Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Color Line

            A long procrastinated reading of W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk has been enlightening; some unsorted tiles in my mental historical mosaic fell into a kind of shape. Emancipation and the Union victory mobilized white supremacists somewhat, but when the Freedmen’s Bureau fell apart, despite good work in the face of profound resistance and some corruption, and the need for Negro suffrage became even clearer, the Fifteenth Amendment was the real energizing event for white supremacists in the years between the Civil War and Du Bois’s book in 1903. Vote suppression. Du Bois confidently announced that “The problem of the twentieth century is the color line” and had no reason to back away from that statement in all the many subsequent editions of his book during the first half of the century. I wasn’t around for developments in the 20s, 30s and 40s, but I was a witness to the two events of mid-century, Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act, which prompted reactions that are still very much with us. But it wasn’t until this century (“The problem of the twenty-first century is the color line”) that a black man was elected President, and the reaction among many whites has been that, illogically, he caused the ruin of the country that then allowed him to be elected. What’s the answer, Night Riders being out of fashion and all? Well, how about vote suppression, but more subtle this time, and in the name of patriotism (which Dr. Johnson called the last refuge of scoundrels)?

Monday, May 18, 2015

Pay Attention

Nature has been insisting on our attention this week. She hasn't been nasty here as she showed herself in Texas, Oklahoma and the Plains. But on Wednesday high wispy clouds moved in; they were lower on Thursday and by Friday the warm front had settled on us for four days of rain that sometimes eased into mist and sometimes poured. On Friday, too, the locusts began to sound. Their voices are neither buzzing nor chirping but a cumulative whirr or susurration that my wife has compared to the noise of flying saucers looking for a place to land in old science-fiction movies. This morning as we left to go to town a tree blocked both lanes of the only road out of our lakeside subdivision, not pushed over by wind but simply having let go of the saturated ground. We pulled into a driveway and waited, knowing our resourceful neighbors would find a way. First a woman on the other side of the roadblock approached the treetop and wrestled with it without effect. Then she was joined by a man who had pulled up behind her--they were foiled at getting into the neighborhood while we couldn't get out--but their joint efforts failed to move the tree. Finally a truck with a trailer and a dog in the truckbed pulled up and a man jumped out. I had seen this truck turning around from the fallen tree, driving back into the neighborhood as we first drove up. I thought the driver might have gone home for a chainsaw. But now he pulled from the truckbed a thick, wide towing strap while his Labrador watched with interest. He attached the strap to the tree trunk near the road's median and hitched the other end to his front bumper. As he backed slowly away--a practiced maneuver, I could see, since the trailer went straight back--the tree cracked and snapped. He got out and pulled the freed treetop away, clearing one lane, and we thanked him as we drove away, slowed by no more than ten minutes.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Weldon Kees

