During a memorable exchange of opinions in the Saturday Review, John Ciardi insisted to X. J. Kennedy that poets writing in traditional forms strive to create artifacts for posterity and must therefore believe that there will be some posterity. In contrast, those writing casual, formless free verse “reject the idea of the artifact” as the result of a belief “that there is no world to follow, or none worth addressing.” Kennedy disagreed. Not only did he contend that a poet such as Gary Snyder, who writes in open forms, manifestly believes in an Asian concept of human continuity, but he also argued that the effort to create a permanent artifact in traditional poetic form does not necessarily imply a belief in any posterity to enjoy that artifact. Instead, he insisted that, “Even if it all goes blooey tomorrow, the act of trying to write a poem as well as possible is a good way of living until then.”
The exchange illuminates the ethical as well as the artistic views of Kennedy. Recognizing the unsettling changes in art and life and looking ruefully upon the weakening social and literary conventions, Kennedy continually seeks to resolve the tension between the traditional and the trendy, reactionary and radical. Through the course of his three major books of poetry, his worldview shifts from a militant traditionalism (implying belief in God, in ever-renewing life, and in conventional verse forms) into a tolerant uncertainty. His later poems display a lack of faith in traditional values, combined with a lack of trust in the new. Thus, he seems to stand on shifting ground, offering brilliant satirical insights into the modern world, but little advice about how best to live in that world. Indeed, he no longer seems as certain as he once was that traditional values offer “a good way of living until then.”
Nude Descending a Staircase
A number of poems in Kennedy’s first book, Nude Descending a Staircase, express his belief that time is out of joint. In its very title, for example, “B Negative” suggests the dehumanizing effect of modern urban life. The poem’s protagonist is given no name. Instead, he is identified only by his blood type and by an abbreviated description of his characteristics: “M/ 60/ 5 FT. 4/ W PROT.” His monologue depicts the sterile environment of the city, where he discovers that it is spring by the increased litter of coughdrop boxes and “underthings cast off,” rather than by daisies in the grass. Spring makes little mark on the city, “No bud from branches of concrete.” The city is an unnatural, artificial place where pigeons too fat to stand peck shoelaces and eat sacks of corn as if they “grew on a stalk.” It is a place so costly that people sleep on subways “tucked in funny sheets” taken from the daily newspaper. It is so dense that the sun cannot penetrate to the street level, and so frigid that spring has no “abiding heat.” Here a man’s virility can wither to impotence after years pronging litter, or shabbily sustained through steamy musings over the gaudy pages of a movie magazine. In the city, the seasons have scant significance, and human life, stripped of its own seasonal qualities, becomes scanty too. The city blocks and cubic rooms create human integers that “wake one day to find [themselves] abstract.” In cementing over human roots and rhythms, modern urban life generates abnormal beings who become either suicidal or sadistic.
The poem’s diction and imagery are especially effective in suggesting the violence inherent in city surroundings. The daisies, for example, are described as “white eyeballs in the grass.” The pick with which the speaker prongs litter is called a “stabpole.” The subway riders are observed by “guards.” The radio is turned off with a “squawk as if your hand/ Had shut some human windpipe with a twist.” In this menacing environment, the “routed spirit flees” or looks around “for a foothold—in despair.” What comfort life is capable of offering lingers only as a memory of the past. In lines futilely addressed to a lost lover, the speaker laments that he can no longer remember “the twist that brought me to your street,” nor can he summon up her face or recall her “outline on the sheet.” At least for this speaker, the warmth of the past is irretrievable and the future offers only an increasingly frigid isolation.
Elsewhere in this first book of verse, however, Kennedy is confident that survival and sanity can be maintained in the changing modern world. Procreation can assure survival and continuity between past and future, while religion can provide the same sort of guidelines for a sane life that the rules of rhyme and meter provide for a sane poetry. Thus, after surveying various signs of foreboding (slips in the hangman’s knot and the price of stocks, movement of mountains, proliferating madness), the poem “All-Knowing Rabbit” concludes with consolation. The rabbit, who eats voraciously to feed the offspring growing in her womb, smugly ponders “All secrets of tomorrow, of the Nile . . . And munches on, with giaconda smile.” The rabbit, the Nile, and the giaconda smile are symbols of fecundity. At this stage in his career, it does not occur to Kennedy that exceptional fertility is itself one of the dangers of the mad world he inhabits. Furthermore, in this book, Kennedy perceives only dimly the chinks in the armor of conventional religious faith. His poem “In Faith of Rising” sounds more like Gerard Manley Hopkins or George Herbert than the work of a man reared in an era when one catchphrase was “God is dead.” Kennedy’s poem is a pious statement of trust that, after death, God will “cast down again/ Or recollect my dust.”
