Short But Sweet: The Coming of the Plague

Ever sigh and say, “I wish I could teach poetry but I … a) can’t find anything good, or b) don’t have the time.”? This occasional series of posts will focus on specific poems that I like and have even used that I find to be both engaging and amazing.


The Coming of the Plague
By Weldon Kees

September was when it began.
Locusts dying in the fields; our dogs
Silent, moving like shadows on a wall;
And strange worms crawling; flies of a kind
We had never seen before; huge vineyard moths;
Badgers and snakes, abandoning
Their holes in the field; the fruit gone rotten;
Queer fungi sprouting; the fields and woods
Covered with spiderwebs; black vapors
Rising from the earth – all these,
And more began that fall. Ravens flew round
The hospital in pairs. Where there was water,
We could hear the sound of beating clothes
All through the night. We could not count
All the miscarriages, the quarrels, the jealousies.
And one day in a field I saw
A swarm of frogs, swollen and hideous,
Hundreds upon hundreds, sitting on each other,
Huddled together, silent, ominous,
And heard the sound of rushing wind.

A perfect poem for Halloween, no? We read this in advanced English the other day and noted how it reminded us of The Walking Dead or The Stand. I’m sure there’s also a deeper meaning to it, but I shared it at the beginning of class and asked about mood and imagery and how imagery can be used to create a mood. In other words, your standard English-teacher questions wherein I am using a work of literature to illustrate literary devices.

Then I read the short bio of Weldon Kees that is featured on the Poetry Out Loud website (which is where I grabbed this poem from). It seems that he disappeared in 1955 and was never heard from again. It’s possible that he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge because that’s where his car was found; it’s also possible that he disappeared to Mexico.

Reading further, because I’m curious, I came across a 2005 New Yorker Article: “The Disappearing Poet.” Kees seemed to be one of those writers who was absorbed by whatever demons he was fighting. Depression, perhaps? The biography that the writer paints shows someone who is obviously one of those Writers, the ones whose life stories seem to be forever connected to their work. Kees is more obscure than Hemmingway, Poe, Salinger, or Plath, but he’s definitely of that mold or at least seemed to be trying to fit that mold.

As a whole, the story coupled with the poem (and some of his other poetry, which you can find here and there) is fascinating if you take the time to look at it. My students, though they didn’t read the New Yorker article, were at least interested enough in the idea that someone could completely disappear (as was I–then again, I’ve always been fascinated with stories like that of D.B. Cooper).

I write this occasional series of posts to show how poetry is still relevant in English class during a time when all of the Very Important Educators are saying that it really isn’t–after all, how could poetry ever tie into STEM and 21st Century skills? This is the perfect example of why it’s relevant. “The Coming of the Plague” ties directly into what we’re entertained by; its images are Biblical in a sense; and the story of its author clues us into how a piece that is about the world as a whole can also be speaking about the damage of oneself. If that’s not 21st Century thinking, I don’t know what is.


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