” and the poet and former NEA chairman, Dana Gioia, provides a superb analysis of the poem (and other matters Keesian from which I have borrowed freely) here.

Just as the first poem alludes to Mexico, “Aspects of Robinson” harps on suicide. (“Water is slate, far down…. Here’s where old Gibbons jumped from, Robinson.”) The poem, which runs only 25 lines, is remarkable for several reasons: its fast-cut cinematic pace; its mix of satire and heartbreak; its prescient use of commodities to show how consumerism obscures personality; and its insistent, haunting repetition of “Robinson,” as if life could be breathed back into a man whose “sad and usual heart” is “dry as a winter leaf,” simply by reiterating his name:

Robinson walking in the Park, admiring the elephant,
Robinson buying the Tribune, Robinson buying the Times.
Saying, “Hello. Yes, this is Robinson. Sunday
At five? I’d love to. Pretty well. And you?”
Robinson at Longchamps, staring at the wall.

Robinson afraid, drunk, sobbing Robinson
In bed with a Mrs. Morse. Robinson at home;
Decisions: Toynbee or luminol? Where the sun
Shines, Robinson in flowered trunks, eyes toward
The breakers. Where the night ends, Robinson in East Side bars.

That Kees named his hero Robinson was taken a reference to that other lonely island-dweller, Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” But as critics have shown, there were other antecedents as well. There was a “Robinson” in Franz Kafka’s novel, “Amerika.” More importantly, the hero of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s great novel, “Journey to the End of the Night,” published in Paris in 1932, is haunted throughout by a mysterious character also called “Robinson,” who becomes a paranoid obsession of the narrator’s. Parts of the novel are as littered with Robinson’s name as Kees’ poem:

“I must go out. Out into the street again. Perhaps you will meet Robinson.”

“…The name Robinson went on obsessing me[…] ‘Robinson! Robinson!’ I called out… ‘I say, Robinson! Hey there!….’ There was no answer.”

“It was particularly this name of Robinson which worried me, more and more definitely.”

Céline’s influence on the “Robinson” poems is most obvious in the last of the quartet, “Relating to Robinson,” where the narrator finds himself in Chelsea in early summer,

And, walking in the twilight toward the docks,
I thought I made out Robinson ahead of me.

But it cannot be Robinson, for Robinson is out of town for the summer. And yet, seeming to see him

Under a sign for Natural Bloom Cigars,
While lights clicked softly in the dusk from red to green
[ …] I almost called out, “Robinson!”:

Among other things, the poem is a black comedy on the subject of the queasy urban chance-meeting. Needless to say, this one does not go well. The man who may or may not be Robinson fixes the narrator

… with dilated, terrifying eyes
That stopped my blood. His voice
Came at me like an echo in the dark.
“I thought I saw the whirlpool opening.
Kicked all night at the bolted door.
You must have followed me from Astor Place….”

The influence of the French novelist on the “Robinson” poems is fitting, given that he was a kind of literary Godfather to the Beats, and that Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs visited him in Paris. But if Kees borrowed from Céline, as many writers have since borrowed from him. “Robinson” has become a name which crops up with weird frequency in a remarkable number of poems, books, documentaries, and films on both sides of the Atlantic. Dozens of poets have written poems about Kees or his doppelgänger, and he has inspired not only a detective novel (Christopher Petit’s “Robinson”) but a vampire story (Peter Crowther’s, “Sleep is Too Short a Death”) as well.

In his volume of poetry, “Kid” (1992) – which sold an astonishing 60,000 copies – the British poet Simon Armitage penned no fewer than five “Robinson” poems, in which he casually took up the character as if he were merely continuing Kees’s work. His obsession with Robinson and his creator eventually led to an hour-long BBC documentary, “Looking for Robinson,” in which Mr. Armitage traveled to the United States following in the poet’s footsteps, ending – naturally – at the Golden Gate Bridge.

Tracing  the abundance of “Robinsons” to the “mysterious American poet Weldon Kees,” the British writer and polymath Iain Sinclair wrote: “Robinson will never be seen. He’s a rumor, a virus: the excuse the narrator uses for talking to himself.”Perhaps, in his third Robinson poem, “Robinson at home,” Kees put his finger on the attraction, catching

… Robinson in sleep, who mumbles as he turns,
“There is something in this madhouse which I symbolize –
This city – nightmare – black –”

The problem with discussing Kees is that you always end up discussing his alter-ego: author and double are now almost inseparable. Yet there is so much more to him than that. He cannot be called a “great” poet. He was too hasty and distracted for that. But he is an addictive minor one (which is almost as good), and not only because of the myth surrounding his death. Never lachrymose, self-pitying, or self-dramatizing, his is the authentic voice of unhappiness, melancholia, depression, emptiness, and despair, and all the more convincing for the way he restrained his demons on the page. He was not a confessional writer (those would follow shortly), but the pain is there for all to see.

Along with the handful of poems that are definitely set in the East Village – “The Bell from Europe,” “Obituary,” “Robinson” – I can never read the opening lines of Kees’s poem, “January” (wherever it may have been written) without thinking of a cold-water East Village or Lower East Side tenement flat:

Morning: blue, cold, and still.
Eyes that have stared too long
Stare at the wedge of light
At the end of the frozen room
Where snow on a windowsill
Packed and cold as a life,
Winters the sense of wrong
And emptiness and loss
That is my awakening.

Three years ago in the Los Angeles Times, the novelist and Kees fan Richard Rayner recalled buying a copy of Kees’s poems in a used book store in Finland. The owner of the store then told him that the book had previously belonged to a promising young Finnish poet who had killed himself. Later, looking through the book, Mr. Rayner saw that the final line of “January” – “Sleep is too short a death” – was one of several that had been lightly traced by the dead poet in pencil.

In the end we always return, if not to Kees’s suicide or possible disappearance, then to the source of his restless, haunted sorrow, the “loss and guilt / And hurricanes of time” which brought him to a premature end. One can speculate endlessly as to the causes – disappointment in his career, divorce from his wife, hints of queasiness about his sexuality, or simply the weariness of living in a world in which he never felt comfortable – but in “Crime Club,” one of dozens of poems that seems to foreshadow his ineluctable fate as if he were the unfortunate protagonist of an updated Ancient Greek tragedy, Kees warned both psychoanalysts and detectives not to bother trying to sort it all out:

Small wonder that the case remains unsolved,
Or that the sleuth, Le Roux, is now incurably insane,
And sits alone in a white room in a white gown,
Screaming that all the world is mad, that clues
Lead nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen;
Screaming all day of war, screaming that nothing can be solved.


Correction: October 18, 2011

An earlier version of this article misidentified the friend of Kees who was said to be the model for “Mannheim” as Max Born.