X. J. Kennedy Kennedy, X. J. (Pseudonym of Joseph Charles Kennedy) - Essay

Joseph Charles Kennedy

Kennedy, X. J. (Pseudonym of Joseph Charles Kennedy)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.