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X. J. Kennedy Analysis

(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...

(The entire section is 3,972 words.)