A conference, “Celebrate Weldon Kees,” was held in Kees’s hometown of Beatrice Nebraska in October, 1988. Donald Justice, who had edited Kees’s collected poems, was there, as was Dana Gioia, who edited some of the short stories, and James Reidel, who eventually became Kees’s biographer. I was there also, and these are the remarks I gave under the heading of “The Uses of Weldon Kees”:
            I want to begin by talking not about influences on Weldon Kees but about his influence on others, because that is what brought Bob Bourdette and me to Kees in the first place. We were looking for poems for the anthology section of our introductory poetry textbook, The Poem in Question, and we came upon Donald Justice’s “Sestina on Six Words by Weldon Kees.” That led us back to Kees and his “Sestina: Travel Notes,” because we could not have included the Justice poem without the Kees poem as context. And the Kees sestina is one of his poems that now has a crypto-biographical appeal because it talks about vanishing “on some questioned voyage,” about crossing a bridge that may be to somewhere or nowhere, a “deceptive voyage;” it seems to look forward to the circumstances of Kees’s disappearance. Once we knew about his work, it began to seem as if we were the last people in the western hemisphere to have discovered it. My mother-in-law, Marian Weston, as it turns out, grew up with Weldon Kees here in Beatrice; he lived next to her family’s house on Fifth Street. The chairman of the department in New Orleans where I used to teach, and where Bob still does, set the type for the first collected edition of Kees’s poems, edited by Donald Justice.
            For my own part, I began to see Kees’s influence as something considerably larger than his apparent fame. One example of that influence is Kees’s Robinson, a partial representation of the author—a way of breaking up the private and enclosed self into pieces that can take the poetry out of the obsessively autobiographical “I” and may even teach the self about the self. I don’t think John Berryman could have written the “Dream Songs” that feature Henry had Robinson not been a model. I think also that the stoned dogs of Kees’s “The Contours of Fixation” find their way into Robert Bly’s “Waking from Sleep.” I find the same sort of rhetorical shock Kees used so well at the end of “For My Daughter” used again in James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” Such specific influence of poem on poem is also seen by Robert Stock in a 1979 article; he finds Kees’s “Aunt Elizabeth” behind William Stafford’s “The Farm on the Great Plains,” and “the germ of Berryman’s Henry and Mr. Bones” not in the Robinson poems, but in “A Cornucopia for Daily Use.”
            Kees’s influence is evident here working on his contemporaries: Stafford, Berryman and Kees were all born in 1914. More significant is the influence of Kees on younger generations of poets. I only mentioned Kees one evening to Mark Jarman, and he talked for an hour not only about the poetry but about Kees himself and his family and even the hardware business in Beatrice and its peculiar implements. It’s the only conversation I’ve ever had about calf sucker-breakers.
            Chris Buckley was teaching with me at Murray State when Other Lives, his 1985 book containing a poem on Kees, was published. “Kees at 90” begins from the last lines of “To Build a Quiet City in His Mind,” lines that are themselves a witty turn on a couplet from Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden.” Buckley imagines Kees in Mexico, having written for years under a pseudonym in magazines “flourishing in barbershops / Omaha to Iowa City,” a clever Keesian use of place names seeming arbitrary but in fact pointing to a nexus between Kees’s home state and the city where many of these young poets were trained. Buckley told me also about David Wojahn’s poem, “Weldon Kees in Mexico,” that imagines the poet there ten years after his disappearance.
            But it is influence on Kees that seems to be almost everyone’s favorite topic. If you leaf through Jim Elledge’s 1985 collection of critical essays on Kees, you will not lack for names of people who influenced his poetry. The American poets include Eliot, E. A Robinson, Hart Crane (no one, interestingly, mentions the influence of Stephen Crane’s “moral fables” and the pervasive tone of War Is Kind), Williams, Stevens, Pound and Conrad Aiken. English poets mentioned are Empson, Yeats, Auden, Beddoes, Browning and Wilfred Owen. Among continental influences are Juvenal, Trakl from Austria, and MallarmĂ©, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire. The influence of prose writers on Kees’s poetry is not neglected, and the list has such names as Gregory Bateson, Jean-Paul Sartre, Joyce, CĂ©line, Defoe, and Dostoyevsky. Some of these writers have undeniably affected Kees’s poetry, but if we were to take seriously all the names suggested as possible influences, there would not be a line of a poem left as original composition by the man himself.
            Let me play the game for a little and add to the list—easy to do—without even confining myself to the direct influence of people. Robert Knoll points out the importance of the movies in Kees’s imaginative makeup. Both Hugh Kenner and Howard Nemerov talk about the collage as an aggregative principle in Kees’s poetry. We could put these together and cite the newsreel as a significant technical influence. Newsreels operated by means of loosely-linked visual images, and sometime disparate subjects within the same reel were given thematic linkages, although sometimes there were no such links. Kees began writing continuity scripts for Paramount newsreels in the fall of 1943 and worked there until the fall of 1947, when he quit. To cite one example among many that might be chosen, in the last of Kees’s “Five Villanelles,” “We Had the Notion It Was Dawn,” the structuring example of the newsreel is probaby as evident in the poem as the sensibility of Wifred Owen.
