April 2023

"The porch light coming on again"
A Tribute to Weldon Kees

Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce


When Weldon Kees disappeared on July 15, 1955—his car was found near the Golden Gate bridge and it's likely he committed suicide—he was already on his way to being forgotten. Soon after, he slipped into nearly complete obscurity. (1) Only a chance rediscovery of his work by poet Donald Justice salvaged it from disappearing as completely as he himself. Even today, he is little known to readers of poetry. As poet and critic Dana Gioia puts it, "The current literary reputation of Weldon Kees is both paradoxical and exemplary. It presents a paradox in that his work is held in high esteem by poets, especially younger ones, while it remains virtually unknown to academic critics." (2) Now as in his lifetime, Kees remains a poet's poet. This situation is unfortunate for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that his poems have much to offer contemporaries and poets alike.

Kees was born in Nebraska in 1914. He belongs to a generation sandwiched somewhat uncomfortably between the high Modernists of the early 20th Century and the Confessional and Beat poets whose work dominated the post-WWII literary scene. In addition to poetry, he wrote fiction, played jazz, and dabbled in photography and film. It is his poetry, however, upon which his reputation, slender as it may be, rests.

Consider for example the poem from which I drew my title. "1926."

The porchlight coming on again,

Early November, the dead leaves

Raked in piles, the wicker swing

Creaking. Across the lots

A phonograph is playing Ja-Da.

The tone is quiet, nostalgic, evocative. Then,

An orange moon. I see the lives

Of neighbors, mapped and marred

Like all the wars ahead, and R.

Insane, B. with his throat cut,

Fifteen years from now, in Omaha.

The sudden, startling turn is characteristic of Kees. When the first stanza's tone returns,

I did not know them then.

My airedale scratches at the door.

And I am back from seeing Milton Sills

And Doris Kenyon. Twelve years old.

The porchlight coming on again. (3)

the nostalgia has been twisted into regret and an inescapable sense of loss.

Such unexpected emotional reversals pervade Kees' poetry. "For my Daughter" opens with a father's expression of mixed pleasure and fear for his child.

Looking into my daughter's eyes I read   

Beneath the innocence of morning flesh….

Any sweetness or sentimentality is immediately undercut.


Concealed, hintings of death she does not heed….

The night's slow poison, tolerant and bland,

Has moved her blood. Parched years that I have seen   

That may be hers appear….

perhaps the cruel   

Bride of a syphilitic or a fool. 

Then the final, Keesian twist:

These speculations sour in the sun.   

I have no daughter. I desire none. (4)

The meter and rhyme are subtle enough that one hardly notices at first the poem is a sonnet, a final irony given the subjects this form more usually addresses.

The inner life is not Kees' only focus. He was also keenly attuned to the times.

It is summer, and treachery blurs with the sounds of midnight,

The lights blink off at the closing of a door,

And I am alone in a worn-out time in wartime,

Thinking of those who were trapped by hysteria before….

Now the heroes of March are the sorriest fools of April:

The beaters of drums, the flag-kissing men, whose eyes

Once saw the murder, are washing it clean, accusing:

"You are the cowards! All that we told you before was lies!"

It is summer again, the evening is warm and silent.

The windows are dark and the mountains are miles away.

And the men who were haters of war are mounting the platform.

An idiot wind blows; the conscience dies.

("July 1940") (5)

These lines, written with World War II already raging in much of the world and anticipating the inevitable entry of the United States, seem eerily prescient concerning our own war-torn era. Note also the phrase "idiot wind" which presumably provided Bob Dylan with the title and inspiration for a song.

For me and for many readers, Kees' finest poems, those that synthesize many of his themes and techniques, are the four that depict the character known as Robinson. A sort of bourgeois Everyman whose name echoes Crusoe, adrift in an alien world and who clearly possesses aspects of Kees' own character, Robinson appears in poems rich in imagery, witty and despairing, and ultimately devastating. "Robinson" catalogs the subject's worldly possessions which weirdly disappear when he is absent.

The dog stops barking after Robinson has gone.

His act is over. The world is a gray world,

Not without violence, and he kicks under the grand piano,   

The nightmare chase well under way.//

The mirror from Mexico, stuck to the wall,   

Reflects nothing at all. The glass is black.   

Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.//


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.//

Outside, white buildings yellow in the sun.   

Outside, the birds circle continuously   

Where trees are actual and take no holiday. (6)

Robinson himself appears sleeping in "Robinson at Home."

Curtains drawn back, the door ajar.

All winter long, it seemed, a darkening

Began. But now the moonlight and the odors of the street   

Conspire and combine toward one community.

These are the rooms of Robinson….

Robinson in sleep, who mumbles as he turns,   

"There is something in this madhouse that I symbolize—

This city—nightmare—black—"            

He wakes in sweat   

To the terrible moonlight and what might be

Silence. It drones like wires far beyond the roofs,   

And the long curtains blow into the room. (7)

We see Robinson awake in his curiously rich yet empty life in "Aspects of Robinson."

Robinson at cards at the Algonquin; a thin

Blue light comes down once more outside the blinds.   

Gray men in overcoats are ghosts blown past the door.   

The taxis streak the avenues with yellow, orange, and red.   

This is Grand Central, Mr. Robinson….

Robinson in Glen plaid jacket, Scotch-grain shoes,   

Black four-in-hand and oxford button-down,

The jeweled and silent watch that winds itself, the brief-

Case, covert topcoat, clothes for spring, all covering   

His sad and usual heart, dry as a winter leaf. (8)

Robinson proves to be even more elusive in "Relating to Robinson," the only poem in the series with a first-person speaker.

Somewhere in Chelsea, early summer;

And, walking in the twilight toward the docks,   

I thought I made out Robinson ahead of me.

The possibly imagined encounter transforms suddenly to horror when the Robinsonian figure turns to face the speaker.

His own head turned with mine

And fixed me 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 a bolted door.

You must have followed me from Astor Place.   

An empty paper floats down at the last.

And then a day as huge as yesterday in pairs   

Unrolled its horror on my face

Until it blocked—" Running in sweat   

To reach the docks, I turned back

For a second glance. I had no certainty,   

There in the dark, that it was Robinson   

Or someone else. (9)

These few samples can only provide the briefest introduction to the remarkable work of Weldon Kees. As we move into National Poetry Month, I strongly suggest that my readers acquire a copy of The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees, edited by Donald Justice and published by University of Nebraska Press.


(1) https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/07/04/the-disappearing-poet

(2) https://danagioia.com/essays/reviews-and-authors-notes/weldon-kees/the-cult-of-weldon-kees/

(3) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53029/1926

(4) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47574/for-my-daughter

(5) https://www.unqualified-reservations.org/2011/11/three-poems-of-weldon-kees/

(6) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47579/robinson

(7) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47586/robinson-at-home

(8) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47585/aspects-of-robinson

(9) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47587/relating-to-robinson


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Gregory Luce is a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
He is the author of five books of poetry, has published widely in print and online and is the 2014 Larry Neal Award winner for adult poetry, given by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Retired from National Geographic, he is a volunteer writing tutor/mentor for 826DC, and lives in Arlington, VA.
More at: https://dctexpoet.wordpress.com/
For his other columns and articles in Scene4
check the Archives.

©2022 Gregory Luce
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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