Daughters and Weldon Kees

Teaching Tuesday Memo:

Each semester, I teach Weldon Kees‘ poem “For My Daughter” to my literature class. This year, however, perhaps because my daughter is three and I am becoming increasingly aware of  the degenerate roles girls assume in our society, this poem struck a chord in me that causes me great grief and fear intermingled.

Weldon Kees’ poem is as follows:

Looking into my daughter’s eyes I read
Beneath the innocence of morning flesh
Concealed, hintings of death she does not heed.
Coldest of winds have blown this hair, and mesh
Of seaweed snarled these miniatures of hands;
The night’s slow poison, tolerant and bland,
Has moved her blood. Parched years that I have seen
That may be hers appear: foul, lingering
Death in certain war, the slim legs green.
Or, fed on hate, she relishes the sting
Of others’ agony; perhaps the cruel
Bride of a syphilitic or a fool.
These speculations sour in the sun.
I have no daughter. I desire none.

Weldon Kees (1940)

In summary, the speaker of this poem is a man, a father, who looks upon his daughter and sees only three fates for her: 1) a life burdened by pain, death, and misfortune; 2) a life fed by hatred for others; and 3) a life in which she has married a man who cheats on her and infects her body with sexually transmitted diseases. He concludes the poem by revealing that he does not have a daughter, and because of these reasons, he does not want to have one.

My students’ reactions varied. The women understood what the speaker was implying, drawing on their own hardships in life because of their gender, and although this was dark and morbid in nature, they appreciated his ability to see into their lives. My male students focused on the selfish and bitter tone of the poem and the negative message it imparts upon the reader in regards to ill-fated lives of all women.

Since all my posts seem to harp on the negative attention given to young women and the lack of empowerment they execute on behalf of their bodies and their selves, I found this to be an apt poem for my blog. Kees’ revelations and his view of women’s lives are bitter, but quite accurate. Unlike the speaker, I am a woman who has seen all of the examples he cites, and yet I have chosen to rise above them. I have chosen to bring my own children into this world, and I revel in the fact that I have given birth to a girl. When I look at her, I see all the dangers and darkness that I have to teach her about and protect her from, but I also see her potential, her intelligence, her strength. Women have to fight for their place in this world, for their self-respect, for their independence and self-possession; I have, and she will be no different. And because she comes from me, and is exposed to me, I pray that she will be as strong and empowered as I strive to be.

What about you? Do you agree with Kees’ perception of the ill-fated daughter, the ill-fated woman?

Copyright© 2010 by Marina Delvecchio. All Rights Reserved.

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About Marina DelVecchio

Marina is a writer who focuses her work on the need for female empowerment. She writes articles, books, and blogs centered on female experiences related to motherhood, female agency, feminism, and building positive images for young girls and women. She currently teaches Literature, Writing, and Women's Studies on the College level.

12 Responses to Daughters and Weldon Kees

  1. Jo says:

    I won’t be back because the comments are a nightmare to read! Your post and comments are on a white background, but I was interested in what Michael had to say and got a headache because the graphic obscured it.

    I found the poem condescending in a way, like any man saying, oh, I couldn’t be a woman, it’s too hard, I wouldn’t be father to a woman because she will suffer, therefore I relate, which is really impossible, and seems to me to dismiss the essential qualities that women bring to this world even as they suffer it.

  2. michael casasanto says:

    Hello-I first came across Weldon Kees around 1972-73 as a work study student in the periodicals section of the main library (I think it was called Patee Library) at The Pennsylvania State University. Part of my job was to catalogue the periodicals that the “higher-ups” had decided to remove from the collections. Many of these were literary journals of sorts and I was left alone in the back room to peruse what for me were esoteric journals. What a blessing! I discovered “The Smith” and many other poetry and collections of poems and stories which I still have some 40 years later.
    My biggest find was while I was paging through some obscure small collection of poems which contained: For My Daughter. I read it and the last line was like a punch to my stomach. And I’ve read it hundreds of times since then with the same impact. The collection of Kees poetry (Edited by Donald Justice) goes with me everywhere and as difficult as it is to admit, I too share a similar world view. As painful as his poetry can be, I believe his way of making the reader feel his ennui as well as his technical virtuosity and all the features embodied in his work (e.g., as a musician I am enamored with his rythmic patterns, etc.) make him among the best English language poets ever.
    With respect to: For My Daughter, my own view is that he is focusing less on the oppression of girls/woman, but is addressing the helplessness and incredible grief of a father contemplating a future daughter, or, more probably, his own grief and horror at his own experience and failure as a father of a daughter, now either dead or long-since gone.
    Ironically, I lost my first daughter when she was in her late teens and while this was well over 12 years ago I still shudder at whether I failed her or lacked in protecting her. I also have a second daughter and we are as close as i was with my “lost” daughter. I now sometimes think the poem is less about a father and his love and parental “skills” and more about the strife all children, not only girls, face. This poem portrays the grief a father feels for his daughter and, for me, between the lines, it contains the special nature of this relationship and the myriad of pitfalls and dangers that are sometimes perhaps unavoidable despite the amount of care, love and nurture provided by the father.

    I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this and other poems by Kees. I hope you can find the time to respond. This is a bit strange to me because I’ve always felt a sense of intimacy with Kees, as if he were an older brother or mentor. I read and write poetry. I love many poets but he has always been a brother, so sad, so sensitive and intense, and so very, very gifted.

    Thank You,
    Respectfully, Michael D Casasanto

    • Michael, thank you so much for visiting my site and sharing your story and daughters with me. Kees’ poem is one of my favorites to teach, and since I am a woman sensitive to women’s experiences, I do teach it from a feminist perspective. But I agree with you. All children, no matter their gender, suffer as we once suffered. We bring them into the world to fulfill our need for family and belonging, but we often fail them in some major ways that remain inarticulate to them and to us as their parents. My greatest fear is that as much as I give my own kids, as much as I love them, there are places inside that I can’t get to, I can’t see, and I can’t heal. They’re all so different, unique, with individualized and specific needs, we just can’t get to all of them, in time, or at all. We do the best we can, as long as we continue to try to fill their aches and needs. You sound like a wonderful father, and I am glad that you found Kees in your life. When I teach, I tell my students that the most I can ask of them is to leave my classroom at the end of the semester with one writer they will take with them on their journey. It’s amazing to me how literature is so fulfilling — when we allow it. Keep in touch. And thanks again for filling the spaces of my blog with inspirational comments and experiences.

      Marina

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  4. Resan says:

    keep up the good work on the site. I like it. Could use some more frequent updates, but i am sure you have got better or other stuff to do , hehe. =p

  5. Sandra Martorella says:

    Really nice post,thank you, best website ever

  6. Hannah says:

    I really need help. I don’t understand the poems. I mean I get the gist but in each line the mood changes, right? lines 4-11 lose me . explain?

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