X.J. Kennedy is admired for his great skill in treating contemporary topics in traditional forms and especially for his cultivation of light verse. The high quality, abundance, and breadth of his writing—poetry, children’s work, fiction, textbooks—and his long presence on the literary scene make him one of the most important American poets today, as is suggested by reviewers’ praise in eminent periodicals, including the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Times Book Review. That he is, nevertheless, often disregarded is doubtless because of the widespread assumption that light verse cannot be truly important. It is also an unflattering reflection on those critics and reviewers, the greater number, who disdain form and other aspects of poetic tradition and still, nearly a century later, cry, with Ezra Pound, “Make it new.” Indeed, Kennedy does “make it new,” with his own characteristic tone and diction and his choice of topics, but in a nonradicalized mode. The present book gathers work, including some not reprinted for a long while, from six previous collections (especially later ones) and several slimmer volumes; it also contains more than two-dozen new poems collected for the first time.
Throughout, Kennedy’s writing illustrates what almost every literate person knows, even though many write as if they thought otherwise: that style, whether in prose or poetry, carries meaning and is thus an aspect of content. Such features as diction selected for its linguistic power, subtlety, or other interest; well-crafted sentences, balanced, precise, perhaps concise, and eschewing obscurity; and a pleasing, flowing movement, even if there are interruptions, all constitute the opposable thumb of style, which increases the power of the hand—that is, ordinary language. This is true even—perhaps especially—in extended prose works such as those by James, Proust, and Joyce, since even a lengthy, difficult novel consists, after all, of smaller units, where concision and clarity must enter into play. In verse, fixed form (visible or audible), rhythm, rhyme, echoes, and other devices magnify the semantic values of the words. This is obvious to anyone familiar with the English or other literary traditions, but bears repeating in the extended wake of the Imagists and others who have cultivated in literature only the direct, not to say the unfiltered, the raw. More style does not mean less matter, but better matter.
More often than not, Kennedy uses fixed stanza forms, iambic meter (characteristically, tetrameter or pentameter), and rhyme—often very clever or imperfect rhyme, frequently in couplets, as in this quatrain from “Flitting Flies” (eye floaters):
At least, from peering out through cells
I know that blindness to what dwells
Too far beyond or swarms too near
Is my best hope of seeing clear . . .
Elsewhere the poet uses an abcb stanza, or abab or consonance. He is skilled in creating other sorts of sound echoes, including interior rhyme. Free verse is not absent entirely, though, and with his good ear, using line breaks, beat, and sound echoes, he shapes it into a poem, not a piece of cut-up prose.
Cultivating wit in Pope’s sense (“True wit is Nature to advantage dress’d, / What oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d”), Kennedy also displays wit in the sense of humor; the two are complementary, since humor, like style, sheds light on aspects of things and serves as a touchstone of truth. Donald Hall is quoted on the back cover of this volume as saying, quite rightly, that “many of Kennedy’s poems are wit itself. His wit is a way of understanding.” This wit is characteristic, despite the author’s disclaimer (“On Being Accused of Wit”):
Not so. I’m witless. Often in despair
At long-worked botches I must throw away
A line or two worth keeping all too rare.
Blind chance not wit entices words to stay . . .
One of the wittiest pieces in the collection is “Reading Trip,” concerning a poet’s visit to an unnamed campus to read from his and others’ verse. Many a reader will smile at his expressions of gratitude for lunchtime beer—he hadn’t counted on it—with his corned beef and his greater relief at getting bourbon on ice after facing a hall only one-third filled and dealing with the inevitable weird or inept questioners.
Kennedy applies his intelligence, insight, and sympathetic understanding to a wide range of serious, even grave subjects. Consider these lines on the death of J.V. Cunningham, renowned for his epigrams:
Now Cunningham, who rhymed by fits and starts,
So loath to gush, most sensitive of hearts—
Else why so hard-forged a protective crust?—
Is brought down to the unresponding dust.
Though with a slash a Pomp’s gut he could slit,
On his own work he worked his weaponed wit
And penned with patient skill and lore immense,
Prodigious mind, keen ear, rare common sense
Only those words he could crush down no more
Like matter pressured to a dwarf star’s core.
In this poem—both meditation on death and homage to a fellow poet—Kennedy subtly echoes earlier writers, particularly his 18th-century predecessors. A different, tender treatment of death is found in “Snug,” on the demise of Aunt Edith, who, “preoccupied with faintly useful service,” would “do her best to please. But make us nervous.” One of the new poems in the collection, “Rites,” concerning a Mesolithic burial in Denmark, is an exquisite short piece in the voice of a dead child.
In other cases, his topics are entirely contemporary, as he deals incisively with matters such as cell phones, the exercise of eminent domain by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (“On the Proposed Seizure of Twelve Graves in a Colonial Cemetery”), art instruction for apparently bored housewives (“Pottery Class”), and a church rite for motorcyclists (“The Blessing of the Bikes”). Among weightier modern themes is the death-of-God philosophy, dramatized in “God’s Obsequies,” at which those “who had helped do Him in” are in attendance: Karl Marx with “a wide smirk on his face”; “Friedrich Nietzsche, worm-holed and leechy”; Sigmund Freud, “whose couch had destroyed / the soul”; “Bertrand Russell and a noisy bustle / of founders of home-made churches”; and “Jean-Paul Sartre bawling ‘Down with Montmartre!’”
The presence, sometimes allusive, of other writers in this collection is noteworthy. There are translations or adaptations of poems by Ts’ui Hao, Charles d’Orléans (a version so free it is called a “violation”), Baudelaire, Hofmannsthal, and Apollinaire. One poem alludes, wittily, to Emily Dickinson; another is based on a line and a half discarded by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. “The Ballad of Fenimore Woolson and Henry James,” a long poem by Kennedy’s standards, is one of his finest. Along with many additional kinds of allusion, other poems mention, or are dedicated to, such figures as Milton, Lewis Carroll, Yeats, Allen Ginsberg, Edgar Bowers, and John Brennan, a gifted student of Kennedy who killed himself. This is not just name-dropping in verse, however; their presence attests to the poet’s generous, even cordial approach to the world and appreciation of those predecessors and contemporaries, even Ginsberg, who, like him, have mediated for discerning readers this world, in its comedy and tragedy, its delights and terrors and maddening resistance to human beings.
It is to be expected that, in any collection in which light verse is prominent, there will be a few pieces that border on doggerel. Kennedy is not immune to it; some readers may even enjoy it. The title poem, which, the author notes, can be sung to the tune of “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” is such a poem. It is heavy on beat, with clever rhymes, bits of amusing diction, and an indulgent irony about the New Jersey city where the “prominent bar” is located, but the faded beauty peddling (presumably) her charms in that tavern and then hauled off in a squad car is as trite a poetic figure as a sexual one, and the poem falls flat. It will be remembered for the wrong reasons, whereas a short lyric such as “Little Elegy,” dedicated to “a child who skipped rope,” comes to mind for the right ones—its admirable use of the figure of rope-jumping, its tenderness and concision. The few lapses here can easily be forgiven, however, in light of the whole collection, which displays Kennedy’s many strengths and proves he is a poet for those who know that poetry is not merely an image, a cry of rage, a complaint, or a political protest.
[In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955-2007, by X.J. Kennedy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) 209 pp., $18.95]