Chasing Voices: Weldon Kees, Donald Justice, Mark Strand





So I’ve been reading a lot of Donald Justice and Mark Strand lately, along with a first-time reading of Weldon Kees, and I”m starting to think there is a somewhat unacknowledged lineage or tradition that goes from Kees to Justice to Strand.  For starter’s, Justice edited Kees’s poems, and Strand studied with Justice at Iowa.  But there’s more to this, it seems to me, than just that.  I think, if there is a kind of lineage, It’s a tradition that starts somewhere in the strange and fertile ground of the voices of Eliot and Stevens.  All of this is more a hunch than a very thought-out assertion…but still, I I can’t help but feel that there are some very compelling concordances between the works of these three poets (Kees, Justice, Strand, beginning with Eliot and Stevens), and that it would take a good study to flesh some of these concordances out.  What are the concordances?

I first started thinking about this when I had the strange, somewhat Bloomian experience of reading Justice while feeling as though I was reading Strand.  It had something to do with Justice’s music – elegant, measured, elegaic – and something to do with the matters Justice’s music took up – self-definition, old age, childhood.  Here for example is an excerpt from Justice’s “Elsewheres” that sounds strangely like a Strand and Stevens amalgam:

Already it is midsummer

In the Sweden of our lives.

Or here is a very short poem by Justice that carries within itself the rather loud echoes of Strand (or is it the opposite, that Strand’s poetry sounds at times very much like Justice’s?):

I indulge myself

In rich refusals.

Nothing suffices.


I home myself to

This edge.  Asleep, I

Am a horizon.

The poem’s despairing but muted admission that “Nothing suffices,” and the poet’s consequent desire to somehow change himself, happens very similarly in Strand’s much-anthologized “Keeping Things Whole,” whose first stanza reads,

In a field

I am the absence 

of field.

This is

always the case.

Wherever I am

I am what is missing.  

Both poems convey a speaker, a voice, that is despairing, weary and sly, a speaker whose “celestial shrug,” as Louise Gluck has described of Strand’s poetry, sounds largely in a poem that offers no consolation except for the poetic artifact itself.  Both poems move slowly, almost painstakingly, and both poems end with a kind of paradoxical pun, Strand’s poem ending with the lines,

We all have reasons

for moving.

I move

to keep things whole.

In this sense, both poems end with an opening-out that is surprising, and also kind of funnily profound.  Both poets are engaged in a project of self-definition; for Justice, he must hone himself, like the speaker of a Samuel Menashe poem.  After acknowledging his own hedonistic rationalizations, his own egregious capacity for evasion, Justice turns into an ascetic, honing himself to an edge.  And yet ironically, when he sleeps, he opens out to be a kind of horizon, which is an edge itself, and yet of course an unimaginably vast one.  Meanwhile Strand, as if learning from Justice’s reductions, begins ascetically with his pared-down formulations, only to surprise us also with the end of his poem, which plays upon the trope of space and place, absence and presence.  Most people “keep things whole,” presumably, by staying in one place, by remaining the same person, by not budging from one’s own way of looking at things.  Yet Strand paradoxically moves in order to keep things whole – for him, the integrity of wholeness is bound up with the capriciousness (and capaciousness) of change.  

Maybe this is why, in “Breath,” Strand out-Justice’s Justice, writing,

I am becoming a horizon

And yet here is Justice out-Stranding Strand, in “The Missing Person” (while also evoking Kees):

He has come to report himself

A missing person.

More on this later – need to first read more of Kees (whose music sounds remarkably and weirdly like Justice’s)




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