American poetry has for the past few decades been going through what can only be called an adolescence, discarding rules and conventions simply because they existed. Poetry and all the arts go through a healthy siege of anarchy every so often, but this was more like terrorism than a revolution; these revolutionaries, unlike the Romantics, had no idea of what to substitute for what they’d destroyed. Instead, they simply wrote, spilling their guts down the pages of fashionable and underground journals in two-word-wide, uncapitalized entrails of self-obsession.
As in most revolutions, the revolutionaries eventually became the bourgeoisie, fat and complacent, ripe for plucking. But the new “revolution” really isn’t one. The din of gleeful disruption having died down to an occasional emission from some university English department or another, we are left with what’s been there all the time, indestructible; real poetry. Its diligent architects are so obviously superior to the dull burghers of free verse that it’s now bad taste for an editor to ask for submissions of “experimental” poetry. “Craft” is the buzzword today, even to poets and editors who have no idea what it might mean. X.J, Kennedy and R.S. Gwynn are notable exceptions.
A youngish old pro, X.J. Kennedy is as well-known for his children’s books and college English texts (written with his wife, Dorothy) as for his poems. Kennedy, who lives and writes in Bedford, Massachusetts, is surely the best friend young poets have today (I speak from experience, and I don’t even know him well), as tough-minded about his own muscular poems as he is about others’. His first poetry collection, Nude Descending a Staircase, won him the Lamont Award for Poetry in 1961 when he was a callow youth of 32. Many of Kennedy’s early and bestloved poems are in Cross Ties—”Little Elegy,” “Nude Descending a Staircase,” “Ars Poetica”—surrounded by newer or less-known poems.
It would be dead wrong to describe Kennedy’s poems as supercilious—but he does seem always to have an eyebrow cocked at life. A good Christian man, Kennedy also appreciates the pagan roots of human behavior. He’s marvelous writing about erotic passion (“By the cold glow that lit my lover’s eye / I could read what page eight had said to try” is “Sex Manual” in its entirety), even better writing tenderly about his wife and family. Not a poem in this collection of “every poem that the poet cares to save” contains a superfluous word or syllable. At 166 pages, Cross Ties is organic in arrangement and flawless in nearly every instance. X.J. Kennedy will still be admired by poets and readers when the next New Wave of poetry crackheads comes and goes, and the one after that.
R.S. Gwynn is associate professor of English (but don’t hold that against him) at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. His poems, translations, and critical articles have appeared in such places as Poetry, The Sewanee Review, and Playboy, although this is his first book of poems.
X.J. Kennedy writes, for the cover of Gwynn’s book, “Verse so strictly crafted is rare, yet Gwynn is no mere tinkering formalist: his work has equal parts of passion, energy, and outrageousness. Poem after poem reads like a tightly corked explosion. . . . Here is a mature, slowly perfected voice with its own distinctive power and resonance.” Kennedy is exactly right about Gwynn. I wasn’t previously familiar with his work, and the loss is mine. Gwynn’s poems are dark, often bitter, and exquisitely clever, yet generous in theme. A less mature poet would have been done in by such outrage, but Gwynn is in complete control.
Since no poem in The Drive-In is “representative” of the whole, the wonderfully named “Untitled” may serve as introduction:
In the morning light a line
Stretches forever. There my unlived life
Rises, and I resist. . . .
In which I rise untroubled by my dreams.
In which my unsung theories are upheld
By massive votes, in which my students’ themes
Move me, in which my name is not misspelled;
In which I enter strangers’ rooms to find.
Matched in unbroken sets, immaculate.
My great unwritten books, in which I sign
My name for girls outside a convent gate;
In which I run for daylight and my knee
Does not fold up, in which the home teams win,
In which my unwed wife steeps fragrant tea
In clean white cups, in which my days begin
With scenes in which, across unblemished sands,
Unborn, my children come to touch my hands.
[Cross Ties, by X.J. Kennedy, Athens; GA: The University of Georgia Press]
[The Drive-In, by R.S. Gwynn; Columbia, MO: The University of Missouri Press]
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