Joseph Charles Kennedy Biography


(Poets and Poetry in America)

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.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

X. J. Kennedy is a pseudonym for Joseph Charles Kennedy, one of the most proficient writers of rhymed and metered poetry for children as well as adults. He was educated at Seton Hall College in New Jersey, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Columbia University awarded him an M.A. degree in 1951. He subsequently served in the military and studied at the Sorbonne. He was appointed teaching fellow at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor from 1956 until 1962, where he was associated with other well-known writers, including Donald Hall and W. D. Snodgrass.

During these years, his first book of poetry, Nude Descending a Staircase, appeared. Titled after artist Marcel Duchamp’s painting of the same name, the collection won the Academy of American Poets’ Lamont Award and received enthusiastic reviews. It set the tone for Kennedy’s long publishing career; the poems in Nude Descending a Staircase are witty and satiric, and they use traditional verse forms. The use of end rhyme and regular meter has become Kennedy’s hallmark, leading some critics to assume that he writes primarily light verse. Yet some poems in the collection, such as “The Man in the Manmade Moon,” deal with fragmentation and the disintegration of human values.

Kennedy has had a long academic career and is known to many readers as a compiler of anthologies and textbooks. He taught at the University of North Carolina in 1962, the same year he married Dorothy Mintzlaff, with whom he had five children. In 1963, he joined the faculty of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, as assistant professor, and he later was appointed professor of English. His second collection of adult poetry, Growing into Love, was published eight years after the first, and the poems rely on the same devices as well as being similar in theme. Wit and humor are used to portray the degeneration of society in the academic as well as the public world. Although many of these poems achieve a certain depth, the collection is marked by a self-conscious, distracting cleverness.


(The entire section is 852 words.)