Conjuring Act

Nearly 60 years ago, Weldon Kees vanished without a trace. Why is Kathleen Rooney summoning him today?

Weldon Kees has been gone close to 60 years, but he continues to inspire. The Nebraska-born poet, who also wrote fiction, composed jazz, and produced experimental films, is the animating spirit behind Kathleen Rooney’s book Robinson Alone (Gold Wake Press, 2012). In her new collection, Rooney pays homage to Kees’s best-known work, the four Robinson poems that he published before disappearing in July 1955. (His car was discovered in a parking lot near the Golden Gate Bridge, his body never found.) James Reidel, author of Vanished Act: The Life and Art of Weldon Kees (University of Nebraska Press, 2003), interviewed Rooney for the Poetry Foundation. They spoke about why Kees is an invitational writer, what Nickelodeon has to do with poetry, and the aesthetic elegance of disappearance.

Robinson was considered a doppelgänger of Kees, an urban and urbane Robinson Crusoe. Why write an entire book of post-Robinson poems?

The Robinson series is one of Kees’s projects that I would have liked to read more of, but there isn’t any more. Not to say that the four poems aren’t “enough” or that the series feels “unfinished”—if anything, I admire Kees’s economy—but I really love the poems and their mysterious, quasi-alter ego, and I wanted to see the story continue. One of the poems in Robinson Alone concludes with the couplet “Incompletion makes people / want to fill your blanks in.” The impulse to create, I think, often comes from this feeling, even if it’s not always as direct as it is in the case of my post-Robinson poems. Probably a lot of writers could tell you vivid and specific stories of the writers they read who struck or inspired them in such a way as to make them want to create their own work; I think of these writers as not just “inspirational” but “invitational”—like what they’re doing is an invitation to try to do it yourself. Kees is an invitational writer for me.

An example of this invitational phenomenon that sticks with me is from an episode of the Nickelodeon kids’ show The Adventures of Pete & Pete, which I watched all the time growing up. Little Pete is on his way to school, and he passes a garage band that happens to be rehearsing a song that he falls head over heels for. He can’t get it out of his mind, but when he comes back later, the band has disappeared. Ultimately, Pete realizes that the only solution (in the absence of ever finding the band again) is to start his own band and make his own songs. The Robinson poems are like that to me.

I am with you on “incompletion.” As his biographer, a title and task that grew on me slowly, I found an enormous blank to fill. And we’re not the only ones who keep inserting things into this Kees void. Donald Justice wrote “Sestina on Six Words by Weldon Kees” in Gainesville, Florida, while Kees was still alive in San Francisco’s Mission District. Justice said that he had planned to send the completed poem to Kees himself, but by the time it was published, it was too late.

Much poetry—and art in general—is addressed to an unknown audience: whoever will eventually read or see it. But it’s also interesting when things are addressed to impossible audiences: people who can never see the work no matter what. The poetic convention of the apostrophe comes from these circumstances, obviously. Justice’s poem isn’t actually addressed to Kees, of course, but it’s significant that he wanted to show it to Kees.

You can get some appealing effects by just imagining the absent poet as part of the audience. This conceptual approach is what Brian Eno might call an “oblique strategy,” and it can be generative: although I think a lot about what Kees would have made of my Robinson poems, and I want to think he would have liked them, they’re not addressed to him, and, furthermore, he’s not even in them. I’m borrowing his fictional creation and reimagining his own life through that character.

I find the biography you wrote—and the biographical info about Kees in general—to be fairly sympathetic to its subject, but that may be because of his unsympathetic aspects. In an interview at the end of her memoir The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch says, “I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t fucked up in their life a time or two. Royally. I’m pretty sure that’s what keeps us connected to one another,” and I’m inclined to agree. In much the same way, I suppose, that incompleteness engages the imagination, imperfection and fallibility make people more human, more like individuals we’d actually want to know. Perfect, or perfectly successful, people are not so interesting, not so instructive.

For some poets who discover Kees’s work, he’s like finding—having—an imaginary friend. I remember how Justice said there was this pleasure in discovering Kees for yourself. I had that experience in a big way, but I would fear, too, that my biography might spoil this discovery. I don’t think so with your book. We have poets possessed by Kees and possessing Kees—for you; for Larry Levis in his homage to Kees’s “fabulous touch”; for David Wojahn, imagining Kees in Mexico living with a pretty, Frida Kahlo–like ingénue in “Weldon Kees in Mexico, 1966”; for Simon Armitage, channeling himself via the agency of Robinson. Indeed, Kees is both discovered and still missing—liminal in that way. He played with liminality too; there is his frequently anthologized “For My Daughter,” that liminal daughter whom he both beautifully and terrifyingly has. Are we playing with Kees’s Robinson doll, or is he playing with ours?

Kees as a playful poet is something that I feel a connection with and is what drew me to his work initially. Because of his mysterious end, there is a temptation to read his work and life in a singularly gloomy light, but his poems are very often a ton of fun, and it seems as though he personally would have been—not all the time, but sometimes—too. To apply an ugly-sounding (to my ear) but apt word to his poetic style, Kees’s writing is ludic—it feels like a serious game that he is very good at and is having a good time playing. The poem that you mention, “For My Daughter,” is a bitter poem, but it’s also a fake-out—a trick—and I say that with admiration. So to answer your question about who possesses Kees/Robinson: Games consist of the change of possession. Name a sport that involves a ball, and the game probably consists of the ball being passed; that’s the game. And in literature—and maybe art in general—almost anything of value gains its value by being passed on. Kees started the game, and I’m still playing.

