Kees began to write and publish poems shortly after college. His first job was working for the Federal Writers' Project in Lincoln, Nebraska. Through the 1930s Kees mostly wrote short stories, placing them in the little magazines and intellectual quarterlies (Prairie Schoone, Horizon, Rocky Mountain Review). He continued to write fiction after leaving the Federal Writers Project for a job as a librarian in Denver. In October 1937 at the age of 24, he married Ann Swan. His reputation as a writer of fiction continued to grow. A novel, Fall Quarter, was completed in 1941, but its whimsical tale of a young professor who battles the dreariness of staid Nebraskan college life was thought by publishers to be too droll for a year in which war seemed imminent (eventually published in 1990). In 1943, the couple moved to New York City, where Kees wrote for Time magazine and published reviews in national magazines and newspapers such as The Nation and The New Republic. Kees's first collection of poems, The Last Man, was published in 1943. His second collection, The Fall of Magicians, first appeared in 1947.
In the mid-forties, he also began to paint; he had one-man shows at galleries including the Peridot Gallery. His painting was often shown with and compared to abstract expressionists such as William de Kooning. Between 1934 and 1945, he published more than thirty stories.
In 1951 Kees moved to San Francisco. In California, he began to study and play jazz piano, while continuing his painting. His jobs included writing film reviews for radio, writing for a theater review entitled Poets Follies, and working on screenplays. Much of this writing is collected in the volume Reviews and Essays, 1936-1955 (1988).
In the mid 1950s, Kees became increasingly depressed. His wife became seriously alcoholic and then mentally ill; the two separated in 1954 and were divorced. His final book, Poems 1947-1954, was published in 1954.
On July 18, 1955, his car was found abandoned on the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. He had told a friend that he wanted, like Hart Crane, to start a new life in Mexico. He had also suggested that he might kill himself. His disappearance has been treated as a presumed suicide.
Five years after his disappearance and presumed suicide, Kees's Collected Poems was first published. In his introduction to that volume, Donald Justice called Kees among the three or four best of his generation. Justice went on to note that Kees is original in one of the few ways that matter: he speaks to us in a voice or, rather, in a particular tone of voice which we have never heard before. Kees's Collected Poems have since been reprinted twice. His collection of fiction, Ceremony and Other Stories, first appeared in 1983.
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