Beneath Every Poet, a Criminal Lurks
“Burglar, forger, safe cracker, arch-bigamist, poet, musician and prize fighter.”
In 1943, a decade before the poet Weldon Kees disappeared—his deserted Plymouth Savoy found on the Golden Gate Bridge—he published “Crime Club.” “No butler, no second maid, no blood upon the stair,” the poem begins.
No eccentric aunt, no gardener, no family friend
Smiling among the bric-a-brac and murder.
Only a suburban house with the front door open
And a dog barking at a squirrel, and the cats
Passing. The corpse quite dead. The wife in Florida.
Confusing clues litter the house: a potato masher in a vase, a torn photo of the Wesleyan basketball team, check-stubs, and an “unsent fan letter to Shirley Temple.” The unsolved case drives the investigating detective to madness, as he laments that “clues / Lead nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen.”
The poem’s satire darkens in hindsight. Sadly, we might never know what happened to Kees, but his imagined suburban crime poem is masterful, odd, fascinating. For other poets, criminal fantasy has evolved into real folly. The eccentricities of American poets include petty crimes, minor scandals, and local legends.
In 1903, according to a report in The Los Angeles Times, a mysterious man appeared near a schoolhouse in Ojai, California. The teacher locked the schoolhouse door, but the man attempted to climb through a window. The local sheriff and his posse tried to capture the man, but he disappeared into nearby woods. A few days later, the man showed up at the office of The Ojai, a small local newspaper, “and offered the editor a lot of poetry, mostly on spring.” The editor declined, but the man sent his unsolicited verse to The San Francisco Call. They also passed on his work, causing the man to return “again into the realm of poets, the wildwoods.”
A few years later, Arthur A. Belyea, a Boston poet, was arrested for selling his work door to door. The police told him he had to “get a license from the board of health for selling the ‘poem’ just the same as if he was peddling vegetables or fish.” A minor crime, it seems, in comparison with more audacious actions. In 1951, US Air Force Private James Alphonsus Harvey was a 23-year-old Brooklyn poet with two self-published books, The Interior Darkness and The Sun and the Spectrum. Harvey contacted the mother of Stefan Olsen, a child actor, and attempted to extort 1,000 dollars from her, claiming that he would kidnap her son. The FBI captured Harvey first; he admitted the crime, and claimed he wanted the money for an operation “to improve the shape of his nose.”
In 1958, a Virginia man known as “The Poet” was wanted for questioning following a string of robberies, including a liquor store, a pharmacy, and even The Washington Post’s stereotype foreman. After the newspaper published a story about their accosted employee, “The Poet” sent the offices some “light verse,” which concluded: “The moral of this poem is / If you like to save your bread, / Be more careful or you’ll be dead.”
Less menacing, but perhaps no less dangerous, was John W. Kearney, described in a 1927 news report as a “burglar, forger, safe cracker, arch-bigamist, poet, musician and prize fighter.” Held in a San Francisco jail, admitted ten simultaneous marriages, claiming “Women are easy. I met them at church, parties, dances, any kind of social gathering. Then I would sing to them, talk poetry, love them and they were mine.”
Poets are sometimes wronged themselves. According to a 1927 story from The New York Times, three men stole poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s new roadster from outside a friend’s home at 235 West Eleventh Street in New York City. The men swiped the car so they could drive to a New Dorp Beach bungalow to spend the weekend.
Yet nothing beats the headline “Fighting Bunny Bites Poet” from the February 20, 1914 edition of The New York Times. Peter, a “militant” rabbit belonging to the town’s Congregational minister, gnarled Josiah Dwight Whitney, the unofficial poet laureate of Haworth, New Jersey, who was walking home from the train station. The poet, scarred and sulking, did not retaliate.
Instead of meddling misdemeanors, poets would be wise to follow the advice of Goethe: “I habitually convert whatever worries or otherwise concerns me into a poem and so get rid of it.” Bad verse is crime enough.