X. J. Kennedy was born in New Jersey on August 21, 1929, shortly before the crash of the stock market. Irked by the hardship of having the name of Joseph Kennedy, he stuck the X on when he began submitting poems for publication and has been stuck with it ever since.
I first came across his work in the contemporary American poetry anthologies which were popular in Dublin bookshops in the late nineteen-sixties. There I discovered a voice that was distinctive in its mixture of the high and the low registers. His poetry may not be as well-known as other contemporary poets because of his preference for, in his own words, “old-fangled structures most poets have junked these days.” As Kennedy’s comments on his verse suggest, his poetry is witty, concise, and unpretentious, as the “beetles” below display.
And those beetles? Once, while browsing in a Galway bookshop, I saw a copy of his collection Breaking and Entering with its unusual purposely-torn cover. I bought it. I was not disappointed. Among the many intriguing poems in the collection was a series of short poems called “Japanese Beetles”, most of which are extracted below. According to a gardening website, Japanese beetles can create havoc in a garden by feeding on the leaves of a number of different plants, skeletonizing the leaves and eventually defoliating the plants. Some of the Kennedy beetles are equally pestilential in his typically witty and concise manner.
As well as being a poet, Kennedy is also the author of the best text book on poetry I have encountered: An Introduction to Poetry. First published in 1966, and updated numerous times since with the assistance of Dana Gioia, it it is as relevant today as then. In another incarnation, as a teacher of English in Ireland, I found it an invaluable resource.
X. J. Kennedy recently won the ninth annual Jackson Poetry Prize, an award given by Poets & Writers to honor exceptional American poets. The prize includes a $50,000 purse. He deserves every last cent.
BRIEF POEMS BY X. J. KENNEDY
At a Reading of Poems of a Poet’s Agonies
We sit and listen, writhing in our chairs,
Pierced by a pain far worse than what he shares.
The Seven Deadly Virtues
Strict constancy’s an overrated virtue:
A little flexibility can’t hurt you.
While greedy bastards grab bucks by the fistful,
The generous grow poorer and look wistful.
Spurning forbidden fruit—peel, pulp, and juice—
The chaste know peace, but rarely reproduce.
When grief and gloom are what you want, good cheer
Is nothing but a big pain in the rear.
Though sometimes modesty’s worth emulation,
It’s worse than useless during copulation.
A certain charm inheres in strict sobriety
Until one ventures forth into society.
When talk is soft, there’s no harm in the humble
Who, when shrill protest’s called for, merely mumble.
You Touch Me
You touch me.
One by one
In each cell of my body
A hearth comes on.
1 The Minotaur’s Advice
Unravel hope, but be not by it led
Or, back outside, you’ll still hang by a thread.
2 Teutonic Scholar
Twelve hefty tomes his learning demonstrate.
Now earth squats on him like a paperweight.
They say he knows, who renders Old High Dutch,
His own tongue only, and of it not much.
4 To a Now-type Poet
Your stoned head’s least whim jotted down white hot?
Enough confusion of my own, I’ve got.
5 Advice to an Anthologist
Extoll those bards whose very names are lost.
Like not too well the living. That kind cost.
Time is that dentist fond of sweet desserts
Who, drill in hand, says, Stop me if this hurts.
Here lies a girl whose beauty mad Time stay.
Shovel earth in. We haven’t got all day.
8 Parody: Herrick
When Vestalina’s thin white hand cuts cheese,
The very mice go down upon their knees.
An epigram, if buffed to its right gloss,
Is a steel thumbtack thirty feet across.
By the cold blow that lit my husband’s eye
I could read what page eight had said to try.
Imperious Muse, your arrows ever strike
When there’s some urgent duty I dislike.
Each other for some other spouse they trade
As though what’s tarnished might be overlaid.
An ultimatum is a document
That if unheeded never had been sent.
14 From the Greek Anthology
On miserable Nearchos’ bones, lie lightly earth,
That the dogs may dig him up, for what he’s worth.
To Someone Who Insisted I Look Up Someone
I rang them up while touring Timbuctoo,
Those bosom chums to whom you’re known as “Who?”
from Famous Poems Abbreviated
Of man’s first disobedience and its fruit
Scripture has told. No need to follow suit.
Whoosh! – hear the Sea of Faith’s withdrawing roar?
So, baby, let’s make love tonight, not war.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
Shall I just sack out in the snow
And freeze? Naaaa, guess I’d better go.
Won lasting glory
Grew large and lardy
From dining to excess
On many a fine mess.
None but the Spirit, moving and igniting,
Deserves the credit in Creative Writing.
from Poetic Ends
Flushed himself down the drain
When it seemed clear
That The Bridge didn’t cohere.
Stepped out on the breeze,
His work unrequited.
Still, he keeps being sighted.
Penned satires fierce.
He thought it mannish
Simply to vanish.
In a Secret Field
The snow’s soft tons
By the air
All poems Copyright © X. J. Kennedy
X. J. Kennedy has a website for himself and his wife.
Some of his poems are featured on the Poem Tree website.
More poems are available on the Poetry Foundation website.
Two poems, one early and one recent, appear on The Gladdest Thing website.
An interview with X. J. Kennedy in Contemporary Poetry Review.