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Kees to the City 

The mysterious obsession with Weldon Kees, poet, polymath, and icon of San Francisco bohemianism

Wednesday, Jul 27 2005
Discussed in this essay:

John Gartner, The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America. Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Peter Whybrow, American Mania: When More Is Not Enough. W.W. Norton, 2005.

Donald Justice, editor, The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees. University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Dana Gioia, editor, The Ceremony & Other Stories, Weldon Kees. Graywolf Press, 1984.

James Reidel, Vanished Act: The Life and Art of Weldon Kees. University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

I don't speak out of any conceit, but with a certain amount of pride in the fact that I have to my credit a body of work as creditable and sizeable as anyone my age. And if you know of anyone else, of any age, who has made something of a reputation for himself in both literature and art, I would like to know who it is.

-- Weldon Kees, in a 1951 letter to his mother

One might imagine that Dana Gioia -- music critic emeritus of San Francisco magazine, former General Foods marketing vice president, opera librettist, laureled poet, translator of Latin, Italian, German, and Romanian literature, university instructor, widely published literary essayist, and current president of the National Endowment for the Arts -- would not yearn to impress me or readers of SF Weekly.

Yet when I spoke with Gioia for this story -- which is about a once-obscure midcentury poet, painter, jazz pianist, composer, lyricist, playwright, theater impresario, novelist, short-story writer, filmmaker, psychology textbook author, harmonica player, documentary photographer, and New York Times, New Republic, and Nation arts critic named Weldon Kees -- he seemed driven to boast.

During the 1940s and '50s, Kees was a moderately famous artist, known mostly for his poetry, who quit the New York literary scene in 1951 and moved to the Bay Area, where he played piano in San Francisco jazz bars, wrote newsreel scripts, and produced a North Beach poetry and music revue before disappearing in an apparent Golden Gate Bridge suicide 50 years ago this past July 18.

During the 20 years after his death, Kees' work vanished from view -- perhaps because his dreary, cynical poems and short stories and somewhat derivative abstract expressionist paintings were barely known during his lifetime.

"This was the wildest guy. He was known for abstract painting. He was very good-looking. He knows all the big people in New York. He brought his energy and his intellect to San Francisco," recalls Jack Stauffacher, a prominent San Francisco fine-editions printer who knew Kees through his brother, legendary art-cinema pioneer Frank Stauffacher. "We were glad to have him."

Such recollections were about as far as Kees' fame went following his death, save fussing over a yarn -- propagated and later disavowed by a San Francisco Chronicle newsman who knew Kees during his final months -- that suggested Kees may have faked his suicide and secreted himself in Mexico.

But Kees has been gaining increasing posthumous attention lately in what may be one of the more peculiar versions of the literary revival tale ever played out, a version in which one enthusiast after another seems to discover his own life story in Kees, then proselytizes on behalf of the forgotten poet.

Gioia, the most prominent Kees-head, has published essays on Kees, edited books on and by Kees, written poems fashioned after Kees' style, and discussed Kees at symposiums, in classrooms, and with journalists. On this occasion, he seemed keenly interested in making sure I understood that he, Dana Gioia, was responsible for first "discovering" Kees and growing him into a literary star. Gioia, he explained five times, in four different contexts, wrote a Kees-themed essay in a 1979 edition of the Stanford University literature magazine Sequoia.

"This was the first time anybody had gathered together a critical assessment of him. I gathered together his stories. A lot of people saw that, and I think it had a snowballing effect," he said, responding to an unrelated question about a poet friend of Kees. "Ever since the Weldon Kees issue in 1979, there's been a steady stream of things. We asked the provocative question, 'Was Weldon Kees America's great forgotten poet?' And a lot of other people are asking it now," he added.

Is it not enough that Gioia clawed his way to near the top of one of the world's largest corporations, became known for myriad accomplishments in various artistic fields, and then became the most powerful person in the world of culture? Does he really need to employ his marketing skills to establish himself as the Svengali of Kees?

Apparently, he must.

Gioia is a victim of the Kees curse, a condition in which sufferers feel propelled to extraordinary heights of achievement, often in multiple fields, all the while obsessed with a dark, cynical version of reality vividly depicted in some of Kees' best poems and stories. Kees' rebirth as a literary figure -- in a recent spate of magazine articles, books, essays, and other works -- isn't an ordinary literary or artistic revival movement, in which critical reappraisal revolves around the idea of a subject's overlooked yet historically significant brilliance. Like so much about Kees, Kees' afterlife, and Kees' followers, the growing notoriety of Weldon Kees is more complicated than that. Call it a literary group-therapy session, in which inner-demon exorcism seems to go hand in hand with lauding long-lost literary merit.

Take the case of senior British financial executive, magazine art critic, and fiction writer Peter Crowther, who 10 years ago published a novel postulating that Kees lived after abandoning his car at the Golden Gate Bridge. The protagonists of the novel were all vampires.

Then there's Kathleen Rooney, a literature professor in Boston who just finished a widely reviewed book on Oprah Winfrey and is toiling at a Kees-themed novel in verse. She explained her motivation in an essay in The Nation three years ago. "Kees's stories remain relevant today for the bleakness they evoke," she wrote. "They surprise us by showing our own true, and frequently saddest, selves."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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