            Then, too, there is the New Yorker influence, especially on the Robinson poems, three of which were published by that magazine. Kees has a tendency toward the circumstantial and material in his style anyway, and that tendency gets most indulged in “Aspects of Robinson,” where Manhattan familiarity is complemented by a shower of names that has the effect of giving us a cultural time capsule: Toynbee, luminol, glen plaid, oxford button downs, and so on. Dana Gioia points out the flurry of proper nouns and brand names here, but as illustration of the alienating materialism of Robinson’s world rather than as specific influence.
            Finally there are the animals. They are never very far away in Kees’s poems. They are not always benign, frequently not lovable. In a dozen pages at the beginning of Part Two of Poems 1947-1954 I find locusts, turkeys, hogs, dead fish, a phoenix, a dove, an owl, dogs, an elephant, and cats. But as a group the poems devoted wholly or largely to animals have more relief in humor from their generally plangent tone than any other group, even though their subjects may be lugubrious. Boris, the revolutionary parrot, is memorialized in “Obituary.” Boris alternated slogans such as “Down with tyranny, hate, and war!” with fatalistic quotations like “Out, brief candle,” and “Like Eliot’s world, he went out with a whimper.” In “The Cats” Kees asks the question that has occurred to everyone who has cats and a job: what do they do all day while we are gone? In “Colloquy” the speaker holds a conversation with a cat and plays the despairing romantic:
                                                                                    “I bring,”
                        I said, “besides this dish of liver, and an edge
                        Of cheese, the customary torments,
                        And the usual wonder why we live
                        At all, and why the world thins out and perishes
                        As it has done for me, sieved
                        As I am toward silences.  Where
                        Are we now? Do we know anything?
The cat plays the realist: “’Give me the dish,’ he said.” The self-deflation of that line suggests to me that animals may have been one of the healthier influences operating on Kees. Another poem is a monologue spoken entirely by a dog. The poem is a witty, if sad, turn on the idea that humans name animals, which is not the same thing as knowing their names. This dog has had a number of names given by humans, and now speaks of what happens “When midnight closes in and takes away your name.” What was his name in the “cultured home” uptown, where “they threw great bones out on the balcony”? Was it Ginger, Rex, Rover, Laddie, Prince? These poems reveal for me lived influences rather than literary ones, and I think they may have been the most enduring ones, from the Airedale that is mentioned as belonging to the speaker when he was twelve, in “1926,” to Lonesome the cat, who was Weldon Kees’s only companion at the last we know of him.
            But such influences differ from the effect of other writers. Kees’s citations of other poets’ phrases, styles, or world views are so measured, so knowing, and so deliberate that I hesitate to call them influences at all. What I want to call them is use. The word is Kees’s own, from a description of Eliot’s The Cocktail Party: “he uses everything, and uses everything badly.” Kees is withering on the subject of Eliot’s play, but it is not the use he condemns, but the choices Eliot makes (Chesterton, Shaw, and Evelyn Waugh instead of the Elizabethans as in The Waste Land) and the fact that he uses them badly.
            Kees uses a lot of people in his poetry, but I don’t think he uses them badly. And he certainly does not use them slavishly. T. S. Eliot is the poet most frequently mentioned in Kees’s letters, for example, but Kees has a perspective on Eliot noticeably devoid of awe. He answers Eliot’s nostalgia for an age of integrated sensibility in an early poem, “The Speakers”: “you / Should know Elizabethans had / Sweeneys and Mrs. Porters too.” As early as 1935 he had pigeonholed Eliot as “the poet who sings the song of Oswald Spengler, that’s rather evident,” and he parodies Eliot—and perhaps Wallace Stevens as well—in a poem entitled “Sunday Morning” in a 1937 letter; Kees is a skilled parodist who can capture Hemingway’s prose or Truman Capote’s speech in a few devastating lines. Ezra Pound is not sacred for him either: after a visit to the Washington hospital where Pound was interned, Kees writes a letter describing the way Pound would begin a story and then suddenly shift to something unrelated. “Just the method of the Cantos, I guess” is his comment. Kees moves easily among the poets of previous generations, and what he does not select whole he adapts. “If this room is our world,” he writes, turning Donne’s “The Good-Morrow” into a last good-bye, “then let / This world be damned.” In “Dog,” which I’ve already mentioned, Kees takes Yeats’s line about “slouching toward Bethlehem” and has his more benign beast “snuffling…toward identity.” None of this confesses Kees’s capture by the writers behind him, or his slavish imitation of them. He uses everything, and he uses everything well.