Let’s turn to the game. I see you’ve versified some of Kees’s letters and interpolated these centos in your book. I can see why. Kees wrote really good letters. Some passages of his correspondence are epistolary prose poems. I actually tried to compose my own cento from a letter Kees wrote from California in January 1951. Do you think Kees wrote them knowing that one day they would be read by strangers, biographers, poets? What’s amusing to me is that the man who edited his letters, Robert Knoll, called Kees a solipsist, the kind of person who might not care if we exist or not.

I’m not familiar with Knoll’s justification for terming Kees a solipsist, but it seems worth mentioning that at least one of Kees’s Robinson poems, “Robinson,” is animated by a horror of solipsism: the idea that things disappear when you’re not there to look at them. As to whether he thought anyone besides their explicit recipients would read his letters, I suspect it would depend on when you asked him. There were likely times that he felt (despairingly) that nobody would care at all about anything he wrote, letters or otherwise, and other times that he probably had grandiose notions about being read by some kind of “posterity.” The sense that you get when you encounter a piece of ostensibly private correspondence that feels as highly crafted as Kees’s letters do is first that you’re in the presence of someone who just loves and is skilled at language, but there is also this painful sense of hope—a Who knows what kind of life this bunch of sentences is going to have once I turn it loose in the world kind of feeling.

So that brings us somewhat full circle, to completion. I must ask you what I ask myself from a cold-blooded biographer’s POV: Do you think that Kees, a careful poet, understood the bad form of standing there hale and hearty beside the kind of poems he wrote? There is a kind of elegance to his disappearance, an aesthetic if you will, that looks far less like the self-treatment with extreme prejudice of, say Plath or Berryman. How does one survive writing like Kees?

The aesthetic elegance of Kees’s disappearance strikes me, too, certainly, hence the last poem in Robinson Alone, including the lines “Preoccupation & a certain mode of self-presentation. / Even when absent, Robinson has a style.” As for how one survives writing like Kees, one should probably immediately try to write again in a style that is decidedly un-Keesian. Aside from collaborating with my writing partner Elisa Gabbert, I’m taking a break from poems for a while and trying to focus on writing a novel (though not a campus one, since Kees has one of those).

Originally Published: January 8th, 2013

James Reidel is the author of the poetry collections Jim's Book (Black Lawrence Press, 2013) and My Window Seat for Arlena Twigg (Black Lawrence Press, 2006). He wrote the definitive and only biography on Weldon Kees, Vanished Act: The Life and Work of Weldon Kees (University of Nebraska Press, 2003), and edited 3 Entertertainments (Knives Forks...

  1. January 12, 2013
     Thomas H Jones

    Thank you. Enjoyed very much. But you need to use
    solipsism more accurately.

  2. June 26, 2013
     martin hicks

    I've enjoyed Kathleen Rooney's Robinson poems very much. However, I feel that they've only halfway reached their intended creative goal of continuing the cycle. Her poems have content but lack the formal structure Weldon Kees himself used so effectively in the originals. Had she utilized the same in hers they would have had far greater impact. Her free verse style seems more suited to contemporary material rather than the Mid Fifties period she revisits/recreates.-MH

  3. July 12, 2013
     Martin Hicks

    One nagging little point concerning Weldon Kees. He said shortly before he vanished that things were getting pretty rough and he may have to go to Mexico. If he vanished in 1955 and his 1954 car was found abandoned beside the Golden Gate Bridge things couldn't have been too bad, at least financially. He could still afford to drive a one year old vehicle!

  4. December 8, 2014
     Martin B. Hicks


    One can't be certain of his whereabouts.
    He always rises early and glides gone
    Each morn at six or seven, thereabouts,
    Elusive form fused with fog-shifty dawn.

    Yes, with dim Crusoe truly we're uncertain
    Where he'll decide to venture, when return,
    An absent presence we meet in mists seldom
    Midst salvaged clues astute pursuing learn.

    At such rare hour at cave there's indication
    His footprints follow crescent-golden beach,
    Hint with dark currents constant fascination:
    Sigh for advance, a shift to grate few reach.

    Yet, notice-every day-outside front porch
    A bulb left on burns gesture, maybe meant,
    As if for Hope man carries still-fired torch
    When restless to far reckless point he went.

    From distant nearness Robinson Time sees
    Through faded photos posed so real-surreal-
    On bridge an image gazing out seems Kees.
    Style copies Crane, both acts at hand reveal.

    Hats off! Each lookalike in Fame dead-ringer
    Did by own single leap mere Self soon banish.
    An instant pause before our next word-bringer
    Who'll follow suit and then in turn too vanish!

    -Martin Hicks

  5. August 8, 2015
     Martin Hicks

    Mr Reidel:

    How many recordings/fragments in total by Weldon Kees are still extant, especally poetry?