Although X. J. Kennedy is best known for his poetry, he has also written reviews, several highly successful textbooks, and two novels for children, The Owlstone Crown (1983) and its sequel, The Eagle as Wide as the World (1997). Kennedy established himself as a witty and discriminating judge of contemporary poetry through a series of book reviews published in Poetry magazine from 1961 through 1966. The lively and lucid style developed in these essays played an important part in the success of his various textbooks and anthologies, which include Mark Twain’s Frontier (1963, edited with James Camp), An Introduction to Poetry (1966, 13th ed. 2010, edited with Dana Gioia), Pegasus Descending: A Book of the Best Bad Verse (1971, edited with James Camp and Keith Waldrop), Messages: A Thematic Anthology of Poetry (1973), An Introduction to Fiction (1976, 11th ed. 2010, edited with Gioia), Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama (1976, 11th ed. 2010, edited with Gioia), Tygers of Wrath: Poems of Hate, Anger, and Invective (1981), and The Bedford Reader (1982, 10th ed. 2009, with Dorothy M. Kennedy and Jane E. Aaron). Much of his output in the 1990’s was children’s poetry: Fresh Brats (1990), The Kite That Braved Old Orchard Beach: Year-round Poems for Young People (1991), The Beasts of Bethlehem (1992), Drat These Brats! (1993), Uncle Switch: Looney Limericks (1997), and Elympics (1999).
X. J. Kennedy’s literary reputation rests almost exclusively on five volumes of poetry: Nude Descending a Staircase, Growing into Love, Emily Dickinson in Southern California, Cross Ties, and Dark Horses. Of his other published volumes, Bulsh has been unpopular and difficult to find in libraries; the title poem (reprinted in Breaking and Entering) is an entertaining but unimportant satire skewering a modern pretender to sainthood. Most of the poems in Breaking and Entering are reprinted from Kennedy’s other volumes. Celebrations After the Death of John Brennan is a series of memorial verses inspired by the death of one of Kennedy’s former students; it was published in a very limited edition. Three Tenors, One Vehicle includes only a few song lyrics by Kennedy, most of which are available in his major collections.
The remaining volumes are intended for children. Over the years, Kennedy has always remained interested in the challenge of composition for an audience that demands nothing more than clarity, wit, and fun. Indeed, he once described children’s verse as a form of escape for poets “suffering psychic hangovers from excess doses of Kierkegaard and Freud” and longing to return to “a cosmos where what matters is whether a rabbit can find its red balloon again.” Although Kennedy has written a juvenile novel (The Owlstone Crown) and several...
(The entire section is 544 words.)
Bjork, Robert E. “Kennedy’s ’Nothing in Heaven Functions as It Ought.’” Explicator 40 (Winter, 1982): 6-7. This explication develops the premise that the poem “exploits the concept of norm and deviation . . . to deal with the nature of heaven and hell, questioning our conventional notions about each.” Bjork argues that Kennedy cleverly deviates from the reader’s expectations of a Petrarchan sonnet in order to demonstrate that “Nothing in heaven, or in this sonnet, functions as it ought.”
Collins, Michael. “The Poetry of X. J. Kennedy.” World Literature Today 61, no. 1 (1987): 55-58. This essay provides an overview of Kennedy’s poetic achievement. Its main thesis is that Kennedy writes in a way that characteristically fuses “the serious and playful” and that “Kennedy is a poet of contemporary middle-class America.”
Gwynn, R. S. “Swans in Ice.” Sewanee Review 93 (Fall, 1985). Gives an overview of Kennedy’s subject matter: violence, suicide, and the limitations of humanity.
Kennedy, X. J. “Counter/Measures: X. J. Kennedy on Form, Meter, and Rime.” Interview by John Ciardi. Saturday Review 4 (May 20, 1972): 14-15. Ostensibly, Ciardi, a major poet in his own right, had been interviewing Kennedy about the purpose of Kennedy’s literary magazine,...
(The entire section is 568 words.)