Friday, April 10, 2015


The P. G. Wodehouse I’m reading, The Mating Game, has the most complicated plot of all the harebrained complicated Wodehouse plots I’ve encountered. I think there should be an insert at the front like you get in War and Peace—not detailing the various Kuryagins and Bolkonskis but giving a brief explanation why Bertie Wooster shows up at Deverill Hall pretending to be Gussie Fink-Nottle, why Gussie appears pretending to be Bertie and attended by Jeeves while Bertie has as his man his friend from the Drones Club, Claude Cattermole “Catsmeat” Pirbright, and so on. I’m also reading my second William Maxwell, The Folded Leaf, which is good, but not as good as They Came Like Swallows—probably the best book I’ve read so far this year, although Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is also in the running.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Desert April

The desert is stunningly beautiful right now. I was struck by it on the way back from Ryan Airfield, on the other side of Gates Pass in the Tucson Mountains a few days ago. All the Ocotillo have huge orange blooms, and the Staghorn Cholla is blooming in every hue at the red end of the spectrum: yellow, pink, orange, bright red. There are still Mexican Poppies, Globe Mallow and Brittlebush blooming. And I came upon stands of Foothill Palo Verde, microphyllum, that are completely yellow with blooms. Sometimes a whole wash will be full of bright yellow.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Tucson Festival of Books II

            I signed copies of my essay collection A Place to Read at the Tucson Festival of Books on Sunday, March 15th. This two-day book fair is held on the University of Arizona campus under old palm trees in the warm, dry air of southern Arizona. Already in just its seventh year, the festival has grown to be the fourth largest in the United States, attracting 130,000 readers, who come to see their favorite authors, 350 of whom give individual talks, workshops, and panel discussions. Many more authors can be found autographing their books at the authors’ pavilions and the booths of publishers and booksellers. Over three hundred exhibitors show their wares at the festival. Attendance is free for the public, but proceeds from booth rentals and other fees (over a million dollars so far) are donated to local non-profit organizations that promote increased literacy.
            This year a visitor could have attended talks by Joyce Carol Oates, Noam Chomsky, Iris Johansen, Dave Barry, Scott Turow, Amy Tan, Jim Harrison, Alice Hoffman and dozens of other best-selling authors. The emphasis was on books, but Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva and columnist Katha Pollitt spoke on a panel celebrating the 150th anniversary of the liberal weekly The Nation. Promoting her memoir and spy fiction was Valerie Plame, the ex-CIA covert operative who was outed by Dick Cheney’s chief-of-staff Scooter Libby (who went to jail for it) after Plame’s journalist husband had published articles critical of the Bush administration.
            Genre writing of all kinds was well represented at the festival, and so were children’s and young adult fiction. There was a little something for every reader’s taste. For most of the two-day festival, a stiff breeze shook the white tents of exhibitors up and down the university mall, but the crowds were undeterred.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Tucson Festival of Books

I will be signing copies of my new essay collection, A Place to Read, at the Tucson Festival of Books this Sunday. I’ll be at the central authors’ pavilion, which is in the mall facing Bear Down Gym, from 10:15 until 12:30. If you’re in Tucson, please drop by and say hello. If you’re not, please let your Tucson friends who might be interested know.