Thursday, April 14, 2011

from 'Five Villanelles' by Weldon Kees (1947)


                        from Five Villanelles

                        1.

                        The crack is moving down the wall.
                        Defective plaster isn’t all the cause.
                        We must remain until the roof falls in.

                        It’s mildly cheering to recall
                        That every building has its little flaws.
                        The crack is moving down the wall.

                        Here in the kitchen, drinking gin,
                        We can accept the damnest laws.
                        We must remain until the roof falls in.

                        And though there’s no one here at all,
                        One searches every room because
                        The crack is moving down the wall.

                        Repairs? But how can one begin?
                        The lease has warnings buried in each clause.
                        We must remain until the roof falls in.

                        These nights one hears a creaking in the hall,
                        The sort of thing that gives one pause.
                        The crack is moving down the wall.
                        We must remain until the roof falls in.


                       

The challenge of any poem is finding the form that best suits the content. With a fixed form like the villanelle the form itself, to a very large extent, dictates the content (more so than any other form I think). The great difficulty is finding a subject matter that works well in this context and also finding lines that are good enough to bear repetition. For me, the problem is that good villanelles are few and far between and so you tend to hear the same ones repeated over and over as examples – ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ by Thomas and ‘Antarctica’ by Derek Mahon, at least the latter in Ireland. I love both these poems, but they’ve grown a little too familiar and perhaps worn out by being cited so often. It has also created the sense, for me at least, that the villanelle best handles poems of intense emotion told with a kind of epic grandeur (which the repetition of lines definitely generates in both poems mentioned above).

What is refreshing in this poem by Weldon Kees (written before Thomas’ or Mahon’s as it turns out) is that it shows that the repetition can be used to an entirely different effect: the grinding and hopeless realities of daily life. There is nothing epic in this; just something relentless and incremental in “the crack is moving down the wall”. 

I think Kees exploits the repetition of the form to create the droll and sardonic attitude of a man who sees his life crumbling around him, but has another gin in the kitchen as he watches. It’s too late to stop but there is still a black sense of humour that recognizes, “We must remain until the roof falls in.” Obviously, the fact that the central image is of a crumbling house (and that there is a “we” in the poem) adds a whole range of associations: about marriage, about life, about the cracks that form in the person as well as on the wall.

This is the house that Weldon built and one gathers it was a difficult place to live. I am relieved though, above all, to have found a new villanelle which opens up so many possibilities for the form that I hadn’t noticed before now.

Kees published three collections of poetry from the late 40s to the mid 50s, which went almost entirely unnoticed at the time. He also did very interesting experiments with observational photography and was an accomplished jazz pianist. In 1955 his car was found by the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. When the police went to Kees’ flat they found a pair of red socks soaking in the sink. He was never seen again. It was thanks firstly to Donald Justice and, more recently, the critic and poet Dana Gioia, that his reputation has been resuscitated. Reading the collected poems reveals Kees as one of the most important mid-century poets in America. It’s a great shame he never lived to know that he would be seen as such.

You can find Dana Gioia's essay, 'The Cult of Weldon Kees' at: http://www.danagioia.net/essays/ekees.htm


3 comments:

  1. I love this! I agree, the villanelle is a tough nut to crack...the relentless brooding of it all. I wrote one for my poetry play which I think I got away with, but only because the emotional arc of the play had reached a point at that moment that such intensity could be sustained. but I love this one's dark humour. But what a sad story his life was -- and the red socks. Oy.

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  2. Thanks Sue. You move at the speed of thought. I had literally just posted before you replied. Yes, something very poignant about those red socks. Kees really was a fascinating figure and there's now a biography of him as well as an edition of the poems. Worth seeking out.

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  3. Sue, I just realised you were referring to your play, Dreams of May. Yes, the villanelle works really well at that point in the piece. It’s kind of a climax moment and the heightened emotion the form gives is very poignant. Glad you found something of interest in this very different piece!

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