Pseudonym for Joseph Charles Kennedy. Nationality: American. Born: Dover, New Jersey, 21 August 1929. Education: Seton Hall College, South Orange, New Jersey, B.Sc. 1950; Columbia University, New York, M.A. 1951; Sorbonne, Paris, Cert. Litt. 1956. Military Service: U.S. Navy, 1951–55. Family: Married Dorothy Mintzlaff in 1962; one daughter and four sons. Career: Teaching fellow, 1956–60, and instructor, 1960–62, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; lecturer, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, 1962–63; assistant professor, 1963–67, associate professor, 1967–73, and professor of English, 1973–79, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts. Visiting lecturer, Wellesley College, Massachusetts, 1964, and University of California, Irvine, 1966–67; Bruern Fellow in American Literature, University of Leeds, 1974–75. Poetry editor, Paris Review, Paris and New York, 1962–64; editor, with Dorothy M. Kennedy, Counter/Measures magazine, 1972–74. Awards: Hopwood award, 1959; Bread Loaf Writers Conference fellowship, 1960; Lamont Poetry Selection award, 1961; Bess Hokin prize (Poetry, Chicago), 1961; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1967; Shelley memorial award, 1970; Guggenheim fellowship, 1973; New England Poetry Club Golden Rose award, 1974; Los Angeles Times poetry book award, 1985; American Academy Braude award, 1989; Aiken Taylor award, University of the South, 1999. D.H.L.: Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin, 1989. Honorary degrees: Adelphi University, Garden City, New York, 1998. Agent: Curtis Brown, 10 Astor Place, New York, New York 10003. Address: 22 Revere Street, Lexington, Massachusetts 02420, U.S.A.
Nude Descending a Staircase: Poems, Song, A Ballad. New York, Doubleday, 1961.
Growing into Love. New York, Doubleday, 1969.
Bulsh. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck, 1970.
Breaking and Entering. London, Oxford University Press, 1972.
Emily Dickinson in Southern California. Boston, Godine, 1974.
Celebrations after the Death of John Brennan. Lincoln, Massachusetts, Penmaen Press, 1974.
Three Tenors, One Vehicle: A Book of Songs, with James E. Camp and Keith Waldrop. Columbia, Missouri, Open Places, 1975.
French Leave: Translations. Florence, Kentucky, Barth, 1983.
Missing Link. Bedford, Massachusetts, Scheidt Head, 1983.
Hangover Mass. Cleveland, Ohio, Bits Press, 1984.
Cross Ties: Selected Poems. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Winter Thunder. Florence, Kentucky, Barth, 1990.
Dark Horses: New Poems. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Jimmy Harlow. Anchorage, Alaska, Salmon Run Press, 1994.
Verse (for children)
One Winter Night in August and Other Nonsense Jingles. New York, Atheneum, 1975.
The Phantom Ice Cream Man: More Nonsense Jingles. New York, Atheneum, 1979.
Did Adam Name the Vinegarroon?. Boston, Godine, 1982.
The Forgetful Wishing-Well. New York, Atheneum, 1985.
Brats. New York, Atheneum, 1986.
Ghastlies, Goops, and Pincushions: Nonsense Verse. New York, McElderry, 1989.
Fresh Brats. New York, McElderry, 1990.
The Kite that Braved Old Orchard Beach. New York, McElderry, 1990.
The Beasts of Bethlehem. New York, McElderry, 1992.
Drat These Brats! New York, McElderry, 1993.
Uncle Switch. New York, McElderry, 1997.
Elympics. New York, Philomel, 1999.
An Introduction to Poetry (textbook). Boston, Little Brown, 1966; revised edition, 1971, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986; revised edition, Glenview, Illinois, Scott Foresman/Little Brown, 1991; revised edition, with Dana Gioia, New York, Harper Collins, 1994, New York, Longman, 1997.
An Introduction to Fiction. Boston, Little Brown, 1976; revised edition, 1979, 1983, 1987; revised edition, New York, Harper Collins, 1991, and with Dana Gioia, 1995, New York, Longman, 1997.
Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Boston, Little Brown, 1976; revised edition, 1979, 1983, 1987; revised edition, New York, Harper Collins, 1991, and with Dana Gioia, 1995, New York, Longman, 1998.