The confident reverence of “In Faith of Rising” is, however, atypical even in Kennedy’s early poetry. “First Confession” is much more representative of his general approach, in both content and style. The first confession inspires awe in the child who perceives the priest as a “robed repositor of truth,” burns in his guilt while awaiting penance, and later kneels to take communion in “seraphic light.” From the more experienced retrospective of the adult, however, the events take on comic overtones. He sees ludicrous elements coexisting with sanctity. The child “scuffed,/ Steps stubborn” to the confessional. His list of sins included the “sip snitched” from his father’s beer and a bribe paid his girlfriend to pull down her pants. He zealously said his penance twice to “double-scrub” his soul.
Kennedy emphasizes the disjunction between the holy and the humorous by deliberate incongruity in his choice of words. Formal language exuding a dusty odor of sanctity mingles with the stale stench of street speech. The “curtained portal,” the “robed repositor of truth,” and the dignified priest’s “cratered dome” are somewhat sullied by contact with a diminutive sinner who snitches from his “old man’s beer” and who bribes his girl “to pee.” The priest himself becomes the object of mirth when he doles out penance “as one feeds birds.” Even the sacrament of communion is trivialized at the end when the child sticks out his tongue at the priest: “A fresh roost for the Holy Ghost.”
The mood that unfolds through “First Confession” is less skeptical than satirical. Modern humans—both priest and penitent—seem out of place within the ancient traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, just as the poem’s use of contemporary slang seems to desecrate its setting. This sense of disjunction, of times out of joint, is characteristic of Kennedy’s subsequent poetry.
Growing into Love
By the time Growing into Love appeared in 1969, Kennedy’s faith in the traditions of Roman Catholicism had weakened to the point where he could write in “West Somerville, Mass.” that “My faith copped out. Who was it pulled that heist?” Here again one sees the bizarre verbal incongruity that had characterized “First Confession,” but Kennedy has moved from satire of tottering traditions to outright skepticism and agnosticism. Nevertheless, he clearly feels a loss in abandoning his faith. A number of poems in the volume show his longing for the solidity of the past and his loathing of the impermanence of the present.
In “Cross Ties,” for example, the speaker, walking along a railroad track “where nothing travels now but rust and grass,” says, “I could take stock in something. . . . Bearing down Hell-bent from behind my back.” Figuratively, the speaker’s situation is also Kennedy’s. Uncomfortable in the present, Kennedy walks a track deserted by others. His poems rhyme and scan and he is predisposed toward tradition. In one sense, then, the speaker, like Kennedy, longs for a return to the past when trains served functions now taken over by semitrucks, superhighways, and motels. Both Kennedy and the speaker also long to believe in their lost religious faith with its freight of forces for good and evil. The speaker hears this phantom train’s whistle in the “curfew’s wail,” sees its headlights in the full moon, and hears the screech of “steel wrenched taut till severed” (the train’s brakes?) in the hawk’s cry. He explains the fact that no Hell-bent force strikes him down by hypothesizing that he is “Out of reach/ Or else beneath desiring,” and he concludes by observing that when he spills the salt, he throws some to the devil and he still allows the priest to bless his child.
The superficial appearance of faith in God and Satan is undercut, however, by closer analysis. The speaker begins by saying that he “could...
(The entire section is 3972 words.)
Kennedy, X. J. (Pseudonym of Joseph Charles Kennedy)
Kennedy, X. J. (Pseudonym of Joseph Charles Kennedy) 1929–
Kennedy is an American poet, critic, and editor. He is a minor talent who has written very little poetry since his first volume of poems won the Lamont Award in 1961. Generally regarded as a traditionalist, Kennedy's cleverness and wit tend to limit the emotional range and depth of his poems.
[Kennedy is essentially a serious poet] with a strong sense of humor and the wit to display it gracefully. Kennedy's prodigious technical gifts often lead him into light verse, which he is able to raise above the usual level; in this respect he is in the tradition of Auden and William Jay Smith….
[He tries] to free subjective images from hermeticism, and [in Growing into Love] is successful in his own way. The world [he] creates and inhabits arises out of a confrontation with today's world, not out of withdrawal from it. (p. 122)
Like Auden and Smith, Kennedy can tune the music of his forms precisely to the various attitudes of his speakers, and so can avoid, in his serious poems, the cloying cuteness which often invades the dead-pan poems of such light-verse virtuosos as Phyllis McGinley and John Updike. Even within the same poem, Kennedy can make successful shifts of tone by increasing or decreasing his dependence on light-verse techniques. In a long poem called "Reading Trip," he recounts an experience which many poets have had, but which few have seen so clearly. The poem is wildly playful in spots, as when the poet encounters, during the question-and-answer session, a young man who asks, "Don't you find riming everything a drag?"
A drag, man? Worse than that! Between the eyes,
I take the blade of his outrageous stare.
Whoever crosses him, the varlet dies,
Trapped Guest to his unancient Mariner:
"Get with it, baby, what you want to be
So artsy-craftsy for? Screw prosody …"
The trip is recounted in familiar detail, which is partly the source of the humor—Kennedy's typed characters and situations are funny because we know them. But the familiarity also imparts a wistful quality to the poem. A poet's intensity may be heightened by the experience of being a "trapped Guest," but even the intensity becomes routine after a while…. Kennedy captures the wistfulness and the cyclical nature of the process….
