(Poets and Poetry in America)

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.)