Knock at a Star: A Child's Introduction to Poetry, with Dorothy M. Kennedy. Boston, Little Brown, 1982; revised edition, 1999.
The Owlstone Crown (for children). New York, McElderry, 1983.
The Bedford Guide for College Writers (textbook), with Dorothy M. Kennedy. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1987; revised edition, 1990; revised edition, with Dorothy M. Kennedy and Sylvia A. Holladay, 1993, 1996, 1999.
Editor, with James E. Camp, Mark Twain's Frontier. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1963.
Editor, with Keith Waldrop and James E. Camp, Pegasus Descending: A Book of the Best Bad Verse. New York, Macmillan, and London, Collier Macmillan, 1971.
Editor, Messages: A Thematic Anthology of Poetry. Boston, Little Brown, 1973.
Editor, Tygers of Wrath: Poems of Hate, Anger, and Invective. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1981.
Editor, with Dorothy M. Kennedy, The Bedford Reader. Boston, Bedford Books, 1982; revised edition, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1985, 1988; revised edition, with Dorothy M. Kennedy and Jane E. Aaron, 1991, 1994, 1997, 2000.
Editor, with Dorothy M. Kennedy, Talking Like the Rain: A Read-tome Book of Poems. Boston, Little, Brown, 1992.
Editor, The Eagle As Wide As the World (for children). New York, McElderry, 1997.
Translator, Lysistrata by Aristophanes. Philadelphia, Penn Greek Drama Series, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.*
Critical Studies: "Squibs" by Bernard Waldrop, in Burning Deck 2 (Providence, Rhode Island), spring 1963; "Recent Poetry: The End of an Era" by Louis L. Martz, in Yale Review (New Haven, Connecticut), winter 1970; Stephen Tudor, in Spirit (South Orange, New Jersey), spring 1970; Henry Taylor, in Masterplots Annual, New York, Salem Press, 1970; in Times Literary Supplement (London), 24 December 1971; M.L. Rosenthal, in Shenandoah (Lexington, Virginia), fall 1972; David Shapiro, in Poetry (Chicago), July 1976; Jeffrey D. Hoeper, in Critical Survey of Poetry edited by Frank N. Magill, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Salem Press, 1983; Fallen from the Symboled World by Wyatt Prundy, New York, Oxford University Press, 1990; "The Decline of Satire and the Specialist Society: Some Thoughts on the Poetry of X.J. Kennedy" by Richard Moore, in Light (Chicago), autumn 1992; by Emily Grosholz, in The Hudson Review (New York), autumn 1993; by Robert B. Shaw, in Poetry (Chicago), October 1993; by William Matthews, in Shenandoah (Lexington, Kentucky), winter 1993; "Rich in Discipline" by Ghita Orth, in New England Review (Middlebury, Vermont), spring 1994; X.J. Kennedy issue of Paintbrush (Kirksville, Missouri), autumn 1998.
X.J. Kennedy comments:
[I belong to] the Wolgamot school, a group of young poets including Donald Hall, W.D. Snodgrass, and Keith Waldrop, centering around the literary historian John Barton Wolgamot and begun at the University of Michigan in the 1950s.
Nearly always write in rhyme and meter. Favor narratives, lyrics to be sung.
(1995) Over the years I have labored under two curses, both of them labels pinned on me by early reviewers. The first is that I am a trivial light versifier. True enough, I am that sometimes but would hold that there is also such a thing as light poetry. Moreover, it seems to me that poetry can be, as W.H. Auden put it, a clear expression of mixed feelings, and so in some of my writing I have tried to blend laughter with compassion or grief.
The second curse is the label of bookish or scholarly poet, one who writes for full professors only. That label puzzles me, for I would be hard pressed to find in my work more than a handful of things that might call for footnotes. On the contrary, I have always addressed a popular audience, regardless of the fact that the popular audience has usually turned a deaf ear or gone to the dog races instead.