This poem is not as slight as it may at first seem; the playfulness is part of a serious vision.
Most of the poems in this collection exhibit a remarkable control, though few of them pull together so wide a range of tones. Of those which are more obviously serious, the best are in "Countrymen," the middle section of the book. Here Kennedy has assembled several character sketches and dramatic monologues; these poems best demonstrate his imagination, compassion and involvement with contemporary life.
Through all the forms and voices of his monologues, there comes Kennedy's own quite distinctive voice, which is characterized by a high degree of tension and an astonishing ability to absorb and revivify the flat rhythms and colloquialisms of contemporary American speech. (p. 123)
Henry Taylor, in The Nation (copyright 1970 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), February 2, 1970.
There is a tendency in some of Kennedy's weaker poems to write mere society verse—superficial, imperceptive pieces like the account of his "Reading Trip" or his cliché of the "Scholar's Wife." This is not, I think, a vein that Kennedy really ought to pursue. His best work lies in his sympathetic apprehension of the actuality of the world that lies around us. (p. 260)
Louis L. Martz, in The Yale Review (© 1970 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1970.
[Kennedy is] not passionate enough about poetic pleasure, not committed enough. The world is still before [him]. Consequently, even though Kennedy is an obvious admirer of some masters of poetic style and consciously seeks after their secrets of power, his worldliness too often distracts him from his proper art…. His view of the poet's role is too ethically oriented, as his ironic manifesto Poets [in Growing into Love] makes clear…. The wry gestures of self-depreciation cannot conceal the ritual sentimentality of this poem. Yeats brings off this sort of poetry because the romantic elements, in his work, will bear the weight of his attacks. (pp. 197-99)
Kennedy aims for wit and discipline in his verse, and the success of the final stanza of Poets only highlights the weakness of the lines it should be counterpointing. In general, Growing into Love scatters its achievements, though not by design. (p. 199)
Jerome McGann, in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), December, 1970.
Kennedy, in any first reading, seems clearly of the order of Classical ironists: worldly, satirical, wry, astringent…. Kennedy's little witticisms … place Growing into Love, like his earlier book, in the light verse tradition of what A.J.M. Smith has called "the worldly muse."
Some of Kennedy's work, though, is so passionate in its sense of life and art that, despite his surface amusement at romantic mystification and its magical symbols, he exposes himself as vulnerable and sympathtic to their magnetism after all. (p. 90)
M. L. Rosenthal, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Fall, 1972.
With impish glee [Kennedy] borrows Emily Dickinson's epigrammatic style to debunk current follies. Insistent little pecks—measured in short phrases separated by dashes—chip away at the bronzed and brazen images of our modern Lotus Land, home of the beach-combers, Hollywood heroes, razor-blade barons, and hapless prisoners queued for miles on what are euphemistically termed "freeways". (p. 347)
For those who view our current overpopulation of fools and ask, Where are Dryden and Pope, now that we need them? Kennedy provides a partial answer. Though his concise couplets usually lack Augustan polish, they precisely hit the mark. Unlike his devastating mentors' Kennedy's attitude … is, however, more amused than outraged. (p. 348)
Joseph Parisi, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), September, 1974.
In Celebration After the Death of John Brennan, X. J. Kennedy has written an extended elegy for a former student. It is painful, and properly so, full of rigorous metrical struggle with itself. Its conscientiousness is also a topic of the elegy, and part of what is celebrated in the dead young poet. Poetry is cura, solicitude, concern. The interpolated quotes from the student's own poetry enhance this book and give it a formally interesting dramatic structure. The poet seems to be carrying on a last painful dialogue with the dead…. Here, quotation is no mere device and Kennedy frames the poet's words and with them contrives a discontinuous unity.
My problems with the book are practical ones. Sometimes the poet seems to overwrite…. Slang does not always convince when it arrives out of some Dictionary of New English…. Sometimes, too, an archaic diction is equally obtrusive: "Dissolved, those fugitive songs". A clotted melodrama intrudes: "Trussing me to/In dried umbilical cords". Apostrophes to the dead are less convincing than the felt quotations: "Swept from your Rockies, John, did you find home?"
Still, the poet is capable of a sudden concreteness: "Some egocentric homemade Buddhist Mass? Word stops me as I'm climbing Medford Hill./Trivial Rocky patched with ice-fringed grass." A fine enjambment reminds one of the disorderly vitality of didactic decorums: "That was one hell of an opening/Pedagogue-student conference!" Eliot was correct that the experience ripening us most is at once both sensuous and intellectual, and Kennedy sometimes yields us an image simultaneously cognitive and concrete: "Fragments of mirror ranged along a strand/For the arisen sun to time-expose." With its modest diction, its formal poise, Kennedy's praise most moves us as a complex pastoral…. (pp. 226-27)
David Shapiro, in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), July, 1976.