New and Selected Poems,
1955 - 2007
X. J. Kennedy
Kennedy has been around a long time, writing verse for over fifty years. Along with content, he worries about meter and rhyme. This would make him a traditionalist in American poetry, but it does not make him stuffy. On the contrary, he is engaging, funny, understated, and --- on occasion --- conveys a brief, brutal snapshot of drugs and skid row murder. There is even a portrait of the sleeping dictator Francisco Franco:
Behind an oak door triple-locked
And those few soldiers he could trust
To stand with firearm hammers cocked
He slept the sweet sleep of the just...
Kennedy is capable of giving us an extended day in the life of the poet ("West Somerville, Mass.") crammed with details that implies anything but calm and perfection, even an epiphany in the bathroom:
Last night in the bathtub, groping for the soap,
I tried a sloppy act of love, felt hope
Batter my heart with vague wings. Pregnant man,
What's eating you?
We suspect that the only poets of politics must be symbolists (Baudelaire or Pound) or willing to die for bitterness and scorn (Celan). Kennedy is too contained to bring off a poem on 9/11 or America's response to terrorism --- even though he tries: "Like kindly lantern lights that sift / Through palm fronds at Guantanamo / On the torture squad's night shift."
No, what he is best at is gentle wit (Emily Dickinson's Answering Machine), or calling up images of growing up in America so many years ago,
When every shoe store's miracle machine
X-rayed cramped bones within ill-fitting shoes,
When like a knight in armor Listerine
Slew dragon Halitosis, clear heads chose
Rhyme, perfect end-stopped lines, melancholy: these are Kennedy's strong suits. But also there is a fine translation of Guillaume Apollinaire's Les Cloches.
X. J. Kennedy's --- the "X," he assures us, means nothing, like the "S" in Harry S. Truman --- "Envoi" calls up a whole slew of memories for those who still care for the traditional forms of traditional poetry, starting with Chaucer:
Go, slothful book. Just go.
Fifty years slopping around the house in your sock-feet
Sucking up to a looking-glass
Rehearsing your face. Why
Don't you get a job?
Even his titles are wheezy and memorable: "The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once."
To us, Kennedy is the best of the best, managing to avoid the aridity of those who proclaim themselves "formalists," yet, at the same time, showing an independence of spirit that can call up powerful emotions in his readers. If through some mischance we are forced again to teach what they laughingly call College English, we would do something novel: we would force our students to memorize great passages of great verse from the centuries, Chaucer, Donne, Marvell, Wordsworth and Keats, Tennyson, perhaps a touch of the Edwardians, Kipling for laughs, not forgetting Williams, Fuller and Stein. And the unapologetically contemporary student of the ancients, X. J. Kennedy.
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In one of the very first editions of "The Review," we cited Kennedy's touching 1960 poem "Little Elegy." It has been, fortunately for all of us, included in Secaucus. It is subtitled "for a child who skipped rope."
Here lies resting, out of breath,
Out of turns, Elizabeth
Whose quicksilver toes not quite
Cleared the whirring edge of night.
Earth whose circles round us skim
Till they catch the lightest limb,
Shelter now Elizabeth
And for her sake trip up death.--- A. W. Allworthy