Skip to main content

Although the poems of Weldon Kees were not widely read until some time after Kees's disappearance and presumed suicide in 1955, they represent an essential contribution to the poetry of the decade. Whereas Warren could abstractly name "our own time's sad declension," Kees seemed to internalize it, to embody throughout his work, with remarkable consistency, a sense of both cultural sterility and reduction and individual hopelessness; even the most straightforward and reportorial of Kees's images are informed by a tone of bitterness ("Outside, white buildings yellow in the sun. / Outside, the birds circle continuously / Where trees are actual and take no holiday"), The theme of cultural decline is everywhere enacted; "Round" contrasts the enthusiasms of Marvell, the humanist Renan, and Cezanne with the immediate realm of experience confronting the speaker: "something in my head / Flaps like a worn-out blind, The soil / in which the ferns are dying needs more Vigoro." "The Umbrella" traces mythic and historical associations of umbrellas in Hindu, Buddhist, and Greek cultures; as the poem's cata-ogue of historical associations moves toward the present, it becomes increasingly compressed, increasingly random, until the umbrellas of the Victorians, having lost all religious associations, are seen as trimmed with "sequins, artificial flowers, ostrich feathers, / God knows what else." Kees's choice of verbs to evoke the present is revealing: "The sea is pitted with rain. Wind shakes the house, / Here from this window lashed with spray, I watch / a black umbrella, ripped apart and wrong side out, / Go lurching wildly down the beach." "Pitted," "shakes," "lashed," and "ripped" suggest the barely containable violence of the present moment, and the troubling motions of the ruined umbrella against the gray and motionless harbor stand in bleak opposition to the past in which human gestures invested the object with meaning. For Kees, meaning has been drained both from things and from human lives, and now the umbrella, that sad representative of the human intention to protect, goes "flapping and free, / Into the heart of the storm." In his despair, the absolutism of his denial, Kees is in a sense the most contemporary of his contemporaries, the poet whose work most internalizes the conditions of post-Hiroshima society with its potential for the utter denial of all value.