X.J. Kennedy can be said almost to be a popular literary figure. (A New Jersey native, Joseph Charles Ken-nedy, born in 1929, adopted his pen name upon settling in Massachusetts.) This is not at all to say that he belongs to popular, or mass, culture. But his accomplishments in verse have been widely recognized, and deservedly so; and he has helped to make poetry more popular.
The Lords of Misrule, Kennedy’s seventh full-length collection, gathers together a decade’s worth of poems, concluding with “September Twelfth, 2001,” to which are added a few predating 1991. Many of the poems appeared in a variety of journals and magazines, including Chronicles. The title refers to the personage, called king, or lord, or abbot of misrule, appointed at the English court in the late 15th century and early 16th to supervise the Christmas revels; similar figures presided in some university colleges and inns of court. A prefatory poem, “Invocation,” calls down the services of “sweet Meter” and “strict-lipped Stanza” to regulate the revels of the poet’s lines, just as the lords of misrule confined “jubilation / To tolerable order.” Kennedy places his collection, thus, under the signs of regularity, control, and formal values—features that characterize his work generally. Control, however, can itself get out of order, charmingly so on occasion. “For Allen Ginsberg,” a short homage to the deceased poet, paints him as “misrule’s lord”—in this case, more a reveler than a disciplinarian—but acknowledges (with a reference to Blake, another weird visionary) his “glee and sweetness, freaky light / Ginsberg, Ginsberg, burning bright.”
Kennedy’s verse ranges from strict meter and rhyme in symmetrical stanzas, some-times in fixed forms (sonnet, villanelle, brief epitaph), to looser verse displaying slant or other irregular rhymes, irregularly distributed, and with considerable variation in line, stanza, and meter (that is, where “misrule” is not entirely reined in by “rule”). Technical virtuosity is everywhere in the collection; happily, it often seems more a handmaiden to, or facilitator of, other qualities than a purpose in itself. Occasionally, it might seem that the poet’s ear has failed him, when an otherwise-regular iambic beat is interrupted, say, by trochees or anapests; this tactic however, is, probably deliberate, demonstrating that order need not mean utter enslavement to a formula. In fact, such liberties belong properly to a body of work whose substance is contemporary.
Modern, that is, but not modernist in the least. Kennedy is not driven by Pound’s aphorism “Make it new.” Yet his realm is the world of today, mostly America, occasionally elsewhere. Exceptions—a translation of Villon’s Ballade des pendus, poems on Francisco Franco and a 1930’s five-and-dime, on Henry James and Constance Fenimore Woolson, on Longfellow, even Ponce de León—just call attention to the dominant contemporaneity in topics and settings and the pervasive presence of today’s world, almost too recognizable, which that final poem, on the events of September 2001, brings chillingly close. Mentions of pizza parlors and soluble tattoos, the evening news and aspirin, proclaim that poetry is fed by and directed to the everyday. Airport bars and waiting areas—where, it seems, the poet has spent no little time—a gathering of bikers, a pile-up on the highway, a scene in police court, a close call in traffic when a woman opens her car door imprudently: All such recognizable pretexts for poems mark Kennedy as an up-to-date author, dealing with what his readers like-wise see, but see less well than he until his lens brings it into focus. Perennial themes—death, desire, beauty, aging—arise with ease from these points of departure. “A Snapshot Rediscovered,” for instance, redoes the familiar topos of yesteryear’s snows, or ubi sunt:
. . . The magic box
Whose simple click froze summer’s passing dream
Has fastened you in childhood, long before
You opened like a new-built house a life,
That of a threadbare country doctor’s wife.
How few the years till cancer closed your door.
But here you are with your invented toy
This empty cup suspended in midair,
Arms lifted, sunlight drifting through your hair,
Your upturned face still wreathed in utter joy.
Similarly, throughout Kennedy’s poems, the diction is generally of easy access, revealing the author as a “regular guy” in speech as well as concerns. There are even a few vulgarities (e.g., “horny man”). If this preference for common language seems to be in tension with the formal symmetry of many poems, perhaps that is a false reading: There is no inherent reason why rhyme and meter cannot fit today’s topics, as yesterday’s. Nor is it a matter of sanitizing the deplorable aspects of the times by use of traditional forms; pointed, concise, well-crafted verse makes any critical stance stronger.
Though Kennedy admires in verse what he calls “energy,” he does not restrict it to the dynamics of form; it arises also from his subjects and treatments of them. His modes and tones are various and contrasting, including the satirical vein visible everywhere but illustrated especially in Cross Ties (1985) and the lyrical vein dominant in Dark Horses: New Poems (1992). In his witty mode, he can be light and amusing, or tender and touching, or acerbic and cutting; he can deftly evoke a scene or a human figure through quick, telling touches; he offers elsewhere thoughtful, though rarely extended, reflections. These modes can be combined felicitously also, the light and the serious elbow-to-elbow. He imitates with great ease the tone of the times, as in “A Scandal in the Suburbs,” a disturbing short satire involving a Christ figure:
We had to have him put away,
For what if he’d grown vicious?
To play faith healer, give away
Stale bread and stinking fishes! . . .
Why, bums were coming to the door—
His pockets had no bottom—
And then—the foot wash from that whore!
We signed. They came and got him.
As easily as it expresses delight elsewhere, Kennedy’s rhymed verse may convey pathos, as in “Death of a First Child”:
Christmas. The laden sack
Draws noose-tight now its string,
The cherished gift sent back
Though heralds sing,
Though tinkling carols drift
And dull-tongued church bells toll,
An anti-gift is left
Like stocking coal.
Kennedy does not neglect the natural world, either: He has soft-voiced meditations on deer (and ticks carrying disease), maples in winter, the seasons of New England. In another vein, illustrated by “Mustafa Ferrari,” he can relate a humorous anecdote with economy, borrow the voice of its chief character (an Egyptian boy driving a horse-drawn tourist carriage), and end the scene with a flourish: “Farewell, Mustafa Ferrari. You have style.” In contrast, there is the critical seriousness of the splendid long ballad (32 rhymed quatrains and a final sixain) on Fenimore Woolson and James. The poem depicts the friendship (documented) between the two but expands it imaginatively:
Women writers, she knew, in retired shade grew
While the sun shone on male scribes’ names;
Still, a glimmer of admiration grew
Between her and Henry James.
They stroll down the Strand and visit Stonehenge, correspond when Woolson leaves England, meet in Florence, until Woolson, in Venice, takes her own life, from a despair perhaps not unconnected to his absence, geographically and sentimentally:
Some passerby kicked at a bundle
Of white rags that uttered moans—
It was Fenimore leaking her life away
On the cold-nosed cobblestones.
If, according to some critics, Kennedy’s verse had too often, in earlier collections, the defects of its virtues, leading some commentators to conclude that he was only an “extremely witty lightweight,” this poem, along with certain others in The Lords of Misrule, demonstrates convincingly his poetic breadth and vigor, and the depth of feeling that his verse can convey. The collection confirms his position as a preeminent voice in American poetry today.
[The Lords of Misrule: Poems, 1992-2001, by X.J. Kennedy (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press) 93 pp., $14.95]