Since 1975 I have had the immense joy and good fortune to have written ten books of verse for children, nine of them for Margaret McElderry, a sympathetic editor-publisher. Writing verse for children calls for just as much work as writing verse for adults. The nice thing about children is that they do not give a hoot about literary fashion. You can write for them in rhymed and rhythmic stanzas if you like, and they will not mind a bit.* * *
Although he occasionally writes in free verse, X.J. Kennedy has been an insistent rhymer from the beginning, and for several years he coedited a journal that catered to poets similarly inclined. In midcareer he issued this "warning to possible consumers": "Kennedy tends to write in strict riming stanza patterns, which old-fangled structures most poets have junked these days … What I like is song and balladry; the freedom of not having to express myself, not being obliged to write what the top of my head thinks ought to be written."
Although his work is generally well known and frequently anthologized, Kennedy is seldom regarded as one of the more influential poets of his time. My wager is, nonetheless, that several of his poems, including "In a Prominent Bar on Secaucus One Day" and "Nude Descending a Staircase," will be read and, more importantly, recited from memory long after the "influential" names have disappeared in the dust.
Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh
A gold of lemon, root and rind,
She sifts in sunlight down the stairs
With nothing on, nor on her mind
The combination of wit, precise language, and song, unexcelled by almost any American poet past or present, stays in one's memory in a way that more studiously "profound," but ultimately more ephemeral, verses seldom do.
Originally from a Roman Catholic background, Kennedy has written several poems that convey the elemental character of his place and time (before Vatican II, that is), such as "Hangover Mass" and "First Confession," which begins,
Blood thudded in my ears. I scuffed,
Steps stubborn, to the telltale booth
Beyond whose curtained portal coughed
The robed repositor of truth.
Kennedy's early poems, including the one just mentioned, resemble the best work of Karl Shapiro—"Drug Store," "Auto Wreck," or "University"—and of others who give back the exact dimension and character of particular moments in history. In such renderings of a world gone by all unnecessary commentary is stripped away. "Pottery Class," one of Kennedy's incisive portraits of middle-class suburban life circa 1960, begins, for example,
On Wednesday nights, the children rinsed and stacked,
The wives, their husbands closeted with Time,
From Lexington and Concord motor in
To travail in this elemental slime.
Like any good comic artist, Kennedy writes about serious matters—death, violence, suicide, our decline and fall—and always with a knowledge of earlier writers in that sometimes irreverent, sometimes bawdy tradition. Occasionally he parodies an earlier versifier—Robert Herrick, Lewis Carroll, or Robert Frost—or appropriates a Greek myth to his own purposes, as in "Narcissus Suitor":
He touched her face and gooseflesh crept—
He loved her as it were
Not for her look though it lay deep
But what he saw in her.
Another time, as in "Creation Morning," where he appropriates a theme from Genesis and Milton, Kennedy makes a philosophical or theological point in an offhand way about elemental concerns:
Needing nothing, not lonely nor bored,
Why should He have let there be light!
We can only guess.
In every case Kennedy's art is exacting; he takes language and form seriously, so that even when a poem falters, it does so because too much, rather than too little, effort shows through.
A traditionalist, Kennedy is a clever imitator of many forms, as in "Great Chain of Being" and "Talking Dust Bowl." A similar intelligence and skill are evident in the appropriately adolescent, raucous, or jaded poems about sex, including "The Flagellant's Song," "Onan's Soliloquy," and "The Aged Wino's Counsel to a Young Man on the Brink of Marriage." In "The Self-Exposed," a wicked parody of the confessional poet's lament, the speaker understands his impulse to "bare all" as an effort at communication, a search for community:
What gets into me?
I'm not one to be peter-proud,
But my bird-out-of-hand longs to take its stand
On the farther side from what's allowed …
Oh, I've been to psychiatrist and priest,
I've read an uplifting book
But it's cold, and I hunger to walk forth dressed
In the quilt of the world's warm look.
Kennedy's carefully arranged Cross Ties: Selected Poems organizes itself around the longer poems of the period 1956–84 and his songs, light verse, epigrams, and children's verses, including the characteristically irreverent "Mother's Nerves":
My mother said, "If just once more
I hear you slam that old screen door
I'll tear out my hair! I'll dive in the stove!"
I gave it a bang, and in she dove.
In his selection the author unfortunately omits some serious lyrics from the 1960s, but he includes previously uncollected works. He concludes appropriately with "Envio," saying, "Go, slothful book. Just go."