The only child of a Roman Catholic father and a Methodist mother, Joseph Charles Kennedy (who later assumed the nom de plume X. J. Kennedy) must have sensed early in childhood the atmosphere of spiritual tension and uncertainty that is the most distinguishing and thought-provoking aspect of his poetry. A probable self-portrait of the youthful Kennedy occurs in “Poets,” a brilliant and ironic sketch of the sensitive, dithering, bespectacled youths who, like stupid swans trapped in ice, can sometimes be freed to soar in dazzling glory. When only twelve, Kennedy published mimeographed science-fiction fan magazines titled Vampire and Terrifying Test-Tube Tales.
He graduated from Seton Hall University (1950) and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University (1951) before enlisting in the U.S. Navy. After his tour of duty, he spent a year studying in Paris, where he received a certificat in 1956. From 1956 to 1962, he pursued doctoral studies at the University of Michigan and came into contact with an elite coterie of young poets from the Detroit-Ann Arbor area. Among his friends of the period were Keith Waldrop, James Camp, Donald Hall, John Frederick Nims, and W. D. Snodgrass. He left Ann Arbor without completing work for his degree, spent one year teaching at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina, and then joined the faculty of Tufts University, where he eventually rose to be a full professor. In 1979, he left Tufts and became a freelance writer, a career he has followed for the rest of his life. In this, he is perhaps remarkable as one of the few modern poets to support himself wholly by his craft.
From 1961 to 1964, Kennedy was the poetry editor of the Paris Review. In 1971, he and his wife founded Counter/Measures, a Magazine of Rime, Meter, and Song, to counter the trend toward poetry in “open forms”—the kind of free verse that Kennedy has satirically described as “Disposable stuff, word-Kleenex.” The last issue of the magazine appeared in 1974, and Kennedy’s later verse has itself occasionally been written in open forms.